A Stellar Book Opening… It’s Not About The Weather

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“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.” —Elmore Leonard

If you search the internet for “why authors should never start a book with the weather,” you’ll get a slew of hits. It is a classic piece of advice.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” is an oft-maligned opening sentence that has gone down in history – and it was from an accomplished author (Washington Irving in A History of New York from 1809).

It’s not that the weather isn’t important, it’s just that book openings need a lead character doing something interesting to hook readers.

The only reason to open with the weather

Do book openings with atmospheric descriptions of rainy nights really rub readers the wrong way? Or is it just the pundits who call this out as unacceptable?

There is only one solid reason to start a book with the weather: if it’s a book about the weather.

If your lead characters are tornado hunters, it might behoove you put a deadly tornado in your opening scene.

A tornado, though, is not “weather” in the traditional sense. It’s a life-and-death extraordinary event that drives your plot.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest starts with the weather, but only in the sense that a storm, the tempest, is raging and the characters are thrust into a conversation about how to save themselves and their ship – an outstanding opening full of peril and consequence.

People love people

Humans love humans most of all as subjects of reading. We scan the page until the next human appears if there is too bulky a description of backstory.

We don’t see acres of screen time about Dorothy wondering if the weather is turning bad, we see the tornado hit and fly her away to Oz. We care about Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, more than the tornado.

A modern book opening usually puts your lead character front-and-center. You need to make us care about your lead character as quickly as possible and do so with a minimum of backstory in the early pages. “Dive in!” is the rule.

Openings need a fantastic hook

An opening needs to draw the reader in and it does this with a hook that keeps the reader wanting more.

Compare these two openings to see which one holds a hook and which doesn’t:

A. An opening description of the rain while a police detective ponders whether he should keep living in his small town.

B. An opening event in which our police detective is attacked by a one-handed man saying he’s an angel of death come to avenge his murdered family (the attack occurs during a rain storm for heightened impact and no one can hear them shouting above the high winds and thunder).

The first opening might make you settle down for a nap. The second should evoke a string of scary images, fear, and a curiosity about what happens next. It has a hook: will the “one-handed angel of death” be thwarted or succeed?

Best of all, this throws the reader into the thick of things, or medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” The plot is up and running.

Could weather ever provide a hook? Sure, if say your main character watches the weather channel 24/7 and notices that the TV and the outdoors don’t show the same reality, this discrepancy could be a great hook. Perhaps the weatherman is saying it’s 70 degrees and sunny and a swirl of black clouds is settling on the ground as a thick black fog. If it turns out the TV station has been hijacked by aliens invading Earth who are broadcasting false weather, this might be a great weather-based hook. But it’s still far from several paragraphs about the weather itself.

Your opening must hold secrets

If you read books or watch movies carefully, you’ll notice an advanced feature of great openings. Experienced writers link their openings to their closings in interesting and imaginative ways.

For a classic example, the opening and closing shot of Citizen Kane is a “No Trespassing” sign. By the end of the movie, viewers understand the meaning of the sign – the whole movie has been about why and how it got posted.

The first and last sentences of SE Hinton’s classic, The Outsiders, are identical.

Re-read a bunch of book openings or watch movie openings and see this trait of well-crafted scenes in action. Openings give subtle or blatant clues to the ending of the story. “Ah! So that’s what the flickering candle and the book falling from the shelf into shadow meant!”

You might be quite surprised if you haven’t noticed this feature already. You can only appreciate it once you know the ending – the opening only makes full sense once you see the whole picture. They are the bookends of the book, a matched pair. This speaks to how fully your story should be crafted: once done, the beginning and ending tell the same story.

What do you think?

Great openings should focus on the lead character experiencing a plot-establishing moment, with minimal backstory, and foreshadow the ending in clever and unexpected ways.

Book openings are anything but random – they are often like a microcosm of the whole book.

Your opening sentence might be the hardest sentence to write – it has so much work to do. It is also challenging because the reader has no internal references to lean upon – it’s all new material.

What makes a great book opening in your estimation? What are your favorite book openings? Have you read a book you liked that opened with the weather? What are your favorite ways in which authors linked story opening and closing?

 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I believe Ms. Field should have done a bit more research. Despite what Wikipedia says, Credit is usually given to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The full sentence is:

    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.

    The hook sentence is cited as bad, not so much because it refers to the weather, but that is purple.

  2. Love this article. It also looks at the possibilities where starting with the weather may be appropriate. I once read a book where there was a metaphorical account about a bog which grew and receded (weather and seasons came into play). It was full of sensory words and beautiful to read. Ho-hum. Yet at the time I wondered at starting the story in this way. The story was set in the vicinity of the bog, about the escapades (not to forget romances) of the people in the scatter of houses near this unhealthy environment. However, it was appropriate as it taught a reader about the living nature of bogs. The final horrifying climax wouldn’t have had the same impact without the book starting in the way it did. Unwritten law, “Never start about the weather.” Or at least, start with people for a reader to identify with. But if you want to break the ‘law’, make sure you have a very good reason, that becomes crystal-clear to a reader.

  3. General rules, like this one, are generally correct, but not always. Two absolutely classic books start with the weather. First, of course, is Madeleine L’Engle riffing (deliberately) off Edward Bulwer-Lytton in A Wrinkle In Time:

    It was a dark and stormy night.
    The house shook.
    Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

    Then there is the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House:

    London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holbern Hill. (and so on–going, in the next paragraph, to the beautiful and often-quoted description of fog)

    Of course, we meet young Meg almost immediately, and Dickens quite deliberately uses his weather (mud and fog) not only to set the time and place, but as a metaphor for the courts of chancery.

    So I guess you can start with the weather if you know what you’re doing with it!

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