Wednesday, 13 January 2010

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

It beats me how I could have done a whole and very long post on how to start your novel and how not to start your novel, without mentioning that all time classic way not to start your novel: with the weather. Especially when the weather is supposed to denote mood, as it so often is in books.

"It was a dark and stormy night" is the infamous opening clause of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, Paul Clifford, which is the epitome of the clichéd weathery opening of a novel, and has even spawned the annual bad-writing contest, The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize. However, poor old EBL's writing wasn't actually picked on because he opened with the weather, but because his language tended towards the florid, portentous and melodramatic, with unoriginal effect.

Now, however, opening with the weather has become a cliché and therefore to be treated cautiously unless you can do it in an original or effective way. Maybe leave it for paragraph two.

Another reason you should be careful of using weather to define mood, is that it is rather too obvious to have the sun shine when a character is happy and to bring on the rain at funerals. Of course, it adds atmosphere and of course we do it sometimes - often, in fact - I'm just saying: think before you play God with the weather. Do it cleverly and subtly.

And certainly think carefully before you open your story with something as boring as the weather. Even though we're British, we'd still rather focus on something else. Especially now. [And, to answer a question from a non-British blog-reader the other day: yes, we do have snow in the UK, every year, just not everywhere, not so much, not so deep, not so long, and not so bloody cold. We even have a great skiing season every year up here in Scotland - thing is, normally it's confined to the mountainy bits, not my local high street.]

If it helps you remember to avoid using the weather to denote opening mood, perhaps I should point out that it would also be that old friend of literature students, a pathetic fallacy. And you wouldn't want to be accused of that, would you? It sounds most demeaning.

After all, imagine telling someone you didn't like his pathetic fallacy...

[Thanks for all your excellent comments after the last post on how/where to start your novel, by the way. I'm glad the main messages you took were: 1) do what is right for your story and 2) quit worrying, get writing. I'm sorry I haven't replied to them all: I am overwhelmed at the moment with deadlines and I am sometimes so tired that I can't find my way to the chocolate cupboard. Yes, that tired. I know I also haven't got round to all c180 blogs whose owners visited my blog party on Sunday - I've done about 150, probably explaining my severe eye-strain just now. Twas fun though - lots of clever bloggers out there.]

Next post: historical fiction. Probably on Friday.

29 comments:

Catherine Hughes said...

It makes me smile that this is also the opening line of 'A Wrinkle in Time' - the most wonderful book of the whole of my childhood.

But I take your point - weather = bad! In more ways than one - the snow here is unbelievable!

Marisa Birns said...

Yes, pathetic fallacy is hard to pull off unless one is a Romantic poet or Shakespeare, though some 20th century writers managed to do it well. I remember reading about calling it "pathetic bestowal” instead. Less harsh.

I have also read many US editors who also advise not to start a book with main character waking up. Apparently, that's a cliche too.

Good luck with your deadlines. Please, have your husband hand you the chocolates from the cupboard. It's a matter of emergency!

Jo said...

I can recommend the chocolate IV my sister bought me for xmas. You just hook it into a vein and go.

Old Kitty said...

... or a character not only waking up but waking up to find that the first chapter was all a dream...

:-)

x

Suzie F. said...

Marisa, you beat me to mentioning the dreaded 'waking up' cliche. Guess how I began my first attempt at a novel? With my MC's alarm clock ringing. Then her mind wandered back to a past memory for a couple of paragraphs. What a snoozefest!

The great thing about your blog and others who offer great advice is that I've learned so much about craft during the past year. Each attempt becomes a little tighter, a little better. I have a long way to go but I'm enjoying the ride!

Dave said...

I forget which (Witch?), but two of Terry Pratchett's books start with:

The wind howled.

Dave
Dave Wrote This

catdownunder said...

Oh heck Nicola - when you do eventually see the non-magnum opus from me you will (gulp) won't read past the first sentence! Waah!

Christine Coleman said...

This is really a comment on the previous post about Openings,(teriffic!) but I'm pretty hopeless at getting my own comments to stay where they're meant to be. They have a habit of get lost at the touch of a wrong key, and when I’ve composed an erudite and thoughtful response to a post I’ve enjoyed, just before my eyelids are threatening shut-down, only to have it all wiped out before those very (sleepy) eyes, I tend to give up.

What I’d wanted to say last night (on the wrong side of midnight) was about an analogy between writing and weaving – i.e. at the start, part of the warp (the lengthwise stretch of threads on the loom) dangles over the edge of the frame, then, when the piece of cloth has been woven, those threads are trimmed to the required length. I came across this in connection with writing poetry, where it’s suggested that you’re writing yourself in to the poem with lines which must later be discarded.
I find it helpful to think of that image when I’m starting any new piece of writing – it gives me ‘permission’ not to try too hard. I guess you’ll have something to say about what trying too hard can do!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thing is about others having done it and got away with it - it's the same with all cliches: once, they were original!

Oh, dreams - so useful and so forbidden

And alarm clocks...

Re Terry Pratchett - ah yes, and how well he masters the ironically gothic...

Cat - actually, and iconoclastically, I rather like weather openings, but I'd have to smile as well!

Christine - I'm a big fan of trying very very hard, actually!!

sheilamcperry said...

I recommend Pocket Coffee for moments when you're so tired you can't even go to bed because of the effort involved.
We usually get ours from an Italian who works in our department. There doesn't seem to be any way to buy it in the UK so I will be glad if someone knows of a source!

Leila said...

I think the thing about opening with the weather is it has to be relevant to the story. If you say 'It was a dark and stormy night' and follow it up with a paragraph about the main character driving home and a tree being blown onto their car, leaving them stranded in the dark and with no choice but to walk towards the spooky lights in the wood, that's one thing. But if you say 'It was a dark and stormy night' and then don't give the dark and stormy night anything to DO, that's another.

Sarah said...

Dave, it was Wyrd Sisters and Maskerade.

And since I'm still being geeky, here's Bulwer-Lytton's entire first sentence. It makes me laugh every time. I can just imagine it being read for a book on tape, and the poor narrator drawing a huge breath somewhere around 'streets':

"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."

As far as weather goes, I've always liked it when it was the opposite of the mood: a gloriously sunny day for a funeral, that sort of thing. Sometimes the difference between our internal state and the world around us can be just as dramatic as the most violent weather.

hampshireflyer said...

Stephen Baxter's big old flood novel starts with a kidnapping, and if that sort of plot doesn't get to start with the weather, probably no other sort does either.

I realise this is inviting x number of posts about kidnap novels that started with a flood, though....

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Metaphor weather! Yick! Even Leon Russell knew better:

"For all the sunny skies, it's raining in my heart..."

D.J. Morel said...

At an SCBWI conference I attended, they have this great panel where you can submit your first page to be read aloud and critiqued by editors/agents. Yikes! One of my stories then began with the character waking up. I thought it worked, since this character isn’t human and the scene conveyed his tail, claws, snout as he stretched awake.

It fell totally flat. While the editor got that I was “showing rather than telling,” his cliché bell was ringing too loud for him to care. I’ve since changed it to the character in mortal fear of being eaten. All the same parts, no cliché (at least yet) and hopefully a tad more tension.

And I'm very happy to have got that feedback. If one editor sees a cliché, surely others would too.

Dave said...

Thanks Sarah, I knew they were books about the witches.

Dave
Dave Wrote This

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't use the weather much - it always seems like a cliche no matter how it's written :) I just drop mentions of it here and there!

Arabella said...

I'm shuddering. I started with the weather once, and it wasn't any good. And I've done the waking up cliche. Oh, it's too embarrassing. Why am I admitting it?

SF said...

Yes, I started a short story once with 'It was a bright, sunny day', and the point was that the characters where actually struggling in the middle of a drought, and I was trying to subvert the positive idea of a sunny day.

Unfortunately everyone who read it screamed 'cliche!' before they even got past the first sentence to discover that it was all about subversion of cliches and attachment of positive values to sunniness, etc etc.

So it didn't work, but I'm still sure there's a way to begin with the weather and make it mean something!

Looking forward to post on historical fiction..

Nicola Morgan said...

Arabella - ah, but you've learnt: that's the main thing!

SF - yes, isn't it annoying when people don't get our irony? I think this goes to a point I made in the main post about story starts: that the reader knows nothing of our intentions or anything at all, so we have to establish the tone before we can get away with irony. I DO agree that we CAN use the weather and make it mean something - I certainly would not want to imply I was saying avoid it totally. In fact, I do say we can do it if we can do it originally and effectively. I really wanted to make sure that everyone knew that there were "issues" with using it, but you already knew that so it wasn't necessary for me to tell you.

Sally Zigmond said...

I always cringe when a novel or story starts with the mc waking up and starting the day. (Especially when it takes a whole chapter to get one toe out from under the duvet.

Guess what? My soon to be published 'Hope against Hope' begins with the mc waking up and starting her day...

The thing is, that was about the zillionth opening I wrote and none of the others seemed to work. As in many a novel, the day starts like any other day but it's a day when everything changes.

But it's still a cliche and I'm still cringing.

Sally Zigmond said...

PS. Snoopy began all his novels up there on top of the doghouse with his typewriter: 'It was a dark and stormy night.'

(One of my favourite books on writing is: 'Snoopy's Guide to the Creative Life.' It's almost as funny as this blog.)

Vanessa Gebbie said...

What if an aspect of the weather is an underpinning metaphor - so the weather (or that aspect thereof) takes on the role of character? Does the reader not need to be seduced into that scenario as early as poss?

Flowerpot said...

Good to meet you Nicola - this blog was recommended by another writer friend, and an interesting post to start me off. I always think pathetic fallacy sounds somewhat phallic...

Nicola Morgan said...

Vanessa - as with all "rules", once you know and understand them, you can break them to good effect. You know and understand them!

Kate said...

I agree - I think it has been a great opening at times but it just feels overdone. By the way hope you had a great Christmas and new Year.

Kate xx

David Griffin said...

I started a chapter in my first novel talking about the weather but that was chapter 7...phew! I guess that's OK!

Talking about clichés: I think I've gleaned that you're not a great fan of novel writing software, Nicola (although I could be wrong of course!) – StoryMill for instance, which I use – but there is one good aspect of it which I'm sure you would consider good for writers: a menu item to highlight clichés.

"Oh, dreams - so useful and so forbidden" I know exactly what you mean, although I must mention that my WIP (The Turquoise Traveller) is one long dream...but there is a twist...known to the reader early on...I can't say anymore than that! (Whether I convince the reader of it or not is to be seen. For certain, it definitely doesn't end with "It was all a dream"!)


:-)

Harry Markov said...

I think I have an instinct causing my bowels to churn, when I start with the weather, although I think that I will have to start with the weather for one particular project, which basically has a character, who is from a breed of people that are in tune with the sky and the weather.

Linda McInnis said...

One of my favorite board books for babies starts, It was a dark and stormy night on Plum Street... It's called Kiss Good Night by Amy Hest. Worth checking out!