In Defense of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”

There is a myth, and a very pervasive one, so much so that I’ve actually read it in writing books, about how this is the worst opening line never written.

Many reasons are given for this, none good.

Some say it’s because you shouldn’t just open with the weather. But it’s obviously not just the weather. It also establishes atmosphere: A story taking place on a dark and stormy night implies different things than a story that starts “It was a beautiful, sunny day in the Hundred Acres Wood”.

Some say that it doesn’t actually tell you anything specifically about the story – but, again, that’s not really true. It establishes an atmosphere. A good author follows up the dark and stormy night with strange and unearthly events – ghosts, or aliens, or a mysterious stranger. That’s what the phrase implies.

Some say that the phrase is “purple prose” – overly descriptive. I can’t see how you can establish that within a single sentence.

“It’s a Dark and Stormy Night” is not a great first line, but it is serviceable. Dark and stormy nights are exciting and strange, and promise a story filled with that sort exciting weirdness.

Most famously, the classic children’s sci-fi novel “A Wrinkle in Time” played the line completely straight: No ironic twist, no clever wordplay. Just the opening to a novel that starts off set in a rainstorm.

So why did the line get such a poor reputation?

Because that’s not the line. That’s only the first seven words.

HERE is Bulwer-Lytton’s real line:

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.

And that, my friends, is a very, very bad first line.

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