Learned Vol. 2, Issue 12
It was a dark and stormy night.
Oh, god, what a cliche. And not just a cliche. I mean, overly dramatic, purple phrases like that one are a dime a dozen. They're as common and as smelly as day old horse shit and whenever possible you should avoid them like the plague...
Freshman year of high school I joined the nascent creative writing club. It was good. I met a bunch of like-minded weirdoes and learned a little about life, a little about love, and a lot about not being the smartest person in the room. I also learned about the dreaded cliche.
The first story I turned in started with "It was a dark and stormy night." More confused than anything else, our teacher asked why I had chosen that cliche to start with.
"I got it from a Snoopy comic." Specifically, this one:
Peanuts for July 12, 1965
Snoopy's stated ambition is to be the World's Greatest Novelist. The problem is, Snoopy's not that great a writer. In the beginning, in the sixties, Snoopy met with a bit of success, but as Schulz went through one of his black periods in the late sixties, several changes were made to the strip to make the characters into bigger losers. Charlie Brown didn't change too much, but everyone else started to be a bit more negative. And Snoopy started getting rejection notices.
Still, it's worth looking at why Schulz used this phrase - one that had just about faded into obscurity by the time he was writing in the '60s - to signify that Snoopy was not the greatest literary talent the world had ever seen. Looking back now, with the benefits of education and hindsight, it's easy to see how obnoxious the phrase is. It's often held up as an example of the worst sort of overly-descriptive sentence that does the exact opposite of "show, don't tell."
In fact, a host of negative descriptors are given to the sentence: florid, purple, overwrought, and, of course, cliche.
Cliches are one of the harder parts of any language, whether you're learning it as a second or third language, or just aspiring to be the greatest living writer working in it. Mainly because cliches are cliches for a reason. They are a colorful way of expressing a thought or idea that is so apt (for a given time and place) that they become over-used and stripped of their original impact.
Which is exactly why they're so useful: everyone understands them regardless of their relationship to the original circumstances that resulted in the phrases' coining. Conversely, you should never use them because they are so completely unoriginal. But, go too far in the other direction and no one knows what you're talking about. And so on and so forth.
But, back to Snoopy and my ninth grade efforts at writing. Like a lot of young writers, my work was really nothing more than cliches and just-barely-not-plagiarized ideas blended into a pastiche I tried to pass off as original. Such is life. However, those early efforts, combined with a friendly coach, got me past the worst of my bad instincts.
Not completely past them, mind you. In a later story, I inserted a sub-chapter titled, "A Digression."
"You're not really supposed to do that. Digressions are bad things."
"But Melville did it in Billy Budd..."
Cue a long discussion about changing times and fashions and knowing the rules before you can break them...
Originality is a dangerous concept. During my salad days, we took the view that anything not original was automatically crap. Nevermind the fact that there was, and is, very little original anything left anymore. The internet has changed that, I think. It's too easy to see the influences and thought-processes of creatives; it's too easy to see where the ideas come from and how the sausage is made.
As Mr. K used to tell me, "There are only four themes and twelve plots. Good luck being original." Of course, I later learned that he took that sentiment directly from Joseph Campbell, so there you go.
It is a (metaphorically) dark and stormy night. I have laundry to do. Bye.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Although first used by Washington Irving in 1809, it wasn’t until author Edward Bulwer-Lytton's used it as the opening line of his novel Paul Clifford that it became well-known. (Sources: The Phrase Finder, MPR News)
The full sentence, as per Wikipedia:
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 there you have it.
Notable Events of the Year 1809
You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:
Opening lines are very hard to write. You have to hook the reader, lead them into the story, and give them just enough information to make them interested in the next sentence and the one after that.
Here’s a quiz - match these seven opening lines to their novel. Answers are at the bottom, below the image. Good luck!
Answers: Moby Dick, The Odyssey, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Post Office, 100 Years of Solitude, The Sun Also Rises, Fahrenheit 451
Next time: Feed your head. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.