Writers look down on this opening phrase as being "obvious" and "too moody." It has been the butt of jokes from "Throw Momma from the Train" to Peanuts comics. But I'd like to write a brief defense of Madelaine L'Engle's linguistic choice as well as take a look at what makes descriptions work ... or not work.
L'Engle's phrase, at its most basic, does, indeed, set a tone for the book. And it describes the intensity that the character Meg feels. It also foreshadows the "dark"/sinister beings the characters will encounter, as well as the darkness through which the characters travel during their cross-planetary adventure. So I think that mentioning a "dark night" is thematic and relevant to L'Engle's whole book; she writes it as a fight between love and "the dark."
So what about the complaint that to describe night as dark is too obvious? I would argue that there are all kinds of nights. There are nights that seem like a faint orange hue hangs between the greenness of piled snow and heavy-set clouds. There are purple nights. There are also cold bright nights when the sky is clear and the moon shines like a shadeless pendant bulb.
And yes, there are stormy nights when the darkness seems to swallow up every detail out of reach, as though a cocoon of black velvet envelopes you: a dark and stormy night.
But these days, readers want more than that. We expect writers to paint with words in a more extraordinary way.
On the other hand, overly long or beatific descriptions are considered passé: Flip to almost any page in the classic "Anne of Green Gables" series and you'll find paragraphs of detail like: "a veritable apple-bearing tree, here in the very midst of pines and beeches ... all white with blossom. It's loaded [with apples]—tawny as russets but with a dusky red cheek. Most wild seedlings are green and uninviting."
While most of us still appreciate (and even love) L.M. Montgomery's lengthy stylistic descriptions for its time, these days such florid language is considered "purple prose."
Needless to say, descriptions can make or break even the best concepts and plots. Writers need not only to be gifted storytellers, but word makers and image creators of a new bent.
One author who excels in this is Mark Zusack. Consider some of these images from "The Book Thief":
- a short grin was smiled in Papa's spoon
- one [book] was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon
- empty hat-stand trees
- the gun clipped a hole in the night
- the summer of '39 was in a hurry
- the smell of friendship
- [the] crackling sound ... was kinetic humans, flowing, charging up
Zusak has an uncanny ability to describe. A grin is offered up as if it is a picture from a film director's storyboard. A sound is described using imagery. A feeling is described as a scent. Ideas are personified and people are chemicals.
So think well when you are describing. Go over your story and take the time to find new ways to bring imagery to your reader. And keep it somewhere between "purple" and "dark and stormy."
Do you have a favorite metaphor or simile? Share it below!