Writing Secrets: Keeping a weather eye on beginnings

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Elmore Leonard famously said: Never start with the weather.

“But does this mean I never, ever mention the weather at the beginning of my book?” one of our participants asked the other day. “What if my protagonist falls into a ditch because of the fog?”

Okay, so Leonard’s piece of advice should probably be regarded as a caution rather than a stricture. There are exceptions to everything.

I think he means that you should avoid the kind of clichéd scene-setter beloved of Snoopy, typing away on his dog kennel: It was a dark and stormy night.

Of course, Snoopy didn’t invent the phrase. First penned in 1830 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the phrase is often used to parody overly descriptive writing – something Leonard abhors. (Another of his oft-quoted tips for writers is not to write “the bits that readers skip”.)

Here is Bulwer-Lytton’s full original opening: “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.”

And if I were faced with that beginning now, I would be tempted to skip it (or possibly the whole book). So, if you find yourself moved to lead in with a long and elaborate scene-setter – whether it concerns the weather or not – lie down until the urge goes away, or perhaps get it out of your system, then come back the next day and delete it.

Start with your next paragraph, where things are happening and people are doing and saying things.

On the other hand, I was enchanted by the opening of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine, which doesn’t start where things are happening and people are doing things, but with a rather filmic wide shot of the scene where a story is about to launch. (And it could indeed be said that she starts with some weather.)

Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.

The garden is empty, the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs facing politely away from it … A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts…

She does, however, manage to set up a certain … not quite foreboding, but certainly an intense anticipation for what is about to happen to the characters we see in her scene-setter. (I haven’t included the whole passage here, but do read it for yourselves.) It is dynamic. And her writing is so beautiful that I was beguiled into reading further by that alone.

But as I used to say to my young journalism students, heed the advice and cautions about writing. Know the “rules” before you try to break them. But in the end, what matters most is whether it works.

This also requires that you be strict with yourself about whether it really does. If it doesn’t, develop the self-insight to recognise it (or accept it, when it’s pointed out by someone with more experience than yourself), and the humility to use your delete button to good effect.

And here, to train your eye to what does not work, is an excellent example.

In honour of the Bulwer-Lytton school of fiction, a prize was launched in the 1980s for the worst possible first sentence of a novel. The winning entry from 2015 reads:

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.

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Showing 3 comments
  • James Ward
    Reply

    Wow, I find this advice harder to follow than it might seem on the surface. I agree totally, the first Snoopy example in your blog is dreadful, but the second sentence example is highly engaging, and in truth, the third and last one is execrably bad.
    Despite this I am guilty of describing things/scenes at length and would be unsure how to rectify this. But I don’t feel alone in this habit. The first few pages of Far from the Madding Crowd are largely given to the description of Farmer Gabriel’s smile, then an incredibly detailed description of how the man looks – his belt, his clothing, his face and so on. OK Thomas Hardy died a long time ago but it hasn’t hurt the lasting success of that book. Then, in a totally different vein, East of Eden, Steinbeck, begins with a long and highly detailed of a valley, someone’s memory of it, the weather, the flowers, the plants, the soil, the rainfall patterns, native inhabitants in its history and so on. This opening is amazingly detailed and continues for several pages. Whilst I’m in no way whatsoever elevating myself to anything like the stature of either of these examples, I have to admit Mea Culpa. I have just completed a second novel, a sequel in which key characters from ‘The Homecoming’ (my first) have now grown a little older, and the heart of the book involves something that happens to their first child. The opening page describes a shoe, a little girls shoe lying in a forest, and talks about the forest floor, the colours, the shade and describes the shoe in detail. It has importance in the story as it unfolds, and comes back and features later on. If I deleted it I would dive straight in talking about the life that the couple are leading but without a scene setting. So no, I am not entirely at ease with that advice. I think sometimes it needs to be seen in the context of what is to come. I think if something of what you write is sensory in nature, you may need to create a sense of what is to come. Kind regards Jim

  • Jo-Anne Richards
    Reply

    Thank you, Jim. It is true that reader patience has thinned over the years, but as I said in the blog, there is no clear rule on this. If it works, it works.

    A child’s shoe, lying in a forest, is incongruous, and therefore likely to intrigue. Describing it and the forest in detail makes it significant: we know that something will happen, and that “something” will have to do with a child. In that way, it introduces a degree of foreboding. So, just from the way you describe it, I would judge your beginning not to be a straight-forward descriptive passage that we might be tempted to skip.

    As I said, you have to be the judge of your own beginning: will it draw people in? Will it intrigue them and tempt them to turn the page? If you can honestly say that you believe it will, then … it works.

  • James Ward
    Reply

    Thankyou Jo-Anne,
    That is a very helpful comment and I really appreciate it. Hopefully it will intrigue, and make one want to know why this descriptive beginning matters. It matters a great deal to the little girl, for various reasons, and I hope it will matter to the reader as they go further in. Thankyou so much for your personal response.
    Kind regards Jim

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