You’re Off To A Horrible Start: Bulwer-Lytton and Creating the Imperfect Sentence


Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is a name with which you are probably unfamiliar but one that has influenced culture for almost 200 years. Bulwer-Lytton was a British politician and extremely popular novelist in the mid-1800’s who coined phrases like “pursuit of the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” He also started his novel Paul Clifford with the now famous line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Here’s what you probably don’t know. The sentence does not end there but, instead of a period, we find a semi-colon and first sentence of the novel actually reads

“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.”

It is thanks to this excessively wordy and slightly ridiculous sentence that we have The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This competition for hilarious and wordy one-liners might have come to be without him, but Bulwer-Lytton definitely earned the namesake.

The concept of the contest is relatively simple. Anyone can submit as many ridiclous and wordy first sentences to unwritten novels as they like and once a year general and genre-specific winners are chosen. You can go to their website and browse through all the previous winners and honorable mentions.

For some reason the absurdity of it all reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse. A great portion of his appeal comes from his construction of deliciously faulty sentences. Anyway, I’m eager to take a crack at it and I think I will begin posting these here under the title of Horrible Starts. Here’s my first! Feel free to share your thoughts or comment with your own monstrous sentence creations!

“Perhaps the house at 2837 North Sutton Road might have appeared quaint and cozy had it stood alone upon a breezy hillside or next to a babbling stream in a glen somewhere; instead, it stood uncomfortably between the new gated community and the squalid and infested complex, like the single bowed and rotting plank one descends when stepping down from heaven into hell.”

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