5 Ways to Use the Weather in Your Story

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Depending on where you call home, the weather may be heating up right now. In Los Angeles, triple digits have started to creep into our forecast. Most writers enjoy crafting their stories in nice comfortable rooms, and because we usually seek out a pleasant environment when we write, it’s easy to forget the role that weather can play in our stories. Sometimes, the weather can even become a character in the narrative.

Here are five ways that weather can be used in your script in order to add conflict, build intensity, or affect fortunes.

MAKE IT RAIN

Certainly one of the most dramatic visual experiences we encounter as humans is when water falls from the sky. While we now take for granted the science behind the phenomenon, for centuries rain was a great mystery that connected people to their gods and transcendent fate. Even with our complete understanding of rainfall today, most of us have gotten caught up either in the wonder or the horror of a particularly rainy day.

Akira Kurosawa used rain to great effect and meaning in both The Seventh Samurai and Rashomon, where rain symbolized the pure truth falling from the heavens that every character was trying to avoid. Blade Runner, The Perfect Storm, and Jurassic Park all use rain to intensify the experiences of the characters in those worlds. Magnolia literally rains frogs from the sky in an act of Biblical judgement and mysterious symbolism. And who could forget the iconic image of Andy Dufresne standing, hands raised to the sky, as redemption rains down on him outside the gates of Shawshank.

MAKE IT OVERCAST

Perhaps rain is not the right fit for your story. Perhaps it’s too dramatic, ominous, or complicates other scenes in the script. Gray and overcast skies can also allude to the metaphoric conditions that characters find themselves in. Patty Jenkins brilliantly uses gray skies in a variety of ways in Wonder Woman. While some scenes use overcast heavens to show the darkness of the times, other scenes use the skies as a promise of hope in a rising dawn.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Sleepy Hollow, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire all feature overcast scenes that seem to predict a coming storm in the world of the protagonist. Shame, Fight Club, and The Matrix all use gray skies to indicate the condition of the environment the main character feels trapped inside. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Silver Linings Playbook both use cloudy skies as a catalyst that calls the hero toward change.

MAKE IT HOT

When it’s cold outside, we can always put more clothes on or cover up under blankets. When the heat is unrelenting, there’s only so much clothing we can shed or cool water we can drink. Heat can bring a desperation to a story in ways that no other element can. Hitchcock famously used the heat to intensify the setting of Rear Window. The Cohen Brothers made a similar play in Barton Fink. Both Dog Day Afternoon and Falling Down use the heat to symbolize the inner thermometer of the protagonist as the story progresses.

Spike Lee has used extreme temperatures in several of his films to different effects. Summer of Sam uses the weather to create a boiling kettle of accusations in a community. Do the Right Thing uses the same extremes as both a symbol of everyday life in a neighborhood as well as an unsustainable condition that eventually must explode.

MAKE IT COLD

Like the rain and the heat, cold temperatures can be used as a wonderful symbol for the inner experience of a character or the metaphoric conditions that she or he finds themselves in. Winter’s Bone, Fargo, and Let the Right One In all use cold weather to symbolize the obstacles the protagonist is facing in their inner journey as well as to provide an obvious external level of discomfort and challenge. Both Misery and The Hateful Eight use cold weather as a prison that forces characters to collide with each other in unavoidable circumstances. The Ice Storm uses ice and cold weather to paint a picture of the fragility, awkwardness, and pain in young people working through the coming of age.

MAKE IT DISASTROUS

Some stories use extreme weather as the basis for the plot itself. While the disaster may or may not have larger symbolism attached to it, the pure external nature of seeing human beings collide with the most natural elements we have faced since the beginning of time remains ripe ground for storytelling gold. Twister uses tornadoes. San Andreas uses earthquakes. The Impossible uses tsunamis, and The Day After Tomorrow uses virtually every natural disaster one can experience.

It’s important to remember that weather disasters can actually be used in light-hearted ways, as well. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs connected with audiences of all ages and used the intriguing but ludicrous idea of food falling from the sky – a weather phenomenon that most of us would at least be curious to experience.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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