Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Stating the Obvious

A beagle sits atop his dog house, head tossed back, ears dangling, eyes closed in intense concentration. A burst of inspiration pitches him over his typewriter and he composes the first line of his novel: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Our comic strip shows him stuffing a padded envelope into the corner mailbox. Soon after, he receives a letter congratulating him on the publication of his novel and containing a fat royalty advance. The next frame shows him atop his dog house again, staring at a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter. Then another surge of inspiration prompts him to write: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The canine author is Charles Schulz’s Snoopy. He’s using the first line of an 1830 novel by Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a line notorious for describing the obvious. (What sort of night was it? Dark. What sort of weather suited a mystery? Stormy.) 

Lord Lytton's opener has become such a running joke that an annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest invites authors to create an opening line for the worst of all possible novels. This usually turns out to be an overwrought description of what need not be described at all, such as this:

It was a dark and stormy night, made darker still by the melancholy that gripped the drainpipes of my soul in a plumber's wrench of despair...

Stating the obvious--even stating it elaborately--is what Jerry Jenkins calls "on the nose" writing. It doesn't gain the trust of our readers. In fact, it's laughable. We want a story that hooks our curiosity and teases us with the unexpected.

In fairness to Lord Lytton, he gave us more than a trite opening line. He also originated this one: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Indeed it can be, especially if we write with insight and originality.

Joe Allison writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has been a member of the Indiana chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN, with his wife Maribeth.


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