We are living in an age where entertainment is provided with the flick of a button, the wave of a remote control, or a spoken command, and I’m sure the time is fast approaching – if it isn’t here already – for entertainment to be activated by thought processes.
One of the disadvantages of this rapid progress of technology is the shortening of many people’s attention spans, so a writer has to snare the reader from the very first word, or the book may be discarded as not worth the time it would take to read. Long winded openings and pages and pages of description no longer attract the reader looking for a quick fix, although those seeking a more literary experience may stay the course.
Writers have always known that the need for a hook on the first page – preferably in the first paragraph, and even better if it’s in the first sentence – is imperative. And that is more true today than it has ever been.
But how have various writers fared in this search for the perfect hook? A paragraph or sentence that will entice the reader to read on.
I suppose the most familiar opening phrase, recognized by almost everyone, and now disparaged as ‘melodramatic’ and ‘purple prose’, is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “It was a dark and stormy night.” No writer would now deign to open their novel with this phrase, unless they were doing it deliberately as a form of lampooning the phrase, or perhaps as an entry for ‘the dark and stormy night’ writing challenge.
I’m not sure why this phrase is so frowned on, certainly it’s a cliche, but is it really so bad it deserves to be known as the worst opening there has ever been for a novel? I’m sure there must have been worse openings, although I’m not prepared to read a myriad of books with bad openings to find one.
The other thing that has to be remembered is that this phrase was not a cliche when Bulwer-Lytton wrote it. And I’m not even sure how melodramatic it is. The phrase, after all, is describing the night – it was dark and stormy! Besides it wasn't even the opening sentence, it was in the second paragraph of Bulmer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford.
Thinking about other openings which are as easily recognizable I wonder why these have not been denigrated in the same way as Bulwer-Lytton’s. There is Daphne Du Maurier’s opening sentence in Rebecca – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, or Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”. I won’t quote the whole sentence, it is almost 120 words long, but it seems to me it is quite a melodramatic sentence to start a novel. I’m not suggesting Bulwer-Lytton was the same class of writer as either du Maurier or Dickens, but likewise I’m not entirely sure he deserves to be sneered at.
Coming back to cliches, and remember they only become cliches because of overuse which suggests they have some attraction for readers, Bulmer-Lytton also coined the phrases “the pen is mightier than the sword” – “the great unwashed” – and “the almighty dollar”.
So, I will leave you thinking about “it was a dark and stormy night”, and whether you think it deserves its reputation.
And now for some of my opening sentences:
“Mist shrouded everything except for the Discovery’s skeletal masts pointing long bony fingers into the sky.” Night Watcher
“Last night when the dark was at its blackest, something had nipped at her fingers.” – Dead Wood
“He checked the van for the last time.” – Missing Believed Dead
“She presses herself into the wall when she hears the scrape of the key in the lock.” – The Death Game
How many opening sentences can you remember from books you’ve read? No cheating, no looking. I’m ashamed to say the only ones I could remember without looking were the three I’ve quoted, including “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”.
Flash in the Pen - on Sunday, 21st June, with an awesome Facebook party (Gatecrashers welcome). It will be great fun with oodles of food, oceans of booze, and of course the Goody Bag of freebies. While you're there, you can pick up the anthology at the special introductory price of 99p (Sunday only offer). And I guarantee an exciting read, and of course, no openings of 'It was a dark and stormy Night'. So, come along and rub shoulders with the Authors Electric crew, they'll be the ones making a fool of themselves because they've been let out of their story attics for the party.