Friday, 19 June 2015

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night by Chris Longmuir


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”.

Chris Longmuir
PS - Before I go I need to tell you that Authors Electric is launching an anthology of short stories - 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.


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12 comments:

madwippitt said...

I've never understood the general frowning upon of 'It was a dark and stormy night' - I think it is the victim of jealousy and envy! I think it is a fabulous opening line. I'd carry on reading any book that kicked off with a state like that because you know something exciting is about to happen now the scene is set. And anyway, if it's good enough for Snoopy to use, it's good enough for anyone ...

madwippitt said...

doh. with a START like that. this keyboard sucks. I mean sticks. pffft

Lydia Bennet said...

Good for you Chris! No problem with it either - in fact, I believe it's likely the affectionate fun poked at the sentence isn't so much at B-L, but perhaps the old radio serials, which would start with something like that rather often? Anyway Mr B-L can take comfort, as his first line is the name of a cocktail, which is the national drink of Bermuda, best made with Bermudan Gosling's Black Rum. http://www.esquire.com/food-drink/drinks/recipes/a3747/dark-and-stormy-drink-recipe/ Chris, I shall mix you a virtual double strength one at the party on Sunday!

Jane Austen's first line in P&P is famous as is George Orwell's for 1984. Both set the scene brilliantly: and the tone/subject, and the alien world we are suddenly in, respectively.

For cracking lines all through the books, I'd recommend Chris Longmuir's newly box-setted Dundee thrillers.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Great post, Chris. I love a post that makes you think! The dark and stormy night one always makes me think of Snoopy as well. I love 'last night I dreamt I went to Manderley.' First heard it when I was a child, in a radio adaptation, long before I had ever read the book and thought it was wonderful even then. And what about 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' Is that the opening line? It's the one I always think of in connection with the book. Along with 'I have just returned from a visit to my landlord, the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.' As a writer, you are always in search of the killer opening, though, aren't you? I think many of us write ourselves in to something and then delete the first few paragraphs later - or I know I do. The only opening line of any of my books I remember without looking (and even then it isn't quite the opening, because there's a prologue) is 'the island lies long and hilly on her horizon like some mysterious hump-backed animal' from The Curiosity Cabinet- and that's because I thought it the first time we sailed to the isle of Gigha and I still think it every time I approach that magical place.

Susan Price said...

"It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea."

Opening line of 'Mortal Engines' by Philip Reeves.

Dennis Hamley said...

I too think 'Dark and stormy night' is a great opening. The tendency of people to dismiss the work of authors and composers as 'hackneyed' is ludicrous. It's what they say, for example, of Rossini's William Tell overture. Maybe that great main theme is tired and hackneyed now. But Rossini wasn't the one who did the hackneying. Chris, all the first lines of yours which you quote are real crackers too.

Mari Biella said...

I agree with the others: 'It was a dark and stormy night' isn't a bad opening at all, but it's been done to death since it was first written. Hardly Bulwer-Lytton's fault, and perhaps even a sign of success - if it stayed in people's minds long enough to become hackneyed, it can't have been a total failure.

My favourite opening line is from 1984. If I can write an opening sentence even half that good in my life, I'll die a happy woman.

Chris Longmuir said...

Thanks for all the great comments. I've been away to Glasgow for a CWA lunch. It was great fun. Oh and I'm looking forward to that cocktail, Lydia.

Leela Soma said...

I agree with the others. B.L's 'dark and stormy night' is a pretty good description of a night in UK. As a child reading in India, the descriptions, cliched or otherwise made it easier to imagine far away countries. Your opening lines are real hookers! They would hook the reader from the very first sentences! Great blog and food for thought on WIP re opening lines!

Umberto Tosi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
I've always loved the way Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina:
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Tolstoy ignores all the writer-workshop opener bromides He doesn't describe a scene, or set up a situation, or introduce a protagonist. It's just a matter-of-fact statement. He repeats words ... etc. Yet, he draws you right into one of the greatest novels ever written - while putting the oft-neglected semicolon to perfect dynamic use.

Reb MacRath said...

Wonderful post, Chris. I'm with the gang on BL's famous, or infamous, opening--which actually did the job nicely. One of the few opening lines I recall, except for Dickens, is Joseph Heller's 'I get the willies when I see closed doors." That;s a superb example, imo, of the sort of quietly commanding lead that ropes readers in, without our really knowing why. Confidence, gravitas and stylistic skill...those are the things that I look for if not a quotable opening.