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. –Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
As a Victorian scholar, I’ve actually read Paul Clifford, an offering from perhaps the most-maligned 19th-century English author . It’s not good. Maybe it was popular a century and a half ago, but Stephenie Meyer is today. (It doesn’t help that his piece The Coming Race was read and celebrated by Nazis, though it’s safe to assume he would have been horrified by this posthumous knowledge.)
“It was a dark and stormy night,” has been lambasted by the Peanuts cartoon strip. There’s even an annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest where entrants attempt to write the worst conceivable opening line.
2017’s winner still elicits a belly laugh when I read it.
The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening. — Kat Russo, Loveland, Colorado
I also feel a twinge of sorrow for the fellow. Writing is a brutal profession, and authors need to forge impervious armor if we want to innovate. Yet most writers, myself included, are notoriously skittish when it comes to negative feedback.
He was just a sensitive artist, like many of us, who wanted to tell his stories, dazzle the rabble, to entertain and be enjoyed. To open his twisted mind and invite the public to follow his imaginary world and flights of fancy.
Clearly, he’s no Mary Shelly, no Austen, no Dickens. None of the Bronte Sisters. No LeFanu, MacHen, Stevenson, Haggard, Stoker.
I’m sure he was a nice guy, though.
It’s hard enough to hammer one’s prose in line with modern sentiments, to create characters and plots that won’t set off a shitstorm of condemnation from Tumblr blogs, Twitter, or 4-Chan users. Hell, it’s hard enough to get those throngs–their faux ire eager to be stoked by the most minuscule perceived affront–to read you and be offended in the first place.
Wondering how the world your characters inhabit will play to an audience a century or two later, with all the shifting mores and folkways, is untenable. You’re best ignoring legacy and thinking about present day.
Bulwer-Lytton couldn’t imagine the aesthetic shifts of the 20th and 21st century. Victorian prose is verbose and ornate. Contemporary fiction strives to be direct and succinct. He was just mimicking the style of the day.
And he might not even be the worst offender.
Bram Stoker may have given us the classic Dracula. His novel that introduced the creature-feature-favorite Mummy, The Jewel of Seven Stars, ain’t half bad neither. Everything else is poo, though The Lair of the White Worm has a schlocky, B-movie quality.
And he didn’t introduce the boogeyman of the vampire to English letters.
His predecessors include John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, a novel conceived in the same opium-fueled contest that gave us Frankenstein. A couple of decades later Sheridan LeFanu unleashed his sapphic thriller “Carmilla.” Then came James Malcolm Rymer and his serialized, sensationalist melodrama–I’m not even kidding–Varney, the Vampire.
Varney never sticks his face in the camera and proclaims, “Hey, Vern!” Nonetheless, he does terrorize young Flora Bannerworth as she slumbers. As the hellish fiend peers in her window, licking his lips in anticipation of her blood, playing off every sublimated psychoanalytic trope of a horny, repressed Victorian, he observes the sleeping damsel.
Oh, what a world of witchery was in that mouth, slightly parted, and exhibiting within the pearly teeth that glistened even in the faint light that came from that bay window. How sweetly the long silken eyelashes lay upon the cheek. Now she moves, and one shoulder is entirely visible—whiter, fairer than the spotless clothing of the bed on which she lies, is the smooth skin of that fair creature, just budding into womanhood, and in that transition state which presents to us all the charms of the girl—almost the child, with the more matured beauty and gentleness of advancing years.
Aside from the assumption that, were he born 150 years later, he’d be enjoying foot-long subs with Jared Fogle, Rymer’s prose is laborious, clunky, and painfully hammy.
None of us want to be pigeonholed into that category.
The big-shots who are getting book deals don’t do this. They also have the added benefit of an editor who pushes back against such lapses. If, like me, you’re self-published, you likely don’t have that trained, paid extra set of eyes. You have to squelch your own desire to wax operatic.
But what to keep and what to cut? What is that fine line between milquetoast prose and Bulwer-Lytton? The only answer I can give is one I’m consistently articulating to my writing students: It’s like an old man’s underpants–Depends.
Perhaps Stunk & White are the two most revered names in our trade. Another is a close second: George Orwell. His “Politics and the English Language” is the most compact and profound writer’s guide I can think of.
When my students are trying to hone their skills, mastering academic writing, I direct them to his essay. When I am instructing budding creative writers, I do the same.
His sixth rule is my credo: “Break any of these rules rather than say anything barbaric.”
Writing has a strident set of exhortations. They should demand unwavering adherence.
Until they don’t.
This is why our trade is unique. Not like you have a mathematician saying to you, “When calculating the hypotenuse, use the Pythagorean theorem, but there are a few exceptions.”
As my chemistry lab partner in high school used to say: “It’s not like baking cookies. It’s not an exact science.” (It’s worth noting, he went to college pursuing a chemistry degree and graduated … 12 years later.)
“Kill Your Darlings”
A colleague and good friend of mine has a degree in creative writing. One of the masters he studied under loved to utter the aforementioned phrase. If you write a mellifluous sentence that flows smoother than the lazy currents of the Mississippi as it meanders past the Port of New Orleans, wipe it out with red ink.
That professor isn’t wrong. Even prose writers have an ear. We also read poetry. I want my sentences to be as liquid as Keats when his tuberculosis-laden lungs are envious of the full-throated nightingale chirping its symphony.
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;And mid-May’s eldest child,The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Well, I ain’t writing poetry, and neither are you. Actually, you may be. While I’m no poet, I certainly appreciate those with the talent. Doesn’t matter what your preferred medium is. No one writes like that any more.
I may lament that, but the time has passed.
Still, we want to be descriptive. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think every storyteller has a hankering to toy with the language. Linguistic games are fun, whether it’s subtle sounds echoed from another to full-blown consonance.
During the editing phase of my short stories, I often read aloud. I’ve changed minor details because another word added a superior tonal resonance.
Passable, perhaps. Other nuggets of adornment are inexcusable. Never refer to “eyes” as “orbs” or “lips” as “pink ribbons.” Careful with creating your own diction; “honeysweet” and “pitterpatter” are hyphenated. Likewise, don’t get too carried away with hyphenated adjectives and adverbs, like the “pants-crappingly horrifying” episode of Buffy I mentioned in a previous essay. Ease up on lengthy, singsong descriptions of nature. (Incidentally, “singsong” is not hyphenated.)
I’ve transgressed all of these and more, both in first drafts and finished products. But when to cut, when to use straightforward language, and when to buck the system and stick it to the man like it’s ca. 1979 and you have a mohawk and a safety pin through your cheek?
Well, here’s a little food for thought.
Cliches Are Old Hat
Cliches are phrases that have been used so often they’ve lost all meaning. Yet we continually revisit them.
It’ll put you over a barrel if you beat those dead horses. Your audience will be bored stiff if you don’t go the extra mile and wipe them out. If you really want to be on top of your game, you’ll avoid them like the plague.
They’ll rear their ugly little heads in your first drafts. My advice is to let them stand for the time being. You know I’m a firm believer in revision and editing.
During this process, eschew figurative language and see what the sentence looks like in workaday form. Not floating your boat? Then it’s time to rock it instead.
What can you do to tinker with it, turn it on its head. Spoiled milk doesn’t magically go good again, and stale bread only gets harder. Thankfully words aren’t perishable goods.
The aforementioned “pants-crappingly horrifying?” I broke three rules technically. One, adverb use. Two, said adverb is a hyphenated form that at least I’ve never seen in print. Three, it’s cliche to say you were so scared you crapped your pants.
I let it stand because: a. a more specific adjective such as harrowing just didn’t fit the tongue-in-cheek tone, b. presenting it this way kept the familiar cliche but put a different spin on it, and c. in breaking all three rules, I felt I betrayed a comical sense of self-awareness.
I appreciate that when I see it in writers.
In my latest short story, “Confines, Wards, & Dungeons,” I made two stylistic choices. Twice the protagonist Valentino abruptly allows a cliche to trail off rather than finish it.
“Truth is stranger …”
“More things in heaven and earth …”
That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was toying with dialogue, giving my characters idiosyncratic ways to turn a phrase. I thought it was fitting.
Finally, if you’re unsure of whether or not the well has run dry on your phrase, this site has a handy list of 681 Cliches to Avoid. As you’re chewing that over, you’ll likely see many of them used in this section.
See what I did there?
Verbing Is Verboten
Yes, verbing does weird the language. It also funs it.
I would advise against overuse of such a technique. Again, there are 1,459,098 verbs already at our disposal (may not be an exact count). Chances are with a little flipping through a thesaurus, you’ll be able to snag a precise one.
Nonetheless, there are times it works, usually if a humorous tone is intended. A good example occurs in the pilot episode of Buffy when she asks Giles, “Could you vague that up for me?”
It doesn’t always have to be funny, however. In “A Shaken Shadow,” I wrote in an underlying leitmotif of musicality. The unnamed narrator’s departed wife, a musician by trade, was originally described as having an alto voice that “crescendoed” with every sentence. In revision, I changed that to “trilled into a crescendo” since the word only serves as a noun.
Then I changed it back. Truth be told, I spent a lot of time mulling that one. At that point, there was no attempt at a giggle. Yet I felt the urge to verb.
I’m not sure which I decided in the final draft. With a few clicks of a mouse I could see which.
Instead, I think I’ll just lazy this post a little.
Always Avoid Annoying Alliteration
January marked the 186-year anniversary of the publication of Robert Browning’s superb dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover,” so I don’t feel the need to call spoiler. If you haven’t read it, you have no excuse. Go, now!
After the narrator strangles poor Porphyria, he remarks that her cheek one more “blushed bright beneath my burning kiss,” mimicking the blood that rushes to her dead face.
Likewise, in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, after the speaker spends a night in the childhood home of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. Sickened by his absence due to an untimely death at age 22, it’s time to leave and step into the cold, rainy London morning where “On the bald street breaks the blank day.”
The jarring, discordant consonance of the nasally b’s mirrors his dejection.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” the reader is warned of the sinister nature of Geraldine by an overt comparison to a serpent. Lines such as “Some say she sees my lady’s shroud,” are one step away from Parseltongue.
And I won’t even get into that good ol’ Anglo-Saxon tradition. Just check out Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
But that’s poetry? What about prose?
Readers of this blog will know I have a penchant for doing it in titles.
- Blue Bloods, Bad Books, Boogeymen, and Bummers.
- Matchstick Monuments
- Ignition Impossible
- Birds, Boulders, and Buffy
In text, I’m not opposed either.
In “Archer Bob’s Blue-Ribbon Guide to Unique, Curious, and Inexplicable Roadside Attractions,” particularly in the two scenes that take place in the desert of Baker’s Gulch, there a several sentences containing a solid succession of sibilants.
“Glen squats and toys with a small sprig of green shoots incongruously striving amid the sandy sea of desert.”
A major plot point revolves around a swarm of bats, so thick they blot out the moon, that appear every night just after sunset. I imagined the sound of their myriad beating wings would sound sort of … Well, you get it.
My advice: read aloud. Is it annoying? Does it distract from the story? If so, kill it.
Otherwise, just tell the anti-alliterate hordes to kiss your assonance.
Purple Looks Good on Absolutely No One
First, this is just plain false. My alma mater‘s colors are purple and gold, and I sport their team gear at least twice a week. Sure, I look good in any color, but purple looks particularly nice on me.
Purple prose, however, can be grating. Wander too far into lavish descriptions, borrowed words from foreign tongues, and labyrinthine sentence structure paying homage to Faulkner, and you’ll alienate the audience and win a Bulwer-Lytton.
Yet, it’s in our nature as authors. We love to turn a good phrase, to decorate our literary window boxes with the most vibrant of blooms.
In Confines, Wards, & Dungeons, another paragraph I questioned was:
The sky is charcoal, thick rainclouds obscuring the late-afternoon interim between sunset and darkness. A dense fog looms across the atmosphere, stifling the beams of Valentino’s headlights. The barren trees’ thousand bony fingers point the way. It’s not exactly raining, yet everything drips as if the air itself weeps.
If that isn’t purple, it’s a deep shade of maroon. But the short story is solidly in the horror genre, where a little leeway is given, especially if the description is broody or macabre. And Valentino is already rattled, paranoid, maybe even terrified. Nature should mirror that.
Normally, inexcusable would be a passage like the one I put in “Amorous Birds of Prey“:
Her clumsiness inspired an inexplicable concupiscence. I couldn’t tell if she was openly flirting or naturally friendly. I did feel the warmth of her against me. I caught subtle hints of ginger and cinnamon in her perfume. Each tap of fingertips across my forearm burned and prickled the nerve endings, lingering long after she released me and leaned against a tree, gawking at the twittering denizens overhead.
The sunset’s purple splendor bathed her skin. I studied the contours of her face framed by her hair, enormous eyes gazing upwards. The pose betrayed an unqualified lack of self-consciousness. For several moments, my gaze was unwavering. The breeze brought the rustle of the remaining leaves. Intermittent chirps serenaded us.
Thing is, the narrator Irv is a writer. Were he flesh and blood, he’d tell you that he really struggles when it comes to scenes of romance. Maybe he chews on the scenery a little too much.
The entire short story contains passages like this. I let most of them slide for this reason, a sly nod to the expectation of verbosity we have for our ilk, a slight meta-commentary tinged with a hint of parody.
Matter of fact, when it comes to rule-breaking, it is often done in a jocund manner. Even if the text itself isn’t supposed to be guffaw-inducing, careful readers should at least flash a wry half-smile.
Like my author profile–really in need of a good update–says:
Understanding that storytelling is an artificial, sometimes farcical act, he often leans against the fourth wall without breaking it. He enjoys taking his characters to the brink of human suffering, but always with a sardonic grin.
Let’s Have a PTA Meeting
No, I don’t mean a gathering in a stuffy gym where people in folding chairs yell at each other. Nor am I referring to a get-together to discuss Magnolia and Boogie Nights.
My class could tell you. I rote the hell out of them until they can regurgitate it on command.
I tell them the only absolute in writing is that there are no absolutes. The only rule that doesn’t have an exception is that every rule has an exception.
Feeling rebellious? Just repeat PTA.
Purpose is a little more chiseled for creative writers than my comp classes. “To entertain.” Seldom does another trump that. In many cases, our linguistic and syntactical transgressions will amuse.
But does it fit the tone? Don’t un-serious a scene of gravitas by verbing. Don’t overload a lighthearted exchange by channeling the ambrosial music of the Muses and weaving wondrous words like the golden thread of a spinning Fate.
And audience is perhaps the most important of the triad. Will your readers appreciate what you’re doing?
Actually, they won’t even notice. Then, keeping in mind the exception rule, go for it in almost every case. All five of my currently published short stories are laced with inside jokes that only elicit a chuckle from me. Should other readers catch on, they’ll get a smug satisfaction from their Sherlockian powers of observation.
They’ll catch it. Will they appreciate it, then, or will it yank them mind-first out of the narrative? You know what to do.
Even if it’s a darling.
Sometimes we do have to mercifully euthanize them. I would still argue in certain instances, we should coddle them, spoil them, and thrust them into the spotlight.
Wait … is that cliche?