How bad can a first line in literature be? Read this and find out.
2012 Contest Winners
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.)
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.
"Wretched Writers Welcome"! Ha!