It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

by Debora Dale

How can one not be stirred by the now-overused but still mood-setting line that opened the book, A Wrinkle in Time? It sets a scene for us. It reminds those of us who read the book of a time long ago when we were drawn into the story from those very first words. Even Snoopy, of the Peanuts gang, paid homage to the line, using it in stories he’d type while sitting upon the peaked roof of his little red doghouse.

But did you know Madeleine L’Engle was not the first to pen that line? In fact, long before A Wrinkle in Time, which was published in 1962, was another book with the same opening… only much longer. The book was Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and it was published way back in 1830.

The original line read this way:

“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.”

I love this in spite of, or maybe because of, the obvious narrator voice. I see it all – the period as well as the wicked weather the author has shown. It puts me in the moment, helps me settle in for a wonderfully moody read. However, it is, shall we say, a tad over the top by today’s standards. In fact, it’s so over the top that it is the basis for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a tongue-in-cheek contest celebrating *Purple Prose. According to the BLFC website, “Entrants are invited to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” In other words, the purple-er the prose the better. The grand prize is a “pittance” of $250, while finalists receive “Dishonorable Mentions”.

Weather, of course, can and should be used to help set the mood of a story. A writer should use all elements of setting to take readers into the scene with the characters, to let them feel the bone-aching chill as winds howl or hear the crunch of crisp snow underfoot. But be cautious. Don’t overdo it, for if your prose is too purple, you risk earning a ‘pittance’ or “Dishonorable Mention” of your own.

The 2011 Dishonorable Mention went to Lisa Kluber of San Francisco, CA for this entry:

They called her The Cat, because she made love the way she fought, rolling rapidly across the floor in a big, blurry ball of shrieking hair, fury, and dander, which usually solicited a “Shut up!” and flung shoe from one of the neighbors, and left her exhilarated lover with serious patchy bald spots and the occasional nicked ear.

Congratulations?

For a full list of winners and dishonorable mentions, visit the BLFC website

*From Wikipedia: “Purple prose” is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

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