Reader Friday: Dark And Stormy?

Photo purchased from Shutterstock

As Hurricane Lane bears down on the enchanted islands of Hawaii, we’re reminded of the age-old advice against opening a story with a description of the weather.

Have you ever made an exception to that “rule” in your own writing? Was it effective?

19 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Dark And Stormy?

  1. I can’t recall describing the weather to open any of my books (doesn’t mean I didn’t), but I do use the weather as part of setting the scene. So, I guess my answers (as it so often is) would be “sortakinda’

    Opening paragraph from my Identity Crisis:
    Brett Cashman poked at his radio earwig for the third time in under a minute, as if that would trigger the Go signal. Waiting sucked. Especially when the ground was slimy half-frozen mud, and the icy March wind slithered its way down his neck. He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering, focusing his binocs on the ramshackle structure he and his team had been sent to breach. Intel said the hostage was inside. Command also said further confirmation was pending. So far, he’d seen nothing. Heard nothing, other than the wind creaking the branches of the pine trees surrounding the rundown wooden cabin.

    And from my upcoming release, Deadly Assumptions:
    The door to Finnegan’s opened, swirling a gust of freezing Colorado air inside. Gordon Hepler could have chosen a table in the dining room where he’d be out of the wind, but too many people eating Mick Finnegan’s wings, drinking his beer, chatting and laughing amongst themselves were in there.

  2. I think weather can add so much to the opening of a thriller. Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House was fantastic. I wrote about weather in the openings of three of my novels because I wanted to add to the challenges my heroines faced. Here is the opening of A Dark Love:

    Caroline Hughes left her husband on a scorching Monday in September. It was just after nine o’clock in the morning, but already the cobblestone streets of Georgetown shimmered under a heat so intense it made breathing difficult and thinking almost impossible.

  3. Once in a very great while, when the weather is important. In this case, the snow and cold become almost their own antagonist.

    The snow fell in a solid curtain outside the cave mouth, piling in soft drifts across the rocks. It blocked the light from the flickering campfire far back inside, where a lone hunter had set up a small camp. He sat on his sleeping bag, cross-legged, his yellow eyes glowing in the dimness.

  4. It was a dark and stormy night.
    The best I can tell is that this ‘rule’ was made popular by Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing and the above opening. Like all writing rules it is a good suggestion. Both The Grapes of Wrath and Heart of Darkness mention weather in their respective openings. In both cases, weather is important to the story.
    This is another example of what I call a writing group rule. It has become a throw away comment. Put weather in your opening and I can guarantee someone in your writing group will point it out as a flaw. Maybe it is, maybe not.
    I have an unfinished story that begins like this: Stephanie Wilson gripped the helm of The Lucky Life as the outer winds and pelting rain of a hurricane seemed to tear the whole world apart. She was alone. Fear gripped every cell of her body.
    I liked it. Haven’t found a good ending to that story, yet.

  5. The other day I had a read of the “look inside” section of many indie books on the ‘Zon. Really surprised at the number of stories that opened with the weather. I bought a book a while back (no names) where every chapter opened with the weather as did many paragraphs.
    It has got to the state that if I see a book that opens with the weather I believe the writer doesn’t have much of a story to tell & avoid it.
    Stick to Elmore Leonard’s rule #1.

  6. Greetings from Killer Nashville Conference in Franklin, TN. Any other KZBers here?

    I notice that all the examples offered here do not spend a lot of time on the weather and they almost immediately tie it in with the disturbance or disturbing situation.

    I’m guessing there are two components in the “empirical” basis for the “rule.” First, spending a lot of time on the weather slows down the opening. Cut to the chase. Second, I suspect opening with a weather description became over-used and hackneyed. It’s hard to say much that’s original about the weather unless we know who it’s creating a crisis for and why.

  7. If you’re a long-time reader of TKZ, you know my opinion of rules for writing: There are none. If you can pull it off and it works, it works. Here are the first lines from NO MERCY, the first book in the Jonathan Grave series:

    The fullness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness. Crickets and tree frogs, nocturnal noisemakers by the thousands, gave him some cover, but not enough.

    From there, he launches a mission to rescue a kidnapped college student.

    Starting with the weather here is okay because it works at propelling the story. And because it works here, there can be no “rule” against starting with the weather. Rules by definition have no exceptions.

    I advise all writers to relax and get out of their heads. Write the story in a way that is most compelling. The only rule is to milk every dram of drama out of every scene. Every writer develops his own techniques for this, and in the process discovers tricks and literary sleight-of-hand that works so well that they become personal imperatives–I certainly do. But because they work for me, they will not necessarily work for anyone else.

  8. I dealt with this years ago, in a post about baloney writing advice to ignore.

    The key is to have the weather interact with a character (see Gilstrap, above) and help set the mood.

    OTOH, if a young writer starts out thinking there’s nothing to be learned about the craft, no techniques that work time after time because they’ve always worked, that you don’t have to learn the scales before you play jazz, that writer is likely to waste a lot of years lost in a Rubik’s Cube of frustration, not understanding why the h-e-double hockey sticks he isn’t getting someplace.

  9. My first novel opened with the weather, albeit briefly, and it went on to sell over 5000 copies, which is my best-selling book to date.


  10. This is the opening, which somehow didn’t make it onto my original comment.

    Night in Little Havana. Hot, and sticky. The kind of night that keeps people awake and makes them do crazy things, and it egged me on toward what I had to do.

  11. It obviously worked for L’Engle, author of the award-winning novel, A Wrinkle In Time, which begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I agree with Jim Bell and John Gilstrap–when you understand the reason behind a “rule,” break it if what you write works better.

    • The good ones won’t, but there does seem to be a meme out there on this. Why tempt fate? Start with a character in the first line, or dialogue, and get a contract, then change your opening as you wish!

  12. I’m still working on my first book and I know I’m a newbie, but there is one piece of advice I can’t seem to embrace for THIS book. Don’t start your book with dialogue.

    It was even mentioned here as a first-page critique and I got a lot of wonderful advice not only from the post but from the comments as well.

    I totally understand the advice and don’t really want to challenge the wisdom of seasoned authors, but I believe that first line sets the tone for the theme of the entire book. It’s a horror/mystery, but the story is really about this kid who just flunked out of college and is now back in his small hometown trying to live up to the name of his deceased hero father (something that could not be gleaned from the 500 words I submitted). He will constantly run into people who bring up his dad in conversation. In fact, that opening line “Did I tell you I knew your father?” will also be the last line in the book, but he will have made peace with it at that point.

    So, I REALLY REALLY feels like it needs to open with that line, but I keep second-guessing myself due to conventional wisdom. I

Comments are closed.