Saturday, March 13, 2010

Using weather as a storytelling tool

Today, I look outside, and it's grim and gray, rainy and cold.

But I don't mind. First of all, it isn't snowing, and in Michigan in March, that's something to celebrate. And secondly, just feeling that icy drizzle on my face made me start thinking how important a writing tool the weather can be in narrative storytelling.

It seems so simple, such a basic thing, right? Sun, rain, wind, snow. But weather is so evocative, so emotional. Weather makes our characters feel, makes them react. Sure, it can be overdone - we don't need the Channel 4 weather report in the middle of Chapter 3 (unless it's a book about hurricanes, of course), but a few sentences about a driving rain, a blinding snow or the insufferable heat can add an undeniable heft to what was once a bare-bones paragraph.

Not only can it provide a perfect sense of place for the reader,(think sultry mornings in the South) but it doesn't even necessarily have to be literal. It can offer plot foreshadowings - like danger on the horizon - or a quick insight into a character's mood. Woven skillfully into your storyline, it can add mystery, intrigue even tension. It can change the mood of the story as quickly as the weather changes here in Michigan.

For your reading pleasure, a few of my favorites:

"It was a dark and stormy night."

"The little log house was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked against the walls, and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura's head ... The days were clear and bright. Snow was piled all along the bare, dark branches and it sparkled in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the great eaves of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large at the top as Laura's arm. They were like glass and full of sharp lights."

Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder

"Too wet to go out
Too cold to play ball
So we sat in the house
We did nothing at all."

Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss

"The sky ahead of me, as I walked home that evening, was a thing of sublime and awesome beauty. The sun was still high - it was the middle of summer - and the weather had for weeks been alternating between hot, dense, muggy days and twilight cloudbursts. Mountainous thunderheads towered all around me, some miraculously white, where the sunlight struck them, some - the lower clouds - glowering, oppressive. The sky in the glodes between masses of cloud was irenic blue, and down through some of them came shafts of light that transmuted the ripening wheatfields, the pastures, the plane trees, hedges and haycocks to images from a dream. Here and there on the horizon, sheet lightning flickered."
The Warden, John Gardner (from "The Literary Ghost" anthology)

"It is absolutely freezing outside today, and I feel so lethargic. I walked around the driveway, took one look at my icy, miserable nonblooming garden, and got depressed. All the summer blooms are gone. Everything is losing its color and its leaves. Winter is almost here, and it's getting on my nerves. Work is slow, the garden looks like hell, and it's almost time for the holidays. Where can I run and hide?"
Annie's Garden Journal, Annie Spiegelman

"The windows and front doors were thrown open to a fickle breeze, the creaking ceiling fan circled at full throttle. Here and there, an occasional pew bulletin lifted on a draft of moving air and went sailing. Peering loftward through a glass pane in the sacristy door, he couldn't help but notice the soprano had returned to the fold and was cooling herself with a battery-operated fan. He also saw that every pew in St. John's was filled to bursting. Air conditioning! he thought, running his finger around his collar. Next year's budget, and no two ways about it."
A New Song, Jan Karon

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