Are You Sitting Comfortably?

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On one of my online communities, I recently saw a poll: what’s the worst way to start a story? There were a number of stereotypical first lines given, including ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, and ‘once upon a time’. Interestingly enough, the latter was coming off the best (as in, voted the least worst way to start a story).

I’m not overly surprised that ‘once upon a time’ is still acceptable or even popular, because it is the bones of childhood storytelling. We will accept it unthinkingly – in many ways it doesn’t even form part of the actual story, it just signifies that a story is about to happen. Because it’s so traditional, it can also be subverted in fun ways.

But this brings me on to a question: what’s the difference between traditional and clichéd? Where does the line get drawn between ‘once upon a time’ and ‘dark and stormy night’? Perhaps it is because the former doesn’t actually say anything about the story, whereas the latter is a clichéd, bad way of scene setting. But is there more to it than that?

Also, can ‘once upon a time’ be used to open any story? Or does it only work for fairytales and fantasy? It sets certain expectations on what will follow. The story won’t be in a modern era, it’s unlikely to be horror (although dark is fine), etc etc. To put it in film terms, Star Wars could use it but Alien couldn’t. Or am I enforcing my own perceptions here?

It may be that this phrase is a hangover from a stronger tradition of oral poetry. This is something I think I’ve mentioned in the past – one of the techniques of an oral poet is to have a number of set phrases which they can use to pad out a story, or give them time to think whilst remembering the next part. ‘Once upon a time’ is an excellent example, as is one of Homer’s favourites, ‘dawn came with her rosy fingers’. But it seems to be the only such phrase in English folktales. If there was a common theme of oral tradition, I’d expect to see a few more. This isn’t anything I’ve looked into, by the way – just idle conjecture. If anyone has any answers or further thoughts, I’d be very interested to hear them.

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3 responses »

  1. I’ve used ‘once upon a time’ in front of a non-nice fairy tale, since subversion can make it all the more creepy when the creepy kicks in. I also used, ‘it wasn’t a dark and stormy night,’ but I imagine I’m not alone!

  2. “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 first recorded use of ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830. I love it.

    • It does not however explain how it got into such wide use. The idea of set phrases could come from an oral tradition, but then why are some phrases kept and re-used and others disgarded? The above quote is actually sited as an example of bad writing (which is how Ben discovered it in the first place and forwarded it to me)… if something is still used almost 200 years after you wrote it, it can’t be that bad surely? I don’t have any answers I’m afraid!

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