Sunday, April 22, 2012

So Much Depends on the Weather

"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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

"It was raining iced pitchforks."

"To the Red county and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."

"It was a dark and stormy night" is an oft-quoted trope; Snoopy uses it when he fancies being an author. I used it when I wrote my very first novel in fifth grade, The Chent Mansion Murders ( it was only four chapters long), and I'm not sure where I'd heard of it to begin with. From Snoopy, I guess. I'd never seen the rest of that sentence until I'd used The Google to see what it was actually from, which is a novel called Paul Clifford, published in 1830 by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, neither of which I'd heard of, other than in the context of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is an annual contest in which people are invited to write "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." I'm sorry to say that we missed this year's deadline; it was April 15. I also don't know what it says about me that I just spent ten or so minutes reading last year's winners. If one can properly be said to "win" such a thing.

The second sentence is in the video game Max Payne, delivered in the noir toned, gravel bottomed voice of our narrator.

The third is the opening sentence to The Grapes of Wrath.

 I've heard it said that when writing fiction, one should avoid writing about the weather. I'm sure this is one of those rules that one might break; after all, characters in a story are not operating in a formless void, typically. Weather, if you aren't being too heavy handed or purple about it, can be a deft way of setting a tone and transporting the reader into the headspace you require them in order to receive the story you're dishing out.

Kind of funny that all three quotes I picked involved rain, but pretty much everybody knows how they feel when it rains. If it's windy and rainy, you have a way of feeling. If it's sleeting, that's a whole 'nother misery. If it's a gentle rain, well that's something too. It smells different outside, when it's raining. It taps at your windows, when it's raining. You might get a headache, when it's raining.

Now look at the first line from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." We've all lived through days like that in April; the clocks striking thirteen, though? That pulls you in. Does it mean that something is off in the order of things? Well, if you've read Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's pretty off. If you haven't read Nineteen Eighty-Four, why are you even on the Internet, unless you're going to go get a copy of it right now. Seriously. Get it and read it. You can't talk about dystopia without it (is it ironic that Google's spell check doesn't recognize "dystopia"? Maybe.)

In The Stranger by Albert Camus, our narrator ultimately shot a man because of the sun. That's simplifying things, but also not. You should probably read that book, too. Its first line doesn't have to do with the weather: "Maman died today."
Purple prose, though, that can a bad scene. You know what I mean; it's really unavoidable, if you're in the habit of reading. You've read it in this entry already, in fact: that opening line of Paul Clifford might be considered purple prose. It's overdone, and unnaturally flowery, and has made "it was a dark and stormy night" the very definition of a cliché. 

Ultimately, blue skies or not, blighted lands or fertile, setting matters, and so does the weather in it. The weather needn't be a character unto itself, and probably ought not be, but I don't think it's instantly bad writing in order to include it.

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