Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dark and Stormy Night

This is a line most people are familiar with, either because of its literary origins or as a result of the endless variations Snoopy penned from atop his doghouse over the years. It is a real line, from a real book, though don't even begin to ask me from whom or from what. (Yes, I could google it, but I've established a tradition of not doing so with this blog and don't intend to break with tradition now.)

It's also, supposedly, the worst opening line, ever.

I take issue with that classification. I understand that it's redundant, if taken literally, and that you're not supposed to start with setting. On the other hand, it's short, it's not that redundant when taken in the proper context, and what's wrong with establishing a spooky precedent? Now, I don't think it was meant to be spooky, so that could be a problem with my reasoning, but as with the checking of facts I try not to let logic undermine the points I'm trying to make.

Even absent the need to create an appropriate atmosphere, there are varying degrees of darkness at night. As anyone who has been outside during a full moon will attest, it's not always completely dark. In fact, during a full moon, it's actually kind of bright. Especially if there's snow on the ground. Add in other modern factors such as lights and when was the last time you experienced a truly dark night? With a storm, of course, it would be darker, so perhaps it could have just been left at "It was a stormy night."

THAT line sucks, however. It has no punch, no poetry, and is dull and lifeless. That would have gotten no argument from me about being the worst line ever. Which is another reason the line works as is, in my opinion. It has a certain narrative panache to it, that many other lines lack.

Like "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This is often regarded as a classic opening line. Leaving aside my general dislike of all things Dickens (with a few notable exceptions), the line has a few flaws. Most notable among them being it doesn't end there. The actual first line goes on, and on, and on in true Dickensian fashion, as contrast after contrast after contrast is laid on. Had the line actually ended with that first contrast, it might be higher in my esteem, but by the time the period comes into view it's become more of an opening paragraph. And the rest of it is all redundant, because the point's been made.

(Dickens got paid by the word, though, so there's a certain understanding to why he wrote the way he did.)

It does have a bit of poetry to it, though as it's more of a head scratcher than anything else, and requires further explanation, it doesn't do much to draw me in. Plus, it's one of those large view statements, and you just know the book is going to deal with massive themes. (Which it does. Badly.) With "It was a dark and stormy night" my curiosity is piqued. What makes it so dark (other than it being night)? Why is the storm important? What's going on in this setting?

All of which makes for a line that, if not great, isn't the worst of all lines.

1 comment:

Geri Copitch said...

"It was a dark and stormy night; and 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)...
After the dash is where it really falls apart for a bit.

I've actually used this as part of a title for a WIP. Truth be told I used ten famous opening lines (including "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) throughout the book. They frame different sections of the story. In the section dark and stormy etc, my MC learns about the death of his cousin and other bad things follow.

It is purple prose and, at least to modern sensibilities, too heavy handed. I suppose it worked in its time or we wouldn't still be talking about it. - Nekko