This Fiction Contest Honors the Worst of the Worst

By: Sydney Murphy  | 

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined many expressions, including "It was a dark and stormy night" and "The pen is mightier than the sword." Bettman/Getty Images

"It was a dark and stormy night." The line has become such a cliché, it's inspired an annual fiction-writing contest for the worst opening line of a novel. The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest honors English author and playwright Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel "Paul Clifford" begins with that deathless phrase.

Bulwer-Lytton coined famous expressions like "the great unwashed," "pursuit of the almighty dollar," "the pen is mightier than the sword" and "dweller on the threshold." But "It was a dark and stormy night" is the one he is most known for.

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If you want to get the full flavor of his writing, here is the whole first sentence from "Paul Clifford":

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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Bulwer-Lytton's namesake contest was founded in 1982 by English professor Scott E. Rice at San Jose State University in California and celebrates the creation of purple prose. This is flowery and ornate language that serves little meaningful purpose in a piece. The competition challenges participants to (in the words of the website) "write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written."

The grand prize-winning sentence is chosen by a "Panel of Undistinguished Judges" from thousands of entries sent in from all over the world. The winning phrase of the 2021 contest was written by Stu Duval of Auckland, New Zealand and goes like this: "A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn's ogling stare."

The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest accepts submissions every day of the year, but the deadline for each year's contest is June 30. Each entry must consist of a single sentence of any length, but it's strongly recommended you don't exceed 50 or 60 words. You can enter as many times as you wish.

Further guidelines can be found on the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest website. According to the official rules, the prize for winning the contest is "a pittance (and bragging rights)."

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