You can thank the Victorian writer/politician Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, for penning the now well-worn cliché, “a dark and stormy night,” to open his 1830 novel “Paul Clifford.” The phrase has since come to symbolize overwritten, melodramatic prose — a style Victorians considered the height of fashion.
The phrase is only a fragment of the full sentence, which reads: “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.”
The opener has become so notorious that there is even an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest to compose the first sentence to the worst of all possible novels.
If you’re a writer/editor like me, when reading an overwritten sentence like Lytton’s you may think, Wait, that’s not altogether terrible, I can work with that. Afterall, it does paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind and isn’t that what every author wants? Yes, absolutely, but it’s just too too much (note the extra ‘too’ there.) The challenge is not to dull descriptions down, but to make them succinct. Here’s a stab at a rewrite:
‘In the London night, rain fell in torrents interrupted by violent gusts of wind sweeping up the streets, rattling along the housetops, and whipping lamp flames as they struggled against the dark.’
Perfect? Hardly. There’s no such thing, but it is tighter. First drafts are often filled with overwritten, bloated descriptions. As writers, we want to get it all in there, but we also need to make sure every word counts. So look at your bloated word-babies with a cold editor’s eye and be ruthless in trimming them to their core, even if it hurts a bit.