Monday, August 15, 2016

How About that Weather?

I was reading a piece of writing advice the other day about five clichés that ruin openings. I agreed with four of them, but either I don’t understand the fifth cliché the author was describing, or it’s simple wrong advice. The gist was, “don’t begin with the weather because no one gives a crap about the weather.”

First, I’m not sure that weather can actually be a cliché in the way “it was all a dream” is. I mean, weather is only a cliché in the sense that it’s always there. It’s reality rather than cliché. Second, maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm but I do indeed give a crap about the weather. In fact, almost everyone does and that would explain why it’s one of the major topics of conversation. Third, unless your story takes place fully inside a place with complete environmental controls and no windows, such as a spaceship, weather will be a part of a realistic story. Fifth, quite a few of my favorite opening sequences in literature incorporate weather. Give a listen:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms.

“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .” Ray Bradbury—The October Country.

Or: “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strain in my joints were cramping to knots in my muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.” Heather Gladney—Teot’s War.

I stopped with these three in order to keep this post to a manageable length. There are many other examples I could give. Now, if the opening were ‘only’ a lengthy description of the weather, I would want the writer to move on. But, what I need from a story is to be immediately, or at least very quickly, “grounded.” I want to know “who” and “where.” If the story is taking place outside, a huge part of “where” is likely to involve weather.

As a reader, the surest way for a writer to lose me is to open with talking heads in a vacuum. Now there is truly something I don’t give a crap about. I’d rather it were all a dream.



23 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love descriptions of weather. I disagree compltely.

eric1313 said...

I've not shied away from weather if it's called for, opening, middle or the end. The weather is part of setting a scene.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, and I agree with you.

eric1313, absolutely. Critical to it

David J. West said...

I like the weather for setting mood. Cliche as that is. ;)

the walking man said...

I too give a crap about the weather because it determines that days pain levels when I wake up. It is life, a major part of life for some folks at some time or another and is the only descriptor that can be used to show the reality of their situation.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good point. Weather is always present unless you're always indoors. And then it could be weather that traps you there. Outside of starting with 'It was a dark and stormy night,' I don't see how it could be cliche.

Cloudia said...

Yes, the scene must be set, Charles. Thanks

Charles Gramlich said...

David J., some genres, like pulp fiction types, really demand it. Weather becomes almost a character, and certainly a source of conflict for the protag.

Mark, and thus it can't be a true cliche, anymore than breathing air can be.

Alex, I imagine if one droned on and one about it and it did nothing else for the story. hard to see exactly what the writer meant.

Cloudia, the most critical thing.

Richard Robinson said...

I think the idea of a weather opening comes from the old saw "It was a dark and stormy night." the opening sentence of Paul Clifford by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel. It's "considered the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing". (I got that quote from Wikipedia).

Personally, the weather, along with the landscape, are important in the setting of the story, and without some mention of them I feel lost.

Richard Robinson said...

I meant to say idea of a weather opening AS A CLICHE

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I'm with you on beginning a story or novel with the "weather" as long as it is short and doesn't read like a Met report. My short story, a pastiche of the Wild West, begins with the weather, all of three lines.

SzélsőFa said...

I agree with you.
I too, like to use weather. I think it's an asset to use sparingly and wisely :) It may fine~tune the mood and/or the scene.

Charles Gramlich said...


Richard, I bet you're right. In fact, they quoted the "dark and stormy night" in the article I read. And that is certainly a very vague opening.

Prashant, yes, it definitely needs to be succinct

Szelsofa, very good for fine tuning

Snowbrush said...

Like you, I like weather openings, but I might need to give up, "It was a dark and stormy night."

sage said...

I agree with you... and I bet anything you've written in the past few days (on soggy paper) is dealing with the weather. I hope you're safe from the floods.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I think that a skilled author can describe weather in such a way that reader can actually feel the rain on their skin :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Snowbrush, that one is probably done

Sage, we are safe but all this rain made me think about how important the weather is to us.

Optimistic, I agree. and I love that

oscar case said...

The weather is a valid subject as long as it is not separate from the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, agreed.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I agree. I actually think there is no such thing as a cliche. Everything depends on story and the way it's written. Everything else is somebody else's definition of writing... and frankly... I don't care. When an author writes a story, nothing can come between the author and the story, especially not a stranger's opinion. :)

Riot Kitty said...

Weather is a frequent topic of conversation for me as well. It always has been. Nice examples you show us here!

Erik Donald France said...

Hey Charles, agree 100%. Weather does indeed help set the story and "speaks volumes." Talking heads could work, also, depending on context and content -- such as speaking about the weather!

"The monsoon will sweep us away if we don't flee immediately!"
"You can go, knave, but I shall remain behind and brave the floods!"
haha


jodi said...

Charles-a bit of weather is needed for me to totally imagine a scene.