Saturday, 17 March 2012

Doing a Number

By Ashley Lister

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.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The first lesson I ever taught was a 20 minute micro-teach on the importance of strong opening lines. To illustrate the importance of strong opening lines I used examples of poor opening lines. Specifically, I used examples of poor opening lines from the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest.

The Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest is an annual event that has been sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University since 1982. Organisers describe it as, “a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

The sentence at the start of this blog is the reason why Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s name has been associated with this competition. “It was a dark and stormy night…” was the opening line to Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It is repeatedly cited as an example of a poor opening line because:

· It’s wordy and unnecessarily long.

· It discusses unimportant weather detail.

· It doesn’t wholly engage the reader.

There are other reasons why this is considered a poor example of an opening line, although it’s probably fairer to describe it as typical of the period in which it was written, rather than being irredeemably poor.

But I’m not going to argue for or against the merits of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. I shall simply say that further details of the competition can be discovered by visiting: And I should add that it’s possible to lose a day or more on that website.

And, for those who are wondering what any of this has to do with this week’s theme of numbers, I quote below my favourite winner of the Bulwer-Lytton prize.

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, Port Townsend, Washington (1993 Winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize)



Ste said...

Truly atrocious (the openings, not the blog) :)

Ashley R Lister said...

Bad - yes. But somewhat addictive.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your lofty praise! I had a blast writing that little gem, after the idea came to me in a dream, and it took about five days to get it just right. My prize was a $300 word processor and unlimited world-wide fame. Tom Brokaw even read my entry on the NBC Nightly News! Oh, well, maybe someday I'll win it again...
Wm. W. "Buddy" Ocheltree