It’s hot right now. Maybe not where you live, maybe not when you’re reading this, but today, for me, is a hot, steamy day on the edge of summer. There’s a slight chance of thunderstorms; I can see them on the local radar, and I’d give them 50-50 odds of getting here before they die down for the day.
Weather is an important part of our lives. Unless you live in an underground bunker or a climate-controlled habitat dome (Fallout and Surviving Mars fans can speak up here), you have to deal with it on a daily basis. Some of humanity’s first attempts at controlling the future were purely for the weather: winds, tides, rains, and storms. We go to great lengths to forecast it, and it’s so ingrained in our culture that the most generic icebreaker we have is “How about that weather?”
For storytelling purposes, weather is mostly background information. You don’t even have to put it in, really; it’s assumed to be a sunny day (or clear night) unless stated otherwise. But a little bit of inclement weather can serve a purpose, if thrown in at the right time.
Have you ever seen the rain
Rain, of course, is the most obvious type of “bad” weather. We associate rainy days with dreariness, lethargy, and sadness. Harder rains can cause flooding, while a mere drizzle does nothing but annoy.
But that’s a bit biased. In temperate regions (like most of the US and Europe), rain can fall at any time throughout the year. Warm and cold fronts bring rain, and tropical cyclones can produce massive amounts. That’s how weather works around here. In tropical regions, however, you’re more likely to have distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season, often what would be “winter”, can see daily showers and light thunderstorms. In contrast, the dry season is, well, dry. Some places, even in rainforests, can go months without even a trace of rainfall. Out-of-season rain is an event for these locales, and it’s usually caused by a storm—in fantasy, there might even be ulterior motives.
Most of all, rain sets a tone for a scene. A rainy day is…blah. You don’t want to go outside. All you want to do is either sleep or stare out the window. That’s a great time for introspection, dialogue, and all the hallmarks of what TV writers call the “bottle” episode. Your characters are stuck together, so now’s the time to let it all out.
The thunder rolls
Beyond rain, we have the thunderstorm. (Okay, some storms don’t have rainfall, or they have the virga phenomenon, where the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. Bear with me here.) Storms produce lighting, which then creates thunder. Larger ones can drop hail, ranging from tiny pellets to softball-sized chunks of ice. Depending on where you—or your characters—live, tornadoes are also a possibility.
A thunderstorm represents violence, the fury of nature. It’s a good time for characters to wonder if the world is mad at them specifically. The aftermath brings a chance to spot and repair damage, as some severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can destroy houses, knock down trees and power lines, etc. A few, alas, are even deadly. (I used a killer storm in Written in Black and White, for instance.) If you can’t find a story in the tornado outbreaks that struck Joplin, Missouri or Ringgold, Georgia, a few years ago, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Lightning also kills, though that’s rarer. In fantasy settings, especially those with active deities, that might also provide a bit of a hook. For the sci-fi side of the coin, consider the more extreme storms that could occur on other worlds. I don’t just mean the Great Red Spot here; Earthlike planets with thicker atmospheres, for example, would certainly have stronger winds in their storms.
Let it snow
I’m a kid at heart, so snow is obviously my favorite sort of inclement weather. It’s got all the same downsides as rain, but add to those the cold, the lack of traction on icy roads, and sheer weight. Then again, it also gives us snowball fights, snowmen, sledding, skiing, and so on. For children, snow is fun. For the working man, it’s terrible. A perfect dichotomy, if you ask me.
Heavier snowfalls do the same thing as heavy rains and severe storms: keep people inside. (Sometimes, it keeps them inside for far too long. Look at, say, the Donner Party.) But where a thunderstorm usually lasts only an hour or two at most, the aftermath of a blizzard can stick around for a week or more. In places that don’t often see large amounts of snow (like Tennessee in 1993), that causes massive headaches for the populace. Set in older days, before technology allowed us to store over a week of food without trouble, you have an even bigger problem. A two-foot blanket of snow in a place that wasn’t expecting it could be the prelude to a disaster. And speaking of disasters…
The weather outside is frightful
Some of our most destructive disasters stem from the weather. Tornado outbreaks strike across the Great Plains in the US and Canada, sometimes also creeping into the American Southeast. I know those all too well: one 2011 twister touched down less than a mile from my house. Hurricanes and tropical storms, not as common in Europe or on the West Coast, strike the eastern US fairly often. We all remember Katrina and the others from the wild 2005 season, but every portion of the coast has a tale from Andrew, Hugo, Camille, Opal, Rita, or one of the many other retired names on the NHC list.
A true weather disaster is a story in itself, but it can also provide the impetus or backdrop for a story. The storm might be on the periphery, but it will affect the characters even from a great distance. News reports trickle in, loved ones may ask for help—you get the idea. All you have to do is turn on the TV or check the Internet to see what happens when a natural disaster strikes.
And that really goes for anything to do with the weather. We’ve got sites and channels dedicated to nothing else. You can’t miss it. The hard part is figuring out how to integrate it with your story. The first question to ask there has to be: do you need to? Maybe it’s enough to say that it was a cloudy day, or that rain was striking the roof.
If that’s not the case, and you do need a storm to spice things up, think about what they do in real life. They bring people together, either physically (because it’s too dangerous to be outside) or emotionally (every major disaster brings out the charitable contributions). They can destroy homes, change lives. But they can also be a time to shine. We can always find the hero who threw himself atop his kids so the tornado would take him instead, or the boater who made six trips to the houses of flood victims, or whatever you’re looking for.
Or it might just be a little rain. That wouldn’t hurt.