"It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing", also known as purple prose.
Although the sentence had been in existence before Bulwer-Lytton employed it in his book, the status of the sentence as an archetype for bad writing comes from the first phrase of the opening sentence (incipit) of English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford:
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.
Evaluations of the opening sentence
Writer's Digest described this sentence as "the literary posterchild for bad story starters". On the other hand, the American Book Review ranked it as No. 22 on its "Best first lines from novels" list.
In 2008, Henry Lytton-Cobbold, a descendant of Bulwer-Lytton, participated in a debate in the town of Lytton, British Columbia, with Scott Rice, the founder of the International Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Rice accused Bulwer-Lytton of writing "27 novels whose perfervid turgidity I intend to expose, denude, and generally make visible." Lytton-Cobbold defended his ancestor, noting that he had coined many other phrases widely used today such as "the pen is mightier than the sword", "the great unwashed", and "the almighty dollar". He said that it was "rather unfair that Professor Rice decided to name the competition after him for entirely the wrong reasons." The phrase "the almighty dollar", however, had been used earlier by Washington Irving:
The almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land, seems to have no genuine devotees in these peculiar villages; and unless some of its missionaries penetrate there, and erect banking houses and other pious shrines, there is no knowing how long the inhabitants may remain in their present state of contented poverty.
The Peanuts comic strip character Snoopy, in his imagined persona as the World Famous Author, sometimes begins his novels with the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night." Cartoonist Charles Schulz made Snoopy use this phrase because "it was a cliché, and had been one for a very long time". A book by Schulz, titled Snoopy and "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" includes a novel credited to Snoopy as author, was published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1971.
It is the opening line in the popular 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. L'Engle biographer Leonard Marcus notes that "With a wink to the reader, she chose for the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time, her most audaciously original work of fiction, that hoariest of cliches ... L'Engle herself was certainly aware of old warhorse's literary provenance as ... Edward Bulwer-Lytton's much maligned much parodied repository of Victorian purple prose, Paul Clifford." While discussing the importance of establishing the tone of voice at the beginning of fiction, Judy Morris notes that L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time opens with "Snoopy's signature phrase".
There are a variety of recursive stories based on the quote where one character tells another character a story which itself begins with the same opening line. An example would be "It was a dark and stormy night and the Captain said to the mate, Tell us a story mate, and this is the story. It was a dark and stormy night......etc" The stories often feature a character named Antonio, and they (RNL) have been in existence since at least 1900.
Joni Mitchell's song "Crazy Cries of Love" on her album Taming the Tiger (1998) opens with "It was a dark and stormy night". In the December 1998 issue of Musician, Mitchell discusses her idea of using several cliche lines in the lyrics of multiple songs on the album, such as "the old man is snoring" in the title song "Taming the Tiger". Her co-lyricist, Don Fried, had read of a competition in The New Yorker to write a story opening with "It was a dark and stormy night" and was inspired to put it in the lyrics of "Crazy Cries of Love". Mitchell states:
But the second line is a brilliant deviation from the cliché: "Everyone was at the wing-ding." It's a beautiful out, but that was because it was competition to dig yourself out of a cliché hole in an original way. He never sent it in to The New Yorker, but he just did it as an original exercise.
In the board game It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, players are given first lines of various famous novels and must guess their origin. Originally sold independently in bookstores in the Chicago area, it was later[when?] picked up by the website Goodreadsgames.com.
The annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was formed in 1982. The contest, sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst examples of "dark and stormy night" writing. It challenges entrants to compose "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." The "best" of the resulting entries have been published in a series of paperback books, starting with It Was a Dark and Stormy Night in 1984.
Version 3.6.2 of the statistical programming language, R, has the codename "Dark and Stormy Night." R release names appear to be Peanuts references, in this instance to the character Snoopy's abortive attempts to write a novel and his hackneyed opening sentence of choice.
- "It was a dark and stormy night". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- Mumford, Tracy (October 27, 2015). "Who really wrote 'it was a dark and stormy night'?". mprnews.org. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
- Lytton, Edward Bulwer (1830). Paul Clifford. New York: Cassell Pub. Co. OCLC 19091989.
- Petit, Zachary (January 18, 2013). "Famous First Lines Reveal How to Start a Novel". Literary Digest. Retrieved 30 May 2013.
- "100 Best First Lines from Novels". American Book Review. Retrieved 30 May 2013.
- Alison Flood (19 August 2008). "'Literary tragedy' of Bulwer-Lytton's dark and stormy night under debate". Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2013.]
- Irving, Washington. "The Creole Village," The Complete Works of Washington Irving, Vol. 27. Roberta Rosenberg, editor. Boston, Twayne Publications, 1979, xxii.
- "Our Story | The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest". bulwer-lytton.com. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
- Foster, Thomas C. (2003). How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Harper-Collins. p. 74. ISBN 9780061804069.
- Schulz, Charles M. (2010). My Life with Charlie Brown. University Press of Mississippi. p. xviii. ISBN 9781604734485.
- Ahlberg, Janet & Allen (1998). It Was a Dark and Stormy Night. National Geographic Books. ISBN 9780141300276.
- L'Engle, Madeleine (1962). A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9780374386139. OCLC 22421788.
- Martin, Douglas (September 8, 2007). "Madeleine L'Engle, Writer of Children's Classics, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
- Marcus, Leonard (2012). Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle in Many Voices. Macmillan. p. 14. ISBN 978-0374298975. This is an anthology of multiple biographical essays. The quote is from the introduction by the editor.
- Morris, Judy (2001). Writing fiction for children: stories only you can tell. University of Illinois Press. p. 99.
- "BBC Radio4 Today Programme Archive "How does the worst of all possible novels begin?"".
- "Tell Us One of Your Famous Stories: 'Twas a Dark and Fearsome Night". 10 November 2019.
- "TURNER, K.: Horn Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (K. Mascher-Turner, K. Turner, F. Lloyd, Bloomer)".
- "Joni Mitchell Library – Embrace the Tiger: Musician On-Line". jonimitchell.com. December 1998. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
- Ruth Solomon (April 3, 2008). "Bright sunny day for new game: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night". Libertyville Review.
- "Goodreadgames.com". Retrieved 2 March 2018.
- Rice, Scott (1984). It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: The Best (?) from the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140075564.
- "R 3.6.2 is released". Retrieved 4 February 2020.
- "Is there any authoritative documentation on R release nicknames?". Retrieved 4 February 2020.