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.