"It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing", also known as purple prose.
The phrase had earlier been used by Washington Irving in his 1809 "A History of New York". Its status as a catchphrase for bad writing comes from the opening sentence of Bulwer-Lytton's 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.
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, the great-great-great-grandson of Bulwer-Lytton, Henry Lytton-Cobbold, 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 penning "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", and said it was "rather unfair that Professor Rice decided to name the competition after him for entirely the wrong reasons".
The Peanuts comic strip character Snoopy, in his imagined persona as the World Famous Author, always 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 It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Snoopy and 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:
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
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".
Joni Mitchell's song "Crazy Cries of Love" on her album Taming the Tiger 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 song lyrics. 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 titled It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, contestants 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 picked up by the online book reading club Goodreads.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.