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.

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