Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined

Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.

So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:

That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’

It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?

1 It’s interesting

Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’

But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

2 It’s about people

We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?

In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)

3 A storyteller is luring us in

Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.

The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.

Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson

What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos

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  1. #1 by Catana on August 26, 2012 - 1:36 pm

    First time I’ve heard of that particular taboo. It occurs to me that all the “thou shalt nots” could be dealt with at one blow by simply adopting one statement: make it interesting.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 26, 2012 - 1:51 pm

      ‘Make it interesting’ – exactly, Catana. I’d add ‘make us care’. Not necessarily ‘make us like’, but ‘make us curious and nosy’.

  2. #3 by Erika Marks on August 26, 2012 - 2:05 pm

    I love that you addressed this, Roz. I think we are so often held hostage by these industry taboos. We hear often that stories that begin with a) weather or b) someone waking, usually from a dream, are frowned upon. Are these techniques overused? Possibly? But it doesn’t mean you can’t “reinvent” them if done well. The more we learn about rules as writers, I think the more inclined we are to want to break them–to see that nothing is absolute if done effectively.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 26, 2012 - 7:30 pm

      Hello Erika – lovely to see you! Totally agree. Just this afternoon I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Open Book and a renowned crime writer read from the beginning of one of her novels. It started with – guess what – the character waking up. I think it’s unhelpful to make rules about scene situations – much better to make writers concentrate on how they want to ensnare the reader.

  3. #5 by rbappleby on August 26, 2012 - 3:38 pm

    I’m relatively new to writing and everytime, I take the time to dive into whatever Roz offers up, I feel like a hungry man at a feast!

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 26, 2012 - 7:32 pm

      Thanks, RB! And especially for taking the trouble to comment. I love it when a new face pops up and says hello.

  4. #7 by L.S. Engler on August 26, 2012 - 3:41 pm

    You’re right; that’s a fantastic opening, and your explanations on why are right on point. Makes me feel a little better; I actually just started a new book opening with weather. How timely.

  5. #9 by mgm75 on August 26, 2012 - 4:31 pm

    I think it is used to build atmosphere but it has become a lazy plot device. There are much more effective ways of drawing in a reader.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 26, 2012 - 7:35 pm

      I’m not sure it’s laziness so much as uncertainty about how to begin, where to begin, how to draw the reader in. It’s easy to get paralysed by the options when trying to tackle your first line.

  6. #11 by Deb Atwood on August 26, 2012 - 7:21 pm

    That is a great weather opening, Roz. And immediately, I flashed on the opening of White Oleander:
    The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blossoms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.
    “Oleander time,” she said. “Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.”

    And just like your example, this opening accomplishes multiple tasks–setting, characterization, foreshadowing.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 26, 2012 - 7:38 pm

      Hi Deb – thanks! That excerpt is Janet Fitch, right? Fantastic. I love the line about the mother’s hair. And what she says. There’s a real poetic sense here, and you can feel the storm brewing.

  7. #13 by CharlieSpain on August 26, 2012 - 11:21 pm

    What if you´re writing your opening and weather interferes?

    “The Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts tin had an ominous look about it. Pens in the World’s Best Dad coffee cup had all suddenly dried up. My Llasa Apso was looking at me funny. And then–” And then it frickin’ started raining all over my laptop as I sat in the park, on that one bench that’s not too sunny and not too shady, where sometimes that cute girl comes and pulls up her socks before jogging.

    Does that count as a taboo to be avoided? What if the Llasa Apso were named Taboo in the story?What if I found it really interesting that the cute jogger girl always wears a half shirt to show off her pierced navel? Does that help or hurt my opening?

    Help me bestselling ghostrider lady with the elegant neck scarf. I´m so confused.

    Bedraggled in the Bronx

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 27, 2012 - 9:09 am

      ‘What if you’re writing your opening and the weather interferes?’
      Charlie, if it’s raining on your laptop, I’d move to a different seat.

  8. #15 by Deb Atwood on August 26, 2012 - 11:43 pm

    Yes, I should have mentioned the author is Janet Fitch.

    I attended the Squaw Valley Writers Conference when Janet Fitch was speaking. She said she was in a writing group in which the members would take turns bringing a word for everyone to write on. At one particular meeting, someone brought the word “wind,” and White Oleander was the eventual result.

    Pretty cool, yes?

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 27, 2012 - 9:10 am

      Oh for someone to give me a word that starts a whole novel! (Actually, it probably has happened, only I wish it would more often.)

  9. #17 by acflory on August 27, 2012 - 8:31 am

    Thanks for taking the ‘formula’ out of writing. I loved that opening passage for all sorts of reasons and now I want to read more. Isn’t that exactly what an introductory passage is meant to do?

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 27, 2012 - 9:11 am

      Absolutely. At its most essential, an opening makes us want more. So long as we do that, we can do it any way we like.

  10. #20 by Dave Morris on August 27, 2012 - 11:33 am

    I like that opening a lot. And see how she shows not tells with surgical economy. Might have to put Liz Jensen higher up in my to-read pile… At least I’m getting through that pile quicker because of this year’s monsoony summer.

  11. #22 by Dan Holloway on August 28, 2012 - 7:23 pm

    I notice you don’t mention the other taboo – opening with dialogue :)

    Weather’s a really tricky one. I think the real problem I have with weather passages is something this also suffers from – over-egging the metaphor, foreshadowing, commenting obliquely on the plot and characters through the weather. The problem is that it’s done so often that it is almost impossible for it to be fresh. The urban dystopia of Blade Runner was so good because it was the first time it was done on that scale – using pollution and neon and monotone, crumpled clothes as shorthand for a society gone wrong now makes you want to tear your hair out.

    There’s also a danger of overwriting along “dark and stormy night” lines, and I think this passage skirts with both of those problems. “That” summer is such a cliche, from Suddenly Last Summer and Streetcar Named Desire all the way through to some things not written by Tennessee Williams like American Graffitt. Even one of my very favourite books, Betty Blue, almost lost me with a brooding stormclouds approaching opening.

    On the other hand, weather can be done beautifully – no one can convey so much through a single sentence of falling rain as Murakami, for example. My very favourite weather moment is also rain, and also from Blade Runner, when Batty dies – but I don’t think rain could ever be used that way again – and that’s the real thing. With something as risky as weather you have to be new.

    I think the real problem is that it is almost impossible to avoid falling into overwroughtness without sounding boring – and the best way to do this is once you have already established the context and your voice, which makes beginning with it really difficult. But by no means impossible

    • #23 by dirtywhitecandy on August 29, 2012 - 7:58 pm

      Hi Dan! Opening with dialogue? In some genres that’s perfectly fine, although I did see a very good argument for why it makes life difficult for the reader.

      One reader’s overwrought is another reader’s delight. I know I have a high tolerance for intensity if the singer is good, so it’s nice to hear from someone who gets a little put off by this style.

      Does the Blade Runner opening count here? Although it’s great for most storytelling discussions (as you well know), it’s a movie – and movies don’t work in the same way as prose. Prose is like dial-up – one sensation at a time – so the choice of what to show has to be made with that in mind. It’s also potentially a lot more intimate and less literal than a movie. Although I give you points for mentioning Blade Runner – and lovely Roy’s speech, which was partly written by Rutger Hauer.

      If we’re talking stormy moments, who can forget the exit line of Terminator? I love that.

  12. #24 by Carol Riggs on August 28, 2012 - 9:25 pm

    Hey, great points here. Excellent example–weather usually IS boring, but as you showed, it can be interesting and related to the plot and characters. :)

  13. #26 by journalpulp on August 28, 2012 - 10:35 pm

    God, I’ve been railing against that hackneyed proscription for years.

    Beware the overly proscriptive, I often tell the tyro, but that one in particular I loathe.

    “The Christmas of 182– was remarkable in Guernsey. It snowed on that day. In the Channel Islands, a winter where it freezes to the point of forming ice is memorable, and snow is an event. On that morning of that Christmas day, the road that skirts the seacoast from St. Peter to Le Valle was perfectly white. It had been snowing from midnight until dawn.”

    “Saturday, it rained”

    “In those last hot days of the spring of 1910″

    “The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine”

    Joe Konrath, whom I do not dislike, dreams of writing a beginning so beautiful.

  14. #27 by journalpulp on August 29, 2012 - 7:20 am

    P.S.

    “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend — the weekend of the Yale game.”

    “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt, like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky — surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.”

    • #28 by dirtywhitecandy on August 29, 2012 - 8:17 pm

      Ray, exquisite additions. Especially that last one. Astonishing. What is it?

  15. #29 by journalpulp on August 29, 2012 - 11:34 pm

    Isn’t it good? I thought you’d be bamboozled by it — you of all people, I mean. It’s too bad the rest of the story doesn’t quite match up to the beginning, and yet the whole beginning — the whole first chapter — is that good. The next few paragraphs continue describing the weather and the puddle:

    It lies in shadow but contains a sample of the brightness beyond, where there are tree and two houses. Look closer. Yes, it reflects a portion of pale blue sky — mild infantile shade of blue — taste of milk in my mouth because I had a mug of that color thirty-five years ago.It also reflects a brief tangle of bare twigs and the brown sinus of a stouter limb cut off by its rim and a transverse bright cream-colored band. You have dropped something, this is yours, creamy house in the sunshine beyond.

    When the November wind has its recurrent icy spasm, a rudimentary vortex of ripples creases the brightness of the puddle. Two leaves, two triskelions, like two shuddering three-legged bathers coming at a run for a swim, are borne by their impetus right into the middle where with a sudden slowdown they float quite flat. Twenty minutes past four. View from a hospital window.

    November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold — because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air….

    (Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov)

    • #30 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 30, 2012 - 11:07 am

      Ah, I should have known it was Vlad – who else can impale with prose? Instructing Husband Dave to read this too.

      • #31 by Dave Morris on August 30, 2012 - 12:29 pm

        I need no arm-twisting to pick up Nabokov.

  16. #32 by Dave Hitt on August 30, 2012 - 3:59 am

    Whenever I see something opening with the weather, I think of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Unless the weather is an important part of the story, and the writer handles it very very well, it makes the reader roll their eyes – not a good start.

    You might want to do a column on other openings that have become cliché:

    A phone ringing.
    An alarm clock going off.
    A character looking in the mirror to provide the reader a physical description.
    Things happening that turn out to be a dream. (I just recently started reading a book where the entire first chapter was fast and exciting and then turned out to be a dream. I didn’t bother with the second chapter.)

    • #33 by Dave Hitt on August 30, 2012 - 4:00 am

      Oops, I just clicked on the Konrath link, and it looks like he already did that.

      • #34 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 30, 2012 - 11:09 am

        ho ho, he does give those opening horrors a good workout! But it’s interesting that you came up with that list independently. They seem to be pet hates. My point here (which I’m sure you appreciated) is that they don’t have to be bad beginnings.

        • #35 by Dave Morris on August 30, 2012 - 12:32 pm

          Does The Da Vinci Code start with a guy waking up to the sound of a telephone ring-

          Oh, yeah.

  17. #36 by Laura Pauling (@laurapauling) on August 30, 2012 - 10:59 am

    Great example. I think a great writer can start with anything and break almost any rule, even describing him/herself in a mirror. Good writing makes all the difference.

    • #37 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on August 30, 2012 - 11:09 am

      Absolutely, Laura. I don’t think any of the people Ray (Journalpulp) quotes gave a toss about rules. You can see it in their flair.

  18. #38 by histfict on September 3, 2012 - 8:02 pm

    Apparently Clint Eastwood disagrees w/#2.

    Ahem.

    I did have a few moments of opaque weather dialogue in a story recently, but it was used intentionally to illustrate the fact that the characters had no oasis, no safe bit of conversation between them, and could only seek refuge in this banal transaction.

    • #39 by dirtywhitecandy on September 3, 2012 - 8:18 pm

      Clint Eastwood disagrees with 2? That we’re interested in people….? Do elaborate!

      Your opaque weather dialogue sounds well judged – banality out of desperation. I like it.

      • #40 by histfict on September 4, 2012 - 2:37 am

        I was making an oblique stab at the Invisible Obama incident–and his talking to the chair at the RNC…

        It fits well with the tone and content of the rest of the story. My lesson learnt was about beta readers and choosing them carefully. I don’t want someone to be my reader if they are going to sound the klaxon because I violated Rule #167 and then basically not be able to evaluate from the point of this egregious foul. A year later, I still think the weather dialogue is the right one. A year later, I still think this reader was the wrong one.

        @histfict

  19. #41 by JF Brown on September 4, 2012 - 5:33 pm

    LOL. “It was a dark and stormy night.” (ref: Edward Bulwar-Litton Contest… and Snoopy)

    • #42 by dirtywhitecandy on September 4, 2012 - 8:16 pm

      LOL, I’m surprised it took so long for someone to mention that!

      Here’s the rest, which is about on a par with Vogon poetry:

      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.

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