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Jul 12 2010

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

by Jesse M


Most of us are familiar with the expository phrase, “ It was a dark and stormy night“. It has been utilized by a number of authors over the better part of the past two centuries, including such notables as Ray Bradbury (in Let’s All Kill Constance) and Madeleine L’Engle (in A Wrinkle in Time). But did you know that the famous opening line is actually the beginning of a much longer sentence? Here it is in its entirety:

“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.”

The quote comes from a book published in 1830 titled Paul Clifford by author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. The sentence is a prime example of what is referred to in literary criticism as “purple prose“, which wikipedia describes as “passages…written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself”.
Back in 1982, a professor in the English department of San Jose University began a contest named in honor of the author, wherein entrants compete to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Since its inception the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has grown to feature multiple competitive categories (such as detective, science fiction, and children’s lit, among many others) and thousands of submissions. This year’s winner is author Molly Ringle and here is her winning entry for your reading enjoyment:

“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.”

If you enjoyed that, go here check out the rest of this year’s winners as well as (dis)honorable mentions. And to read a “Lyttony” of grand prize winners from previous contest, go here.

Do you have a favorite bit of purple prose you’d like to share? Post it in the comments, or even try composing your own!

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