Storyville: How to Put Weather in Your Fiction (Without Being Dull and Boring)
While it might be cliché to start off a story or novel with weather, it’s still very important when building your world to include the elements—not just setting, as in architecture, and the people in your story, but the day and night, season, and current conditions. It can help to not only ground your story, but provide additional character, atmosphere, and mood. So, how can we do that exactly? Let’s chat.
If you are big on setting, and really want the weather to be a major part of your story, consider using it as a secondary character. Not just the backdrop, but an element so intense, so present, that it’s essential to the narrative. I believe that I did that with my novel, Disintegration, and winter. Can you think of other books or films where weather was such a huge part of the story that taking it out would remove the heart of the tale? I think maybe The Shining, both the book and film—and how that effects the events that unfold at the hotel. It isolates, it kills, it provides a constant framework for the story. What about The Ice Storm? What about The Fog and The Mist? The Day After Tomorrow is shrouded in winter. I think of James Joyce’s The Dead, and the film by John Huston. The Thing? Weather is an essential part of the story.
So, how did I utilize weather in Disintegration? Let’s dig deeper. First, I chose winter, because that is the season of death, of solitude, isolation, cold, detachment, etc. My protagonist, who has no name, is in the middle of ALL of these elements and emotions. Here are a few examples:
The retort echoes off the gunmetal walls, my feet growing cold on the dirty, faded tiles. The floor is the color of a sidewalk covered with grime the day after the snow melts, littered with debris, scratched and ignored. It meets the walls like an ocean floor, and I feel myself going under.
He’s inside in this moment, but even in his kitchen, the snow and grime works its way in.
I bend over to tie my boot, squatting in the snow. She stands above me, her purse in hand, the glass and gold latch shimmering in the night. She takes a step towards a street lamp, and spins under the light. Flakes drift down on her and it’s as if she’s in a snow globe. She’s angelic, even after all that just happened, somehow filled with light.
This is outside a bar as he leaves with a woman he has met, a dominatrix.
And here, a surreal moment, high on drugs, as he contemplates suicide:
A full moon fills the sky as the cold wind whips at my body. My arms are stretched out as wide as they can go, and my wings they flutter in the breeze. My eyes are closed, and yet, the camera rotates around my naked body, legs together, talons gripping the icy concrete lip of the building. I stand on the rooftop, and as the rain starts to drizzle, clouds race by, the pale orb shimmering down, reflecting off my skin. I am here for all to see, and as the water falls faster, as it turns to ice, the sleet slices at my flesh, my skin parting, death by a thousand knives, and I ask for forgiveness.
These are only a handful of details, but when you add it all up, it’s a constant presence—the neighborhood around him, as he moves around, killing bad people; the wind and ice outside his apartment, beating at the windows, spitting on the stairs that lead to the alley; a blanket of silence as he slowly falls apart.
I say snow 54 times in this book, cold 65 times, wind 17 times, icy 14 times, winter 3 times. That adds up to a certain feeling, this atmosphere, and this symbolism.
Part of what’s important when it comes to setting, is how you dress your characters. Why do they wear what they wear? Is it utilitarian, is it a uniform to hide their true identity, is it just to stay warm? In Disintegration, it does all of these:
The snow continues to fall on the city, and the day descends into night. I feel a bus ride coming on. It’s getting cold out, so I put on my boots, a black turtleneck sweater and reach deep into the armoire for my winter coat. Time to put away the leather. I pull out a long, wool coat that hangs to my knees, and a smile crosses my face. I always loved this coat. It’s thick and warm, black with thin gray lines cross-hatched across it, only a faint idea of a pattern. The only thing I need to do is grab my black knit cap and leather gloves. Aside from my blue jeans, I’m all Johnny Cash.
So we have an excuse here to show our protagonist, to get inside his head for a moment, to understand his choices. It’s a minor thing, but this passage helps sketch in his details.
If everything is cold, then we have an opportunity in our winter setting to show the opposite as well, right? When everything is icy, windy, isolated, dark and dreary, what appeals to us the most? Something warm and inviting, right? Take this passage from Disintegration:
As the last brick warehouse looms on my left, I catch a glimpse of movement down at the end of a narrow alley and stop. The wind blows cold in my face but a red light glows warm over a metal door, a solitary figure standing still now. Even from here I can tell it’s a woman, a gentle wisp of cigarette smoke drifting up. A faint pulse of music flows to me from her general direction. What is she wearing? It looks like fishnets and a garter, some kind of pointy bra, and dangerously tall boots. She spins around, flicking the cigarette butt in my direction, her hair tied back into a ponytail braid. As she yanks the heavy door open, she descends into the red velvet mouth, the music louder now, throbbing and then quiet.
We want to get in out of the cold along with our protagonist here, and the alluring woman doesn’t hurt, either. And, when the world is violent and brutal, tied into the weather we have, this eternal winter, even a quiet moment with his cat can show our protagonist in a different light:
When I awake to a pressure on my chest, sandpaper rubbing across my face, it is everything that I had hoped for. So sad that I pin my hopes on a stray, damaged cat, that the glue in my life is a random act of feline affection. When I open my eyes tiny emeralds sparkle in the night, her head cocked to one side, a hoarse meow gurgling from her open mouth. I am afraid to move, fearful that like Holly, she will disappear when I look at her too hard. But she is real. She stays. I pour her too much milk, then grow fearful hours later, that it has now gone bad, sitting by the heater. It will kill her now, I think. So I dump it out and fill it again, moving the whole operation to the other side of the kitchen. I keep her food bowl full, and after she eats, I fill it again. I want to defeat time, and keep every act of hers the same, changing nothing, every by-product of her actions the same, so that nothing disappears.
I promise her fancy wet food, foreign sounding French cat mousse, whatever her heart desires. But I’m afraid to leave her, terrified that she will be gone when I get back. So I apologize for lying, for not going next door for two goddamned minutes, because I just can’t make the trek. She understands.
So we sit on my bed, and I run my hands over her. She licks at her paws, fat and happy now, warm and inside, unafraid of the unkempt, half-naked man. She looks deep into my eyes and decides I’m more harm to myself than anything else. So she’s along for the ride.
This goes against type, showing our killer to be sensitive, caring, even loving. Whatever sympathy you might have lost along the way, this probably gets it back.
And of course, the most obvious reason for making weather a big part of your details is to be able to share sensory details with the reader—how do we feel, what is this moment like, is it immersive, are we present?
I flick the deadbolt on the back door to the left, unlock the doorknob and pull it open. A pane of white slaps me in the face. Sunshine. Fuck. The screen door gives with an easy push and I’m out onto the wooden deck, and down the flaking stairs before I can stop myself from heading down to the dumpsters in the freezing cold in nothing but my underwear. Down and around, the wood splintering at my feet, onto the concrete and to the back alley. My breath frosts the air and I rub my arms. Stupid idea. Make it fast.
And if we’re cold, why not alternately turn up the heat?
She kisses me, the heat rising up, her tongue into my mouth with a rough thrust, her hands holding my face and I flash on my apartment, her body next to mine, her pale flesh beneath me, eyes locked with mine, sweat under her upper lip, legs wrapped around me. She breaks the seal and pushes away.
My eyes stay on Rebekah as I slowly exhale, a soft fog drifting out. She shoots her smoke out past my head, places the roach in the tiny metal ashtray and shoves her tongue in my mouth. Cinnamon and ash, her tongue probes, and I fear I may swallow her whole. Cammie’s hand runs up my thigh, her teeth at my ear, biting on the lobe and Rebekah’s hand is drifting to my crotch. Every muscle is tight, my hand on the small of Rebekah’s back, pressed up against me, and in the haze I fear we will melt. My hand is on Cammie’s thigh, the soft flesh like silk, as she presses closer to me, my hand sliding up between her legs. She is a furnace and she grinds against the palm of my hand.
I mean, it goes without saying that all of the wintery details, they’ll resonate—cold hands and feet, the wind spitting ice in his face, stomping his boots as he waits for a bus, slipping on the ice, gust of cold cutting through his clothes. We’ll get all of those details, those choices are easy, almost mandatory, as we move around the city, right? I don’t think I have to tell you that if it’s snowing on page 12, it should still be snowing on page 14, as they walk to her apartment. That the clothing and chill and dampness has to stay with us. But don’t limit yourself to the obvious feelings—cold in winter, hot in summer. Give us all of that, but don’t stop there.
If you’re writing a story that is set in the summer, a hot trek across the desert, then you better keep it hot, the sun beating down on the innocent and guilty alike, right? If you’re setting it in winter, we better get the cold and ice, but also, the isolation. Spring is a gift of life, colors blooming, everything bright and alive. Fall, the opposite—decay and metamorphosis, the slow death and transformation into something else. Maybe your weather is an essential part of your story or novel, a huge part of the narrative you’re telling. Maybe it’s just sprinkled in now and then to keep the tale honest. Your call. Just don’t be cliché about it, and don’t leave it out. When they say on Game of Thrones that “Winter is coming,” what do they mean? It’s more than snow, and cold, right? It’s violence, and change, and death.
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