It was a dark and stormy night.

Hello, friends. I was just tinkering with what I think will be the first chapter of Rivals in the City and thinking about Elmore Leonard’s dictum, “Never open a book with weather.” (There’s a ton more writing rules here, if that’s your sort of thing.) And I’m not at all sure weather should be forbidden, let alone the first thing Leonard chooses to condemn.

The infamous “It was a dark and stormy night” is often cited as a bad beginning and an example of purple prose, but really, it’s perfectly all right. It’s a clear and straightforward sentence. It creates mood and promises action in seven words, none of which is extraneous. And its author, Edward Bulwer Lytton, was a successful Victorian novelist whose public apparently enjoyed his having started with the weather, as well as the very ornate sentence that follows it.

And I was recently reminded of the power of starting with the weather in the opening chapter of Dickens’s Bleak House. Here’s the full first paragraph:

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I can’t imagine a writer pulling this off now, but it’s a splendid beginning. It begins like a telegram or a bit of news reporting (“London. Michaelmas term lately over…”), then immediately turns the weather into an adversary (“implacable”). From this terse economy, it suddenly springs into science fiction cut with absurd comedy (a Megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill), horror (“the death of the sun”), and disease (“a general infection of ill-temper”). After coating the world and its contents with filth and mud, Dickens introduces the theme of money (“accumulating at compound interest”) that circulates through the book. Quite a feat for a paragraph that’s all about the weather, hm?

Now, I’m not even considering comparing myself to Dickens or Elmore Leonard, but my point here is, let’s lighten up with the writing rules, shall we? Because sometimes, it really is a dark and stormy night.

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5 Responses to “It was a dark and stormy night.”

  1. MelodyJ says:

    I agree with you. These first lines set the atmosphere for the story. They are a good example of world building because they set the stage for the action. You expect something interesting is going to to happen soon.

  2. Joanna says:

    Yes! You can have so much fun with foreshadowing with the weather. And also, the opening is (normally) the first thing people read. You’ll want something that makes it impossible for the reader to put the book down.

  3. Ying says:

    Agreed! Unless it’s an author I already admire, I tend to judge by the first page.

  4. Sindy says:

    I love it! Great way to start. Your writing flows so well. I’m a big fan. When will the 4th book be coming out?? I cannot wait!!

  5. Ying says:

    Thanks, Sindy! We don’t have a pub date yet for Rivals (I’m still writing it), but I’ll announce it on this blog as soon as it’s set. I’m afraid it’ll be a long wait, though: late 2013, at the earliest. I’m sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news!

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