Winter is Coming: Why Winter is the Best Season for Writers, by Benjamin Sperduto
I love winter.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I love the idea of winter and the season’s usefulness as a symbol, but I don’t like shoveling snow, wrapping my hands around a cold steering wheel at 6:30 AM, or sliding helplessly across the road on a patch of black ice (not that I remember these problems very clearly after living in Florida for fifteen years). As romantic as winter might appear in a typical holiday postcard, it’s hard to be enamored with the reality of muddy snow and five months of the sky being the same color as the highway.
As a writer, however, I find myself drawn to winter over and over again. Unlike the rest of the seasons, winter brings with it an element of danger and uncertainty. With the notable exception of regions threatened by flooding or severe drought, few people fear the coming of spring or summer. Winter features prominently throughout human culture as a time of reckoning. It challenges societies and individuals alike, pushing them to overcome their weaknesses, insecurities, and conflicts before the very world that sustains their existence turns against them. The memorable words of A Song of Ice and Fire’s House Stark, “Winter is coming,” are effective because they not only foreshadow future struggles, but also lend urgency to the present.
In my own novel, The Walls of Dalgorod, the impending threat of winter hovers over the story like a headsman’s axe. Winters in the Russian-inspired land of Rostogov are so severe that the realm comes to a near standstill once the heavy snows arrive. While the season is still a few months away when the story begins, it informs some of the most important decisions that the characters make. Throughout the novel, then, winter helps to drive narrative action, lending the story a sense of urgency and genuine dread as events unfold.
But winter’s harsh conditions also present wonderful narrative opportunities beyond serving as a symbol of death and judgment. When people take shelter from the extreme weather, they must not only deal with being cut off from the outside world, but also with being forced to interact with others for prolonged periods of time. The combination of isolation and toxic familiarity is a potent one that generates compelling narrative tension. John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably the best cinematic portrayal of this dynamic. The film takes the relatively thin premise of several men snowed inside a research station with a shapeshifting alien among them and allows the resulting interpersonal conflicts to drive the story.
Another good example of isolation and forced interaction is the 1968 classic The Lion in Winter, which tells a fictionalized story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine spending the Christmas holiday of 1183 walled up in a castle with their squabbling (and mostly grown) children. While the film is an amazing example of how to write good, believable characters, part of what makes much of the conflict possible is the fact that several people who don’t like each other are trapped together for a period of time due to circumstances beyond their control. Ironically, then, winter serves as an ideal catalyst for bringing tensions to a boil because it forces characters to keep interacting with one another when they might otherwise simply leave in the aftermath of a conflict.
Of course, on a more simplistic level, winter makes for some striking descriptive settings. The image of falling snow is a classic motif, and few things are creepier than skeletal, leafless trees casting shadows beneath the full moon. Winter clothing also provides plenty of opportunities to flesh out a society’s material culture. Even noting the ways in which characters respond to winter conditions can tell readers quite a bit about them. While these uses of winter might not play a role in driving conflict and narrative, they’re still useful techniques that can be applied rather easily to bolster the immersive qualities of a story.
So while winter might not be my favorite season to actually live through, it’s easily my favorite season to write about. Used effectively, winter almost fills the role of an antagonist, constantly working against the story’s characters to promote conflict and generate tension. So learn to embrace the season in all its grim majesty and make the most of its unique qualities. Winter has a lot to offer writers even if it’s not a prominent theme in your writing.
And besides, “Winter is coming” just sounds cool. There’s a reason nobody ever says “Spring is coming” outside of an Old Navy commercial.
As an only child growing up rural Ohio, Ben developed an overactive imagination. When it was no longer socially acceptable to fight orcs and cave trolls with his homemade wooden sword, he turned that imagination toward writing fiction and creating fantasy worlds for roleplaying games.
After some early success writing short stories, Ben took a hiatus from writing to attend graduate school at the University of South Florida, where he earned his MA in Early Modern European History. His graduate research on medieval and 17th century Russia became the inspiration for his first novel, The Walls of Dalgorod.
Ben currently resides in Tampa, FL, where due to his casual relationship with a razor and comb, he is sometimes mistaken for a person of interest.