Wednesday, January 2, 2008

To Every Story...There is a Season

by Nina Wright

As we conclude the holiday season, let's contemplate seasons in another light. Think of a particular novel or movie and ask yourself what time of year it takes place. Or, if the story sprawls across seasons, which ones are most significant, and why? Is time of year a mood-setter, a point of contrast or a catalyst? How conscious of season does the writer want the reader to be? To what end does the writer manipulate time of year?

Season is an element of setting, equally linked to time and place. With a nod to latitude and longitude, time of year dictates rituals and holidays in addition to weather. It can affect all five senses as well as state of mind.

In fiction the role of season ranges from texture to plot point to theme. Doctor Zhivago is first and foremost a story of place and time (and character), but the wintry elements are what many of us remember best, especially from the film. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, for all its hilarity, is about Thanksgiving: Steve Martin’s character wants only to be with his family while John Candy’s character has no family and nowhere to go. The Wizard of Oz depends on tornado season to provide a key plot element as well as the revelation that there's no place like home.

Season can be an efficient means of revealing character. How does our protagonist respond to a pile of soggy autumn leaves? The lack of sunlight in winter? An April Fool’s joke? Neighborhood kids playing with firecrackers the week before the Fourth of July?

Season creates reader expectation. For instance, juvenile fiction set in summertime seems to promise a lack of structure and adult supervision. But exceptions abound, as I discovered while playing with notions for my teen novel Sensitive. There could be summer school or summer camp. Or a summer job. The point is that novelists can elect to follow or flout seasonal expectations. Oh, the possibilities inherent in, say, no teachers showing up for the first day of school...or a January that's warmer in Montana than in Tennessee...or a Thanksgiving when our protagonist has nothing to feel thankful for....

Season is on my mind, and not just because I’m stuck in Ohio for the winter when I would rather be at least three climate zones to the south. I’m writing Whiskey with a Twist, the fifth book in what some might call a season-based mystery series, emphasis on humor. Each installment takes place during the next tourist event in or around a Lake Michigan resort town. It starts with leaf-peeping in Whiskey on the Rocks, moves on to a winter jamboree in Whiskey Straight Up and then the annual Miss Blossom pageant in Whiskey & Tonic, followed in Whiskey and Water by a rash of riptides. My novel in progress was inspired by my own experiences at a fall dog show in Lancaster, PA. Whiskey with a Twist features Afghan hounds amid the Indiana Amish. Add harvest season, and this fictioneer can’t type fast enough.

What role does season play in the novel you are writing or reading right now? Does the author comply with seasonal expectations or defy them? How does season impact character, plot and/or theme?

As I write this, a new year is opening before us. Whether the season is sunny, snowy or rainy where you are, I wish you a bright Aught-Eight.


G.M. Malliet said...

I love fall and winter, and so I always want to set my stories during these seasons. I especially resist writing anything with a summer setting, as I fear it would turn into a litany of complaint.

But perhaps you'd have to have experienced a DC summer to appreciate this.

p.s. Happy new year!

Mark Combes said...


Season/weather for me is a tone setter. My stories have a very short time span - usually take place over the course of a day or two - so the weather and season play a role in how the story plays out. Is it stormy? Cold? Rain Storm? It all adds "conflict" and obstacles and tone to the story. Dorothy doesn't get to Oz if it's a calm, sunny day....

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


I hadn't looked at seasons this way...but you are absolutely spot on. And, an upcoming holiday can provide interest or a deadline or a plot twist. Good thinking!

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for getting us started in the new year, Nina. What you wrote reminded me of Joni Mitchell's song, The Circle Game:

"And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time"

Felicia Donovan said...

Thanks, Nina, for the post. Seems some of my characters are in "terminal summer" lately due to the onset of hot flashes. I've toyed with using more seasonal influence, but they seem to have their own seasons so why mess with nature (human, that is).

Nina Wright said...

Thanks, all, for your comments!

I look forward to reading your work in the new year. Happy writing, and may you enjoy every single season.