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Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined

4 September 2012

From author Roz Morris on Nail Your Novel:

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.

Link to the rest at Nail Your Novel

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

11 Comments to “Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined”

  1. Yes, but “It was a dark and stormy night” is such a classic way to open your novel. Followed immediately by “Suddenly, a shot rang out.”

    Heh.

  2. I loved this example. And I have zero problems opening with weather. It gives me a way to ground myself in the story. We don’t object to movies that open with the slow pan of a castle or a starship. We can see the atmosphere before we’re plunged into meeting the characters. So why not in novels?

    You have great novels, like Rebecca by DuMaurier, that not only commit the sin of opening with description and setting, but opening with a dream. Here is the wonderful thing about publishing today. I can say “screw the rules” and so can others and we end up with more books that open in the same way as the delicious, mouth-watering example given here.

    • Readers will put up with a lot if they’re sure the book will get good later. But when I’m reading the sample of a random book I found on Amazon, if it starts with two paragraphs describing perfectly ordinary weather I probably won’t read the third.

      So while a slow opening doesn’t mean you won’t find readers, it does mean you’ll have a harder time finding them. Once you reach the point where people are telling their friends ‘you must read this book’ the opening doesn’t much matter, but you still need to get to that point with early readers.

  3. The reason why novice writers are told never to start a story with weather is because they spend the first chapter (at least) wandering around aimlessly before the story starts. The same thing happens with stories where the character wakes up.

    You can start the story with weather if weather plays a significant part of the start of the story. Otherwise, start with the start of the story, when something interesting¹ happens.

    ¹ By this, I mean in the Chinese-curse sense: May you live in interesting times.

  4. What I like about this opening is how the weather becomes an antagonist. We see that the heat has serious consequences, and that helps generate tension.

  5. Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” likewise open with weather references, tying them into a general atmosphere rather than being the focal point.

  6. Well, each novel in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series starts with a paragraph on the wind but then Jordan has been criticized for his slow writing.

  7. The underlying rule? Don’t be boring. And, tastes differ – one person’s boring is another’s great literary masterpiece. So, know your genre, too. 🙂

  8. The problem with “don’t do that” rules is that everyone acknowledges that it can be done well by the right writer, whatever it happens to be. But if beginning authors never try a technique how will they ever know whether or not they can do it well?

  9. Lots and lots of Russian novels start with weather. It usually reflects the characters’ state of mind, and helps sets the mood as well as telling you the season. And since Russian weather is so assertive, and Russian writers write so feelingly about it, that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

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