Monday 23 January 2017

Weather or not - a quick guide to writing the weather in children's books

by Addy Farmer

When I mentioned that I was thinking about the weather and how it fitted into writing, that YA genius, Teri Terry uttered the immortal line:

'It was a dark and stormy night ...' which is the first line of a forgettable story by Victorian novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (I had to google him).

Well, someone had to say it and actually it has become a rather well known first line. So well known in fact, that primary school children recognise it and Janet Alhberg used it as the title of her pirate kidnapping picture book.

Maybe this one sentence is the reason, Elmore Leonard declared:

Never open a book with the weather.

Ok, so he also went on to say,
“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 starts skipping ahead looking for people”
Thanks, Elmore but actually we're children's writers and we NEVER go on too long.

And thanks to the excellent, Candy Gourlay, I came across what the excellent Scott Westerfield writes as an excellent rebuttal to this dictum. Here's a taster:
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. —Uglies Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.
Scott Westerfield
Basically, this cat-vomit sky is in Tally’s head; the sky is actually lovely, but her depression turns it ugly. In a few weathery sentences Westerfield subtly evokes character and setting and tone. Beautiful.

I promise this is the last name-drop, but no less an author than Hemingway did urge:
Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.
You'd be relieved to know, Mr Hemingway that I agree with you  - I think the weather is very important to get into your god-damned book.

So what is the role of the weather in children's stories?

Sometimes the weather is the story.

Children can be scared of storms with their loud noises and flashes of light - a primeval fear in us all maybe? 
Dealing with the aftermath of a storm is a situation common to many
I'm often accused of having my head in the clouds

Weather as mood music ... 

Hagrid looks out of the hut window, contemplates the sky over Hogwarts and murmurs, 'There's a storm coming, Harry and we'd best be ready when she does.'

'There's a storm coming, Harry. And we'd best be ready when she does.'
Is there an actual storm coming, Harry? Probably best to put your hoods up and run back to the castle! Or is our lovely half-giant being all metaphorical and warning of trouble ahead. Well, of course it's the latter and just about every young reader will understand what J K Rowling intended when she wrote those lines. A storm is a common metaphor for turbulent times; it brings with it, the threat of danger, the need to take cover and the feeling that this is Not Normal. I love a good storm.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurrincanoes, spout!' King Lear
I remember studying King Lear in sixth form.  His descent into madness was accompanied by the fearful stormy weather. King Lear's tumbling feelings of anger, despair and confusion were reflected in the weather and this was my introduction to the literary device of pathetic fallacy. It acted as a short cut to show how Lear felt and added visual depth to the feeling. Then came one of the best lines ever, a full-throated bonkers cry, 'HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! HOWL!'

You just can't imagine King Lear uttering this against a backdrop of sunny meadows.

In Holes, by Louis Sachar; unlike the cold, stormy weather of King Lear's moor with its abundance of noise and flash, the weather is hot and sunny and dry. Camp Green Lake is cursed with a never-ending drought. But with Stanley's arrival, it becomes an oven where sound is muted and movement is slowed. You know that soon the heat will become unbearable and then something BIG will happen. “There was a change in the weather. For the worse”. It’s not until the tension is broken that the rain comes.

At the end of the book, the rain signifies the end of the curse. It is a cleansing agent, washing away the sins of the past and preparing the way for renewal - yeah, my interpretation is a bit flowery but this is A GREAT BOOK

The cold weather of winter and the warm weather of spring signify different feelings in Oscar Wilde's, The Selfish Giant'

Oscar Wilde's beloved tale tells the story of the selfish giant who built a wall around his beautiful garden to keep children out. It was always Winter in the garden, for no other season would venture there. Then one morning, a special child brought Spring back, and the giant's heart melted along with the snow.

This is a story where the weather is a big player. The cold is symbolic of the barren, cold, spirit-less heart of the giant; it is made concrete for the child reader with the depiction of a Winter garden. Similarly the rebirth, the acceptance of giving-love and ultimately Christ, into the giant's heart, is revealed through a Spring garden. Simple and effective and affecting.

Random weather check 

I looked at a random selection of books to see what role the weather played. Interesting ...

In ghosty history mystery, The Crowfield Demon by Pat Walsh, the weather is on the front cover! It starts in Chapter 1,  paragraph 2,

"The March morning was cold and a biting wind whipped the grey clouds across the sky."

In the dystopian Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Chapter 3, page 5:

" another country where the buildings don't stop rising until they pin the clouds to the sky. Where the sun shines in Technicolour. Life at the end of the rainbow."

So far so weathery ...

A slice of history but not as we know it. Here lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Page 4:

"Wrong as snow in summer or the sun at midnight. War's a thing for autumn, when the harvest's in and the rains not yet come to turn the roads to mud."

So, it turns out that the weather is useful, it can act in many ways:
  • it can be the story
  • be a plot device to move the story along
  • help set the scene
  • be symbolic of a theme
  • be a reflection of mood
  • be a reflection of plot
  • add depth and texture to a scene
  • without it, you're either indoors or in space
But before you go, dear reader, let me indulge you and me with the Moomins. And yes, I know, Snufkin is talking about the seasons but it's close enough for me. The weather has its place and you just know when it is right to use it:
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.”


  1. This is wonderful, Addy, such fabulous examples! I want to race off and read one if those books! But I will return to my manuscript instead and work on the weather. HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! (Sorry, that was not the weather. Just me getting out of bed and going to my desk)

  2. It's made me realise I don't have enough in my book. Most of it is inside but the few scenes outside could definitely do with a little drizzle or two. I hadn't realised the first quote was longer. Just shows you - be careful of following advice too rigidly. Thanks. Very helpful.

    1. Thanks, Em. Don't be too downcast. Right, will stop there and wish you clear writing skies ...

  3. What a lovely article, Addy! I've always loved weather in books -it's often a signpost to the feeling of the book. Lovely examples too.

    1. thanks, Jeannie! I have actually written a book called 'Clouds' all about clouds and feelings. I'd forgotten that 'til now!

  4. A great post with lots of wonderful illustrative examples. Who says the weather is boring?!

    1. Not me! It's an endless source of conversation as well - what's not to like? Thanks for reading, Helen.

  5. but ... but ... it WAS a dark and stormy night!!

  6. wow - that is such a co-incidence

  7. Bulwer-Lytton was a poet "The Lays Of Ancient Rome" - and is best known for "The Last Days Of Pompeii", which was made into a film in the 1940s and a TV mini-series in the 90s(I think), with some big name stars. So, not that obscure, you just hadn't heard of him. ;-) And that opening line, of course, is a running gag in Peanuts as the opening line of any novel Snoopy ever writes and annual Bulwer-Lytton competition for the worst opening line of a novel.

    Try the opening line of Meme McDonald's Love Like Water. "Cathy knew heat. Where she came from it stood back and laughed at you, then put ahand down your throat drying you out from inside..." Or some such.

  8. Thanks, Sue! I recall now about the Peanuts thing! Delicious quote - I must add Love Like Water to my tottering reading tower.

  9. I do use weather to create atmosphere/mood/foreboding at times. Or in Book of Lies, a storm on the moors that prevents characters going for help and cuts them off. But it is also really interesting to use weather the other way around - eg. contrast a lovely spring day with horrifying deeds; a wild storm with a moment of joy.
    So :pppppppp to Leonard..!!

    1. Yeah, Leonard! I also like that confounding expectation thing. How about with a ghost story set in the summer? One of the scariest short stories I ever read was exactly that ...


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