The old cliche is that, when two people have nothing better to talk about or they’re too awkward to talk about something real, they talk about the weather. Why do so many manuscripts, then, start with… descriptions of the weather?
I should hope that, if you’ve decided to write an entire manuscript, you’ve got better things to talk about than the weather and you’re not feeling too awkward to say them.
Think about it. (Yes, I am reading contest submissions right now. Yes, every other entry for the last 50 or so has mentioned some kind of weather in the first paragraph. No, I am not automatically dismissing these entries, though the author is putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage. No, this isn’t unusual compared to the slush I usually get. No, you probably shouldn’t start a manuscript like this.)
55 Replies to “Just a Thought…”
It was a dark and stormy night…I now find myself wondering, have I ever started a manuscript with a weather description? What other beginnings, in your opinion, are the kiss of death?
The first draft of my ms started with a description of a beautiful summer evening. I think that happens because we’re trying to set the scene, the mood, etc. And it’s a pretty common technique in the classics, so if one’s read a lot of classics, it’s natural to begin that way; but as I’ve been told many times, modern readers want an immediate “hook.” Everybody’s seen lovely summer evenings before; they read a book to experience something new.
I try to avoid starting the story with a dream or waking up. I’ve tried that beginning time and time again, but I’ve always been happier if I went back and started out somewhere else.
I wish I remember where, but I found this article where agents named their biggest pet peeves with openings. The weather, dreams and just waking up came up several times!
To all who are asking about other beginning faux pas, I have a post for your from December:
I am so glad that I managed to not get under your skin by starting of with a weather technique! LOL. Hopefully, I didn’t get under your skin in another way, or else I should be hiding my head in shame…
I teach 4th grade writing and some of my favorite beginnings are “Once upon a time…” or “Hi. My name is…” or “Would you like me to tell you a story?”
I suppose it’s because the weather is very easy, and at least gets the words rolling and a sentence typed out.
I’m a graduate student of literature having a blast with the burgeoning popularity of the “ecocriticism” model, because early authors often used very vivid nature scenes in their novels. But it was *nature* and not the weather that they described. HUGE difference between the two, in my opinion.
I actually went back and double checked that my entry and the wip I’m working on didn’t start with weather… I didn’t do it in either, they both start with the main character in some sort of motion. But as I didn’t know weather was the kiss of death, it’s another thing to add to my list to avoid 🙂
Yes, but what if it’s a book about a family of tornadoes who decide to move from Kansas to Hawaii?
Believe it or not, there are still some writing books out there that suggest starting with the weather. I teach writing to primary grades, and I use the Lucy Caukins books (which I love). But there’s a whole lesson in there about using the weather to make a good beginning.
It’s okay in a primary writer, maybe…but I’d say use it as filler to get yourself started. Then come back and make it something people want to read!
Before you drop your weather opening, ask yourself why you began it that way. Is it critical to the story? For example, if your story is a Man vs. Nature tale, then maybe the weather isn’t inappropriate. If you were L. Frank Baum, would you drop the twister?
Most likely what is happening here is that the author is doing some throat-clearing, getting into her story by the means of setting the physical scene. It’s likely you can cut most of your opening, whether it’s about the weather or some other noodling like character descriptions. Richard Peck (iirc) says he always cuts the first chapter off his early drafts in revisions and begins his novels at chapter two.
When I read your posts, I feel like you’re always reprimanding my faux pas. This time, I think I’ve managed to avoid this transgression, but I’m sure I’ve committed others.
Susan Cooper makes the weather is her antagonist, but she still doesn’t begin there in, The Dark is Rising.
I think at least 90% of the stories I wrote as a kid and as a teenager started with weather. You’re right, it’s the easy way out. “It was a sunny summer day” meant that things were happy and ordinary before the conflict, and “There was a lightning storm outside” meant we were in for a dark story. Funny how that goes. I’ve since learned better opening techniques, thankfully.
I agree with your post. I will say it’s one thing everyone can relate to, so some might feel it’s a comfortable place to start. Not the best, to be sure, but relatable.
I just started a very well-reviewed adult book last night that began “It was going to be a beautiful day.” That was as far as I got. Back to the library it goes (if I had paid for it, I would have given it a little more time).
As an unpublished writer, I could never get away with beginning a book in such a banal way. I don’t know how published authors do…
Oh crap. I just checked. There IS a weather reference in my opening lines. Guess I’m one ‘a those…:)
I’m British, weather chat is part of my genetic make-up. My husband mocks me regularly for it. That, and my belief that a cup of tea can solve any problem.
So what does it mean when your own mother starts the conversation about the weather with you? Yikes!
I’m Canadian, so the weather is always in the forefront of every conversation.
Okay, I wasn’t going to comment, but after reading the last comment on here, I just had to say how funny I thought it was! Weather chat for the British as part of their genetic make-up and tea solving any problem! I love it! lol! Thanks for the laugh, Ms. Green!
I’m with Tamara. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. More so than the stereotypical ‘eh’. And yay! no mention of weather in my first paragraph. 🙂
This was just like grade school. Immediately after I read your post, I got my manuscript out to double-check. (Even though I knew without a doubt that it doesn’t start with descriptions of weather.) Phew! Thanks for getting some adrenaline pumping :).
After I submitted my MS to the contest, I read, First Page Beginnings. I realized…opps, I’ve added to much emotion and back story. Good thing I didn’t include the weather too 🙂 The very first ms I wrote literally started with a dark and stormy night…ahhhh, oh the things we learn along the way.
Okay, maybe-maybe not. Just a suggestion…
Perhaps you could post a few beginnings with some fauxs that turn you off, in general…
I know it wasn’t specifically stated in the contest posts that you’d do this, so you’d probably have to go back to the originator to see if it’d be okay. But I think this would be as helpful as posting the winners.
Possibly? Give it some thought?
PL Anderson, you’ve got me wondering whether the Brits invented the phrase ‘storm in a tea cup.’ It combines two of our favorite things!
Hmm, I think this may also be because the first thing most people do when getting up in the morning is check the weather–at least I do, always. So it may be natural to start with the weather. But as Donald Maass says (I’m paraphrasing) weather is just…weather, unless it adds to the conflict of the scene, if the character is dying in the desert for example and there’s a rainstorm on the horizon.
Maybe they’re reading that book on writing by that famous guy who always says “Put weather in!”
Wish I could remember who that guy was…
Thank you for that link to your December post. I’d missed that one. It has some great suggestions.
How do you keep your eyeballs from falling out? Is finding a the good stuff is like looking for a needle (or a diamond?) in a haystack?
I solemnly swear never to overwrite description again. What a hard habit to break.
It reminds me of once when my boyfriend tried to start a conversation about what we’d eaten that day (long distance relationship). I put my foot down and said no way was I resorting to listing my meals to fill time.
@jmartinlibrary — I often joke that my eyes are either falling out or bleeding, almost every single day. It makes for a great visual for the lucky few who I talk to on a daily basis! 😛
As Mary’s eyes popped from their sockets. She screamed with blood pulsating onto manuscripts written about weather, “WHY, do I have to read this stuff.”
OK, I know this is probably a gross visual for most, but I couldn’t help my self 🙂
Naomi — You forgot the part about the storm that was raging outside my window and rattling the glass… 😛
Mary – LOL! And that is why you are my dream agent 🙂
Once heard a lecture about wind as a metaphor – wind blowing signals change, you know something is about to happen.
I’m from Oklahoma – it’s when the wind isn’t blowing that you know something is wrong.
I remember sunsets being a favorite over at Nathan Bransford’s 1st paragraph contest a while ago…until then, I had never really thought about it! (and didn’t start mine that way, thank goodness)
I smiled when I read your comment. I’m in Oklahoma too. It’s true, the wind does come sweeping down the plain…and so does ice, sleet, snow,rain, tornadoes and then sweltering heat. Ah, the weather.
Hey Tamara, my mom does the same thing. When my husband is out-of-town she asks me if I asked him about the weather???
It mus have something to do with feeling a need to establish the setting. Maybe there are some screenwriters among us…
Good thing all my MS start with characters inside 😉
There once was an agent named Mary,
whose slush had some weather so scary.
Its purple prose was so lush,
it turned her eyeballs to mush,
and she couldn’t even read the next query.
Jenny, I clicked on your link (I’m compiling author blog links for my website) and that Eye of the Agent song is hilarious!!! I have posted the link on the blue boards, I just thought it was so, so good.
Franziska: Thanks! It was a lot of fun to make. 😉
Someone mentioned L. Frank Baum – but The Wizard of Oz doesn’t start with the tornado – it starts with how gray Kansas is (the book’s not in the computer room, so I can’t quote directly). The tornado comes after the beginning!
Dickens would begin some of his many stories with a “weather report” (Little Dorrit) others of them not. Hard to judge then, from his works, which is the better literary way to go when beginning a story but then again, who could be compared to Charles?
I only know that with PB’s weather is never interesting. What gets me, more so then a description of the sky or the sea’s, is finding out a story is all just a dream. It deflates me and takes all the magic out everything.
PB’s are suppose to be fun, different then an average day in a childs life. To tie a story all up together by saying it was just a dream deflates the adventure.
Hmmm . . . I love it when movie directors start movies with a sweeping panoramic: the Austrian countryside, New York at night, a dark suburban neighborhood, etc. Often the panoramic is heavily focused on the weather. Other directors sort of force you to stalk and hunt down a story before it can become the focus of the movie. Gus Van Sant did this well in the movie Elephant.
Why doesn’t this technique work in books?
To decide what to put into a beginning you must ask yourself, ‘Is it relevant to the story?’ If the answer is, ‘No’, get rid of it. If the answer is, ‘Yes’ then we proceed to ‘Is it something the reader has to know at this point in the story?’ It may be better coming in later.
We have a saying down in Aus, “Murder your darlings” which means that in the re-writing process, no matter how lovingly created and crafted something is, if it’s not relevant to the story, Delete! (Of course, we can always create a special folder and call it: ‘Murdered Darlings that May Come Back to Life’). Nothing goes to waste! 🙂
Some of the best info I’ve read on successful/unsuccessful openings and first pages are these posts at Anne Mini’s Author Author blog. (Anne is a writer and an editor.)
The second link below is packed with info, but the first link has a long list of openings/first pages that were frowned upon when critiqued by an Idol-style agent panel.
(As always, love your blog, Mary : )
I have a hunch this is seasonally linked. I’ll bet most people in the northern hemisphere don’t even think about the weather in the spring or autumn.
I think this is seasonally linked. I’ll bet most people in the northern hemisphere don’t even think about the weather in the spring or autumn.
This is the third time today I’ve gotten caught on the duplicate comment thing. I’m beginning to get a little paranoid.
Mary — A lot of bloggers moderate comments, especially from posters who have never commented on the blog before. Your comments were logged, they just went into my moderation queue.
People don’t only talk about the weather because they are bored. Many of the greatest stories ever told from Noah’s Ark and the Mesopotamian flood story center around the weather. Humans relate to the weather because it is one of our common experiences; that’s why people like to talk about it.
Kids love to talk about the weather. I’m a middle school teacher and when I read a description of the weather, the kids are like, “whoa, I’ve been in wind like that before, or a snowstorm” and they are all clamoring to share their thoughts. I just read them the description of Jonas feeling snow for the first time in Lois Lowry’s classic, The Giver. The description of the weather should serve a purpose, such as to heighten tension or draw the reader into the story in a sensory way.
In Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt describes the weather as a use of foreshadowing; she describes the air of a summer day in August before the storm. This serves to describe the setting in a sensory way and hint at the plot; all is still for now, but something exciting is about to happen!
Leighann — The tone of my blog is often a little jokey and often hyperbolic. The point is, if every other submission starts with the weather, maybe it’s time to differentiate yourself.
Weather as foreshadowing and theme is, as you say, old as the Bible. The freshest, most contemporary writers, though, choose literary devices and tropes that I’ve never read before. They go beyond the weather to new and exciting tools for foreshadowing and mood-setting.
The reason so many authors start chapters describing the weather is because it seems every other fantasy book on the market has a chapter opening where they describe the weather or the lush landscape… I agree, this is boring. So why do so many published authors get away with this device (read laziness)? Why don’t their editors slap them around a bit?
I was asked to change my opening chapter a few times. This last time, by a college professor in which she said, “Your protagonist is about to set off on a mission. Will the elements add to the melodrama? Or will he ride off on a nice sunny day?” Then she said something interesting, “Set me up.” And so I added the elements. Then she said, “This puts me in my place.”
However the point you make of weather is interesting and will consider it in my second novel. Always eyes and ears open -Ronnie