Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Dark and Stormy Night Effect

Everyone knows the phrase: "It was a dark and stormy night." Those of us who are writers often get a little chuckle out of it. But that chuckle doesn't mean there isn't something important happening in the background here. 

What this cliche phrase tells us is that the environment in which characters move is, in most cases, at least as important as the characters themselves and the actions they take. In my first novel, Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains in that story are at home in the dark woods. The heroes are mostly city folk, and like all humans they are at least a little bit afraid of the dark.

Pitting the characters against harsh nature raises the stakes for those characters, and ups the suspense that a writer can wring out of a scene. It's a very effective way of adding depth to a story. I personally love to read these kinds of stories, where the characters must face not only other humans or wild beasts, but such forces as brutal cold, desiccated landscapes, mountains and wild seas, rain and wind. These kinds of settings tend to engage me in ways no amount of dialogue between two people sitting in a parlor somewhere ever could.  

Jack London was a master at using harsh nature in his tales. One of  his most memorable is available online. "To Build a Fire" is a virtual lesson in how to pit a character against nature. I highly recommend it. 
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Also, one of our own, Randy Johnson, has gone into the hospital. I haven't been able to find out how he is doing but I urge everyone to keep him in your thoughts. 
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27 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Will keep Randy in my prayers.
Is that Jack London story the one about the trapper trying to survive? And there's a starving wolf following him?

Charles Gramlich said...

Alex, yes that's the story.

Brian Miller said...

dont think i know randy, but will still keep him in my thoughts/prayers.

i agree, the environment in those stories really is another character almost working for and against the hero...i am very visual as well so i love to be able to see the world in the story...

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

That Jack London story is a great example. Rough ending.

Charles Gramlich said...

Brian, Randy posts a lot of great stuff about books, which is how I stumbled on his blog.

Bernard, indeed. "killer"

Aimless Writer said...

I think environment is one of the hardest to write. Giving enough to set the scene without overtaking the story. I always loved the line, "It was a dark and stormy night."
Prayers going out for Randy.

Cloudia said...

Great example, Charles







ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >

Riot Kitty said...

I don't know Randy, but will send him good thoughts...

Speaking of London, did you ever read Martin Eden? Not a typical book for him but in my opinion, his best.

The "dark and stormy night" reference always makes me think of that strip with Snoopy writing away!

Good point though. I've never heard/read an author making that point and thus illustrating the purpose of that intro quote. Thanks for the good food for thought!

Charles Gramlich said...

Aimless, setting can be hard but for me it is a heckuva lot of fun.

Cloudia, thankee.

Riot Kitty, I have Martin Eden but that's one of his I haven't read. Will have to get to it. And yes, Snoopy always comes to mind too with this quote.

Victorian Barbarian said...

In defense of Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who opened his novel "Paul Clifford" with "It was a dark and stormy night," it was not a cliché when he wrote it in 1830. He also gave us "The pen is mightier than the sword." If you like Victorian novels, he's worth reading (if you like Dickens, Collins, Ainsworth, etc.; if you prefer Geroge Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, you may not like EBL).

Victorian Barbarian said...

In defense of Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who opened his novel "Paul Clifford" with "It was a dark and stormy night," it was not a cliché when he wrote it in 1830. He also gave us "The pen is mightier than the sword." If you like Victorian novels, he's worth reading (if you like Dickens, Collins, Ainsworth, etc.; if you prefer Geroge Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope, you may not like EBL).

Charles Gramlich said...

Victorian, I've read bits and pieces of his stuff and do believe he is unfairly castigated in many cases.

sage said...

I enjoyed "To Build a Fire," which I first read around 12 or so and decided the knowledge of how to build a fire was utmost important!

the walking man said...

((x's of 100 a painter will never paint on a white canvas but they will always put a base shade down and build the painting from there...I have always though of writing like that.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I think there are few parallel lines like "It was a dark and stormy night." It's long since I last came across the line.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, I've certainly never taken it for granted again.

Mark, that is interesting. I've not thought of it that way. Will have to give it some thought.

Prashant, I'm sure there are many indeed. Probably in just about every language.

David Cranmer said...

"To Build a Fire" is one of the finest short stories ever. Great post, Charles.

Ron Scheer said...

You are right about Jack London. He knew how to pit man against the elements for maximum effect.

ivan said...

"Pitting the characters against harsh nature raises the stakes for those characters, and ups the suspense that a writer can wring out of a scene. It's a very effective way of adding depth to a story."

Certainly the way Jack London used to do it.

I am also intrigued by Mark, The Walking Man's comment.
I haven't been the same since I read Wittgentein's essay on Figure and Foreground., eg. "A sentence is a word picture." Mein Gott!

Charles Gramlich said...

David, agreed. It's got everything I could want in a tale.

Ron, definitely a master at it.

Ivan, Yeah, I'm gonna have to give some thought to Mark's comment.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A sense of place is very important to me and the time of day and weather figure into it.

jodi said...

Charles, I remember having to read 'To build a Fire' in school and absolutely dreading it. Turns out I absolutely loved it!

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, yes it's the same for me.

Jodi, oh such a great, great story

One A Day Tech said...

I followed your other blog too!

Charles Gramlich said...

One a day, indeed!

Snowbrush said...

"Everyone knows the phrase: 'It was a dark and stormy night.'"

But, of course, it was how Snoopy started his books.

Yes, London used the natural environmentally so superbly that I always wanted to put a coat on when I read him.

Charles Gramlich said...

Snowbrush, yep, that's the immediacy you get from London