Monday, June 4, 2012

Dark and Stormy Doesn't Do It

"Tt was a dark and stormy night." This opening line in Bulwer Lytton's "The Last Days of Pompeii," is considered a literary joke. For years the sentence has been used as an example of how not to open a novel. Today one must start in the middle of the action. Hook the reader, expecially the younger reader. No more scene painting. Description is to be used like salt or vinegar. Sparingly. I'm not so sure I agree with this. Wouldn't a good opening paragraph with time, place, weather, scenery, be beneficial to the reader? Guess not. Like a TV viewer surfing channels for an eyecatching flick, the young reader wants the first line to pull him in. "Lights, camera, action" works best. So I've been examining my manuscript for the eyecatcher. Apparently it is not a teenage farm girl in front of a hot stove. Guess I have to trot out the dead body a little earlier.


  1. I don't think that means no more scene painting. I do think description must be as important as action.

    Does the reader, for instance, need to know that the hero's hair is brown? Probably not. But does the reader need to know that the hero's hair keeps falling over his left eye, leaving him peering through clumps as thick and greasy as old french fries? All right, maybe that's not the most picturesque prose, but my point is that description should still move the story forward is some way.

    One of my favorite books is Jennifer Donnelly's A NORTHERN LIGHT. Her description is so beautiful I found myself pausing and savoring her passages. Here is the beginning:

    "When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing-pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps-to stare up at it. Locusts whir in the birches, coaxing you out of the sun and under the boughs, and the heat stills the air, heavy and sweet with the scent of balsam.

    As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today-Thursday, July 12, 1906-is such a day. Time has stopped, and the beauty and calm of this perfect afternoon will never end. The guests up from New York, all in their summer whites, will play croquet on the lawn forever. Old Mrs. Ellis will stay on the porch until the end of time, rapping her cane on the railing for more lemonade. The children of doctors and lawyers from Utica, Rome, and Syracuse will always run through the woods, laughing and shrieking, giddy from too much ice cream.

    I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies."

    Description used sparingly? No. Used beautifully? Yes.

  2. Linda,
    As I remember your beginning, it's not just the description of a girl over a hot stove, but the emotions of that girl who is slaving away in the hot kitchen cooking for her large family on her BIRTHDAY and she knows no one will probably remember her important day because her mother is giving birth at home. It's description, yes, but you link it with a character's feelings.

  3. I completely agree with Gale. Your description in the beginning is definitely showing, not telling.

  4. No only do you show the MC's emotions on this her birthday in such a busy house, but you show the characteristics, actions and emotions of her siblings in the busy morning.

    Judy - loved the fascinating description from NORTHERN LIGHT.

  5. I also remember your opening as engaging -- introducing a main character that I was sympathetic to, and giving me appropriate detail about her life.

    I think one of the problems with description is that it can lead a writer down a wrong turn, i.e., away from the plot. As long as the description is supports the action, through character insight (Judy's hair 'thick and greasy as old french fries' is a good example) or establishing the relevant setting (A Northern Light) it's not only useful, it's critical to a good story. If the description is woven in as the action occurs, the description is almost invisible, like a polished window through which you view the action.

  6. All right. I'm going upstairs and reading the first chapters of my three favorite books...when I was 12. Description...I love it. But it has to bind you to the main character, immediately.