Can you begin a story with weather? When the exception proves the rule

Advice to writers often warns against clichéd openings like a ‘weather forecast,’ and with long strings of adjectives, because it’s turgid and boring (Joe Konrath has a funny list here, which includes the prohibition against weather).  Consider the following:

It was a blazing, steamy, sweltering hot July day.  The humidity was one hundred percent and the barometer was melting. The sun was beating down like a big, hot, yellow, angry, avenging god on the pedestrians making their way up Park Street. You could fry eggs on the sidewalk it was so hot. Dogs panted in their sleep as far as the eye could see. Old people were fanning themselves, sadly ignorant of the laws of thermodynamics.

Exciting isn’t it! That more or less illustrates the problem with weather and adjectives that the writing advice is supposed to convey. We don’t know anything yet but we’re tired of hearing about how hot it was, and so, tired of the story.

As soon as you state a rule, of course, someone will inevitably object by pointing to some alleged exception or other. Most people are impressed by this and they promptly disregard the rule.  But the exceptions to the rules of style are almost always what are called exceptions that prove the rule.

I’ve been asked several times in the past how an exception proves a rule, because we normally think the opposite is true.  “All swans are white” is false because the exception, black swans, disproves the rule.  But the expression, “the exception that proves the rule,” is an old and idiomatic one that’s easily misunderstood (there’s a so-so explanation here, which is still worth reading). In the briefest terms, the expression (generally) means that what appears to be an exception is really not upon closer inspection, because higher order rules come into play.

It’s easier to understand the relevant parts through an example.  Consider an alleged breach of both the rule against opening stories with a weather forecast and a string of adjectives.  Ray Bradbury begins his short story, The Long Rain, with a ninety-seven word description of weather:

The rain continued. It was hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains.  It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain and it never stopped.

Almost one hundred words describing rain.  That would seem to make mincemeat out of both the anti-weather and anti-adjectives rules.  But if you look closer at the plot you’ll find that it’s a man versus the elements story.  In The Long Rain, three astronaut-soldiers crash-land in uncharted jungle terrain on Venus and try to find their way to shelter.  They’re slowly beaten down by the unending rain.  So the second most important element in the plot (after the characters) is the weather.

What’s going on here then? The short answer is that a higher-order principle—in this case, framing the narrative—overrules the injunction against the lower-order rule of thumb about avoiding descriptions of weather.  In fact, this kind of story needs precisely this kind of introduction, which is what makes it an exception that proves the rule.

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3 thoughts on “Can you begin a story with weather? When the exception proves the rule

  1. I’ve heard the ‘don’t begin with the weather’ rule before – along with the ‘don’t begin with your character waking up’ one. All writers (including myself) are guilty of such openings at some stage in their writing career. From age four, stories will begin with ‘it was a long hot summer’s day/dark and stormy night etc…’ As to breaking the rules, my feeling is that rules can be broken, so long as your intention is to break that rule, to snub it for a purpose.

    Great post!

    1. Hi Sue, and thanks.

      I don’t think it’s so much intending to break the rules that makes the difference between good and bad writing, as much as it is the demands of the plot. Consider it this way. Bradbury’s weather-intro works because in a man vs. the elements story the reaction that the protagonist has to the element is the key to the plot. In the case of The Long Rain, it’s the psychological torment caused by the rain and the characters’ attempts to escape that torment that drives the plot. So the extended characterization of the rain in the intro conveys that torment to us—it’s ultimately just setting the scene. If the men were being stalked by a tiger, say, an extended description of the animal would also work in the intro. So the rule of properly setting the scene overrules the lesser ‘don’t use weather’ rule.

      To put it another way, the bits of advice regarding what should be avoided are really rules of thumb. The prohibition against weather is really just saying, ‘don’t use a weather report to begin your story because it’s a cliché.’ The rules don’t say, ‘it is impossible to start a good story with weather.’ In some cases, weather is exactly the right thing to start the story with. (I forgot to mention it, but Jack London uses a similar weather report in his famous short, To Build a Fire, which is also a man vs. elements story.)

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