Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Weather Opening Cliche

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Here  is the complete first line of the famous and somewhat infamous beginning penned by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. For all its now perceived corniness, this line still manages a hint of antagonism. So it's a little unfair that we quote this line when referring to the weather cliche or discuss cliche in general. Search the label weather opening cliche on this blog and you will find far worse weather openings than Bulwer-Lytton's.

There are so many novels on the market today that begin with situational weather on the first page, that if we reviewed them all here, the statistics would be lopsided, inaccurately portraying how overused this cliche is. It's mind-boggling how many books out there begin with weather, instead of character and conflict. It is by far the largest cliched beginning readers are confronted with. Weather either in the first sentence or second sentence or anywhere in the first couple paragraphs slows the pace and disrupts the unfolding of conflict and character - the two things that hook a reader. Why there is an urge to do this alludes me. If it is to establish mood, it is a cheap, hackneyed way to do so. A better challenge would be to establish mood though characterization and behavior. If it is to create an image for the reader, sort of like a fade in to a movie, then one is confusing mediums. A novel, does not need to begin like a film. However, there is a tendency to present the novel like a visual art form, with images and actions and less with emotions and ideas. Ideally, there should be a combination of all of the above.

I'm aware of the debate and of how many people disagree with this, but beginning a story with setting is not an effective way to hook, unless the setting is unusual, exotic or filled with conflict. Generally speaking, hook is made using character and conflict. This is the essence of storytelling. We do this every day, when we tell our stories to our friends and relatives. We begin with conflict: You'd never guess what happened to me... We do not begin: It was a sunny day, the temperature around the mid-thirties. the air thick with humidity... Or: It was raining and the air felt refreshed, when suddenly I was pushed in front of a car.

A storyteller's natural instinct when telling a story is to lead in with conflict, not setting - unless the setting is important to the conflict as in: It was raining cats and dogs when I fell into a puddle and ruined my new leather gloves.

Therefore, instead of saying a weather opening is always wrong, it is better to say that there are degrees of the weather opening, from less effective and necessary to more effective and essential.

1. An opening sentence that is all about weather and nothing else. Zero conflict, no characters, just rain, snow, sleet or sunshine. Epic and utter fail and is actually worse than: It was a dark and stormy night..., as at least that line had required a little more creativity when it was written so long ago.


 The July heat was unbearable.
Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski

On the surface this line might sound like it has a hook, but bad weather, even if it is figuratively unbearable, does not make anyone go: Oh, my God, I must read on!

It had been raining hard since five o'clock that morning.
Hell House by Richard Matheson

2. An opening sentence that is about a character caught in bad weather. This opening suggests conflict, but being in bad weather is not a gripping read and usually does not involve a story worthy problem.


As the dawn was beginning to extract the outlines of things from the night and the rain, if someone had happened to pass by the foot of the monumental staircase leading up to Capodimonte, they'd have seen a dog and a child.
The Day of the Dead by Maurizio de Giovanni

Lily Thomas lay in bed when the alarm went off on a snowy January morning in Squaw Valley.
 - Winners by Danielle Steel

3. An opening sentence that is about weather but tries to be creative by comparing it to something unusual, or revealing something unusual about setting, like snow in Africa or weather on some other planet. While still about weather, which is tiring, at least there is an attempt at creativity.


The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.
The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

4. An opening line that uses weather to reveal a character's disposition or state of mind, which in turn foreshadows conflict, or uses weather to reveal something unusual about character (how he or she is reacting to it for example that reveals something important).


She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham

It was an unusually warm day for April, but the weather did nothing to brighten Khalid Yassin's mood.
The Deadliest Game by Hal Ross

5. An opening sentence that is about weather that reveals conflict of the novel. This is the only acceptable use of weather as an opening. Natural disaster fiction would fall under this category. A novel that is about tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, snowstorms, etc. It's only in this case in which opening with weather is not only acceptable but, indeed, should be a requirement. With no reason to withhold this information, reveal the weather as a story antagonist early.


Ella Santos stood on the sidewalk with a cigarette in her hand, watching the snow fall and feeling more alone than she ever had in her life.
- Snowblind by Christopher Golden

As this book is about a snowstorm that brings icy figures who steal people away, it is fitting that this story begins with weather as that is what sets the conflict of the novel in motion.

This is what happened. On the night that the worst heat wave in northern New England history fainlly broke - the night of July 19 - the entire western Maine region was lashed with the most vicious thunderstorms I have ever seen.
- The Mist by Stephen King

I don't like the opening line; it's redundant and used, one supposes, to establish tone. I've read others say it is pure genius, which further puzzles me. The next line and rest of the paragraph is about the weather, and the mist that the whole premise for the story is based around and which is vitally important to the conflict, as it is the mist in which the creatures hide.

Of course there are plenty of other examples, just go to the library and start opening random books, you'll be surprised how many open with weather or with references to weather on the first page. With so many modern novels beginning with the cliche, I was curious if this phenomenon of opening with weather can be truly dated to the 19th century, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's work indicates and so I started flipping through the old classics.

Thomas Hardy does not begin with weather in any of his major novels. For the most part neither does Charles Dickens, though there are a couple exceptions:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
 - Bleak House by Charles Dickens

In these opening lines the weather is used not merely to paint a landscape painting picture but to create a rather unusual image of a Megalosaurus.

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.
- Little Dorrit by by Charles Dickens

This opening line, however, is a fail, and from the major novels I checked the only Dickens novel that begins with weather. If a character was literally burning it would incite emotion. Dickens goes on with more weather in this opening before coming to a man in prison with a chill.

Here is another example:

Jeanne finished her packing and went over to the window, but the rain showed no sign of stopping.
- A Woman's Life by Maupassant

All in all, I was not able to find many examples of weather openings from a 100 years or more ago. Not that there aren't, I'm sure there are, just that it doesn't look like it was as common as it is today.

Then there are the writers who are stuck in a rut. I wonder if they are aware of it. Henning Mankell, in particular, is obsessed with the weather opening.

Frozen snow, severe frost.
- The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

I always feel more lonely when it's cold.
-  Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

One day in the cold month of July, 2002, a man by the name of Jose Paulo opened up a hole in a rotten floor.
- A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

And in particular fog.

In the beginning, everything was just fog.
 - Wallander's First Case by Henning Mankell

 - The Man who Smiled by Henning Mankell

It's so cliche, it's eye rolling. Though to be fair Henning Mankell employs other cliches to begin his stories, as well.

Oh, and I don't think it's necessary to open with weather, even as a joke, as in the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time by  Madeleine L'Engle: It was a dark and stormy night. Any writer caught doing that has only revealed that he or she is not well read. It's not clever.

It's been done before.

Trust me: It's been done before.

Theodore Moracht

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