One of the most famous opening passages of any novel comes from a book that is hardly recognized today. George Bulwer-Lytton introduced the world to Paul Clifford in 1830 with the words, “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.”
Although the book was popular at the time, it has since faded into relative obscurity, with the exception of its first seven words: “It was a dark and stormy night.” The famous introduction has become the standard by which purple prose is measured. If you want to start a book with overly ornate prose, “It was a dark and stormy night” is the standard you will want to exceed.
The Bulwer-Lytton Contest honors the author who writes the worst opening lines to his or her novel. Entries tend to be somewhat wordy, however. This prompted the creation of the Lyttle Lytton Contest in 2001. Its objective is the same as the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, but entries must be considerably shorter. Initially, contestants were required to keep their passages to under 25 words. The rules have since been changed to put a 200-character limit in place.
Among the winners are:
- 2021 — “Clang! Clang!” protested the knights’ swords, as they were each stopped by the metal wall of the other. — Bianca M.
- 2020 — Marilyn Kingsley, whose nationality could only be described as “vaguely Armenian and about one-third Mesoamerican,” was unfairly rich, not only in Aztec gold but also in Caucasian beauty. — Jacob Franzmeier
- 2019 — “Are you okay?” asks my sister Tlaloc. “You’re as green as the parrots that inhabit this part of the continent.” — Lachlan Redfern
- 2017 — “Climate change is real,” squawked the lady scientist to an auditorium crammed full of human sheep who didn’t question a word she said. “And I can ‘prove’ it.” — Harper Cole
- It all started when my topaz eyes looked up into his soft emerald ones. — Will McGill
- 2015 — “I drew my customized Kimber 1911 .45, with the Pachmayr grips and skeletonized trigger, and leveled it coolly at the African-Americans.” –Brad Hanon
- 2014 – “‘Together, we will beat them all,’ she whispered, caressing the circlet-girt fontanelles of her #royalbaby.” (Alex Thorpe)
- 2014 honorable mention — “Birth defects affect us all, but particularly families with children who have birth defects.” (Rowan Jacobs)
- 2013 – “The men greeted each other, wearing various smiles on their faces.” (Noah MacAulay)
- 2012 – “Agent Jeffrey’s trained eyes rolled carefully around the room, taking in the sights and sounds.” (Davian Aw)
- 2011 – “The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.” (Judy Dean)
- 2010 – “”I shouldn’t be saying this, but I think I’ll love you always, baby, always,” Adam cried into the email. ” (Shexmus Amed)
- 2009 – “The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east’ard.” (Pete Wirtala)
- 2008 – “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” (Graham Swanson)
- 2007 – “It clawed its way out of Katie, bit through the cord and started clearing.” (Gunther Schmidl)
- 2006 – “This is the cipher key for all that follows: |||||| || |!” (P. Scott Hamilton)
- 2005 – “John, surfing, said to his mother, surfing beside him, ‘How do you like surfing?’ ” (Eric Davis)
- 2004 – “This is the story of your mom’s life.” (Rachel Lambert)
- 2003 – “For centuries, man had watched the clouds; now, they were watching him.” (Stephen Sachs)
- 2002 – “The pain wouldn’t stop, and Vern still had three cats left.” (Andrew Davis)
- 2001 – “Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreakingly.” (Top Changwatchai)
In addition to the main contest, others are offered from year to year. The winners of those are:
- Freeform contest, 2007 – “Scaling Everest was, by far, the most amazing and transformative experience of my life. Unfortunately, this is a thesis on context-free grammars.” (Jonathan Blum)
- Paragraph contest, 2006 – “The evil Intergalactic Emperor surveyed the destruction he wrought. ‘Booyah!’ he cried with glee. ‘I’m in ur base! I’m killing all ur mans!’ ” (James Wall)
- Paul Clifford contest, 2003 – “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. Steeling himself for battle, Fyandor, the oldest and bravest of the lamps, proclaimed, ‘Nay, foul wind, this will not be the night of our extinguishment!’ ” (anonymous)
- Last line contest, 2002 – ” ‘Lawd a’mighty,’ howled Caleb, to the consternation of those few who still remained in the helpless, drifting lifeboat, ‘some of y’all are lookin’ mighty tasty!’ ” (Mark Silcox)
Read more about the Lyttle Lytton Contest or submit an entry for consideration at its website.