The first line of a book can set the tone for what follows. Since Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” writers have had big shoes to fill. Rather than try to compete, some writers intentionally write awful openers. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest awards its prize to the worst of the wretched. Let’s look at some of the most hilarious from years past.
So Bad It’s Good—Winner 2016
Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her. — William “Barry” Brockett, Tallahassee, FL
Can’t you just see this room and imagine the seedy character who inhabits it? You would read this book, wouldn’t you? The imagery of this line is expertly bad. No wonder it won the prize!
Too Much of a Good Thing—Winner 2015
Speaking of imagery, there can be too much of a good thing. A music theory teacher by day, winner Joel Phillips cooks up dastardly prose by night. Read his grisly opener below if you dare.
Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
It’s No Shakespeare—Fantasy Winner 2014
Are fantasy writers trying to follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps when they invent new words? It’s not necessarily a bad trait, except maybe in the introductory sentences of a story. Try to follow this opener rife with made-up vocabulary.
As he strolled among the Kenthellians, through the wide parndamets along the River Elinionenin, thrimbening his tometoria and his Almagister’s scrollix, he thought to himself, “Wow, it is sure convenient there’s a glossary for made-up fantasy words on page 1048.” — Stephen Young
What a relief for writers! You don’t have to have the best of lines to start a story. In fact, the worst of lines might earn you the dubious honor of winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. So don’t throw those terrible paragraphs away; send them in!