While it may seem obvious, using the weather effectively in your current screenplay can take a “B” story and turn it into an easy “A”, and lead to a sale or financing. The key is to understand how the weather affects your story and to question whether or not you have made the best choice in your current script.
Heat, cold, extreme temperatures, sweltering summers, fog, tornados, hurricanes, torrential downpours – these are quick and interesting ways you can add drama and discomfort to your story, and torture both your characters and villains. Extremes in weather are a quick way to push the dramatic stakes to a place where tempers flare, the psyches of characters can snap, danger and tension are rife. Changes in weather can also generate important plot events such as the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
In another example, in the film The Summer of Sam, fear and paranoia over the serial killer on the loose is heightened by the sweltering heat and subsequent blackout. The heat wave and blackout also serve as a highly effective ticking clock. In the movie Body Heat, the searing Florida heat wave is a sinister setting for killing, where a woman convinces her lover, a small-town lawyer, to murder her rich husband.
But heat is not the only type of weather that can improve a screenplay. Many horror films have a storm that heightens the fear in the story. One of my favorite horror films is The Shining. The father (Jack Nicholson) goes crazy trapped in the middle of nowhere in winter with his very young son and wife. The weather in this case is extreme cold and snow rather than heat and humidity. The frigid temperature spikes the tension all the way through the film and shapes the third act climax wherein the son must escape from his father by navigating a wintery maze. Another example of cold weather improving a film is in the most recent Batman film, Batman The Dark Knight Rises: The city becomes frozen, literally and figuratively – nobody can leave the island of Manhattan, and the winter weather trapping citizens of Gotham threatens our characters just as much as the nuclear bomb about to explode.
While the power of the weather may seem obvious, the film, The Matrix uses weather in a different way by showing us a post apocalyptic world that has no climate at all due to the war between humans and machines. Thus, the sunrise, which appears at the very end, suggests hope for humanity by its light and beauty.
So ask yourself, "How can I use the weather in a new way?" If your story is set in the winter, imagine how the story would change if you set it during a heat wave or a storm. What if there’s a tornado or a hailstorm?
Here’s the exercise:
Step 1: Set your timer for 5 minutes.
Step 2: Pick a really hot, uncomfortable temperature.
Step 3: Pick a particularly uncomfortable scene in your screenplay in which you’d like to add additional tension. Incorporate that weather and temperature to the scene. How does it accelerate the tension, irritate the characters, and fuel bickering, violence or passion?
Try it with different seasons, storms, and resultant inconvenience that happens in extreme weather – broken appliances, getting stranded, lack of access to food, clothing, shelter – and watch the tension of your characters heighten.
Good luck and happy writing!