Saturday, July 31, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

By Michael

The first of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules of Writing is to “Never open a book with weather.” But I like the weather. And I like darkness, storms, and especially stormy darkness.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton's famous opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” is a joke to most of us, a gothic cliché. And it’s not even a new joke and wasn’t new when he penned the line in earnest. Two hundred years ago – well before Bulwer-Lytton wrote the words – Coleridge riffed in Christabel, asking, “Is the night chilly and dark?” and answering, deadpan, “The night is chilly, but not dark.” In later years, George Sand, Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, and many others used Bulwer-Lytton’s line in one form or another, usually mockingly. In the 1960s, Charles Schulz still was laughing when he allowed Snoopy, sitting on top of his dog house, to type the line as the opening of his great novel.

The line is a cliché that never gets old, and so is the joke – still funny after all these years. Why? Because storms and darkness scare us – often in a pleasant way – and have scared us since the time when storms flooded our caves and our pussycats sank saber teeth into our legs at night. It’s primal, the way many fears are. If you jump out of a closet and yell, “Boo,” I’ll jump, though I’ve heard the word thousands of times, and if you set a scene in a dark storm – call the scene what you will: Key Largo, Frankenstein, whatever – I’m hooked. Yes, I’m guilty: I like dark and stormy nights.

The main problem with Bulwer-Lytton’s line is neither the darkness nor the storm. The problem is the first two words: “It was.” These words are dead weight, and you should never start a book with dead weight, unless you are, say, Charles Dickens and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Otherwise, start the book with action: The storm stormed and the darkness darkened. Or something like that.

Even Elmore Leonard, when pressed, has allowed that dark and stormy nights are okay if handled right. “Never open a book with the weather,” he says. “Never” – except when you do: “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather,” he adds to his proscription, “you don’t want to go on too long.” In other words, you can say that “It was a dark and stormy night” if that information tells readers about a character (or about other key features of a story). So, don’t write the following: It was a dark and stormy night. The killer, with switchblade in hand, went hunting for blondes. The darkness and the storm tell readers nothing about the killer or, for that matter, the blondes. Instead, you need to make the weather and the atmospherics matter. So, write, It was a dark and stormy night. The meteorologist, with switchblade in hand, went hunting for blondes, who also were meteorologists.

Or something like that.


Shane Gericke said...

Good thing it's OK. I started my current novel with a dark and storm night. Truly. But there was a murder right with it, so it's OK :-)

Michael Wiley said...

It's not as if a lot of people are asking for MY ten rules, but it seems to me that the conventions of mysteries are part of the pleasure. If we handle the conventions right (as you do all of the time and I do some of the time), we avoid cliche and offer thrills.