Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stormy Weather

Outside it’s minus seven and the pipes are frozen. Inside, I’m editing Sleepwell and Fly, and wondering how many other ways there are that I can get this novel wrong. Today it occurred to me: there’s almost no mention of the weather in it anywhere, and in a week where the country’s been brought to a dramatic standstill on its account, this looks – to say the least – odd.
So what function does the weather serve, exactly, in a fictional world? Writers rarely deal in realism when it comes to this matter, for sure. If it’s lashing it down in a Bronte novel, your plot antennae are up. Likewise, we’re wincing when the newlywed says to his blushing bride, “Happiness is surely ours!” as a distant storm breaks over the mountains. What we get when we read fiction is an agreed hyperbole. We leave behind the changeable, meaning-free weather events of the real world, and enter a parallel universe where every breath of wind brings with it a bunch of pre-programmed meaning that readers are highly attuned to.
That’s where it becomes difficult for a writer. What if you go for:
“Dan Sugarbaker watched the late August sun descend over the forest from his hotel balcony. Distant birds trilled and warbled. The early evening air was clean and clear. He gave a satisfied sigh and sipped again from his glass of champagne. In the gardens below, a gentle breeze spun a single leaf in lazy eddies...”
Whether you like it or not, your readers picked up this:
“late August” = dog days of summer. Dying of the light, onset of Autumn, drawing down of blinds – loss. Possible death. Bad stuff coming, and Dan doesn’t know it.  
“sun descend” = inevitability of the passing of all things. Lack of control, incessance of cycle of seasons. Darkness, coldness. Forests at night. Blair Witch. Dan’s going to get eaten alive by a monster in the woods, his shattered champagne flute the only reminder of his empty hopes for a better life.
“early evening” = see above.
“distant birds” = elusive freedom Dan can never achieve? Trilling and warbling of youth? Idle babble of carefree university days, now lost in the “forest” of time?
“a single leaf” = DEATH!
 I remember my English Lit teacher pointing out, very gently and patiently when we reached Chapter Nine of Wuthering Heights that the brutal lightning of the thunderstorm splitting a tree in two might just be a metaphor. Talk about a lightbulb moment. The weather’s never been the same since.
Perhaps that’s why there isn’t any in my story – I’m hyper-sensitive to it. It can’t rain because there’s a band of low pressure pushing over my imaginary city - it’s got to rain because our hopes and dreams are ultimately futile.
It's a tough one. Maybe my characters should spend the duration of the novel indoors, in a magnolia-coloured room...

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