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Why is “It was a dark and stormy night..” not a good opening?

The phrase in question is derided everywhere. Wikipedia calls it infamous and purple prose, the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest references it (google 'worst opening sentence'), but I've always been puzzled as to just what exactly is wrong with it.

Purple prose on Wikipedia is prose that is so "extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself". I don't think the sentence really qualifies on any of those three grounds.

It was used in Snoopy a fair bit, and I originally thought it was either from the cartoon, or because of the cartoon, but it seems to have been the source of derision since it first written, so I remain confused.

  • See the rest of the sentence - it does seem very extravagant. If there's anything else to it, I'm not sure.
    – asymptotically
    Nov 24 '12 at 6:40
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    Better fit for Writers.SE? Nov 24 '12 at 6:59
  • In part, the same thing that's wrong with "past history". In part, it was trite & insipid the moment it was scribbled. Stagger Lee (LLOYD PRICE): The night was clear and the moon was yellow // And the leaves came tumbling down // I was standing on the corner // When I heard my bulldog bark // He was barkin' at the two men // Who were gamblin' in the dark.
    – Bill Franke
    Nov 24 '12 at 7:17
  • McAlex, heard about writersSE? That could be of help.
    – Kris
    Nov 24 '12 at 8:07
  • Hi mcalex! We've previously answered an identical question: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2131/… . Hope this helps :D
    – Standback
    Nov 27 '12 at 9:02

That is only part of the sentence, and there’s nothing really wrong with it in itself. The problem lies in the way it continues:

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.

Many readers have felt that it is hopelessly over-written. Compare it with the first few sentences of meteorological description in the second paragraph of Charles Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.

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    To be honest, to me Dickens's paragraph seems to come off worse in this comparison. Nov 24 '12 at 7:51
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    "... there’s nothing really wrong with it in itself. The problem lies in the way it continues ...": goes to show that the question is not about language but literature. Should be considered off-topic on ELU.
    – Kris
    Nov 24 '12 at 8:06
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    @mcalex: It is a full sentence [independent clause] on its own. That semicolon doesn't change it to a phrase. Think about how ghost stories for children sitting in front of a campfire begin. This is not the way a serious novel for adults should begin. It sets a scene in a way that's fit for little kids. Barrie's Dickens quote, OTOH, sets a dark & dismal scene in a decidedly different way: much more sophisticatedly. Whether you like it or not is a matter of taste. I really like "fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats". It's so much better than "dark and stormy".
    – Bill Franke
    Nov 24 '12 at 9:06
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    The "dark and stormy" sentence does a lot of telling while the Dickens' passage does more showing - always better to show, IMHO. Can't you picture fog drooping on gunwales of barges? Good stuff! Nov 25 '12 at 21:29
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    @Kristina Lopez: Just what I wanted to comment, it's much to "telly". Besides, aren't nights dark by definition, except perhaps in the arctic circle? If it was a moonless night, that would mean something. Also, "stormy"? What does that even mean? Was the storm ongoing in that moment, was it about to storm, or had the storm already passed? The rest of the sentence is a little more "showy", which would be good if he hadn't used every possible way to combine sentences: first the semicolon, then the hyphen, then parentheses...
    – Tannalein
    Nov 26 '12 at 11:25

It's cliche and camp. You said it yourself; it shows up in Peanuts. If you were to say "It was a dark and..." most English speakers would finish your sentence. That is why it holds little currency among readers, while I do agree that it's not so overwrought as to be considered purple prose. I can't, however, find any criticisms of the opening line originating at the time of Paul Clifford's publication that would suggest that it was scoffed at by then contemporary readers.

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