Writing Right with Dmitri: Weather Reporting
You knew we'd get around to this. It's this month's Create theme, after all: weather. What do we do about it? Is it at all useful?
The first thing about writing weather that pops unbidden into our minds, and makes us shudder, is the infamous sentence:
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.. – Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford, 1830.
And you know you've always been told, 'Don't write like that.' But stop and think: what's wrong with it? Not much, really. If the rainstorm sets the scene, why not use it? Actually, I kind of like those lamps, with their scanty flames struggling against the darkness.
How else can you use the weather? You can use it to set not only a scene, but an entire genre:
It was raining in the city by the bay. A hard rain. Hard enough to wash the slime out of the streets and back into the holes they crawled out of.. – Dean Welsey Smith, A Hard Rain, 2002.
As savvy readers will have guessed, this is a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel. And as those same readers will have guessed, the story involves Captain Picard on the holodeck, in his favourite fantasy life as a hard-boiled detective on 20th-century Earth. Get out your gats, and prepare for the crew of the Enterprise to chuckle at the quaintness of it all.
Mark Twain, of course, made fun of weather descriptions, as he did of just about everything else:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God. – Mark Twain, 'A Double Barrelled Detective Story'.
Twain almost got away with that one. Unfortunately for him, doctors read it, and wanted to know what that oesophagus was doing flying around. As this was before Bryan Fuller was born, nobody thought of the obligatory Hannibal reference. I mean, if anybody could make an oesophagus fly, it would probably be Dr Lecter.
How do you use weather in your writing? If it's non-fiction, do you note the time of day, the conditions? Are they relevant, or do they add colour to the narrative? What about fiction? If your heroes are standing at the graveside of a loved one, is it raining – reflecting their sorrow – or is the sun shining, mocking their somber moods? What about the wedding? Is it gloriously sunny, or gloomy? Does a sudden cloudburst create hilarity in the groom and panic on the part of the bride in her once-in-a-lifetime gown? You decide.
Here are some good weather settings:
- The tornado in The Wizard of Oz. (Novel or movie, take your pick.)
- The cold winter weather that begins Jane Eyre. (Catch that reference to 'leafless shrubbery' in the first paragraph. Cool.)
- The contrast between the beautiful scenery (and nice weather) in Transylvania and the spookiness of Jonathan Harker's first encounter with the Count in Dracula
- We could go on…
What are your favourite uses of weather in literature? What's your way of deciding how to use the weather to support a narrative? Share your gems with us, if you would be so kind.
For extra credit: write a sentence or two, or a story treatment, outlining a way to use weather in a story. Heck, write the story if you're so inclined. The weather could be real, whimsical, Fortean, or downright imaginary.
After all, is not this one of the greatest speeches in all of literature?
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. – Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner.