It was a dark and stormy night…Paul Clifford (1830) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
This line is quite arguably one of the most famous clichés in all of literature. It’s become so cliché, in fact, that I would venture that most people can quote it and that few people know of its origins. Of course, when Bulwer-Lytton first wrote it, it wasn’t a cliché. The opening to Paul Clifford — a tale about a highway robbery set during the French Revolution — has an obvious purpose: to set the mood for the book.
This line has become ubiquitous. It has been recreated, reused, and recycled countless times. Madeleine Le’Engle even used it as the opening line for A Wrinkle in Time.
This is actually only part of the first sentence of Paul Clifford, though. Here it is in its entirety:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Seeing the entire sentence, rather than only the oft-maligned phrase, puts this into a whole new perspective. This long-winded gathering of words and punctuation actually holds the infamous honor of inspiring the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, founded in the 1980s by Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University. “Why is this an infamous honor,” you may ask? Because the contest seeks out the worst first sentence of a novel.
If it’s so bad, why take a closer look at it? We can all learn from our mistakes, and from others’ mistakes. One of the most important pieces of writing advice, in my opinion, is to read more. Many might assume the purpose of this is to seek out the greats, learn from their examples, and discover the best ways to write our stories. While this is definitely worthwhile, I say we should also look at those things that were not done well, and see what we can learn from them.
With that in mind, the reason I think this sentence is a great learning opportunity is the very dichotomy between the phrase everyone knows and the actual, full sentence in all its superfluous ignominy.
First, let’s look at the pros and cons of the cliché itself: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
I think what makes this so memorable is the efficient word economy in this phrase. In just seven words, we are told that we are dealing with the time frame of a single night, that it is night, that it is darker than one would normally expect (since it bore mentioning that the night, which is normally dark, was dark), and that the weather is stormy. In the first few seconds of reading the book, we have a scene set that invokes a somber mood relatable to anybody who’s familiar with darkness and storms. (Which is arguably everybody, notwithstanding the visually impaired individual’s limited experience of darkness and light.)
But, what is wrong with this that it has become the butt of literary criticism for almost two centuries? The exact qualities of the phrase that are it’s strong points — economy of words and relatable imagery — are also its downfall. While this phrase tells us a lot about the general nature of the scene, it tells of nothing of the specifics. While one can say the mention of “dark” and “night” together imply unusual darkness, another may argue that the pairing is a redundancy. And “stormy” could be describing anything from a breezy drizzle to a hurricane. For all this phrase does tell us, there’s more that it doesn’t. And that leads to the ultimate criticism of the quote: it’s a penultimate example of breaking the guideline of “show, don’t tell.” It tells us it’s dark, stormy, and at night; but it doesn’t show us anything about that.
Now, let’s take a look at the full sentence again:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
How does this improve on the opening phrase? First of all, it expands on just what is meant by stormy. It specifies torrential rain and violent gusts of wind. Secondly, it lets us know more about the setting (the streets of London). Finally, it adds some imagery showing us more about the scene from the rattling of the rain on the housetops and agitated lamp flames.
So, if the full sentence expands on and improves the opening phrase, why is it sill regarded with contempt? First of all, it continues the trend of telling rather than showing. This is no more apparent than in the parenthetical aside “for it is in London that our scene lies“. Here, Bulwer-Lytton finds it necessary to interrupt the narrative and provide what essentially amounts to a brief info-dump. Finally, there’s the sentence structure itself. Granted, long sentences with complex punctuation were hallmarks of 19th century literature. However, the author here seems to have taken pains to create the longest sentence possible utilizing every trick in the bag. Even in perusing sources contemporary to this work, I would think it would be hard to find another example of one sentence using a semicolon, em dash, and parenthesis all at once.
All of this aside, I think there’s one feature to this opening sentence that makes if fall flat over any other: a lack of perspective. We are given a description of the scene before we have any reason to care about it. We are told what elements we are dealing with, but there is little description of what it is like to experience these elements. Rather than immersing us in the setting, we are given an overly complex weather report.
Now, I’ve been criticized for doing the same. I’m a big fan of the “dark and stormy night” in my own writing. As mentioned above, this opener intends to set the mood for the scene; and despite any critiques, it does accomplish this goal.
Now, we’ve taken apart Bulwer-Lytton’s sentence and learned what we can from it, both in what it does well and why it falls flat. Before we move on, let’s first review the pros and cons we’ve identified:
- Economy of words (at first)
- Sets the mood
- Informs about the setting
- Tells rather than showing
- Lacks a personal perspective
- Overly convoluted structure
What can we take away from this about writing an effective opening sentence — or paragraph, as this perhaps should have been? We know we need to pack a lot of punch into a short space. We really need to grab the reader in the first moments and immerse them into our story, so economy of words is more important here than on any other page of the book. We want to set a mood and tone so the reader knows what they’re in for, and we want to inform them somewhat about either character or setting so they have an idea of who they are dealing with or where they are. To achieve that immersion, we want to show them what the experience we are conveying is like, preferably from the personal perspective of one of our characters. And finally, we want to ease them into our writing style. Even if your style is overly florid or complex later on in the book, you don’t want to bombard them with something so complicated it is barely held up by the scaffolding of grammatical rules in the first sentence.
Now that we’ve disassembled “it was a dark and stormy night…”, analyzed it, and learned what we can from it; how should we apply this? If I may be so bold, I’d like to share one of my own takes on the subject with the opening paragraph (and first line of the second) from one of my dark fantasy books, Seahaven:
It was an unusually cold and dark night in Seahaven, only made worse by the deluge of rain. It had poured for days without relenting, and the streets resembled bubbling creeks more than dry-land thoroughfares. The gutters overflowed, and refuse from chamber pots ran through the city. The one saving grace of the frigid weather was that the stench of the human waste was not as bad as it would have been on a hot summer day. All but the most dedicated creatures of the shadows were indoors this night; the few intrepid souls who braved the elements dared to defy nature in hopes of fruitful endeavors.
Gareth Vann was one such individual.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit this breaks from some of the lessons learned above. Most glaringly is that I, like Bulwer-Lytton, am leaning on the telling and have not put it into a character’s perspective. I include the first line of the second paragraph to show how the setting of the scene segues into the introduction of the main character in the book. I think the positive qualities here are simple sentence structure, setting the mood, and informing about the setting. Moreso than that, I think the strength of this paragraph lies in not only saying that it’s stormy, but showing the results of the weather. It isn’t about the darkness and the rain, it’s about what effect that is having on the city and her residents.
Here is another example of a first paragraph that touches on this topic (as mentioned, I’m a big fan of the dark and stormy night), from my neo-noir cyberpunk book Night Shift:
The rain was coming down in waves so heavy the wipers on the car could barely keep up. The headlights cut through the darkness as the flashing blue lights warned pedestrians to clear the road. Despite both this and the wail of the siren, the avenue was choked with humanity. I lit a cigarette and cracked the window, immediately regretting the latter. The smell of so many bodies pressed into a small space was overwhelming, despite the constant rain. Shouts, curses, and impolite propositions wafted through the air like the smoke coiling inside the car. Frank grunted and cracked his own window. He wasn’t a smoker, but I was driving, so he didn’t have much choice in the matter. He could always get out and walk, but he knew the crowd would tear him to pieces. There was only one thing the dregs of New Angeles liked more than killing a cop, and that was putting the body out on display.
In my humble opinion, I managed to follow our guidelines with far more success here. I have the rain and darkness, and they are immediately affected by the wipers and headlights, letting us know we’re in a car (and from the flashing blue lights, specifically a police car). We get into our main character’s head relatively quickly; albeit this is an easy proposition with something written in the first-person perspective. We move on to get more sensations about the setting: the shouting, the press of bodies, the smell. We meet a secondary character, learn the name of our setting, and find out that there’s a violent animosity between the population and the police — and we can infer the latter category applies to our main character and Frank.
Economy of words, simple structure, plenty of information about the setting (but from a character’s perspective), and establishing the tone for the story; this paragraph seems to tell us a lot about what we are dealing with and what we can expect from the book.
While I would never be so bold as to claim this is the best example one could find, I would venture to say this is a successful example of expressing “it was a dark and stormy night” in an engaging, immersive way.
Again, these are just two examples, and by far likely not the best one could find. Admittedly, the first paragraph of Seahaven could have been better. The first paragraph of Night Shift, however, I’m nothing but pleased with.
What’s really important to learn here is not simply how to rewrite “it was a dark and stormy night,” though. The big lesson is looking for ways we can write an opening phrase, sentence, or paragraph that lets our readers know as simply and powerfully as possible more about the tone, characters, and setting of our story. I think it’s important to answer three questions for our readers right up front: “Where am I?” “What’s the mood?” and “Who am I with?” It’s most likely impossible to answer all three in one sentence without delving into the 19th century penchant for crafting intentionally complicated sentences. It can be hard to answer all three in the first paragraph! We definitely should know all three by the end of the first page. But, the sooner we know these things, the sooner we will become emotionally invested in your story. After that, you can take us on an amazing journey.