Writing About the Weather in Fiction

Ernest Hemingway: Remember to get the weather in your book - weather is very important.

Writing about the weather in your novel, and writing about it well, is critical for an atmospheric story. It's also a great shortcut...

A simple description of storm clouds gathering on the horizon, say, can foreshadow troubled times ahead in the plot and save yards of complicated explanation about the character's mood.

Forget about writing novels for a moment – it's easy to forget just how important a part of our everyday lives the weather is.

We think about it so much that we're rarely conscious of thinking about it at all. But it affects everything...

  • Our mood.
  • Our health.
  • Sometimes even our survival.

Ignoring the weather in the stories we tell just isn't an option. But writing about it well isn't straightforward.

For one thing, the weather can actually be an incredibly tedious subject (I'm British so I ought to know!) Extremes of weather are exciting, sure, but most days are anything but extreme. Most days are nice and sunny, a bit overcast, unseasonably chilly.

Boring, in other words!

In the real world, we chat about the weather even when there is nothing much to chat about. Which is fine – small-talk helps to oil the cogs of society.

But having two characters in a novel chat about unremarkable weather, or having the narrator describe a perfectly ordinary rain shower, say, can send the reader straight to sleep.

Another problem with writing about the weather is that it's easy to resort to clichés...

  • The rain lashed down on the rooftops.
  • The heat rose off the tarmac in shimmering waves.
  • The wind made the tree branches dance.

Good descriptive writing should be fresh, original, memorable – even unexpected. But because we all talk about the weather all the time (and read so much about it in fiction, too), finding unique and exciting ways to describe thunderstorms or blizzards or perfect summer days can be tough.

My aim in this article is to offer a few suggestions on how to write about the weather in interesting and, yes, unexpected ways. But before that, I first need to talk more about...

Why Weather Is Important In a Novel

1. It Is Part of the Setting

Not only that, it's a crucial part of the setting, particularly when the weather shifts from being ordinary to extreme.

Imagine two characters in a novel, a husband and a wife, driving along a deserted highway. They're fighting about whose fault it is that they're lost. Outside, it is...

  • Freezing. Everywhere is white with snow and it's tough keeping the car on the road.
  • Scorching. It's the hottest August day on record... and the air conditioning is on the blink.
  • Stormy up ahead. And they are driving right into it!
  • Foggy. They can barely see the road in front of them.

Each of these conditions would give the scene a totally different feel. But even when the weather is not especially remarkable – a warm summer's evening, a cold and bright morning in autumn – it still gives scenes very different atmospheres.

But if you don't mention the weather at all in your writing, not even briefly, an important element will be missing from the mental image in the reader's mind.

2. It Affects Character

Just as the weather affects our mood in the real world, so it affects the mood of a fictional character in a novel.

  • If a character is feeling blue, a cold and wet day will form the perfect backdrop.
  • If the sun comes out, it's a sign that their spirits are rising.

Sometimes, it can be more interesting to shake that up: have a character be joyous despite the gloomy weather, say, or down in the dumps despite the clear blue sky.

Either way, having the viewpoint character's mood complement or contrast with the weather outside is just another small way to add dimension to your fiction.

3. It Affects Plot

Even the most ordinary weather can affect the plans of people in the real world... and characters in novels.

  • Rain can spoil a wedding.
  • Fog can disrupt travel plans.
  • Drought can play havoc with a prized garden.

Make the elements more extreme and you ramp up the stakes nicely. As a matter of fact, writing about extreme weather can be a primary source of conflict in a novel.

A plot, remember, is about a character trying to achieve a goal in the face of opposition. This opposition, or conflict, can be...

  • External. Another character in the novel tries to thwart the hero's plans.
  • Internal. A flaw in the hero's character – shyness, for example – makes it more difficult for them to achieve their goal.
  • Environmental. Something non-human conspires against the hero. This might be something like illness or a "ticking clock." Or it might be the weather!

On the basis that your job as a storyteller is to throw as many obstacles in a character's path as you can, always look out for opportunities to introduce environmental conflict into a scene...

  • If a boy takes a girl out on a picnic, make it rain.
  • If a woman takes her young grandson sailing, have a gale blow in.
  • If a man is afraid of the dark, make his lights go out on a moonless night.

(I'm sure you're one of the kindest people who ever walked the earth, but there's no place for your saintly side when novel writing!)

4. Weather Is Symbolic

I mentioned earlier that weather can affect a character's mood. Taking this one step further, you can have it actually symbolize how a character is feeling inside.

Suppose a mother is worried that her young son is late back home. As she stands by the window waiting for him to return, she notices the wind picking up. At this point, she is merely concerned.

One hour later, though, the plastic garden furniture is cartwheeling across the lawn... and by implication, the woman is really starting to panic. The writer doesn't even need to describe her panic, at least not in any detail. The scene outside tells the readers everything they need to know about how the woman is feeling inside.

The seasons, too, can be symbolic...

  • Spring is symbolic of new life.
  • Autumn stands for decay and death.

If your novel concludes on a hopeful or uplifting note (and most novels should), consider ending the story on the first day of spring following a long and hard winter. Or perhaps during the first downpour following a prolonged and hard drought.

How to Write About the Weather Well

1. Don't Ignore It

Okay, having spent some time talking about the importance of weather in fiction, my first piece of advice is simple... don't leave it out; mention it in every chapter.

Sometimes, of course, the weather is really not that important to a scene. But you should still write about it, however briefly.

  • If you simply tell the reader that the day is hot or drizzly or overcast and then don't mention the weather again, the reader will still have all the information they need to be able to imagine the scene.
  • If you give the reader no clues about the weather whatsoever, something important will be missing – is it hot, cold, wet, dry... what?

It would be like having two characters in your story walk into a restaurant but not telling the reader anything about how the restaurant looks.

A description of the restaurant may not be important in any way. But if you at least take a couple of sentences to mention the pressed white tablecloths and the grand piano (or the greasy cutlery and stained carpet), the reader can picture the setting in their mind while the scene plays out.

And it is the same with writing about the weather: never leave the reader unable to form a mental image of any kind.

The best bet, if the weather really isn't important, is to "tell" it to the reader straight...

  • When Mary left for work the next morning, it was still raining.
  • It was colder than Frank had expected when he stepped out of the house.
  • The snow started right after lunch.

There are no fancy descriptions here – no adjectives, no metaphors, no nothing. The writer is merely providing the reader with a statement of fact...

  • It is raining.
  • It is cold.
  • It is snowing.

The reader can then take their experience of rain, say, and use it to imagine a rainy scene. Some readers will imagine heavy rain, others a drizzle, but it doesn't matter because the precise nature of the rain is of no importance – the readers just need to be able to imagine something.

But what if the weather is important? What if the rain affects the events, or the character's mood, or is perhaps symbolically important? Then you must follow my second piece of advice...

2. Show, Don't Tell

Showing the weather – as opposed to telling the reader what the weather is doing – means describing it in such a way that the reader is able to experience the weather, almost as if it were affecting them directly.

This is telling...

When Mary left for work the next morning, it was still raining.

But this is showing...

When Mary left for work the next morning, the sky was as dark as slate still and the icy north wind was blowing the rain straight into her face...

Showing the weather (by using sensual language that is rich in detail) can be tricky because it's easy to resort to clichés. We've all read descriptions of "lashing" rain, of "baking" summer days, of wind that blows the trees sideways.

And that is precisely the trouble. Because these things have been written about so much in fiction, it's difficult to come up with fresh and original descriptions of the weather that the reader hasn't seen a hundred times before.

One solution is to try hard anyway. If you work on a descriptive paragraph for long enough, you should eventually come up with something original, something you are pleased with.

Another solution is to describe not the weather itself but the effect of the weather. If you're describing heavy snow, for example, you could begin with a relatively factual statement, even a clichéd one ("The entire sky was white with snow.") But then instead of trying to find fresh and original ways of describing heavy snow, describe the effect that the snow is having.

In other words, describe...

  • A car spinning its wheels at the side of the road.
  • Trees being bent out of shape under the snow's weight.
  • A dog pawing the back door waiting to be let inside.

The only thing left to say is that, when writing about the weather (or when describing anything in fiction), bring all of your descriptive writing skills to the table...

Use the best details you can imagine. Engage all of the senses (describe how the weather sounds and smells and tastes). Use figures of speech, particularly similes and metaphors, to strengthen your descriptions. And above all...

Don't overdo it. Because in novel writing, as with so much else in life, less is nearly always more.