Weather Thesaurus Entry: Earthquake

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, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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4 years ago

I was a tourist many years ago in San Francisco and knew about earthquakes from hear-say/stories. Here in Germany, we have the tiniest tremors every 10 years or so, you wouldn’t even notice if they weren’t mentioned in the news later on 🙂
I was in Walgreens and suddenly felt this vibration under my feet and ran. I was terrified. I was nearly out of the shop with several items in my hand (and a security guard right behind me), when I realised that some builders were using jackhammers across the road. I turned right around and marched back inside with a red head and rolling eyes at myself. The security guard asked me what happened and when I told him, he went into hysterics. Thanks, dude 🙂 Boy, was I embarrassed…

Heather G. Davis
9 years ago

Another California resident here. One thing I’ve found is that I’m never frightened when the quake is actually happening – and I’ve experienced some big ones. Afterwards though, I have a strange sort of vertigo. The ground just isn’t solid anymore.

Christy Olesen
9 years ago

I’d like to add some observations.

I lived in So Call for many years. Once I was standing at a window when a rolling quake hit and the block wall fence bordering my yard, and the house behind it rose up and down on the waves. That was freaky!

The neighbors’ pools sloshed out a lot of water

A small rolling quake can make you feel nauseous until you realize what it is.

A quake doesn’t have to be local to be felt. I now live on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains and I felt the San Francisco quake in 1989. That’s hundreds of miles away.

When a quake hits, what goes through you mind is, will this be the big one? How long will it last? Will it get stronger? You brace yourself, and usually it’s small and done before you have a chance to react.

Jeff King
9 years ago

You never fail to inspire me.

Becca Puglisi
9 years ago

As scary as hurricanes are, I’ll take them over earthquakes any day. At least we have warning when a storm is coming. Freaky.

Great job, Angela!

9 years ago

Great post! This is very helpful to someone from Ohio who’s never experienced it firsthand. 🙂

9 years ago

I was in two small ones in Seattle and I was amazed how loud it was–a big crash! But quick. I was only scared because the locals were terrified. We all had to run outside.

Great post!

The Pen and Ink Blog
9 years ago

Very Good post. I would add to it:
sight. a strong earthquake at night leaves you in an impenetrable blackness. There is no ambient outside light.

Sound. A large earthquake sounds like a freight train roaring through your house.

There is a exercise on my Earthquake Book website for a tactile exercise on what The numbers on the Richter Scale look like. I think you might find the accompanying pictures interesting.
The site also has a good emergency list.

Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

Now I’m frightened. Mostly because I live in So Cal and I’m so totally unprepared for a big one. But wow, what a great thing to add to a book if appropriate!

Shannon O'Donnell
9 years ago

This is excellent! Good choice, too, considering all the quakes this past year.

9 years ago

This one gave me chills! And made me think that maybe I need to add in a natural disaster to one of my novels… Thanks!

Julie Musil
9 years ago

Great stuff, guys. I live in CA and have experienced several of these bad boys, including the Northridge quake in ’94.

Sometimes it feels like a rolling quake, like you’re on an up and down ride of a roller coaster. And sometimes it’s jarring, like you’re trapped in a martini mixer.

Weird and scary stuff.

Angela Ackerman
9 years ago

Thanks all of you! One of the best things about all these entries is how so many of you chime in with your own personal experience. No two people ever are in the same situation, so it always is interesting to read and offers more ideas for writers to use in their writing. 🙂 Thanks for the comments!


Janet Johnson
9 years ago

As always, great resource! Earthquakes ARE scary. Even the little ones leave you feeling unstable (at least that’s how I felt!)

9 years ago

Oooh, even more scary. I saw part of the movie 2012, I had to turn it off, couldn’t take the sight of all those poor people…

Matthew MacNish
9 years ago

I was in an earthquake once. In Seattle. It was the late 90s, and the quake was a six point something, so big, but not huge.

I was in my car on the way to work, and I thought I got rear ended, but when I looked up at my rearview mirror, there was no one there. I was confused, obviously, but as I sat there watching the road behind me, suddenly the street rolled toward me, just like a wave was moving through the concrete. It was fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

Anyway, great post, as always, thanks!