WEATHER is an important element in any setting, providing sensory texture and contributing to the mood the writer wishes to create in a scene. With a deft touch, weather can enhance the character’s emotional response to a specific location, it can add conflict, and it can also (lightly) foreshadow coming events.
However, caution must accompany this entry: the weather should not be used as a window into a character’s soul. The weather can add invisible pressure for the character, it can layer the SCENE with symbolism, it can carefully hint at the internal landscape, but it must never OVERTLY TELL emotion. Such a heavy-handed approach results in weather cliches and melodrama (a storm raging above a bloody battle, a broken-hearted girl crying in the rain).
Sight: The intensity of an earthquake will dictate how much sensory input will need to be in your setting. A mild quake may cause hanging flower baskets to wobble, open gates to swing slightly, or wall decor to hang askew. People may be unstable on their feet, and animals will react, fleeing the area to a place of safety. A more moderate quake would send books tumbling from shelves, cracks to appear on walls or ceiling as shifting occurs, collectibles to fall and shatter, and people scrambling for safety or toward something stable to hang onto as the ground shudders and heaves. In an intense earthquake, power lines can go down causing outages, dust and debris fills the air as building collapse, glass breaks as window frames twist and bend, the ground buckles and crevasses can appear. Roofs and signage may fall to the ground, ceilings collapse, bookcases topple, fire and explosions can result as gas lines burst. Sparks from live power lines may also be present. The air will fill with dust, ash and smoke, obscuring visibility. People may emerge from building rubble with cuts and bruises, broken bones and bloodied appearances, or scurry through demolished building searching for friends and loved ones. Trees may be splintered or uprooted, and limbs and leaves could litter roads and forest floors. Building and roads may be slanted, caved in, cracked or buckled in some way.
Smell: Mild: no earthquake induced scents are likely. Moderate to high impact: possibly the sour, rotten eggs smell of leaking gas, dust, smoke, broken containers of liquids from the nearby setting (ammonia cleaners, vinegary pickle jars in the home, for example), dust, burning smell, plaster.
Taste: if injured, one might taste blood from a cut; dust; smoke.
Touch: Earthquakes trigger the flight response, as well as for some, vertigo that causes a loss of balance. People will seek out the safest location close to where they are, which could be a doorway, beneath a table, hanging onto a tree in a field. (Keep in mind your character’s education, as current safety standards dictate that standing in doorways/hiding under something is not always safe although this is what many of us were taught). Current information suggests making oneself small and curling against something large and sturdy such as a sofa may be in fact a safer option. Also, stairwells are now viewed as a dangerous place to be and it is also suggested that a top floor of a home may be safer than remaining on a lower level (dependent of the building quality). Whenever your character is, falling debris may cut, bruise or otherwise injure them as they huddle, arms over head, waiting out the earthquake. Dust may rain down on them as plaster falls with larger pieces causing painful scrapes. They may hold onto something solid out of a sense of comfort and safety (a wall, dresser) and avoid areas where there is a lot of glass or shelves. The body would shake and bounce in time with each tremor. Outside, people would seek out an open area where the likelihood of being hit be debris was lessened, and huddle against the ground to wait out the event.
Sound: Inside: wood frame scraping/rubbing together in the walls, metal screeching and twisting, glass shattering as breakables fall off shelves, buildings groaning and shuddering, books clattering to the floor, plates chattering together in cupboards or falling out and smashing against the counter and floor, the hiss of a broken water pipe, a cracking noise, window blinds banging against windows, metal cutlery jumping and clattering in a drawer, the shudder of glass in window frames Outside: a lack of bird calls, splintering wood, snapping limbs, a roar of a building collapsing (if in an urban area), sirens, screams
Mood: An earthquake can instill a feeling of intensity and terror. Immediately the scene becomes about one thing: survival. The POV character’s view of their world shifts–what seemed benign or unremarketable before now is measured on a danger scale–what will fall, collapse, shake loose? Adrenaline is high and choices are made quickly–a character will survey an area, assess the danger and chose the safest route through it. An earthquake is a great way to remind a character of their own mortality, and how safety is never a constant no matter how prepared or strong a person might be.
Symbolism: Instability; change; danger
Possible Cliches: Using an earthquake as a device to indicate a catastrophic event is imminent; a sign that Mother Nature is rebelling against human abuse of the environment
OTHER: Earthquakes vary in intensity. If you use one in your writing, make sure there is a strong reason for doing so, and always consider the wide angle effects of an event (the time for a city to recuperate, availability of medical support, disruption in communication, etc).
Don’t be afraid to use the weather to add contrast. Unusual pairings, especially when drawing attention to the Character’s emotions, is a powerful trigger for tension. Consider how the bleak mood of a character is even more noticeable as morning sunlight dances across the crystals of fresh snow on the walk to work. Or how the feeling of betrayal is so much more poignant on a hot summer day. Likewise, success or joy can be hampered by a cutting wind or drizzling sleet, foreshadowing conflict to come.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.