Updated: Nov 12, 2020
In Making Writing Exciting, we reviewed recent winners of the Bulwar Lytton Prize, which is awarded to the most atrocious first sentence of a bad imaginary novel in the spirit of Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, the English author most famous for contributing the cliched ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ phrase to our literary canon.
Specifically, he began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with this Victorian train wreck of a 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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
You’ve got to love, and hate, writing like that.
To pen a really good bad opener takes a surprising amount of skill and effort. The 2018 prize winner, Tanya Menezes (at 17, the youngest ever), crafted this delectably atrocious offering:
“Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depth so it could never be found again—and maybe get some custard after.”
My intrepid North Star writers leapt at the challenge and, with a considerable amount of barely controlled laughter, drafted their own contributions to the Bulwer-Lytton tradition. Their gloriously bad intros are reproduced below:
“Uh, oh, well, mmm… hi, uh, I mean… hello there, *cough cough* er, salutations, um, uh, you person—or, uh,” his talking sped up, “may-maybe you’re not a person, who knows, I sure don’t, don’t worry I don’t actually know anything about you, heh heh… sooo yeah…”
– Sadie Hiam
It was a dark and stormy night and Lillian Smith was feeling haunted by her best friend’s murder (incidentally Lillian had nine fingers because when she was eleven she wanted to be a chef), when all of a sudden she heard a noise, so she got up off her bed and walked to the door that led into the hallway and opened it, but it creaked really loudly causing her pet poodle, Stinky, to bark frenzily (Stinky was pink with eyes like orbs of pure rage because a while back she dyed his fur but the dye made him mutate so he was always angry and farting). [Editorial note: Some of our writers went on to complete the paragraph with additional good-bad sentences, like the following.] As Lillian crept into the hallway she heard another noise. The phone was ringing, so she walked over to it and picked it up. Maybe it was the murderer calling to confess. “Hello,” Lillian said. “Hi Sweetie” said a voice on the other end, “I’ll be home soon.” It was her mother. “Okay,” said Lillian and hung up the phone. It was not the murderer of her friend after all. She would not be able to avenge Kyle’s death today.
Once upon a time in a far off land, a little chicken was about to be killed; the little girl who was trying to kill it was struggling, for the chicken was strong and fierce, with sharp talons and vicious beak that could cut through flesh with a single nip (the little girl had short bob-length hair that was boringly straight, unlike her).
– Fayley Kapitalik
It was a dark and stormy night when a fierce chicken walked along the cold, hard cobblestones of dreary, crowded New York City; all you could hear was the ‘tack tack tack’ of the chicken’s talons on the cobbley ground and the ‘ping ping ping’ of the rain on the steel roofs.
– Fayley Kapitalik
Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess with long, golden hair, a slender build, porcelain skin, and eyes as blue as the sky who was engaged to a prince she had never met, but he was said to be as handsome as a perfect summer day, with chestnut hair and green eyes; but when the prince got to the castle for the wedding, dressed in the best furs, velvets, and silks (the armor of his knights shone as he waited to see his bride for the first time), at first he heard it, a click, click as his bride walked down the isle; next he felt it, his bride’s hands were as cool as glass; finally he saw it; after saying their vows her veil was pulled back and the prince realized his mistake: He had just married Gertrude, Princess of the Doll Kingdom.
John was a boy, to be more clear, not a girl; a boy walking a short way to the school bus which, as John saw it, was nothing less than a vehicle holding children captive as the wheels churned, making dust clouds in the distance, for it is on the streets within the suburbs of Chicago that our story continues, and each step of his flip flops slapped the pavement, bopping all the useless ants trailing under him on their heads—but John was a boy who was brought great pleasure by thinking of things like that (he was known to send neighborhood cats scrambling up the trees composed of a trunk and branches); and as John’s feet brought him to the school bus stop he nodded at some girls across the street who were giggling, wrapped up in their own conversation (he had a lovely feeling they were talking about how handsome he looked that day). As the giant yellow star, known to us as the sun, cast its rays down to man, well, not just any man, it was John, the entire universe shone for him only. And now they’re all on the vehicle, the bus driver steering the wheel and John sitting next to his friend Joe, who’s cracking his knuckles into a megaphone (a megaphone being a device which amplifies sound).
Who knew bad writing could be so good? – Alex Hiam, author of the Silent Lee series.