Maybe the weather is the best character in a story

I’VE HEARD IT ever since I first typed a word on a blank page. Want to write a story? Want to write a book? Weather has no place at the beginning.

Those words were gospel. They were probably right. But for me, weather always becomes one of my leading characters.

It creates mood.

It creates atmosphere.

It can create suspense in a mystery.

It can create a romantic backdrop for a love story.

However, when dealing with weather, it’s all show and not tell.

Don’t say it’s hot.

Don’t say it’s cold.

Don’t say it’s stormy.

Choose the words that allow your reader to discover how hot, cold, or stormy it might be.

In Night Side of Dark, weather symbolized everything frightening and wrong in a land where the Jewish race had been condemned to die.

I wrote: They shivered in the chill of the morning as snow banked against their legs. Or were they trembling because they knew what others feared to think about when the nights were cold and dark, and men counted each breath, wondering if it would be their last?

I have always been haunted by Raymond Chandler’s opening of Red Wind: “There was a desert wind opening in the night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Chandler opened his story with the weather, and he got away with it.

Why?

The weather curled your hair.

The weather made your nerves jump.

The weather made your skin itch.

Mayhem followed when the hot dry winds blew.

The weather can always be a harbinger of bad things to come. In Night Side of Dark I wrote: He and Lincoln walked together down the side of the road, neither speaking. They bent forward against the wind, and the snow erased their footprints almost as quickly as they were made. Lives had been finished the same way. Soldiers were running frantically toward the bridge. In a hurry but moving slowly, their feet dragging through deep snow drifts. It was as though every step was the hardest and the next step would be even more difficult to take.

There is an old saying that one generation always hands down to the next. Some claim it was first uttered by Mark Twain: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Well, when writing a novel, you can do anything you want to with the weather.

I prefer to give it a leading role.

The weather is like a noose.

Drop it around your reader’s throat and pull tighter and tighter as the novel moves along.

It’s cold.

It stays cold.

It’s hot.

It stays hot.

A storm hits.

It doesn’t leave.

Of course, I hardly ever have the stories in my novels last for more than a week, so it’s only natural for the weather to hang around to the bitter end.

But these are two things I do know.

Heat or cold makes the good guys miserable.

Heat or cold is even worse on the bad guys.

As Raymond Chandler said, on those kinds of nights anything can happen.

And it usually does.

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  • The right weather can delay one plotline just long enough for the other plotline to gain ascendance.

    Very handy. Black ice delays one person getting to a meeting. Torrential rains make someone late to a rendezvous. The airconditioner failing can keep someone from leaving his grandmother until the repairs are made…

    Good stuff, weather. And unlike real life, you can make it suit YOUR convenience as a writer, instead of being subject to its vagaries. What would ‘Misery’ be without weather?

    Instead of the common dictum, ‘if nothing is happening, bring in a man with a gun,’ bring in some weather. More subtle – and who’s going to argue with you?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You captured it beautifully, Alicia. And you’re right. Bringing in a storm with lightning is as effective as a man with a gun.

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