Dear Reader, doesn’t a great opening line get you excited to read a new book? If you’re looking to explore some great first lines, you should read 22 of the Very Best First Lines of Books. Because…this article isn’t going to give you any of those. If we can’t find an amazing opening line, though, an entertaining alternative is a bad first line.
The best worst first lines are so bad that you can’t help but laugh. You may roll your eyes or gape in disbelief, but either way, these lines give you pause. I’m not naming names, but I’m sure some books popped into your head. When it comes to lousy opening lines, there are the unoriginal ones. There are also the ones that bore the majority of readers. And then there are the lines about women, written by men (more on this later).
I’m not here to hate on the hard work of authors. As a reader and writer, I appreciate the effort and skill it takes to write books, especially after reading some gorgeous literature. Will we ever be able to reach our literary idols? A writer can hope! With that said, some opening lines are just bad, and while we can try to be better and write well, we can also laugh at ourselves and others as we embark on our writing journeys. In fact, there is a whole writing contest dedicated to this. It’s called the Lyttle Lytton contest.
What is the Lyttle Lytton contest?
According to the Bulwer Lytton website, the Lyttle Lytton contest asks for entries of the opening sentences of the worst novel imaginable. And oh, does it get good…or dare I say, bad? Before you ask, these aren’t lines from actual books. That’d be a bit cruel. Participants enter their own unpublished lines into the contest.
The Lyttle Lytton has been around since 1982 and got its name from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel titled Paul Clifford. How did his novel start? Well, it could be worse, but I’ll just say that it lacks originality.
His novel’s opening line is, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
What’s even funnier is that this overused line wasn’t even first written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Professor Scott Rice, whose seminar paper got the ball rolling for this contest, found this line was used by many authors before Lytton.
While it might have started this contest, this line doesn’t come close to some of the most ridiculous entries of recent years. People have gotten more creative at this game of atrocities. Hopefully not too good, but hey, this takes skill, too.
Apparently, a bad line isn’t hard to find because this contest gets thousands of entries each year. The entry winners are separated into several categories. There is a grand prize winner and the grand panjandrum’s special award. The other categories are adventure, children’s and young adult literature, crime and detective, dark and stormy, fantasy and horror, historical fiction, odious outliers, purple prose, romance, science fiction, vile puns, and western. Each of these categories also has “dishonorable mentions.” Most of these categories are clearly defined by their genre, but the other categories, like “dark and stormy” and “odious outliers,” are a little different. For example, the “dark and stormy” category challenges participants to begin their sentence with the original bad opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and somehow make it worse from there.
A brief look through the winners and dishonorable mentions in each category can give you a feel of the type of humor and writer faux paus present in each genre. As you can imagine, the winners in the romance category are probably what you’d expect. That is, lines you’d find in bad fan fiction.
Check out one here:
“It was love at first sight—he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dimpled smile, twinkling green eyes, and in keeping with his combination of statistically unlikely but deeply alluring features, type AB blood, and that condition where cilantro tastes like soap.”
Ananya Benegal (2023 winner romance category)
Outside of the categories, there is the grand prize winner. I’m sure you’re wondering what was the most recent winner (or loser?) this year. Here is the 2023 Grand Prize Winner of Lyttle Lytton contest:
“She was a beautiful woman; more specifically she was the kind of beautiful woman who had an hourlong skincare routine that made her look either ethereal or like a glazed donut, depending on how attracted to her you were.”
The 2023 Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award goes to Daniel Bradford for:
“It was a sunny day in Los Angeles, hot and bright, and I was in my office, playing Mahjong against myself and losing, when she walked in, 120 pounds of dynamite, a blonde with legs that began at her ankles and ended in trouble.”
There were many lines about women written by men. Too many to include here, but because I’m sure you want more, I’ll list a few of my personal favorites.
“She reached a trembling hand toward the huge wrought iron door knocker, her heart pounding in her ample, pink cashmere-covered bosom, like the big bass tom played by that hot drummer down at the new dance club over on 3rd St, a place where, now that she thinks about it, she might just go to instead of knocking on the door of this creepy old house, in the rain, in the dark.”
Cat Frenette (2023 dishonorable mention from Odious Outliers)
“It’s a classic,” she muttered, as she flicked the hair from the old fur coat purchased from eBay for sixty-eight dollars plus overnight shipping for the purpose of this very moment when she stuck out her hip, pulled the trigger, and shot him in that stupid face of his.”
Beth Armogida (2017 dishonorable mention from Crime and Detective)
“He was a stolid man, prone to excessive and extended bursts of emotionlessness; but when Maurice loved, he loved with the passion of a dog itching its face against the grain of a firm pile carpet.”
Stephen Sanford (2014 winner of Purple Prose)
“The air-conditioner hummed like an over-sized bear eating a large salmon he’d fished out of the water and if you’ve never heard an over-sized bear eating a salmon, just imagine an air-conditioner humming and you’ll know.”
Bobby Tessel (2014 dishonorable mention Purple Prose)
“Old man Buckman had been murdering and dismembering teenagers in our town for years, and getting away with it, and it’s important to emphasize this right up front, because young readers like you have painfully short attention spans, and unless a story grabs you right off the bat, you’ll be back on your video games or phones or skateboards in the blink of an eye.”
John Hardi (2019 winner for Children’s Literature)
(As a teacher, honestly, that’s fair.)
“The snow scattered like fair parmesan from God’s own shaker, drifting down lightly to cling to our squirming spaghetti skin beneath robes of tomato puree, making no distinction between the whole wheat and white or tagliatelle and bucatini among us.”
Tzipporah Harker (2019 dishonorable mention Purple Prose)
“God, would you please get your tentacles off of my stomach,” I uttered as Forrest groaned and slithered away from my bed; I swear, if anyone ever finds out I am dating an octopus, it will be social suicide.”
Riley Kwortnik, (2019 dishonorable mention Romance)
“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.”
Stu Duval (2021 grand prize winner)
I’ll admit that some of these lines reminded me of books I’ve started and stopped. With that said, I noticed a few things about the winning entries. If you’re trying to write a bad opening line, go ahead and do the following:
- Write about women from the perspective of a man who hasn’t met a woman (or talked to one).
- Provide lots of descriptions that don’t describe anything. Just tell the reader what it is.
- Include multiple adjectives and other words that don’t add to the narrative.
I know there are more trends to be identified, but I’ll leave that up to you. If you want to read more, check out their website. You can find the winner of every year all the way back to 1996. It is interesting to dive into the winners of prior years and see what was notably atrocious from 10+ years ago.
How can I participate in this contest?
If you want to submit your own attempt at the worst opening line, go to their submission page. You can write as many words as you want, but they suggest between 50 and 60 words. It could be quite the challenge to create the worst opening sentence with the fewest amount of words!
I’m looking forward to reading some hilarious 2024 winners!
Like this article? Try The First Lines of These Queer Books Will Make You Want to Read Them ASAP and Book Riot’s Favorite First Lines From Literature next!