Posted by: Jodi | July 21, 2010

Weather? Or Not?

Last night, lightning boomed across the sky in a summer storm.  It made me start thinking about the use of weather in writing.   One of the unofficial rules of “good” writing is to talk about the weather sparingly, and never start a story with a statement about it.  But why?  These are the best reasons I could come up with:

  • It’s cliché  – there is a reason that we cringe when we hear a story start with, “it was a dark and stormy night.”
  • There are much more interesting ways to draw a reader into the story than telling them about the weather.
  • Like any other element, if it doesn’t affect the story or the characters personally then it shouldn’t be there anyway.
  • If weather does have a place in the story, consider weaving into other actions.  He shuddered as another boom of thunder shook the ground, the storm was coming closer.
  • Unless your work lends itself to long poetic passages of description (mine doesn’t), it’s best to avoid full paragraphs of nothing but describing the weather.   If not done well it risks sounding like a meteorological report.

There are a number of famous books that break the rule, my favorite example is Madeline L’Engle’s  Wrinkle in Time – it actually starts with the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m not saying that weather should not be used, I AM saying that it needs to be significant and relevant to the story.  Some choose weather as a symbolic device to represent the inner-most emotions of their lead character. If they are sad the weather is rainy, cold, and dark.  If they are happy the skies are clear and sunny – you get the point.

Anyone actively using weather in their stories?  I would love to hear how!

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Responses

  1. I often use the weather to create a sense of place, life in Africa is pretty much dictated by it.

    • Creating a sense of place is hugely important. As I was compiling this list I didn’t even think of that use, but it’s so obvious! Thanks for sharing. The guideline still holds true with the added thought:

      If weather affects the story, the characters, or creates a unique sense of place then it has a place in the story.

  2. Interesting thoughts. However, I’m completely against the idea of a ‘rules of good writing’; anything that is restrictive or prescriptive in writing is never good. E.g. ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy – no plot, no psychology, no punctuation, no character names – yet it’s one of the greatest novels ever written.
    Similarly, ‘The New York’ trilogy by Paul Auster has 3 characters – all called ‘Paul Auster’ – and it’s brilliant! Maybe doing the oppposite of what people tell you to is what’s best.

    As for weather in novels – I think the idea of sympathetic weather has been ‘done to death’ now – especially after it was perfected in ‘Wuthering Heights’.
    But, as I say, writers shouldn’t worry that anything about their work is ‘breaking rules’, (unless, your’re just whoring yourself to get published as quickly as possible) – some of the best work takes full advantage of established cliches and makes us realise that, perhaps, the ideas aren’t so cliche afterall.

    Awesome blog btw.

    • Teach me how to whore myself. This integrity thing has not worked out for me so far.

      😉

      • Haha! Stick at the integrity! I think that even a failed attempt at integrity is MUCH more interesting that somebody slavishly following ‘rules’ to please a marketing team. Some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered is unpublished…

    • Perhaps the term ‘rule’ is a bit to strict and binding for you creative types …

      There are always exceptions to these so called rules and most of them are brilliant. Sadly, not all of us are talented enough to craft a work that can fall into the brilliant category.

      Do I follow the rules? Sometimes, when it suits me. But knowing what I might get pegged for helps me find innovative ways to one day avoid the slush pile.

      So the big question comes down to this: Can you write with integrity while still following a few basic guidelines?

  3. One of my favorite authors, obviously, is Robert Jordan. It’s interesting that he starts every book with weather, or rather with a wind blowing across his landscape bringing change. Kind of a different use of weather, but interesting-

    • Jordan is using weather as a symbol for change- throughout the books it one of the many manifestations of the world being out of balance. He doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it, thank heavens. He uses it effectively as a tool to add depth to the world and the story.

  4. Weather, as a force, can be a powerful character, but I agree, using a long description of the day to simply pad is a waste of time.

    • Amen. That hits the nail on the head.

  5. Excellent post, Jo ~

    I agree with Tomcat . . . rules are made to be broken, or bent to our advantage:

    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/five-easy-albeit-practically-useless-tips/

    Like Cindy, I love using weather to create the mood and ambiance:

    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/07/05/a-turning-point/

    • Thanks for sharing, both of those are excellent posts.

  6. If you haven’t stumbled across it already, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is always a good chuckle — it’s an award handed out for the worst opening line in fiction, and of course honors the man who gave us the original “It was a dark and stormy night” opener. Website is here:

    http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

    They could use a good web designer, but hey — the point of the thing is to be awful, right?

    • Fun site. It made me want to indulge in a . . .

      “DARK AND STORMY NIGHT” COCKTAIL from the Swig Bar in San Francisco: Pour ginger beer into a highball glass and top with Zaya rum.

    • I knew there was a contest out there but couldn’t figure out what it was called. Thanks for sharing, when I get a sec I’ll go and check things out.

  7. Yep, I’ve heard starting with the weather is one of the top pet peeves most agents have so there is no way, I personally would want to use a cliche. The way I look at it, I want to be pubished and I owe to myself and my novel to give it the best chance it can possibly have, so if starting with the weather is a no no (as is starting with a wake up sequence) then, I will not do that because why make it harder on yourself?

    Nothing wrong with breaking rules, however I think a lot of novice writers are arrogant in their thinking that THEY know better.

    The weather in my novel is mentioned just in passing, here are there, just to give you a clue time has passed, so I mention snow on the first chapter and months later, the first signs of spring etc etc…

    • Yay! It looks like we have been reading the same advice and share a similiar attitude towards agents.

  8. Also, ‘The Road’ begins with the central character waking up. Ha! That book just breaks all the rules doesn’t it? Cheeky Cormac McCarthy!

    http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/

    • Ok, now I’m going to have to read it! Jotting it onto my list …

  9. But my main character is a meteorologist!

    Kidding. But I do use a weather event metaphorically in my story.

    • That’s funny ~ mine’s a storm chaser.

    • hahahaha! I just literally ‘lol’d’.

    • Nice. There’s a challenge for anyone – create a brilliant story featuring a meteorologist but no unusual weather for him to talk about!

      • That’s hysterical, Jo

        Someone who gets his Ph.D. in Meteorology because of the predicted Global Climate Change . . . which then turns out to be nothing more than Chicken Little (and Al Gore) running around saying “The Sky is Falling!”

        Note: I’m talking fiction, of course. Global Warming is a reality that we need to address, unless we’re willing to embrace the consequences.

  10. I think your third point regarding the need for descriptions of weather to affect the story or the characters should be the guide for its use in a novel.

  11. If any, that’s my take home message. It’s true for any story element – if it doesn’t add to the work it doesn’t belong.

    • There’s a blog topic on it’s own. Sometimes the funnest, most indulgent sequence is the one that serves no purpose to the story. So painful when you realize it must be cut.


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