Bad Writing at its Best

Oh, happy, happy day, the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening sentence in a novel has announced its 2012 winners (here). The prize has a long and proud history. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a 19th-century novelist and friend of Dickens whose books have deservedly fallen out of favour. (Trust me, I’ve read a bunch for work; you don’t want to.) His novel Paul Clifford began with the sentence:

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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This was then picked up by Snoopy, who used the first clause for his own always-under-construction masterwork. And then in 1982 the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, run by the English department at San Jose State University, was born.

The prize now has many categories — worst opening line for a children’s story, worst opening line for a detective story, fantasy fiction, historical fiction — in fact, worst opening line in almost every genre you’ve ever heard of.

A random selection of my favourites:

What shocked Juliette as she entered the room was not that there was an escaped convict under her coverlet snuggling with her best teddy bear, but that there was a knife through his back, “And who,” she wondered out loud, steadying herself against the faux-taffeta wallpaper, “would stab a teddy bear?” — Katie Alender, Studio City, CA



The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, not even a sharp knife, but a dull one from that set of cheap knives you received as a wedding gift in a faux wooden block; the one you told yourself you’d replace, but in the end, forgot about because your husband ran off with another man, that kind of knife. — Lisa Lindquist, Jackson, MI


It was a dark and stormy night – actually not all that dark, but more dusky or maybe cloudy, and to say “stormy” may be overstating things a bit, although the sidewalks were still wettish and smelled of ozone, and, truth be told, characterizing the time as night is a stretch as it was more in the late, late afternoon because I think Oprah was still on. — Gregory Snider, MD, Lexington, KY

Not all winners are of the convoluted, BL-type. This is simply perfectly terrible:

The day dawned much like any other day, except that the date was different. — Geoff Blackwell, Bundaberg , Queensland, Australia

But I think I should end with

It was a stark and dormy night – the kind of Friday night in the dorm where wistful women/girls without dates ovulated pointlessly and dreamed of steamy sex with bad boy/men in the backseat of a Corvette – like the one on Route 66, only a different color, though the color was hard to determine because the TV show was in black and white – if only Corvettes had back seats. — David Kay, Lake Charles, LA

mostly because I read a page of 50 Shades of Grey over someone’s shoulder on the tube yesterday and I was mesmerized by the following paragraph opening: ‘After our tasty and nutritious meal…’ After our tasty and nutritious meal? Really? Really? You can write that, and still have 12 million readers?

Maybe Bulwer-Lytton was on to something.

Tagged in:,