Friday, July 20, 2012

Stormy Weather Makes Exciting Stories

By Chester Campbell

There's a thunderstorm booming away outside as I write this. My wife says I need to get off the computer, that a woman was hit by lightning while on her computer when her house was struck. I figure the odds are pretty long on that happening again. But the weather can do some decidedly dramatic things.

I've read some writers say you shouldn't talk about the weather in your book unless it's a central theme of the story. I respectfully disagree. I frequently describe clouds or wind or rain or snow as part of setting the scene. The recent heat wave has everyone thinking about the weather. To leave it out of our stories would be like avoiding smells and colors and other things that round out the description of what's going on about the characters.

In my newest book, Beware the Jabberwock, the weather frequently has a bearing on the story. Rain-slickened streets in Hong Kong are seen as a contributing cause to an accident. Weather conditions have to be just right for an aerial photography mission over an island off the Florida coast. A violent thunderstorm nearly wrecks a sailboat escape. And at the book's opening, a cold, blustery rain helps set the tone for a crucial meeting in Vienna of former Cold War enemies who agree on a diabolical plot.

I agree that giving elaborate details on the weather in a routine manner is unnecessary and a bit of overkill. But when a scene is outdoors, especially, a brief comment on atmospheric conditionns gives the reader a better feeling for what the characters are experiencing.

Of course, when a book's plot depends almost wholly on a weather phenomenon, there's no question of its relevance. I had never heard the term "derecho" until I read William Kent Krueger"s Northwest Angle. After the one that slashed across the Midwest recently, nearly everyone now knows it's a long-lived straight-line windstorm associated with a band of severe thunderstorms. They move at greater than hurricane force. Krueger's book deals with the storm and its aftermath.

The thunderstorm is gone as I finish this, and obviously I didn't get struck by lightning in the process. My wife is more fearful of the weather's vagaries. I was in a tornado when I was seven, and I've slogged through just about any kind of muck you can imagine over the years. I remember when my four kids were small experiencing a violent thunderstorm, with searing streaks of lightning hitting all around us, as we watched from a small cabin in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Everyone enjoyed the spectacle.

I say bring on the weather in our books. It adds an exciting dimension to the story.


Morgan Mandel said...

Weather can be almost like a character in a story. When it's done right, it helps ground the reader in the story and sets the mood.

Morgan Mandel

Randy Rawls said...

I agree. Weather done right adds a new depth to the story. Can add a whole new peril the protag has to fight through. C.J. Box is a master at freezing me as his protag flounders through the deep snow and sub-freezing temps.
I suspect the warning we've all heard is about weather used as a prop because the story is bogging down, kind of like throwing in another body when you have nothing better to say.
Similar to the old "stand in front of mirror and describe what you see" to get in a descripton of the protag. Supposed to be a major no-no, yet I'm reading a new blockbuster, and that's exactly how the author got his protag's description in. For me, it was lame. Others might love it though.