1. “She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her 
like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew
 jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the 
tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what
 little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the 
thief of imagination.”
- Chris Wieloch

 No? Perhaps you’re not into detective fiction. Try a love story:

 2. “As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, 
wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny
 deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum 
therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, 
causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the
 soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.”
 — Cathy Bryant

 Not bad. But perhaps a metaphor is better:

 3. “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

 No? Too florid? Try this one:

 4. “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they 
greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss – a 
lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s 
mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were 
the world’s thirstiest gerbil.
— Molly Ringle

You could do worse – or maybe you couldn’t – by beginning your story with a cataclysm:

 5. “Gerald began – but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which
 cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did 
everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it 
mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten 
minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking
 ash – to pee.”
— Jim Gleeson.

 Or perhaps with a dramatic entrance?

 6. “Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light 
from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door
 swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last 
burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose 
eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the 
shovel clean.” 
— Jim Guigli.

 Some girl. But this one sounds like a heart-breaker too:

7. As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual 
Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly 
functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the
 intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled 
caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as 
described in chapter seven of the shop manual. 
— Dan McKay

 No good? Why don’t we start with an ending:

8. She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight … 
summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a 
shrimp’s tail … though the term “love affair” now struck her as a 
ridiculous euphemism … not unlike “sand vein,” which is after all 
an intestine, not a vein … and that tarry substance inside certainly
 isn’t sand … and that brought her back to Ramon. 
— Dave Zobel

 But it may be better to set the scene properly first:

 9. Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along 
the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky,
 Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery 
where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried,
 and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware
 of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life. 
— Dr. David Chuter

 If you’re writing a cerebral, literary novel, your first sentence should make it clear:

10. She wasn’t really my type, a hard-looking but untalented 
reporter from the local cat box liner, but the first second that the
 third-rate representative of the fourth estate cracked open a new 
fifth of old Scotch, my sixth sense said seventh heaven was as close
 as an eighth note from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so, nervous as 
a tenth grader drowning in eleventh-hour cramming for a physics 
exam, I swept her into my longing arms, and, humming “The Twelfth 
of Never,” I got lucky on Friday the thirteenth. 
— Wm. W. “Buddy” Ocheltree

 Whatever you do, let the reader know what kind of story you’re writing:

11. The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when Desiree, 
the first female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and 
pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakably – the first of many such
 advances during what would prove to be the longest, and most 
memorable, space voyage of my career." 
— Martha Simpson

No, perhaps you’re right. They say starting with the weather is best:

12. "Sultry it was and humid, but no whisper of air caused the 
plump, laden spears of golden grain to nod their burdened heads as 
they unheedingly awaited the cyclic rape of their gleaming treasure,
 while overhead the burning orb of luminescence ascended its 
ever-upward path toward a sweltering celestial apex, for although 
it is not in Kansas that our story takes place, it looks godawful 
like it." 
— Judy Frazier

Bad? Really terrible?

Well, they’re meant to be.

They are all past winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored by the English department at San Jose State University. Entrants are invited to compose the worst opening sentence to a novel they can imagine – the examples above are all grand winners of the sumptuous first prize of $250.

The competition attracts over ten thousand entries every year – they don’t do it for the money, they do it for the love of the sport.

Some of them have an element of genius:

She made you want to dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.’

I think Elmore Leonard might have coveted that zinger.

The competition was named after English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began his 1830 novel, ‘Paul Clifford’, this way:

“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.”

So this is why you should never start your novel with a dark and stormy night … or a bright and sunny day. It’s not just poor technique; it’s because it reminds people of Bulwer-Lytton.

I’m happy to report that my latest novel does not start with the weather:

 John F Kennedy, Dallas, assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, conspiracy

AMAZON buy3._V192207739_buy6._V192253028_Kobo_buyNook_Buy





Colin Falconer, bestseller, historical fiction


About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
This entry was posted in WRITING and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. I entered the Bulwer-Lytton one year. It was great fun. It was worth entering just for the very funny postcard acknowledgement you got.

    • Did you, Sue? What was in the postcard they sent you? I think some of these entrants were so talented – these were so bad, they were good. ‘Made me want to dig my own grave and lick the shovel clean.’ Excellent. How long did it take you to think up an entry?

  2. Jan says:

    Oh Colin, my sixth sense feels like cracking open a new fifth of old Scotch and reread your blog again and maybe again, summarily, all I can unheedingly and unmistakably say is…salute!

  3. violafury says:

    Colin! Oh. My. God. I actually attended San Jose State University for about 5 minutes, before heading off to the University of Michigan. Again, my father, he of the 17-year-old-off-to-World-War-II, the literary prankster, and eternally bad pun-maker (“What’s red, green, white and blue and lives in a test tube? Why, it’s Bozo the Clone!) and japery that amused mostly himself and amused me even more for all of that, would play, “Bad Opening Sentences,” before the Bulwer-Lytton Contest was ever started.

    My father was working at some kind of spook job at the time, in the Military-Industrial complex, so to relax, besides having a nip or three, his idea of fun was, playing “Bad Opening Sentences”. One of his gems: “It was a dark and stormy night, and three old curmudgeonly salts, but one were sitting around a fire on the ship’s deck, that guttered and spat with the howling, yowling winds, as the trireme pitched and yawed through stormy seas. One of the old sea-dogs, turned to Boy-Boy and said, “Tell us a story, Boy-Boy,” so Boy-Boy, being the youngest pirate ever to have a titanium steel peg-leg began, “It was a dark and stormy night, and three hobos were sitting around a fire. . .” I love the nebulous sense of time and place. I’ve always enjoyed anachronisms and just what IS on fire, the deck and if so, is the deck guttering and spitting, or is it the fire? So many questions and it just. . . DOESN’T work on so many levels. An entry-winner, if ever I saw one!

    I couldn’t top that if I tried, although I finished NaNoWriMo on November 29,2013 with 50,971 words, and after the cool-down period, I am sure, I have some unintentional crap like that, but nowhere as wonderful!

    My father, were he alive today, would be totally down with the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Being a voracious reader from a young age, he passed on that love to me. He also passed on the fun and the zany. Thanks, Colin for the very, very fond memories of a much-missed, died way-too-young father. By the way, Number 7 would be so vastly improved with this: 7. “As he stared at her ample bosom(s),” ~~Mary

  4. These all make me want to shoot myself. I abhor guns, but I am this close…
    No. 6 takes the cake, although I don’t know how to pick worst from worst. I need to unplug, lay down and massage my temples.
    I’m grateful no-one in his or her RIGHT mind would write any of these in their right minds!

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