Before we get started, you should know that I love The Terminator. Everybody should.
But I think we can all agree that its closing scene, with that groan-worthy “there’s a storm coming” line, is the worst. It’s just about the most eyeroll-inducing piece of Hollywood foreboding a writer can include.
"There’s a storm coming" is lazy and facile; whatever else you want to say about artistic expression, those two things are never good.
Fortunately, there are good writers out there who can redeem even this tired motif. I’m just finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and he never disappoints…
The final book’s third act is about to reach its bloody conclusion.
(it will definitely have a bloody conclusion because Cormac Mcarthy’s full name is Cormac Bloody Conclusion McCarthy)
After learning that his fiancée, a Mexican prostitute, has been murdered by her pimp, the young protagonist rides out to ponder his next move, pausing to look out over the landscape:
"To the south the thin green line of the river lay like a child’s crayon mark across that mauve and bistre waste. Beyond that the mountains of Mexico in paling blues and grays washing out in the distance. The grass along the mesa underfoot twisted in the wind. A dark head of weather was making up to the north."
It’s subtle. McCarthy noticeably avoids the word “storm.” There’s such a tasteful restraint in that.
That night, our hero makes his way back to the home he had prepared for his ill-fated fiancée. He sets out to enact revenge for her murder across the border:
"When he rode out again it was dark and windy and starless and cold and the sacaton grass along the creek thrashed in the wind and the small bare trees he passed hummed like wires. The horse quivered and stepped and raised the flues of its nose to the wind. As if to sort what there might be in the coming storm that was not storm alone."
It’s not until the last sentence that McCarthy even uses the word storm. Everything before that is a naturalistic image or sound or description of action. And when he finally decides to name it a storm explicitly, he respects his audience enough to deconstruct the metaphor right in front us.
That action, “to sort what there might be in the coming storm that was not storm alone,” is precisely what we as an audience do when we encounter a textual metaphor. We identify its explicit identity in the narrative and then consider its emblematic significance.
He never has anyone murmur to themselves or their companion those four words, “there’s a storm coming.” Instead, he has an unspeaking animal parse the dramatic situation, “raisi[ing] the flues of its nose to the wind.” Rather than using something as clumsy and explicit as dialogue to bludgeon the metaphor to death, he situates its interpretation in the animalistic instinct rather than the rational. Even though McCarthy is using a highly literary technique, he doesn’t want you to register the tension in your mind.
He wants you to feel it in your gut.
I know I did.
And THAT is how you do “there’s a storm coming.”