Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.
The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.
OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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11 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

  1. Loved the pictures! Thanks for sharing. Weather is important in fiction because it’s universal to us all via real life, the media, or the entertainment industry. Having traveled coast to coast in this country I’ve been fortunate to have experienced first-hand many different climates and all those aid understanding others. When you experience weather you do so physically (via all your senses) and emotionally. Weather is such a powerful tool for creating, complimenting, or contrasting mood that even a character in total isolation is affected by its absence.

    1. Thanks. Yes – I agree. The weather is a physical way of building mood – both, I think, for writers and readers.

      As I write this comment, incidentally, the rain is beating down outside in precisely the way described by Tolkien…NZ is quite wet these days but I carefully select moments when it isn’t to take photographs… 🙂

  2. I think one scene where Jackson got it right in this regard was the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It rained throughout the battle, but then that moment of the sun breaking through when Gandalf and Eomer arrive with the Rohirrim.

    This does make me think of the writer (was it Elmore Leonard?) who said never start a story with the weather. Weather can do much to set the mood, but it’s a thin line between that and plunging into purple prose.

    On a related topic: have you seen the new Hobbit trailer yet? I’m hopeful that this time around Jackson might just get it right, i.e. give us an epic fantasy rather than a video game as you put it.

    1. I haven’t seen it yet…not sure if I want to risk being disappointed or tantalised. Must admit, my expectations are not high. On the other hand, I am absolutely going to go to the movie anyway…

  3. I cannot remember how many days I spent trying to research the weather in and around Ephesus in the 1st century AD for my book series. I spent hours pouring over weather maps. The frustration of entering some of the details into search engines to find that contrary to what was said, the site was actually trying to sell me a tour of the area. Oh the joys. 🙂

  4. I’ve had rain and cold, but not much else. I can’t say that what I did with the weather said much for the character’s mood. After reading this, I’ll have to rethink my weather scenes.

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