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How Bad Can a First Line in Literature Be? Read This and Find Out

By Dennis Abrams

It was Norman Mailer, I believe, who wrote that you can judge a novel by its opening lines, since, in his opinion, those were the ones that the author puts the most work into. (Some of my favorite openers? “This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and “I get the willies when I see closed doors,” from Joseph Heller’s Something Happened.)

Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton looks on, aghast.

But it is one of the most infamous opening lines in all of literature, “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,” from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford, that has set the standard for bad opening lines for close to two hundred years.

In fact, the line is so infamously bad that it is the inspiration for The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), an annual tongue-in-cheek competition sponsored by the English Department of San Jose University, which announced its 2012 winners this week. Entrants were invited to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The prize? A mere “pittance,” or, roughly, $250.

Among the “highlights:”

Winner: Science Fiction

“As I gardened, gazing towards the autumnal sky, I longed to run my finger through the trail of mucus left by a single speckled slug — innocuously thrusting past my rhododendrons — and in feeling that warm slime, be swept back to planet Alderon, back into the tentacles of the alien who loved me.” —Mary E. Patrick, Lake City, SC

Winner: Romance

“’I’ll never get over him,’ she said to herself and the truth of that statement settled into her brain the way glitter settles on to a plastic landscape in a Christmas snow globe when she accepted the fact that she was trapped in bed between her half-ton boyfriend and the wall when he rolled over on to her nightgown and passed out, leaving her no way to climb out.” —Karen Hamilton, Seabrook, TX

Winner: Historical Fiction

“The ‘clunk’ of the guillotine blade’s release reminded Marie Antoinette, quite briefly, of the sound of the wooden leg of her favorite manservant as he not-quite-silently crossed the polished floors of Versailles to bring her another tray of petit fours.”  —Leslie Craven, Hataitai, New Zealand

Winner: Crime

“She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on…not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and — just like that cheap paint — the dress needed two more coats to cover her.”  —Sue Fondrie, Appleton, Wisconsin

And finally, the winner of the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

“As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and if so, his soul needed regrouting.” —Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England

To see the other winners, click here.

Think you can do better? Or worse? Enter next year’s competition here.

And tell us, what’s your least favorite first line in literature?

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  1. Vincent
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Strangely inspirational!

  2. Posted August 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Wow! It gives me renewed zest not to be too concerned about the opening sentences in my stories. I procrastinate over whether to write something gripping or colorful, and I needn’t worry. I could feel quite at home when compared with the examples above.

  3. David Jeffery
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Suppose Melville had written: “My name is Ishmael.” Would that have refused Moby Dick a place in the pantheon?

  4. Sue Fondrie
    Posted August 20, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the Bulwer-Lytton mention! I encourage all your reader to write badly and enter for 2013. If I can do it, anyone can.
    Sue Fondrie

  5. James L. Lewis
    Posted August 21, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I think it’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that all the winners listed are female.

  6. random passer-by
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    @Sue Fondrie: I’d read that book. I probably have bad taste in literature, but I thought that opening was brilliant.

  7. Laura McAdams
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Hilarious! Thanks for sharing @Dennis Abrams.

  8. Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Here is my favorite (can you tell how many times he uses the word ‘black’???):

    From The Shadow War of the Night Dragons – Book One: The Dead City by John Scalzi:

    Night had come to the city of Skalandarharia, the sort of night with such a quality of black to it that it was as if black coal had been wrapped in blackest velvet, bathed in the purple-black ink of the demon squid Drindel and flung down a black well that descended toward the deepest, blackest crevasses of Drindelthengen, the netherworld ruled by Drindel, in which the sinful were punished, the black of which was so legendarily black that when the dreaded Drindelthengenflagen, the ravenous blind black badger trolls of Drindelthengen, would feast upon the uselessly dilated eyes of damned, the abandoned would cry out in joy as the Drindelthengenflagenmorden, the feared Black Spoons of the Drindelthengenflagen, pressed against their optic nerves, giving them one last sensation of light before the most absolute blackness fell upon them, made yet even blacker by the injury sustained from a falling lump of ink-bathed, velvet-wrapped coal.

    (Oh and did I mention – try reading it out loud?)

  9. Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    These only look like parodies on the original “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    And all of them paint a picture of something that could be very readable. In fact, I would give them all a try just based on the opening line, which means they fail to be bad openers (for me)

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