Widespread drought-induced mortality of woody plants has recently occurred worldwide, is likely to be exacerbated by future climate change and holds large ecological consequences. Yet despite decades of research on plant–water relations, the pathways through which drought causes plant mortality are poorly understood. Recent work on the physiology of tree mortality has begun to reveal how physiological dysfunction induced by water stress leads to plant death; however, we are still far from being able to predict tree mortality using easily observed or modeled meteorological variables. In this review, we contend that, in order to fully understand when and where plants will exceed mortality thresholds when drought occurs, we must understand the entire path by which precipitation deficit is translated into physiological dysfunction and lasting physiological damage. In temperate ecosystems with seasonal climate patterns, precipitation characteristics such as seasonality, timing, form (snow versus rain) and intensity interact with edaphic characteristics to determine when and how much water is actually available to plants as soil moisture. Plant and community characteristics then mediate how quickly water is used and seasonally varying plant physiology determines whether the resulting soil moisture deficit is physiologically damaging. Recent research suggests that drought seasonality and timing matter for how an ecosystem experiences drought. But, mortality studies that bridge the gaps between climatology, hydrology, plant ecology and plant physiology are rare. Drawing upon a broad hydrological and ecological perspective, we highlight key and underappreciated processes that may mediate drought-induced tree mortality and propose steps to better include these components in current research.