Tuesday, 6 March 2018

It was a dark and stormy night … by Debbie Bennett

Was there ever a bigger cliché in opening a piece of fiction? Way back in the when, I wrote a round-robin story with a group of friends; we each had to write a few paragraphs and then pass it on. The opening line was It was a dark and stormy knight. And our brave knight was indeed dark and stormy! I’m not sure what happened to the story – I’m sure there must be copies somewhere, but this was probably pre-internet.

I’m writing this in the midst of the Beast from the East – the huge cold snap that seems to be taking up 95% of British news right now. Like we’ve never had snow before? Although the wind-chill of allegedly -10˚ is rare! We’ve even resorted to stuffing an old shirt in the airing cupboard vent, and the kitchen extractor fan is sucking in cold air.

But weather in stories? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking that weather is generally used to isolate characters in fiction. The good guys are marooned on an island by a storm; the fog is so thick, we can’t see the bad guys; everybody’s snowed in inside the old asylum-turned-posh hotel. Very Stephen King. But other than this, do writers actually use weather in their stories? Maybe as a metaphor for emotion? Rain = misery, sun = happiness. Again very clichéd, but to a certain extent these kind of metaphors rely on the cliché to make them understandable. Weather is often another obstacle, a challenge we throw at our characters – can they overcome the freezing cold or the desert heat to achieve their aims?

But weather is a part of the five senses that every good book on writing tells us we need to engage with. We feel the cold, we taste the rain, we smell the dry heat and see the lightning of a storm. I remember being in Arizona on holiday once, in the Painted Desert, in the middle of a dry thunderstorm. It was spectacular to watch – and scary, when you realise that the car you are in is the only metallic thing for several miles in any direction – but what I remember is the smell of a storm. Even in the UK, a storm after a dry spell smells … buttery, is the only way I can describe the smell of storm rain on parched earth. I like using this kind of imagery in writing; it adds depth, although too much of it can be pretentious.

So while you’re snuggled in your warm homes, thinking back on Storm Emma, use the memories to fuel the next piece of writing. Think outside the box and use the weather to drive the story rather than simply isolate the characters. 


4 comments:

Wendy Jones said...

Fabulous advice, Debbie. Thanks for this

janedwards said...

All the senses! (And I have a copy of that round robin somewhere! :-) )

griseldaheppel said...

I definitely use weather in my children's books, for variety as much as anything. Cold, rainy days with biting winds can express the turmoil your hero is going through - or give them a sense of freedom and exultation. Similarly you'd think a warm, sunny day would be all about happiness but it can also ratchet up the sense of grief/loss by poignant contrast - sun-dappled bluebells by a freshly dug grave, for instance. See, I'm going misty-eyed already.
Ooh and I love your 'It was a dark and stormy knight.' That's as good as Katherine Rundell's opening sentence of Wolf Wilder: 'Once upon a time there was a dark and stormy girl.'

misha said...

Weather affects us all in ways we do not always appreciate. Living in Jamaica for two years the humid heat slowed me down both physically and mentally. I will never forget the jolt of energy I would get on arriving in Gatwick. It was like walking out of a soporific bath into a revitalising shower. I also missed the slow progress of evening from late afternoon, to twilight, to darkness. In the tropic night comes like the lowering of a blind.