Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Dipping the Quill Deeper: The Purpliest Prose (It’s a Start, Really)

by Eva Marie Everson @EversonAuthor

I stood in front of the engraved slab, my mouth slightly ajar, then pointed with one finger as my eyes sought out my travel companions, Chris and Clare. “What is it?” Clare asked. “Or rather, who?” 

For well over an hour, we inched our way through glorious Westminster Abbey in London, England. We oohed and aahed at the high ornate ceilings, intricate marble statues, and carved figures and icons within rich wood. We spent time talking with one of the priests, who was most informative. We swam in a sea of languages, fellow tourists. We studied the name plates and likenesses of those buried within the hallowed halls—Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Oliver Cromwell, to name a few—and watched, half amused, as a man vacuumed the area around Henry V’s tomb. “Now there’s a job,” I joked to Clare, known as C.J. Campbell in our literary world. 

And then we made it to the area known as Poets’ Corner.

Here marks the final resting places or the memorialization of some of our greatest artistic and literary figures—Dickens, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Jenny Lind, etc.—as well as the black, trimmed in gold slab, surrounded by beige marble, to which I pointed.

Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton.

Although a politician during the time of Queen Victoria, it is as a writer that you probably know him best. He wrote in a variety of book genres—poetry, historical fiction, romance, science fiction, and mystery—and for magazines. Some of his works were adapted into stage plays and operas. He was known for coining phrases such as “the almighty dollar,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and an opening line from his novel Paul Clifford that made even Snoopy sit up and take enough notice to plagiarize.

It was a dark and stormy night.

We call this “purple prose.”* Did you know that, in 1882, some 32 years after the book was published, these seven words inspired a contest that continues to this day—the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest—in which applicants send in their worst opening lines. 

I have a few I’d like to submit (I bet you do, too). 

Can you imagine being most notably recognized not necessarily for your best line, but for your worst? Here’s what I’ve always found interesting about that one line—when you read it in its entirety, it’s the perfect example of “show don’t tell.”

It was a dark and stormy night, the line begins. This is telling. 

Now read how the author ends it: 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.

For me, this is showing. I wonder sometimes, however, how little we’d know of the novel itself had it not been for those seven telling words. As I said previously, Snoopy himself saw their value. 

I often encourage writers not to worry about opening lines until they are well into their work. Rarely do the right ones come at the start. In all my years of writing to publication, I think the lines I started with became the opening lines on the first page of the book a grand total of once. 

I took my WIP to my critique group recently. I didn’t bother to say that I practically hated the opening paragraphs. I just waited to see how my fellow writers would respond to them. Pretty much, they all agreed—good words, but in the wrong order. Delete, delete, delete.

And that’s okay. I’m fine with that. The point is the same for me as it is for you—for all of us. And that is: just write. 

Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll write something so profound, you’ll get a slab in a famous church. Or maybe you’ll write something so purple in its prose, you’ll get a rotten contest named after you.*"It was a dark and stormy night" is a parodied phrase considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing," also known as purple prose (Wikipedia)


Eva Marie Everson is the CEO of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and the contest director for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. She is the multiple award-winning author of more than 45 books and countless articles and blogposts. She is also an award-winning speaker and a Bible teacher, a recipient of the Yvonne Lehman Award (2022), the AWSA Lifetime Achievement Award (2022), and the ECPA Gold Medallion (2023). 

Eva Marie is often seen at writers conferences across the States. She served as a mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild and taught as a guest professor at Taylor University in 2011. She and her husband make their home in Central Florida where they enjoy their grandchildren. They are owned by a cat named Vanessa.

Eva Marie's latest book, THE THIRD PATH JOURNAL, is a companion to her book, the AWSA Golden Scroll Book of the Year, THE THIRD PATH. The Third Path looks at 26 of the questions God asked in the Bible, then makes them personal to the reader. The premise of the book is currently her most asked for continuing workshop at writers conferences.


  1. Chriswells.grace@gmail.comFebruary 27, 2024 at 12:03 PM

    Omgoodness - I love this post. Thank you for filling in some trivia about Snoopy’s novel that I’ve always wondered about. Lol
    It’s also good to know that fixing that first line every time that first chapter is reread is normal. :)

  2. i love this. Here's one of my favorites from the Bulwer-Lytton contest:
    "With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned,
    unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep
    azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied
    for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that
    defied description."

    1. Apparently ... it did not defy description! LOL