IT WASN’T A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
I try to leave out the parts that people skip.—Elmore Leonard
Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a British politician, poet, playwright and novelist, who became famous for the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
In his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “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.”
Critics cite this introduction as an example of purple prose—excessively ornate, flowery language.
Each year, the English department at San José State University in San José, California, holds the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants are invited to compose a deliberately bad opening sentence to a novel. The contest was created to bring awareness of how not to start a story.
Teachers make similar mistakes when they instruct their students to begin their stories by describing the weather or the setting. The problem with this strategy is that weather reports and travelogue descriptions seldom create strong hooks.
Children who were raised on fairy tales routinely begin their first stories with the line: “Once upon a time.” Then as they grow older, they may modify the phrase to “One day” or “One beautiful day” or even “One dark and stormy night.” Regardless of the variation, none of these intros is exactly an attention grabber.
Here are some other less than stellar openers found in children’s compositions:
The “hook.” One teacher had her students start all their personal narratives with the line: “Wow! Have I got a story to tell you!” Unfortunately, once the students had gotten past that exaggerated intro, they didn’t have much of a story to tell.
The self-introduction. “Hi, my name is Ray, and I’m going to tell you about a special day I had. Ready? Okay, here we go.” This clunker is likely the result of poor writing instruction.
Onomatopoeia. “Ring! Ring!” “Ding! Dong!” “Click! Click!” “Buzz! Buzz!” Do these sound effects make anyone want to keep reading?
Posing a question. This is actually a good way to start a story or an essay. But many times, the strategy is used ineffectively, as in, “Have you ever had an adventure? I have. Let me tell you all about it.”
Extraneous information. Students pad their intros with details that have nothing to do with their story. “I woke up and got out of bed. I brushed my teeth and took a shower. Then I put on my school uniform and went downstairs for breakfast. My mom served me two eggs, two slices of bacon, a biscuit and a glass of orange juice. After I finished eating, I caught the bus to school.”
In his book, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid them), Jack M. Bickham offers this advice: “If a setting needs to be described, it can be described later, after you have gotten the story started. If background must be given to the reader, it can be given later, after you have intrigued him with the present action of the story.”
On that note, one of the best ways to help your students write engaging introductions to their stories and personal narratives is to teach them to start with the conflict.
For example, if a student plans to write a personal narrative about the time her mother became ill and landed in the hospital, have her start with the scene at the hospital, where she’s waiting to hear word from the doctor about her mother’s condition. After she has piqued her readers’ interest with the main problem, she can flash back to the beginning and explain what led to her mother getting sick.
Or if a student is going to write a personal narrative about the time his dog went missing, have him start with the search for the dog, and of his concern over not being able to find it. Later, he can explain how the dog got loose.
Here is how one fourth grader began her personal narrative:
“I checked my pockets one more time, but it was no use. My grandmother’s wedding ring was gone!”
Her introduction immediately caught my attention. What was the little girl doing with her grandmother’s wedding ring in the first place? How did she lose it? What would happen if she didn’t find it?
French-Swiss film director Jean-Luc Godard said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end…but not necessarily in that order.”
Starting a story with long descriptive paragraphs might have worked for Bulwer-Lytton. But writing is an evolving process, and contemporary authors know that today’s readers don’t want to wade through large chunks of description before they get to the action, which is why they establish the conflicts as soon as possible.
Teach your students to do the same thing.