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

In News by Edward Nawotka

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?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.