So I’ve seen this one post on Tumblr many times where people are just outraged, really outraged, that the Bulwer-Lytton contest exists. And I keep refraining from chiming in to explain that they don’t understand, because 1) I am afraid it will just come across as Mansplaining, and 2) if they really don’t understand, they will never understand the truth. So I’m going to explain it on my blog. And since my blog cross-posts to tumblr, if any of them connect the dots, I can just block their comments on my blog.
So, first, the misunderstanding. They are all upset because “It was a dark and stormy night” seems to be a good opening line to any story. And you know what?
They are right.
Those 7 words are a great opening line. Edgar Allan Poe and Madeleine L’Engle both used the same seven words as openings to stories that went on to acclaim.
So what’s the problem?
There are a lot of contests out there where people are challenged to compose a horrible opening sentence to a fictitious novel, and those contests are named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, because of a horrible opening sentence he wrote for a novel called Paul Clifford published way back in 1830. The problem is that Baron Lytton didn’t put a period after night… his actual opening sentence went on for a whopping 58 words total.
Fifty-eight words! With at least two parenthetical clauses (depending on how you count, it can be four or five!)!
Full disclosure: I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest for an opening line to a fictitious sci-fi novel, and I am personally acquainted with two other people who won such contests.
So, let’s look at the actual opening sentence, shall we?
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.
If Lytton had just allowed his editor to change that semi-colon to a period… except he would have had to re-word the following phrases a bit, too, and he refused. So that’s the real problem. He wouldn’t concede that his opening sentence should have been both 1) multiple sentences, and 2) re-worded.
The most egregious sin in the sentence that Bulwer-Lytton insisted on, in my opinion, is that “(for it is in London that our scene lies)” because it breaks the fourth wall (which no other part of the novel does). Plus there were much more elegant ways (and with fewer words!) to convey the information. For example, consider this as an opening:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Rain fell in torrents—interrupted at intervals by violent gusts of winds. The winds swept up the London streets and rattled the housetops—fiercely agitating the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness
I’m not the greatest editor in the world, but my first attempt at cleaning up the fifty-eight word run-on sentence to three sentences totalling forty-four words. And not one single nuance was lost with that reduction in word count!
My rewrite represents a reduction of words to about 76% of the original. And my primary skill set is developmental editor. I suspect a grammatical editor could reduce the word count by at least another 25% without losing a single instance of meaning.
And that is the point of the Bulwer-Lytton contests: quite often succinct is far superior to verbose. And a lot of people mistake elaborate vocabularies as being superior to concision.
I mean, knowing lots of words is cool, and sometimes elaboration is better than minimalism. So I get it. But no one is saying “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad opening line. On the contrary, we’re saying that Bulwer-Lytton should have stuck with that and moved on.
Finally, for full disclosure, this is the sentence with which I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest:
Lance Lace, skulking in the shadow of a spaceport warehouse, checked the charge on his blaster and wondered—for not the first time that night—what all of this had to do with the pair of pliers and water-soaked lace panties found in the pockets of the murdered Rigellian.
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