Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The weather men

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Elmore Leonard

“Never open a book with the weather,” Elmore Leonard said, and he was absolutely right. Still, the fact that he felt compelled to put this admonition at the top of his ten rules of writing testifies to the fact that there’s something about weather—and, more generally, the description of the environment in which a story takes place—that novice authors find irresistible. The weather, as we all know, is a classic topic for small talk because it affects all of us equally, and we can all be expected to take at least a passing interest in what kind of day it looks to be. Much the same impulse applies to describing the weather in fiction: it comes easily to mind when we’re sketching the outlines of a scene, it allows us to ease into the day’s work without much effort, and it feels, based on our memories of the other stories we’ve read, like the sort of thing that belongs somewhere at the beginning. But while it’s fine to use the weather or the landscape as an entry point into the story when you’re working on a first draft, in the rewrite, nearly all of it can be cut, especially when it occurs in a story or chapter’s crucial opening lines.

A description of the weather is a bad choice for the opening of a story for the same reason it comes so easily: it’s fundamentally impersonal. Unless the story is explicitly about man versus nature—and even then, you’re usually better off starting with the man—most good narratives center on human problems, and particularly on the choices made by the protagonist to meet a series of objectives. There’s nothing in the weather that applies specifically to any one individual: the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so you’re wasting valuable space with lines that convey no information to the reader. There’s a place, obviously, for atmosphere and scenic description, but it generally fits best at a point where the conflict and personalities have already been established. Like a television show that returns from a commercial break on a tight closeup of the lead, reserving the wide shot until after the scene is in motion, a good scenic description sets the stage only once the players have been introduced. As the beginning, it’s the literary equivalent of small talk; it may be superficially painless, and it gets you safely to the other side of the first paragraph, but it’s hard to expect any reader to really care.

Gone With the Wind

Of course, there are times when the weather can be an active player in the narrative, and not just when the characters are set against it like King Lear in the storm. If you’re a writer, like Updike or Nabokov, given to what James Wood calls “propaganda on behalf of good noticing,” the weather can be just another subject on which you can exercise your gifts for description, although you’d better be sure before you begin that the result will reward this test on the reader’s patience. More subtly, the description of a character’s surroundings can be used to evoke an inner state or mood. Sometimes this skirts dangerously to the pathetic fallacy, or the urge to attribute human emotion to impersonal forces of nature, but when embedded within a conventional first-person or limited third-person viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. When we’re absorbed in what we’re doing, we may not notice the weather at all; when we’re worried, nervous, or depressed, we naturally pick out aspects of our surroundings that remind us of our own feelings. When every detail is channeled through one character’s point of view, the sky can be a mirror of the self—although, again, this assumes that we’ve already been given a particular pair of eyes though which to see.

Even in narratives that are written more objectively, there’s room for description that grounds characters in environments that are secretly expressions of personality. The fantasy author Steve Rasnic Tem calls this dream characterization:

A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…We might say that all other objects in the story—the landscape, the other characters, the supernatural presence, even the individual events—represent some aspect of the protagonist…Each piece suggests or tells us something about our main character. Far more, I suspect, than a delineation of traits and opinions ever could.

And there’s no question that the environment of a scene can influence our impressions. There’s a famous story about David Selznick trying to decide what the weather should be in the final scene of Gone With the Wind, after Rhett delivers his last line to Scarlett. If Rhett had left on a pleasant evening, the audience might assume that he would return one day; or, if he walked off into the rain, that he would never come back. In the final version, he disappears into a dense fog, which neatly splits the difference. Even the weather, then, has its uses. But it needs to flow from character and situation, rather than being imposed from above, if the reader is going to give a damn.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2014 at 9:46 am

2 Responses

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  1. Leonard one of my heroes. Mainly for his dialogue–perfection! Have found you can defy 50 pct of his “writing rules,” however, and still write something worthy. Everyone eventually must create his or her own “rules” that are consistent with what one hopes to achieve…the tough part, truly ;)

    margaretjeanlangstaff

    June 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

  2. Absolutely right. Leonard’s rules are as good a place to start as any, but every writer ends up with his or her own set.

    nevalalee

    June 11, 2014 at 8:59 pm


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