As I’m writing this, the east coast has just been pummeled by Winter Storm Jonas. According to the Weather Channel, New York is officially now the fifth state to record 30 inches or more of snow from this storm. Mount Mitchell, in North Carolina, has a record 66 inches of snow. While I stare out at my rainy neighborhood, friends are posting photos of soft white snow lumps where their cars used to be.
Weather is one of those small-talk subjects we fall back on if our conversation with an acquaintance is stalling, since it is a shared experience. In writing, discussing weather—especially storms—has become a red flag for melodrama and banality. Just as in the conversation with an acquaintance, it is often a crutch. Consider the infamous phrase “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” This clause was first used by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford to create the sense that the weather itself was a character. That phrase is now seen as quintessential purple prose and has been mocked and parodied as such ever since. In fact, in 1892, Mark Twain commented about his novel The American Claimant, “No weather will be found in this book.”
Yes, weather as a setting, character, and plot point can be overdone in any genre (how many romantic comedies don’t have a critical kiss happen in a sudden thunderstorm? and how many pages does Charles Dickens spend describing fog in Bleak House?). However, when used well, weather can be a set of universal symbols that describe how humanity relates to world around us (and the lack of control we have over what happens to us). Consider, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s use of weather in Oryx and Crake as a sign of crisis, or the severe lack of precipitation in another postapocalyptic novel, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Weather helps define culture and season, and it gives an annual reminder of the cycle of life.
As with any writing rule, if someone tells you that using weather means your writing is drab, remember that knowing when to make exceptions to the rules is what helps you grow as a writer. Sometimes a dark and stormy night is the best time to write after all.