This post is part of the regular column Sam Stephens: On Reading and Writing Fiction.
It was a dark and stormy night.
I remember writing stories in primary school, and that opening line almost always guaranteed a shiny star from the teacher.
While thunderstorms have almost become cliché in horror, weather is something that is not often used in a lot of stories, and in fact I often forget about it myself. But by ignoring weather, we’re not only thinning out the world in which our characters dance for us, but we can be missing out on the true story. Weather is not just a background effect – it can be a major plot point.
Why are thunderstorms used so much in horror?
First, let’s analyse what makes horror: it boils down to the fear of the unknown. Thunderstorms bring a number of elements to the table that weaves deeply into this fear: low visibility, sudden loud noises, and sudden flashes of light. All of these can be used as plot points. Take my hastily written (B-Grade) example:
She stood in the dusty bedroom, the darkness cradling her; suffocating her. The rain beat against the roof, masking the sounds in the battered old house. She listened intently, straining to hear the creak of his footsteps as he approached. A flash of lightning and a crack of thunder directly overhead startled her and she screamed. She locked her hands over her mouth, stifling the noise, but it was too late. She looked desperately into darkness, willing her eyes to adjust. Lighting flashed again. He was standing in front of her, grinning. She screamed, but this time it was the man who stifled the noise as he closed his hands around her neck.
In this example, not only does the weather offer a fuller, more realistic world, but the scene described above couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the thunderstorm. Imagine the same scene, but with different weather patterns:
She stood in the dusty bedroom, the sunlight flowing through the window, bringing with it a sense of warmth and flooding her with memories of her childhood in the grand old house. She looked out the window, watching the sun twinkle off the lake as it lapped gently against the shore. She smiled sadly as she let the memories go and instead focused on the task at hand. The man’s footsteps creaked loudly on the old floor, and she could trace his movement up the stairs and down the hall, growing closer. As he burst through the door, she whispered, “I’m sorry,” and plunged the knife into his throat.
As you can see, weather can not only change the tone of the story, but directly affect the plot, and in some cases, be the central theme.
Think of Stephen King’s The Mist, where a mist rolls over the town and from it bizarre creatures venture forth.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (adapted from a novella by John W. Campbell Jr.), where the freezing arctic environment means the protagonist can’t survive outside the buildings for very long. Creatures inside, death by freezing outside.
Stepping outside my much loved horror genre, consider adventure stories: your protagonist needs to make his way over a rotted old rope bridge without plunging to certain death. Freaky in sunlight, but make it dark, or worse – windy and rainy – and you’ve added an extra element of danger which in turn increases the tension.
Even romantic tales: your protagonist stands on the shore of the stream as the waters rise. Rain is hammering down from above, and she watches as the man she loves raises a hand from the other side of the rushing water. It’s too late for him to cross. The rains will continue for months to come, but their love will survive until they’re in each other’s arms again.
In this example, not only does the weather play an integral part in the plot, it’ll also add life to your scene. Soaked shirts sticking to skin comes in handy when you’re talking about heaving bosoms. (Okay, I’m not an authority on romance novels, but from what I understand you need at least one heaving bosom per chapter.)
Weather isn’t just about dark and stormy nights, and it doesn’t just play a part in the horror genre. It can be used effectively in any story.
Remember there are three main types of conflict – internal, external, and environmental. If we forget about the last one, we’re leaving a lot of “tools of the trade” on the table.
This is an interesting exercise: take one of the scenes in your latest story, and try adding a different weather effect. Chances are that it’ll not only increase tension and create a more realistic world, but it will probably spawn a few more plot ideas and twists.
Have you got a favourite book or movie that relies on weather as a huge part of its plot? Leave a comment below, and share it with the rest of us!
— Sam Stephens www.samstephens.com
Sam Stephens is the winner of a number of short story awards, including James Patterson’s Airborne project, and two AusLit short story awards. You can read a number of his short stories for free on his website, and keep up to date on Twitter and Facebook.
The Australian Literature Review