Thursday, February 25, 2010

It was a dark and stormy blog

I don’t seriously intend to spend a year expounding upon the Guardian’s rules of fiction.

However, I do think some of them are worth revisiting. So, once in awhile, I will interrupt my reposting of Dr. Syntax and Bookslut anecdotes to discuss them.

Let’s start with rule number one from the first writer.

Elmore Leonard advises us, “Never open a book with weather.”

This rule is so obvious that we never mention it; and, because we never mention it, some people forget.

What’s the worst opening of all time?

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

There are several reasons this opening bites sidewalk. First, it’s redundant. Of course, the night was dark. It’s night.

Second, it begins with the most generic noun and verb in the English language.

Finally, the phrasing is predictable. You could jumble this sentence in almost any other order and it would be more interesting than, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

For example:
“The night was dark and stormy.”
“Dark and stormy was the night.”
“A dark night it was, and stormy.”

None of these openings will win you a Pulitzer, but they are all better than the original. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Madeleine L’engle won the Newbery Award with A Wrinkle in Time. Its first sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night.”)

But the worst thing about the weather is it doesn’t matter that much. You should never open with weather unless the setting is the most important part of your story. (Furthermore, your setting should never be the most important part of your story.)

It’s good to establish atmosphere, but it isn’t your first priority. No, your first priority is to build momentum, and you can’t do that with weather.

O. Henry doesn’t begin Springtime a la Carte with weather, but he opens with something just as bad. The only reason he gets away with it is because he apologizes. An excerpt:

It was a day in March.

Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable. For the following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.

Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.

Most of us don’t have O. Henry’s flair for authorial admission, so we should save ourselves the trouble and avoid unimaginative, flat, dry and vacuous beginnings.

Leonard offers an exception to his rule. Barry Lopez, writer of Arctic Dreams, can write about all the ice he likes. I’ve never read Lopez, but here are the first few pages of Arctic Dreams.

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