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, from his novel, Paul Clifford
Every writer has heard about the horrible first line for a novel: It was a dark and stormy night. The irony is that this is just an excerpt from the actual sentence, which rambles on for several more lines. As a sentence, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ is just fine. Add in the rest, and you are into the realms of purple prose.
Purple prose is where the language is so florid and baroque that it distracts the reader away from the story. However, no novel can survive without some sort of descriptive language. It is a matter of style and personal taste as to how much ornate phrasing you use as a writer. Modern tastes tend to favour sparse, short, strong sentences; in Bulwer-Lytton’s era, the fashion was for more flamboyant writing.
I see no reason why you can’t use ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ as it gets the job done. In Bulwer-Lytton’s case, he was trying to get too much done in just one sentence and let it amble onward without a real point. He might be notorious for bad writing in these modern times, but he was (and still is) a well known author who could create a memorable turn of phrase. He coined such memorable catchphrases as ‘the great unwashed’, ‘pursuit of the almighty dollar’, and ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He deserves a better reputation than as the Father of Purple Prose, since he has contributed much to the English Language.
Let’s look at what is right and wrong with his original sentence. As I’ve previously noted, it is trying to do too much. It is trying to set the scene and provide information about the time and setting. A better method might have been to break the sentence down into smaller structures.
It was a dark and stormy night. A torrential rain was falling in London. A violent and gusty wind rattled along the housetops. It fiercely agitated the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
As you can see, in this first rewrite I am attempting to retain the language of the original sentence.By breaking the sentence into four separate sentences, I get a much better idea of what Bulwer-Lytton was saying, because I don’t get ‘lost’ in the middle of the sentence. Clarity is improved (slightly). But there are certain ideas that are ‘repeated’ and this snippet of text could be given a more modern flow with a slight rewrite.
A violent rainstorm rattled the rooftops of London. The gusty night wind shook windows, and threatened to douse the scanty flames of lamps.
Of course, this is still descriptive writing even though I’ve taken out ‘struggled against the darkness’ as I already know its dark because it is nighttime. I dropped ‘fiercely agitated’ because I used ‘threatened’ instead. This also conforms to the modern fashion of discarding adverbs. I kept adjectives like ‘gusty’ and ‘scanty’, because they are doing a stalwart job of describing the wind and the flames of the lamps. I don’t know if this is better than the original sentence, but it is certainly more concise while retaining the descriptive flavour.
The other end of the scale would be something like this.
Nighttime London was rattled by a violent storm.
A violent storm threatened nighttime London.
These are both crisp sentences. They get the job done, but they don’t create an atmosphere or enrich details of the setting. I personally prefer a bit more descriptive language than this, but in certain genres these wouldn’t be out of place. Nonfiction and factual historical recounts often use language like this, when it is important to stick to the facts. This is description cut down to the bones.
As a tweenager, I was in love with purple prose. I read a lot of Victorian-era fiction, and was a fan of Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby series. Mitchell loved to minutely describe both the horse characters and the scenery in her books. (I’ve read every Silver Brumby book, and yet I still see Thowra as a grey and not a palomino. My Seventies paperback book-covers always displayed silver-white horses.) As I’ve mention, there are fashions in writing styles, and at the moment overly descriptive writing is considered ‘bad’.
When the descriptive writing draws you into the setting, can it still be considered purple prose?