Over the last few years, writers have been hearing a lot of fuss about certain types of openings in books, and one of the most hated openings for agents and publishers - and veteran writers - is the dreaded weather opening.
You’ve seen them. Those books that start with something like, “The sun rose high over the crystalline water…” Or “Thunder rumbled over the little hamlet…” But why are these sorts of starts considered no-no’s?
Starts like these are often used by beginning writers who see this as an easy way to bring the reader into the world of the story. But where novices seem to think they’re interesting, more often than not they’re boring and slow. These starts are rarely half as interesting as the writers would think.
But, we have all read more than a few openings based on weather in many a bestselling novel, and writers have found success with such beginnings. Is there a trick to constructing an effective opening to a novel based on the weather going on outside your house right now? What if you just have to start with this kind of opening? How do you get the attention of an agent or a publisher instead of landing in the slush pile?
Based on several novels I’ve read on writing by bestselling novelists, including The Breakout Novelist by literary agent Donald Maass, there are three tricks to creating an effective weather opening.
1) Make the weather active.
2) Incorporate tension into the prose
3) Tie the weather into the conflict of the plot if possible.
Now keep in mind I’m not an expert, and the examples are off the top of my head, so they won’t be stellar or publish-ready. But they should be good enough to illustrate my point. So let’s take a look at these aspects one at a time.
Make the weather active.
What do I mean by active? By this I mean, write the description of the weather so that it appears to be doing something. Active as appose to passive.
I’m told this is very hard to do, and I think for most, it is. But for me, this is the easiest of the three. Look at the example below to see what I mean.
I sat on my bed, watching the rain pour down from the sky, leaving watery trails on my windowpane. The sky looked down, a gun-metal gray that did nothing for my already sour mood. The memory hit me so suddenly I blinked in horror. I left it outside! My heart sank as I imagined the water washing away such an important piece of evidence, evidence of his crimes.
Now if you really pay attention to that paragraph, it isn’t entirely bad. In fact, after the first two lines, it could work for a compelling opening. It raises lots of questions and produces tension. What crimes? What evidence? What piece of critical evidence will the rain wash away? The wording suggests something ominous and perhaps even horrible happened before the character came across the page. Questions abound. Which is what you want in the opening of a novel. It’s the first two lines that are the problem. Why? Because nothing is happening. The words just lie on the page, evoking no emotion, no curiosity, no desire to read on. And we all know, first impressions are everything. You only have ten seconds to hook a reader. It’s within that first ten seconds of opening a novel that readers often decide whether to pick up a book by a new author or move onto something else. So how do we change the first two lines to make them stronger? First, make them more active. Use more compelling word choices. Let’s see that again.
The rain slashed at my windowpane, relentless as the thoughts that threatened to drown me in my own fear. Photos of him lay sprawled across my bed. I pushed them off and they scattered, as if whipped by the wind tearing through the maple trees outside. The sky glared, a cold, steely grey slab. The memory hit me so suddenly I blinked in horror. I left it outside! My heart sank as I imagined the water washing away such an important piece of evidence, evidence of his crimes.
See the difference? The weather in the second example not only does something, but it seems to take on a personality, and one that fits to set a tone for a story. Do you want to read more? Good. That’s the point.
But we’re not done yet. The start of the paragraph is better, but it could be better still. So let’s add the second layer, the tension. The changes to the start of the paragraph already created some tension, but it’s too low key. And it’s a bit derivative. We need more. Try this.
The rain slashed at my windowpane, relentless as my own whirling thoughts. The memories of what he’d done held my mind in a stranglehold of panic, icy as the coming winter. Photos of him lay sprawled across my bed. I pushed them off and they scattered, as if whipped by the wind tearing through the maple trees outside. The sky glared, a cold, steely grey slab. The memory hit me so suddenly I blinked in horror. I left it outside! My heart sank as I imagined the water washing away such an important piece of evidence, evidence of his crimes.
That’s better, isn’t it? See how the weather takes on a menacing tone that seems to match the unnamed character our heroine is worried about? The suggestion of an unpleasant character rests in the wording, and rather than merely laying on the page in static repose, the weather only serves to amplify the sense of alarm. But can we make it better still by adding the third layer?
This, tying weather description into the plot of your story, is perhaps the hardest part. For this to work, not only do you need the active tone and tension, but the weather has to somehow either produce or increase the conflict in the story. This, without feeling like it’s contrived. Let’s see what we can do to fill our paragraph with weather induced conflict.
The rain slashed at my windowpane, its deluge cutting off my only escape. Photos of him lay sprawled across my bed, the images holding my mind in a stranglehold of panic icy as the coming winter. I pushed them off the bed, and they scattered as if whipped by the wind tearing through the maple trees outside. By now the banks would be flooded. I wouldn’t get far. The sky glared, a cold, steely gray slab. Power lines stretched across the horizon, near the too small house, lightning strikes causing flashes of electricity to play across them in deadly arcs. If I fled, a single strike would stop my heart. The realization struck like a blow to the chest. I left it outside! My heart sank as I imagined the water washing away the only evidence of his crimes.
Whoa. Now it’s getting interesting. That paragraph breathes conflict. I’m not saying agents would jump at the chance to read a book that started with this, but I trust you see my point. In general, readers don’t care about weather. They want something to happen, something exciting, intriguing, interesting. And publishers and agents get so many manuscripts a day, so you need to really wow them to get them to read past the first line. The standard rule is that weather is none of those things. It doesn’t wow. But there are ways to use even weather as an effective hook. If you can make your weather riveting, do it. If not, best pass up the sunny opening in your head for something more gripping.