Is this the worst opening sentence to a novel?

It isn’t often that writers try their best to write badly but that’s the aim of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The competition challenges writers to compose the worst opening sentence to a novel. The winner for this year’s contest has been announced. Sue Fondrie is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her winning sentence:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
- Sue Fondrie

The contest was started by English Department at San Jose State University in 1982. It was the initiative of Professor Scott Rice, who discovered the origins of that fateful and ubiquitous opening phrase: “It was a dark and stormy night …” These were the opening words to the novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, after whom the contest was named.

The rules to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are:

Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. (One fellow once submitted over 3,000 entries.)
Sentences may be of any length BUT WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT ENTRIES NOT GO BEYOND 50 OR 60 WORDS, and entries must be “original” (as it were) and previously unpublished.

Runner-Up in the contest:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.
- Rodney Reed, Ooltewah, TN

You can even write in a genre.

Winner: Adventure

From the limbs of ancient live oaks moccasins hung like fat black sausages — which are sometimes called boudinnoir, black pudding or blood pudding, though why anyone would refer to a sausage as pudding is hard to understand and it is even more difficult to divine why a person would knowingly eat something made from dried blood in the first place — but be that as it may, our tale is of voodoo and foul murder, not disgusting food.
- Jack Barry, Shelby, NC

Winner: Crime

Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler–who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne–or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.
- Mark Wisnewski, Flanders, NJ

Winner:  Romance

As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand—who would take her away from all this—and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.
Ali Kawashima, Greensboro, NC

You can view the full list of winners here.

And we’re still wondering whether was trying to be ironic with this headline. Thanks to @laurenetrim and @dnee for pointing this out!

Irony or accident?


About Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is National Director of the Australian Writers' Centre. As a feature writer, her work as appeared in Vogue, CLEO, Virgin inflight magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Financial Review magazine and many more publications. For six years, she wrote a weekly Enterprise column, syndicated across six major Fairfax news sites. She is author of "Power Stories: The 8 Stories You MUST Tell to Build an Epic Business". Valerie teaches "Magazine and Newspaper Writing" at the Australian Writers' Centre in Melbourne.

  • Rebecca

    If they were, in fact, the opening sentences to comedies, some of them could be considered quite good. They made me laugh out loud at least =D

  • Carmen

    Shaun Micallef is the true and rightful heir to the mantle of Bulwer-Lytton.

  • Raya traval

    I Don’t think they are the worst sentences they would be the best.They captivate you, mesmerise you because they are so unique, how could you say they are the worst?

  • Sharon

    Alas, for far too many years far too many have struggled far too hard to choose only the most suitable words, fitting them snugly into the jigsaw puzzle of grammar, mashing them with a desperate fist into the holes offered by syntax, occasionally tearing inappropriate notches or extrusions to suit the beckoning niches provided by style, hoping that in the end all this finicking fitting would finish by displaying a never to be forgotten image of beauty (or horror, or intrigue, or what you will); and mostly they should have just given up.

  • Valerie Khoo

    You tell them Sharon! :)