Wednesday, September 5

A Writing Taboo: Never Begin Your Story With Weather

A Writing Taboo: Never Begin Your Story With Weather

I was surprised the first time I heard someone say, "And, whatever else you do, never, ever, begin your story with weather!"

Roz Morris disagrees and here's why:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…
That's an excerpt from Liz Jensen's book, "The Rapture," and I thought it worked beautifully! Read Roz's article to find out why some weather scenes work and some don't: Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined.Thanks to the Passive Voice Blog for the link.

Roz linked to an old article (July 2009) by Joe Konrath where he lists some things writers shouldn't do. He'd just finished judging a writing contest and was in recovery. Here's his list:
DO NOT START A STORY WITH WEATHER
Yes, you can work weather into the scene. But I don't care that it was sixty-five degrees on a spring morning, and if you make that your first sentence you're going to remain unpublished.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
Your protag may be named Bob McTestes, and he was born in Sunnydale, Ohio in 1967, but you need to work that into the body of the story and not make it the first sentence. Better yet, don't work it in anywhere.

DO NOT START A STORY BY ADDRESSING THE READER
"You'll never believe what happened on July 2, 1943." You're right. I won't believe it, because I just stopped reading.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH PREMONITION
"Phil Assmaster didn't know he was going to die that day." But Joe Konrath knows you're not going to win this contest.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH THE PROTAG WAKING UP
Frankly, it shocked me how many stories began like this. More so than any other way I'm warning against. Opening your eyes because you had a bad dream or heard a strange noise is a quick way to put the reader to sleep.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH CLICHES
Once upon a time. A long time ago. This is a true story. Ugh. Next time, save me the trouble and put the story in your own recycle bin.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH SETTING DESCRIPTION
"Moronville, Ohio was a town of 8371 people originally founded in 1872 by Quakers." Hopefully, one of those Quakers has a gun and will shoot me.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH TELLING
"Josh felt terrible." Really? How am I supposed to picture that? Maybe I picture Josh's stomach aching, his head throbbing, and the hole where his heart is supposed to be. If I'm picturing that, perhaps you should have as well and written it that way.

DO NOT START A STORY WITH ANY DESCRIPTION
I don't care if you're describing a person, place, thing, era, or whatever. I want to read about conflict, not helper words.

DO NOT USE HELPER WORDS
Force yourself to pare away every adverb, and half your adjectives. Also kill any speaker attribution other than "said" and "asked."

DO NOT START A STORY WITH A PROLOGUE
Your short story doesn't need a prologue. Your novel probably doesn't either.

DO NOT USE EXCLAMATION POINTS!
Especially a bunch of them!!!!!!!

DO NOT USE THE SAME FARUQING WORD TWICE IN THE SAME FARUQING PARAGRAPH
Get the faruquing point?

GRAMMER AND SPELING SHOULD BE PREFECT
If you don't care, why should I? Ditto annoying dialect spelling. Y'all get a-ight wit dat sheet, 'kay?

And finally:

DO NOT MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER AN ANIMAL
Ever.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course. There are always exceptions. But I didn't see any in the 2000+ stories I had to endure.
You can read the rest of Joe Konrath's article here: How Not To Write A Story.

Those are good rules of thumb to keep in mind, as long as you feel free to break them if you have a reason.

Good writing!

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- Ursula K. Le Guin On Academic Criticism & Philip K. Dick
- 19 Ways To Grow Your Twitter Following

Photo credit: Anonymous

10 comments:

  1. Excellent tips, and basically everything I've learned over the past year and a half at an online writing community. I broke two of those rules when I started my first draft. Needless to say, I've reworked the beginning several times. I'll probably tweak it right up until I publish. :)

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    1. Thanks Christina! I think we all break rules in the beginning.

      I think, ultimately, all these rules are a way of saying something else: write clear, simple prose that pushes forward the story line.

      Thanks for your comment. :)

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  2. I think the rule maker in this matter is petulant and petty. Indeed, the problem is with the reader--not the writer...If all writers followed such litanies of arbitrary rules, we would become clones devoid of personality. The purpose of writing is to express one's self--not impress peevish souls, such as critics.
    By the way, I do not start my stories in the ways mentioned. But I resent someone demanding that I refrain from doing so, using adverbs, or daring to limit m to said and asked. Said says next to nothing, is a lazy us of words, and becomes irksomely redundant if used more than twice in a row, during a dialogue.

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    1. Well, in Joe's defense, he was a bit burnt out from judging.

      I think, too, it depends on who one writes for. Sometimes I write for myself and then I feel free to write however I like--it's glorious! But when I write a story I intend to publish then my goal is to entertain the reader, so concerns like clarity, staying on topic, setting a good pace, and so on, come to the fore.

      Thanks for your comment. :)

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  3. My point is that one can acheive clarity, entertain the reader, stay on a good pace, hold true to course, so on and so forth without being a slave of the arbitrary nonsense of the literary universe's self-appointed ayatollahs and popes. I have been writing more or less sriously for over forty years. Nobody who has bothered to read my stories and/or books has ever complained about getting confused, bogged down, or freaked out about my styles of writing. The english language is wonderfully rich. There is no sin in using any and all parts of it, as long as doing so is appropriate for the situation. Beyond that, being concise is not always best. Sure, I endeavor to remain concise most of the time. But the type of writing that I indulge in on the prose side of the matter sometimes requires me to expound on this or that. At times, such as during romantic scenes, I use what I suppose one could call a lyrical approach, which sometimes waxes away from conciseness and toward more or less highly descriptive and emotional phrasing....
    Basically, the use of such components of writing as adverbs and adjectives are matters of opinion. I see nothing wrong with using them as long as the writer refrains from overusing them. As I implied, I am no fan of the Hemmingway style of writing. When I read other people's work, I like a little fat, spice, and juice. But I absolutely hate it when a dialogue becomes a he said, she said, this guy said, that lady said ordeal. I do not care what anyone claims. Said is among the weakest, most useless of words....

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    1. When I read an article and I read something that resonates with me I try to remember it and use it in my writing. If I read something that I disagree with then I shrug and think: Well, that wasn't meant for me.

      Different strokes for different folks. Wouldn't it be boring if we were all the same? ;)

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  4. Thank you so much for this article. I am a new writer and I broke one of the rules by my character waking up so I will change that on my WIP.

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    1. Hi Brina, I'm glad you liked the article!

      Please, though, only change the scene if you think the changes will make it stronger. As Roz said, just because a scene opens with the weather doesn't mean it's a bad scene.

      For example, lately I've been blogging about setting. One of a writer's goals is to make the setting of a story as indispensable to that story as the protagonist. (For instance, think of Frankenstein's monster being reanimated on a sunny day.)

      Also, setting can be used to foreshadow. It can also be used to introduce an early obstacle the protagonist must push through. For example, how better to show a character's fear of lightning than to force her to run through a lightening storm.

      Delete
    2. I did not change the integrity of the scene. I made the character interrupted while reading for a class not waking up by an intruder. I know it is a slight change and I used only his first name not first and last. Thank you. I love your site.

      Delete
    3. "I did not change the integrity of the scene."

      Glad to hear it!

      By the way, sounds like a great scene.

      Thanks for your kind words! :)

      Delete

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