It was a dark and stormy podcast. Suddenly, a host called out “what does weather mean in fiction?” So we decided to do that for a topic. That’s right, 30 minutes talking about the weather. Flee while you can! Or stay and discover what weather means, what emotion it can symbolize, and how it’s used in the plot. Plus, the history of storytelling’s most clichéd opening line.
Download Episode 252 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Marianne Scott. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me today is . . .
Wes: And if you’ll indulge me, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”[laugher and suspenseful “oooooh”ing]
Wes: Yeah, it’s super cliched. We’ve all heard it before, but then, if that’s the opening of this story, then you want to know, Well, why? Why would a writer want to have the wind howling and the rain coming down in buckets? Or, why would the writer want some manor house or cottage to be approached by a traveler that has been lashed and battered by wind and rain?
If there’s weather, there’s probably a reason for it. And that’s really what we’re talking about today, that it’s never just wind and rain. It’s almost always something else. Because I think honestly, we’re not even consciously thinking about it. We’re doing it because we associate so many types of conflict with atmosphere. And atmosphere is often dictated by weather in a lot of contexts, whether real weather or metaphorical weather. And we can talk about Stranger Things Three shortly.[laughter] [Wes continues] Anything else you guys? Before we jump into it?
Oren: I want to point out that it’s funny to me that the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night”, is considered a cliche, and it was apparently considered that from the mid- to early 1800s, when it’s the last time that was ever used? Because I’ve been trying to think. I have never read a story that started with, “It was a dark and stormy night”. Like ever. Certainly not a published one. And I was like, If this is the cliche, it has to have come from somewhere.
Wes: Yeah, it was some Victorian writer. He wrote a novel that started that way. The name and his name escapes me. But I think the novel flopped so hard, but a ton of people read it, and the opening line was so memorable that they were like, Oh yeah, did you read that “dark and stormy night” book?[laughter]
Oren: So, according to Wikipedia, the first known use of the phrase is by Washington Irving in 1809 with the book A History of New York, which is actually a novel. And supposedly its origins as a bad catch phrase or a bad opener start with the novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bueller Litton. And I want to read this. I want to read this quote because it sounds amazing.
“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 street (for it is in London that our scene lies) rattling along the house steps and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamp that struggled against the darkness.”
Wes: Oh my gosh. Okay, let’s just read the rest.[laughter]
Oren: Clearly we have to bring it back.[laughter]
Wes: I am here for that. Wow.[laughter]
Chris: Too far, writer. Too far.
Wes: Thank you, Oren, thank you for giving us that treat. Oh, I love it.
Oren: I just find that concept kind of funny. It’s like, Where did this come from?
Chris: It is the symbolic cliche of all cliches.
Wes: Yeah, “symbolic” is a good segue. Any weather is around for probably symbolic reasons, atmosphere, or it’s used as a plot device. Those are the three main things that I could possibly think of. If it’s raining outside and people are outside, then the weather forces people together. And also weather can drive problems like droughts, that’s the result of bad weather. Or your climate crisis and all of these things that are real.
And then, as far as atmosphere is concerned, sticking with rain, it can be mysterious. It can also kind of be isolating because it affects vision. Kind of in a similar way, fog. But then I mentioned symbolic. Rain, I think, can be used in stories to imply a cleansing effect. But then, depending on the story, it can also be rain makes mud. Rain can dirty things too, right? So the important thing is that it’s an element and a good tool that writers can use to great effect when done well.
Chris: Yeah, I think we have to caution about when weather becomes too much and when it starts to feel overdone and cliche.
Chris: I think the trick is that if you have a weather that has obvious symbolism, like rain and sadness, for instance. If you already have a sad scene, adding rain to make it sadder is probably too much, like a funeral scene where it’s raining. To me, that sounds like it might come off as dangerously over the top. Whereas if you have a scene that isn’t obviously sad and you still want rain to represent sadness, but it’s adding a sad element that wouldn’t otherwise be there, then I think you can get away with a lot more of that very traditional common symbolism. If that makes sense.
Wes: I think you can include it if you don’t draw much attention to it, like it was raining at the funeral and then that’s the only time you mention it. The reader will move right by that and that’s okay. It’s like you said, Chris. If you’re drawing too much attention to it, it’s like, Why? What purpose?
Oren: This is the evidence that you probably shouldn’t ever listen to me because I was about to say the exact opposite. I was about to say that I would worry that a scene where you try to use weather to symbolize sadness, or what have you, and nothing sad is happening may feel silly. So my advice was going to be to make sad things happen when it’s raining so that then there will be like a real reason to be sad-[laughter] [Oren continues] -but obviously, apparently not a good idea.
Wes: To Chris’s real point, it’s that we’re constantly battling expectations with weather because we live it, you know? It’s hard to not think when it’s raining that I’m sad. I like rain, but there’s no question that when it rains, my mood shifts. It’s a little bit more somber. It just is for me. And I think a lot of people share that expectation so it shows up in stories in those moments, maybe unconsciously to some degree.
Chris: I also just want to point out that there’s a difference between, “In this scene, it’s really important for me to get across sadness to the audience, so I have to make sure that they don’t miss it”, and, “I’m going to subtly change the feeling of the scene, but it’s a little bit okay if it’s overlooked”.
So for instance, adding rain to a scene makes it a little bit more somber. But if the scene is otherwise sad and you really need to get across sadness, I wouldn’t rely on rain by itself to do that.
Wes: That’s a really good tip.
Chris: But do I think how darkness is associated with death. If we use the same symbols over and over again in a really obvious fashion, it starts to feel overly convenient and starts to feel very contrived. If it’s sunny every time the character is happy and then every time the character sad it starts raining, we start to get that feeling that the character has subconscious weather magic happening, which is what we’re trying to avoid. I think that, in turn, using things in moderation, or looking to even subvert things a little bit, where you can show contrast-for instance, in Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, there’s a scene where Doctor Horrible is singing about his plan to murder Captain Hammer. And he makes a point in the song of, Hey, the sun is shining and the birds are singing and they all know you’re going to die.[laughter] [Chris continues] It’s actually kind of funny because that scene was actually filmed when it was getting dark (chuckle) It’s not actually as bright as it’s supposed to be, and they wanted to keep filming. But the point is that you can use it in interesting ways. With contrast, I would just be cautious about hammering the same note home too strong and ending with something that feels like a dark and stormy night.
Oren: Or you could just go full Discworld and acknowledge that the weather responds to drama.[laughter] [Oren continues] Just in your setting and there! There. Everything solved now. Now you can do whatever you want, right? [laughter]
Chris: Basically, I think it takes some level of moderation or subversion or commentary. I would like to see, there’s a big storm and a stranger rolls up but it’s a bright and cheery and happy stranger. And we’ve got a nice contrast between this dark storm and this happy stranger and it makes you wonder if this happy stranger is perhaps a suspicious person (chuckle) rolling in a storm like that.
Oren: I’ll admit I have, I’m a sucker for spooky fog around trees.
Wes: It’s the best thing ever.[laughter]
Chris: Yeah, I’m going to have to agree with that.
Oren: If a story, especially a visual medium, has spooky fog around trees I’m immediately like, Oh boy, something’s going to happen. I am on the edge of my seat waiting for whatever the spooky thing is.
Chris: Note to self, write spooky fog around trees.
Wes: I love that you feel that way because, out here in Seattle, when the fog rolls in and it’s in the mountains and you see (Mount) Rainier with the low fog, I feel pulled to like jump into adventure. So hard. (chuckle) If there’s any fog in any mountain forest area, we might as well be Lords of the Rings or something. (chuckle) Because it feels like there’s treasure or something.
Oren: Yeah, it’s like there’s some weird secrets waiting to be discovered. And sometimes I get frustrated because if a story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, it just has fog and trees sometimes.[laughter] [Oren continues] There’s not a spooky thing in them. And I’m like, No, I want-Give me the spooky thing!
Wes: I like that you brought that up because fog does just convey an element of mystery and confusion because it obfuscates. You just can’t see it, so it’s like, What’s there? Something bad? Or something really good? (chuckles)
Chris: Yeah. And it’s frequently used as a plot device for characters. “Oh, we can’t see more than 10 feet around the ship because there’s this fog”.
Oren: Or if you’re a terrible sci-fi show, dark matter.[laughter]
Wes: Yes! dark matter is weather! (chuckle)
Oren: It’s a cloud of dark matter because it’s dark so you can’t see through it. It’s dark, you see.[laughter]
Chris: We’re making fun of Another Life, again, if you have not been listening to a lot of recent podcasts. (chuckle)
Oren: Although that does segue into a real topic, which is space weather.
Chris: Space weather.
Oren: I find space weather to be very interesting because there are some phenomenon in space that you could consider to be space weather, like stars put out what we call a solar wind which is basically the light that they put off. Which has the effect, it is actually possible to move things using it. That’s what the solar sail is for. That’s a real invention.
And then solar storms cause more intense activity, which can be dangerous for electronics and what have you, but it’s interesting in sci-fi shows. Star Trek is probably the most obvious one that they really want to treat space like it has ocean weather.
Oren: If we’re running into a space storm, could we go around it or just away from it? Cause we can move at faster than the speed of light and nothing in the universe can move faster than the speed of light, so we should be able to outrun it. Even if it’s moving really fast? No. No, can’t. Those work on ocean weather rules. Get in the space storm.
Chris: The other thing that Star Trek does, especially, is every time they want some weird weather, there’s a nebula. They go into the nebula and weird things happen in the nebula. It’s like the fog of space.[laughter]
Oren: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. Or sometimes they call it-they stick adjectives on top of names. Like the “ion storm”. What is that? I don’t know. The storm ions. Does what storm does. Blows your ship around.[laughter]
Wes: Which is a good point that-whatever type of storm it is in a story-it’s going to cause chaos and disruption and take away the things that you have that make things manageable, by far and large. That’s the point of a storm, to try to deprive you of something for the sake of conflict, like the power’s out or the ship’s sensors are down or the transporter’s not working. All of these things.
Chris: It’s true. A storm has a very menacing field that hints at tension. I think it’s similar to the fog. When we have weather elements that are frequently used to cause problems or create tension then, whenever we see them, it raises our expectations about there being conflict in the story. And then if the fog is not making people lose their way or is not hiding something menacing, or the storm doesn’t cause problems, it’s disappointing. Because we thought that meant that there was going to be problems coming and that was creating tension that has just gone unfulfilled.
Oren: One use of weather in a story that I really liked was in the novel Spinning Silver, which uses snowfall to both create actual plot problems and then just thematically. Because, at least if you live in the United States and can afford to heat your house, generally snow is just nice. It’s cool, it’s nice snow, it’s pretty. You can make snowmen out of it-
Chris: Alright, I will say, this is clearly spoken from somebody who isn’t the person who has to go and shovel the snow whenever it falls.
Oren: I’ve shuffled a snow.
Chris: Shuffled a snow?[laughter]
Wes: Snow is countable! We can count snow![laughter]
Chris (mirthful): For anyone who doesn’t know, Oren grew up in Hawaii.
Oren: Okay, fine.[laughter subsides] [Oren continues] But in that novel, Spinning Silver, it’s in a much earlier time period and everyone is dependent on crop yields for food-both to eat and also that’s what the economy runs on. So we have these late snowfalls because of plot reasons and these pose serious danger to the agriculture of this area and can be devastating. So it’s this neat contrast of, This is so beautiful. Look how nice the snow is! and then just, We’re all going to starve to death. And I thought that was neat.
Wes: It’s a good thing. I mean, all weather really has multiple facets for how you use it. But, snow definitely has that. It’s either, It’s clean, it’s warm in the way snow falls like a blanket, It can be like inviting or playful, but then also like, It can be stark, severe, even suffocating if you get avalanched or just filthy after a little while.
Chris: If you don’t mind me veering away from symbolism and getting a little bit into word craft-
Chris: -I think that when it comes to creating immersive description, weather has a very special place. Because when you go outside, it’s all around you and it can be very tactile and often it feels like there’s not always a lot of opportunity to branch your imagery out from just visuals and sometimes sounds into other things. But when you have weather, your character is immersed in the rain or is feeling the wind or the cold or the hot, which enables you to sort of create, make the environment feel more real. One of the things that you have to do with your description is keep it so that your character doesn’t feel like they’re just floating in white space, where we know what they’re doing but we have no sense of their environment. It doesn’t feel real anymore.
And when your character walks outside, I think there’s a certain expectation, where we will know what that outside is and it makes it feel like they’re outside if we describe the weather. But also, there’s just a lot of opportunities to immerse the character in their setting because of how weather is all around you. So I’ve seen a lot of description of, “Oh, it’s sticky and hot and now I’m sweating” (chuckle) which I think is refreshing sometimes because of letting our characters sweat, like real people. (chuckle)
Oren: Oh man, I get so bothered by descriptions of heat in fiction because I’m very sensitive to heat in real life and so if the book is described as being like hot and humid and sweaty, I’m like, Ugh.
Wes: I’m with you. I want to always have everybody just be cold and temperate.
Oren: If it gets over 70 degrees, I get very uncomfortable. So let’s tone it down there, authors. Please be respectful of me.[laughter]
Chris: My only issue is for characters that are actually underwater and have to hold their breath. I’m always terrified-and I always feel like I have to hold my breath as long as the character (chuckle) just to prove the character can survive (chuckle) being underwater.
I personally would like to see more description of things moving and floating in the wind. I think it’s easy to think of weather as very static and of things outside as more uniform than they really are, when there’s usually a lot of movement in contrast in small ways. So for instance, there’s a lot of things that just fly on the wind, like cottonwood seeds, that are in the air, and you don’t really see a lot of that in description. You can have petals in the air. That one definitely has a very strong mood, if petals are floating on the wind. There’s leaves in the fall. But there can be all sorts of things. There can be pollen seeds-
Oren (sarcastically): Yeah, I was going to say pollen. Everyone’s favorite. Everyone loves pollen.[laughter] [Oren continues] In spring, it just feels like a nice pollen blanket going outside. (conspiratorially)I don’t have allergies and I’m a huge jerk about it.
Wes: Lucky you.[laughter] [Wes continues] I want a story where there’s really heavy snowfall, like several feet. And then it starts to melt with a gradual warming and then the character notices in the backyard that something is appearing in the melting snow that definitely wasn’t there before.
Chris: Whoa. I like it.
Wes: I would go for that.
Oren: Plus also, if it’s snowing, then you can have the Weeping Snowmen, who are like the Weeping Angels, but snowmen.
Wes: They just give you cold hugs. And then you forget everything.[laughter]
Oren: I swear I’ve seen that before. The snowman who moved closer to you when you’re not looking at them?
Chris: There’s got to be some horror movie about snowmen somewhere. It’s got to be somewhere. Where snowmen move when you’re not looking at them.
Oren: But there’s another thing that I like to use, while we’re talking about snow, that I like to use the cold for. There is a palpable feeling of relief when you go out of the cold and into someplace warm, and you can use that. It’s really strong and you can use that in your scenes really help bring out the emotions that you want. Directly, where your character has reached a place of safety and just the fact that it’s warm makes that feel more real, or you can subvert it if you want and have it be they get into this place where it’s warm and this is where they’re supposed to be safe-but there’s like a Thing waiting for them or something.
Wes: I really like that. I really like that. Weather, environment-almost acts like a good scene transition. You’re safe and warm, and then you step out into the biting cold. And suddenly it’s like you get an opportunity to then situate the readers in that experience like Chris was talking about and then carry the story forward from there. And each scene change the weather and things present you with another opportunity to add those really sensory elements to your descriptions.
Chris: Yeah, it’s worth talking about that the indoors doesn’t have weather per se, but it also can have changing environment depending on what it is. If something’s baking, that definitely changes the environment inside the building. And we can also have a hot day and we go down to the cellar and the cellar is nice and cool, but kind of moist, and smells of mildew.
Chris: Moist. (chuckles) Apparently everyone’s least favorite word.[laughter] Everybody’s least favorite word is ‘moist’. Science has told us. Or surveys have told us. People don’t like the word moist.
Wes: Question for you guys: What was the weather like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when Frankenstein awakens his creature?
Oren: I’ve never actually read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Wes: I feel like you might have an idea though.
Chris: In the movie, it’s a storm. There’s lightning and then that’s how Frankenstein is awakened. I don’t remember if the book does the same thing or not.
Wes: I pulled just two quick lines. It’s chapter five for anybody who’s playing along at home. And chapter five opens with, “It was on a dreary night in November that had beheld the accomplishment of my toils”. And then I was like, Okay, where’s the weather? And so I command “F”ed to try to find some-[chuckle]
-and there’s the one line here that says, “I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on although drenched by the rain, which poured from a black and comfortless sky”.
Chris: So it is a downpour.
Wes: Yeah. But then, I was like, Okay, is there thunder? Is there lightning? No, it’s not there. It’s not written. But it’s interesting, the imagination of it and there’s the movies to contend with as well, but the only real mention of weather was like right at the start, “dreary night”. November is definitely a keyword there and then that mention of “drenched by rain poured from black and comfortless sky”. It’s pretty brief, but it really gives the whole scene with the thing coming to life and then Frankenstein deciding that he doesn’t want anything to do with it and running away.
Chris: It is interesting to me how iconic the idea of using lightning to awaken Frankenstein’s monster is. I have this visual of it in my head, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the movies that have been about Frankenstein’s monster since then have used lightning. And I think it probably comes from that original movie.
Wes: I think so. But then, the original movie chose that. And so, lightning is weather. What about lightning makes it, associates it with creating life, right?
Chris and Oren: Mmm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: That’s interesting. Instead of just like frying the monster, there’s this idea that lightning is life and that has power, and so we need the lightning’s force.
Oren: I think I can actually explain this. Mild history lesson. Because in the original book she does bring him to life-by “she” I mean Mary Shelley-but Dr. Frankenstein does bring his creation to life using electricity. This happens because of Mary Shelley having seen a bunch of fairly macabre experiments in which doctors could stimulate dead muscles by shocking them with small amounts of electricity. And this was a very popular thing to do at that time because we were just figuring out the connection between electricity and muscle movement.
So that’s why we have, The monster is brought to life by electricity. And then, in the movies, they were like, You know, this will just be more dramatic if we had to harness a lightning bolt instead of hooking him up to a generator. That’s what’s really going on there.
Wes: And then we have the followup where you have to travel through time by harnessing the power of a lightning bolt when your flux capacitor needs extra energy.[laughter]
Chris: It does remind me a little of the Benjamin Franklin experiment where he’s famous for flying a kite in a storm so that lightning would hit the kite and electricity would traveled down it. I don’t know if our thoughts of experiments-probably unwise experients (chuckle)-by scientists (chuckle) also have to do with lightning for that reason. It’s very dramatic too.
Oren: It’s true. Although, again, just to be clear in case anyone isn’t aware, Benjamin Franklin did conduct experiments with this, but he was not holding the other end of the kite.[laughter]
Chris (jokingly): Hey, don’t step on American folklore.
Wes (jokingly): That’s right. Don’t sully its reputation. Slander.
Chris (jokingly) All of us have our mythology, we need it.
Oren (jokingly): Yeah, stepping on American with folklore was three weeks ago. We’re done with that now.[laughter]
Wes: I have another excerpt that I thought might be interesting to read because I think this one is-well, let me just read it first. It’s the first four sentences from Katherine Mansfield’s, The Garden Party.
“And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. The blue was veiled with a haze of light gold as it sometimes is in early summer.”
And I like that as an opener because perfect weather-and that’s the first thing that the writer is choosing to tell us-is that the day is perfect. And I’m just like, Okay, what’s going to go wrong?
Oren: Yeah, that’s what I noticed too. I was like, I don’t trust it.
Wes: And that’s good! Because that is definitely the point, because as you get farther into the story, you figure out what the bad thing is that’s going to be happening. But, I like that. It’s a really great day out. But you’re describing it and just the right words there make you really suspicious for what is going on. Because maybe it’s just we Seattle folk who always know the weather is garbage, but, What is ideal weather? I don’t know, it’s not real.
Oren: Just to point out-part of the reason I think we get this effect is because the author employs a certain amount of telling in just the right way. Because she doesn’t just describe great weather, she says it’s the perfect weather and she also describes it so we have some idea of what it looks like. But the fact that she says “perfect” is like, Hmm, nothing’s actually perfect. Whereas this probably wouldn’t have gotten that effect if she had just used exclusively showing and described a really nice day. I don’t think it would have had the same like something’s up kind of feeling. That’s my instinct.
Chris: I would also say that with things like events that are outdoor, there’s a lot of superstition around weather that I think could be probably used to good effect. Like the idea of it raining on somebody’s wedding day is just a very iconic way of Fate is against you. And people sometimes get really caught up about the weather. This is sort of sad, but apparently a lot of like weather forecasters who appear on the news get abused by people who watch the weather and blame them when it’s terrible and then will say bad things to them.
Wes: It’s like, Hey, if I was the weather wizard, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you. (chuckle) I would be using that for other things.
Oren: I was so surprised and confused when I heard that. I was like, That can’t be real. That has to be something someone made up. And no, it is a real thing. And I’m like, First of all, who actually watches the weather channel? You can just look up the weather online now. It’s super easy, but even if you couldn’t. What? I was so confused.[laughter]
Chris: Yeah. Kind of a sad thing. But people get really caught up about whether the weather-especially on the weekends and there’s event-whether or not it’s going to be nice. And for weddings I can understand because people invest so much, they invest tons of money and do tons of work on planning and usually have to have an indoor/outdoor option, but it makes a whole culture around weddings being perfect and that’s something that’s just not in your control. And so when there’s something that’s important to people, not in their control, there’s usually a lot of superstition about it, and what does it mean when there’s bad weather, right?
Oren: And like rain on your wedding days is like bad luck, but ra-a-a-ain on your wedding days is ironic. Just so we’re clear on the different meanings of the weather.[laughter]
And with that we are going to have to call this episode to a close. The moment you started talking about weddings and weather, I was like, I’m gonna get in my Ironic reference there. I’m going to do it!
All right. Those of you at home, if anything we’ve said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives up at therambogeek.com. Talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?