Three (and a Half) Narrative Uses of Weather

Weather is one of the easiest things for a writer to forget. It’s all around us, but while it impacts us, it doesn’t always impact us much—modern conveniences tend to work around the worst of it, unless it’s reached the point of catastrophe. As a result, a lot of us—particularly those of us in “Weather? What weather?” types of climates—underestimate the narrative uses of weather, both in our writing and in our games. It’s a pity; it’s a useful, flexible tool.

In its mildest form, weather is scenery. I admit, that’s how I looked at it when I was a child—let’s face it, I’m from Southern California, and while the rumors about our not really knowing what weather is may be highly exaggerated, it doesn’t tend to be all that inconvenient down here. And that’s one way weather can affect a scene—it can provide a nice pretty backdrop, change the palette of colors that people tend to see, either complement or jar against the mood, but it doesn’t really have to do anything aside from be there and look pretty. It doesn’t even have to be currently going on; crusts of snow from last night’s fall, leftover puddles, and cracks of dirt that has been too dry for too long are just as valid ways of making weather into scenery.

Weather can be a way of characterizing a location. Part of this is just standard climate and the kinds of climate stereotypes that places tend to pick up—things like “It never rains in Southern California, it always rains in the Pacific Northwest (or “If you don’t like the weather in the Pacific Northwest, wait five minutes”), that sort of thing. That affects things like how the locals dress, how they view water, how much rain it takes to keep them indoors, how they power their boats, and so on—seemingly minor, but enough to actively change the appearance of a culture. On the other hand, you have the occasional fictional place where the weather never, ever changes—it’s always raining, it’s always windy, for some reason there’s a five mile radius in which the lightning never stops but there is no rain, you get the idea. Usually magic-related. Definitely… interesting.

Then there’s weather that starts actively interfering with a plot—or manages to be the conflict in and of itself. Hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards can bring entire cities to their knees and spark a story, but we don’t need to get that extreme to have an effect. Precipitation slows down travel, if it doesn’t prevent it entirely, and different types take different workarounds (let me put it this way—there are very few situations that both galoshes and snowshoes will be equally effective for). Both extreme heat and extreme cold can be potentially fatal. Too much of any one weather pattern can ruin a season for a farmer, or prevent a building from going up. Sandstorms aren’t just dangerous, but come in multiple flavors, each with their own particular additional dangers. Even mild changes from the norm can make life interesting, as anyone who’s ever watched San Diego drivers fail to adapt to a rainy day knows. And standard weather is interesting enough, but then you get settings in which someone has found a way to control weather, and what used to be coincidence is now a tool, and possibly a weapon.

How much do you think about the weather in your settings? What sorts of uses have you put it to?

3 comments

  1. Michael says:

    The weather gets quite a bit of attention in Return to Hinamizawa. Most blatantly, it serves to unify the arcs — there is a huge storm on 19 June, so that makes it easier to see how events in one arc fit in with the chronology of another arc.

    Part III starts off with a sudden shower forcing the characters to find shelter, which leads them to make an unexpected discovery :)

    And I’m not up to Part V yet, but there’s going to be heavy snow….


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