- C. P. Lesley
Writing Tips: Weather
As promised, in this month’s writing tip, C. P. Lesley builds on her previous discussion of time and place as factors supporting character and plot development by looking at the rather fraught subject of weather. Unlike time and place, weather is intrinsically fleeting, but it can contribute a good deal to enriching and drawing readers into your story world—so long as it’s handled with conscious intent and a light touch.
A Dark and Stormy Night
C. P. Lesley
One of the most famous—or is it infamous?—clichés in literature is “It was a dark and stormy night.” Well known enough to have its own Wikipedia page, the phrase first appeared in an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton. From there, it was picked up almost immediately as an example of purple prose, a status it retains to this day—not least because Charles Schulz’s Snoopy uses it in his unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as a world-famous author.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never read Paul Clifford. I have, however, read years’ worth of Peanuts. I’m also familiar with Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Good Writing,” the first of which is “Never open a book with weather.” Bulwer-Lytton bears posthumous responsibility for that, too.
Nevertheless, I would argue that weather has a place in any good story. It is part of a setting, for one thing—a topic I discussed in my most recent writing tip. Into every life, some rain must fall—and often snow and hail and perhaps a tornado or two. And rain has its own resonance: the gentle, near-constant droplets of places like southern England or Oregon have little in common with the ferocious thunderstorms of the Midwest prairie in July. What matters is how point-of-view characters experience these shifting patterns over which they have no control.
Let’s start with what not to do. The full opening sentence from Paul Clifford goes like this:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
This sentence has two problems. First, it uses many words to say something quite simple (rain fell in torrents on London’s nighttime streets, driven by powerful winds) and further complicates things by including a caveat (the rain fell in torrents, except when it didn’t). But the bigger problem is that as readers, we don’t know who’s talking and why we should care. As is common in nineteenth-century novels, the book has an omniscient narrator: “it is in London that our scene lies,” “our” referring to the narrator and the reader. But for all we know, it could be a set-up for The Hound of the Baskervilles or even Oliver Twist (no offense to Arthur Conan Doyle or Charles Dickens, both of whom knew better) as readily as a melodramatic tale of an orphaned highwayman who falls in love with a judge’s daughter.
Contrast that with this example from Courtney J. Hall’s A Holiday Wish, a light-hearted Christmas romance:
When I emerge from my apartment building’s lobby into the late October morning, I know it’s going to be a perfect day.… The crisp autumn air smells clean in a way heavy, humid summer air never can. It bites at my cheeks and ruffles the edges of my burgundy scarf. Through leaves burnished gold and crimson the sun dapples the sidewalk and bounces off the shop windows as I hurry past. It’s so nice out this morning that if it weren’t for the promise of coffee, croissants, and Drew, I would have been a little disappointed to come to the end of the half-mile walk.
Here we immediately encounter an “I” to whom we can relate. We also begin to find out who the speaker is right away: she likes coffee; she has a slow day at work; she’s on her way to join her boyfriend for breakfast. The perfect October day doesn’t make her happy; she regards the day as perfect because she’s already looking forward to seeing the man she loves. Right after this excerpt, we learn her name, Noelle Silver, and that she is a wedding planner on the way to meet her fiancé so they can discuss the arrangements for their own marriage ceremony.
Of course, this is the first chapter of a novel, so things don’t work out the way Noelle expects; if they did, there would be no story. Less than half an hour later, when she leaves the café, she sees the perfect weather very differently:
I shove through the door and into the dazzling sunlight, which temporarily blinds me. A breeze teases the ends of my hair. It’s not even right for a day to be so gorgeous, not when my heart is breaking.
The day hasn’t changed; Noelle has. This leads to my second point: although stormy emotions can certainly correspond to stormy weather, they don’t have to. When Al-Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11/2001, the day was cloudless and sunny, and many of those victimized by that tragedy commented on the contrast between the weather and the dreadful events they had lived through. Clichés often serve a purpose, but especially for secondary indicators like weather, it can be equally effective to create a mismatch: a hero’s distress becomes more heartbreaking when the world around him is sunny and bright; a heroine who stands calm and quietly happy in the midst of a hurricane is striking, even memorable.
Here’s another novel that opens with weather, Claudia H. Long’s The Duel for Consuelo:
The sun bleached the yellow city walls as Toledo baked in the heat of the long Spanish summer. In the shade of a cobbled alley a dray horse pulled up to a blue painted door, an open cart clattering behind it. The door to the villa opened, and Rosa Carmela de Argenta emerged, carrying a carefully wrapped bundle.
Note that Long keeps the opening sentence short and uses it to supply much more information than just the weather: it’s sunny, yes, but we also learn that the location is Toledo, the season summer, and the setting far enough back in time for the city to maintain its protective walls. We meet a character, Rosa, and learn that she is carrying a wrapped bundle, which immediately captures our attention by causing us to wonder what the bundle contains and why Rosa cares about the hidden object. The rest of the prologue focuses on action and short bursts of basic character information, circling back to the weather at the very end:
I’m leaving, she thought. Who cares who sees me now? Carefully she laid the bundle at her feet. With both hands free, Rosa pulled Emilio’s face to hers and kissed him passionately, there before God, the sun, and all of Toledo.
Now we see the real importance of the sun at the beginning. It reveals the truth—that Rosa is leaving her home to start a new life with a man she loves and as a result can break the conventions that have bound her in Toledo, the result of religious prejudice and seventeenth-century views of appropriate female behavior. It is 1638, and the Spanish Inquisition forces conversion and punishes “heresy” with death. The sun’s brilliance hides a dark reality, but by kissing Emilio under its rays, Rosa asserts her true identity as a young and passionate Jewish woman who knows what she wants.
My last example comes from my own Winged Horse. It appears at the end of the first chapter, and although it links stormy weather to stormy emotions, it does so to portray a world where everything is believed to be connected: the heavens and the elements and events at our own level of existence mirror one another in the minds of these characters. Bahadur Bey, the ruler of a nomadic camp, has just died, leaving his people without a competent ruler. The elements reflect the political turmoil caused by his death and the emotional impact on those he leaves behind.
Bahadur allowed himself one last, long survey of the camp he had called home. He would miss this place, his friends and family. Round white tents, each identifiable by its embroidered strips binding the felt; spirit banners waving before carved door frames facing south; his own standard flying free, its emblem a pale reflection of his current mount’s glory; the herds penned within the corrals that guarded them against predators and thieves—and his people, grieving the loss of their protector, their bey. Kettle drums pounded an unceasing dirge. Bonfires sent flames shooting into the summer heat, ridding the air of contagion. The boundaries of his world—no more.
The storm he had sensed gathering throughout the evening broke. The middle lands of earth and water rallied, staging a farewell appropriate to a hero. Lightning struck sparks amid the feather grass. Thunder rolled across the land, silencing the kettle drums. Wind amplified the mourners’ sobs. Rain doused the purifying bonfires. As Bahadur prepared to join his ancestors, the glimpse of one bent figure caught his spirit eye.
His beloved daughter. Amid the storm, Firuza wept. He bent to brush her hair as he flew past.
If there is one takeaway from this post, it is that weather is important, but in fiction it shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Noelle’s perfect day expresses her belief that all will be well, followed by her anguish that the sun can still shine when she is weeping inside. Rosa’s life is changing, and the brilliant light bears witness to her newfound courage and her decision to leave her native place. As Bahadur flies to the realm of his ancestors on the back of a winged horse, the storm mirrors the abandonment felt by those who depend on him; the agony is theirs, not his.
So, pace Elmore Leonard, you can open a book with weather. You can also include weather throughout. But wherever weather appears, make sure to link it tightly to the emotions expressed in that specific section. It’s when the weather loses its connection to character development and plot that readers mutter about “dark and stormy nights.”
Images from Pixabay (no attribution required).