How’s the weather?

Cloudy with a chance of rain. Or maybe sunny with a cool change later in the day. Have I raised your curiosity yet? No, didn’t think so. In fact, I’m getting a bit bored myself.

Just goes to show there’s some wisdom in the advice not to start a story with the weather. The only reason everyone talks about the weather is because they haven’t got much else to say. There’s just no curiosity value in weather, nothing to tease the reader to keep on reading.

            Unless the weather is really dramatic, like “the twister dodged back and forth across the horizon, edging nearer every second”. There’s a hint of imminent danger there, something that makes it worth reading on, to find out what happens next.

            Or unless a character is being affected by the weather in a way that moves the story forward, like “a sudden gust of wind whipped the letter out of her hand and into the fast-flowing river”. The weather has sent the story off in a new direction and the reader is led down the path of “what now?”

Or unless it increases the stakes for a character, like “as the icy downpour filled his shoes and soaked his socks, he realised he was hopelessly lost”. For the reader, the weather has raised sympathy for the character and a curiosity about how he will manage to extricate himself from the situation.

            Sometimes the weather is really useful in writing. It can enhance the drama of a scene or interact with characters in a way that moves the story in a new and interesting direction. On its own, though, a description of the weather can stall a story and lose the reader’s attention. Especially when it’s used as an opener.

            Having said that, I have to admit one of my favourite books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, commits the entire first chapter to the weather. It’s a short chapter admittedly, but the main character Tom Joad doesn’t even appear until the second chapter. The only characters in the first chapter are anonymous men and women huddling on farms that are being destroyed by the relentless drought. Even then, the people appear as small powerless creatures in the face of the overwhelming force of nature.

But I don’t think Steinbeck was simply unaware of the warning not to begin a story with the weather. In The Grapes of Wrath the weather is not just part of the background, it’s a vital character in the story. It’s the main antagonist that raises the conflict for Tom Joad and his family, and all the other “Okies” that are forced off their farms and onto the road to seek out a way to survive. That first chapter is a brave piece of writing, I think. Starting a story with the weather and pulling it off so successfully is astounding. If you haven’t read it for a while, it’s worth taking another look.   

So, the moral of this tale is: if you’re not John Steinbeck, I reckon it’s worth rationing out the weather in your writing. Or, if in doubt about its usefulness to the story, leave it out altogether.

Spare Me the Details.

Get to the point! How many times have you been listening to someone relating an incident and your ears are nearly bursting at all the trivial detail? 

 
The story progresses at a snail’s pace and you’re being treated to every little bit of who said what, word for word. “He said yes so I said no then he said yes really and I said no kidding…” Agh! Enough said! Then there’s all the background information that goes back almost as far as prehistoric times. I’m almost expecting a woolly mammoth to walk into the scene, though I wouldn’t mind that so much because it might provide a welcome bit of interest at least. And to top it off, there are volumes of opinion, often ill-informed, on every little development in the story.
 
Sometimes I get so tuned-out that I find myself nodding and mmming in all the wrong places until the other person ends up saying “Are you listening to me?” Usually I reassure them I am listening (manners, thanks Mum) but I wish I had the honesty to say “Nope! I just can’t hang in there. However your story ends, I’m past caring.”
 
It’s the same with a lot of books and short stories, I find. It’s often why I abandon a book after a few chapters, even if it comes highly recommended by a well-respected reviewer or made it to the Man Booker shortlist. Some of those reviewers and Booker judges must have an assurance of a really long life with not a lot of work on their plate, I reckon. As for me, life’s too short and way too busy to persist with heaps of unnecessary details.
 
I was grateful to the friend who recommended I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Even more than that, I was grateful to him for telling me to persist past the first six chapters because, however much I wanted to give up, it would be worth it. He was right, it was one if the best stories I’ve ever read. Though I know quite a few readers who gave up on the book before the story really took off. So I don’t understand why those first six chapters couldn’t have been edited down to one really good chapter with just the essentials to kick-start the story. Perhaps the publishers were worried no one would buy such a slim book. But I would have. And I would’ve appreciated being spared all those unnecessary details.
 
Someone – don’t ask me who, I’m not good with details like that – anyway, someone said that reading a story with too many unimportant details is like receiving a letter that has been beautifully written but a small child has scribbled all over it. The meaning is in there somewhere but it’s all too much work to get to it.
 
Details can get in the way of a story, they can hinder it’s forward movement. And goodness knows we all like to feel we’re getting somewhere rather than just jogging on the spot. By details, I mean anything from a single word to a phrase to a whole scene. It can be description, backstory, context, action or dialogue.
 
 When I’m writing, I have to remind myself constantly that not everything in my head needs to make it onto the page. I ask myself two questions to keep the details to a minimum. First, I ask myself whether the reader really needs to know this particular detail. If not, I cross it out. Then I ask myself if the story would still stand on it’s feet if I omitted this detail. If the story is not about to suffer then I cross it out. I probably don’t cross out as much as I should but those two questions really help keep a lot of unnecessary details out of my stories. I’m pretty sure the stories are better for it and, I hope, better for the reader.

Lean on Me

Starting a story is something I’ve never found hard. It’s finishing that trips me up and I’ve probably got about fifty stories with little more than a promising paragraph or some interesting opening sentences, all lying dead in the water. Sometimes I bring one up on my screen and try a bit of resuscitation. Occasionally, I can get my head back to the character and capture the emotion or the intention of those opening sentences and the story starts to breathe again. But more often than not I just can’t re-open that particular door in my imagination and I can’t step back into the place where that story started in my head.

The reasons I let the initial inspiration slip are probably the same for all writers. Sometimes good reasons interrupt the flow of writing a story, like family. My husband, my children, my grandchildren – they’re something that will always come first for me. Not to mention my brother-who-lives-too-far-away – hi Mick if you’re reading this! And my friends, of course. But, more often than not, my reasons for not persisting with a story are lame and I know I’m just trying to avoid the hard work of seeing the thing through to the end. I’ve never met a writer yet who wasn’t an expert in procrastination.

So my attention was caught a while back when I read a suggestion in an article on writing and inspiration. Essentially, it suggested a slower, sneakier approach to getting the story moving along. Once a character walks across your mind, once you’ve got some idea of what that character is doing and some inkling of their personality, write down what you’ve got and don’t feel as if you have to push it any further. Instead, walk away from your computer and lean subconsciously on that character as you go about all the other activities in your day. Don’t leave the character behind when you walk away from your computer, take him with you and lean on him while you’re doing the supermarket shopping, hanging out the washing, weeding the garden, cooking dinner. Instead of allocating all your imagining time to when your fingers are on the keyboard, let the character walk around in your head and nudge him a little to find out more about him and what he might do. During that time, don’t let any other stories intrude. Be faithful to the one character and live with him a little.

At some point, you have to sit down and get the story on the page but I’ve found it a lot less stressful to allow myself to walk away from those unfinished opening paragraphs, as long as I take my character with me and subconsciously lean on him throughout the day. It’s quite amazing how some stories take shape away from the computer. And what’s even more amazing is how inclined I become to procrastinate on all those mundane tasks so I can get back to the computer and finish the story.