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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Opening Lines

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

Everyone's familiar with that infamous first line penned by Bulwer-Lytton. But do you know why it's so famous? Here's the explanation from Wikipedia: "It was a dark and stormy night" is a phrase penned by Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton at the beginning of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.[1] The phrase itself is now understood as a signifier of a certain broad style of writing, characterized by a self-serious attempt at dramatic flair, the imitation of formulaic styles, an extravagantly florid style, redundancies, confusing syntax, and sentences—sometimes incorrectly dubbed run-on sentences—that are exceedingly lengthy. Bulwer-Lytton's original opening sentence serves as an example:

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.

Good grief. No wonder the line has gone down in history as an example of bad writing. Bulwer-Lytton should have quit while he was ahead and put a period after that first clause.

Opening or first lines are one of my pet peeves. The first line of the first paragraph on the first page of any manuscript is a matter of great concern. It has to sound right. It has to set the tone. If it does neither, nothing that follows seems to flow or fall into place. Not to me, anyway. I've completely rewritten pages so that I could work in a particular opening line that I thought sounded just right.

I also pay attention to opening lines written by other authors. Some are pure dynamite. Most seem just bleh. And some come close to rivaling Lord Lytton's infamous line in an attempt to pack a single sentence as full of information and description as possible. One particular best-selling author who's always guilty of this comes to mind.

Since I write historicals, an opening line in an omniscient point of view sometimes works very well to set the tone and achieve a catchy opener. Many authors use this little trick, even though you might never find another omniscient line in the entire book. It works, so why not.

Do you obsess over opening lines, or even first paragraphs? During the writing process, do you go back to the beginning time and again to tweak until you feel it's near perfection? What's the one opening line from any book that's stuck with you through the years? Mine is from K.M. Moning's The Dark Highlander, and it goes like this: "Dageus McKeltar walked like a man and talked like a man, but in bed he was pure animal." Don't ask me why that's stuck with me since 2002, it just has. Other than my own, it's the only opening line I can instantly recall word for word.



  1. Dagnabbit, I'm a total flop at this. For one thing, I can't recall any riveting first lines. And for another thing, I thought Snoopy originated, "It was a dark and stormy night."

  2. Bla-ha! Snoopy! Every time I hear, "It was a dark and stormy night...," I think about the scene with Billy Crystal and Danny DiVito in "Throw Mama From the Train." Billy was trying to come up with a killer first line for his ms. and Mama walked up and suggested, "It was a dark and stormy night."

  3. Yes, I remember that from the movie, too. They probably copied off of Snoopy.


  4. Ha ha , that's funny. I actually did not know where that line came from. Wikipedia knows everything , don't they.
    I don't normally get stuck on my first line or paragraph, but it's funny you say that. I'm working on one right now that has a terrible beginning, and I've rewritten it many, many times. I'm just gonna have to trash it and start over, I think.
    Maybe the Baron WAS stuck, and he finally just said 'hell with it'?

  5. Maybe the Baron was stuck. You're funny, Jennifer. Oh, you know what. Maybe the Baron was actually The Red Baron and he really did get that line from Snoopy. Ew, spooky! What's even scarier is, I'm starting to think like Magdalena. ;o)

  6. That's it! Snoopy and the Red Baron sitting in that little cafe, the sounds of war all around them, ...a little "bubbly," checkered tablecloths, Snoopy with his mustache... It's difficult to know who said it first, but "It was a dark and stormy night" was born at that cafe. I wonder if they give tours.

    Boy, this is getting really educational! What was the original topic?

  7. ~~Boy, this is getting really educational! What was the original topic?~~

    I don't remember. All I know is, I've got that song stuck in my head now, thank you very much. "Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more,.... eighty men died tryng to end that spree, of the bloody Red Baron of Germany."

  8. Sorry no Snoopy or Barons, unless they went to Greece...

    'Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse'.

    Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

    As an ex nurse, this sticks in my mind. I think it is because I can relate to the satisfactory day. :)
    It is not exactly an exciting sentence to open with, but it caught my eye.

  9. Glynis, thanks for stopping by and sharing your most memorable line. I can see how you would relate while working as a nurse.

    I'm so immersed in the romance world, literary openers just don't naturally occur to me as readily, but one that comes to mind is, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.


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