Opening sentences – so bad they’re good

The annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest has found a worthy winner this year in Sue Fondrie, an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Her winning line:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Every year the contest challenges people to enter the worst opening sentences to an imaginary work of fiction in various categories such as romance, adventure, Sci-Fi and even vile puns.

The idea is to celebrate the English politician and writer Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton. Wikipedia describes him as being :

immensely popular with the reading public and wrote a stream of bestselling novels which earned him a considerable fortune. He coined the phrases “the great unwashed” , “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”.

Indeed, the full sentence which has inspired a love of truly bad writing comes from his novel Paul Clifford, which was published in 1830:

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.

One of my favourite entries from the 2011 batch was a runner-up in the purple prose category. It was written by Jack Barry, of Shelby, North Carolina:

The Los Angeles morning was heavy with smog, the word being a portmanteau of smoke and fog, though in LA the pollutants are typically vehicular emissions as opposed to actual smoke and fog, unlike 19th-century London where the smoke from countless small coal fires often combined with fog off the Thames to produce true smog, though back then they were not clever enough to call it that.

Another favourite, written by Lisa Kluber of San Fransisco, received a dishonourable mention in the romance category:

They called her The Cat, because she made love the way she fought, rolling rapidly across the floor in a big, blurry ball of shrieking hair, fury, and dander, which usually solicited a “Shut up!” and flung shoe from one of the neighbors, and left her exhilarated lover with serious patchy bald spots and the occasional nicked ear.

Over the years there have been some magnificent entries and winners. To write a really bad sentence takes a lot of effort. If you’re interested you can check out a ‘Lytonny’ of prize winners from 1983 onwards here.

Be warned though, they are addictive and many are truly LOL-worthy.



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