So the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest were posted earlier this week. If you’re not a literary nerd, you may not recognize the immortal name of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began his novel 1830 novel Paul Clifford with It was a dark and stormy night–later pirated by Madelyn L’Engle and Snoopy. Not a bad opening line, but the author unfortunately followed up with
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.
Hence the inspiration for the contest.
I don’t understand why this is such a big deal–I throw off these multi-liners every day. In fact, the original opening sentence of my latest novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, goes like this:
The scar on Mother’s upper lip quivered like a compass needle, and that was the first indication I had that a plan had been brewing in her restless mind to take us all to California–although I can be forgiven for not immediately grasping her intent because if the scar was a compass needle it was pointing north, and even my little sister Sylvie, currently wailing on the entrance hall rug where she’d landed after I pushed her downstairs, knew that California was south.
TMI, I suppose–my editor got it down to 40 words:
The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street. that was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.
I leave it to the reader to determine which is better. It’s fatally easy to run on at the pen, though (or keyboard); for the opening lines of my first published novel, The Playmaker, I went for vivid imagery:
Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs, but I was happy to discover, as I crested the last rise on the road to London, that the pungent smell that ripped my nostrils was not burning flesh, only garbage and dung.
The final cut:
Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.
Sometimes shorter is sweeter. What I consider my best opening line took a little work. Originally I tried a dramatic approach:
Little did I know, as I stood in the bathroom doorway holding my brother’s sweaty hand as his screams mingled with the groans of my mother who was sprawled on the cracked tile floor with one leg grotesquely twisted like a pretzel and the scraggly hairs of a squirrel tail seeming to mock her agony, that I was in for the road trip of my life.
But then, it’s not necessary to give everything away in the first sentence, so I settled on
None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.
I should enter that contest some day. They even have a category for children’s literature. Here’s the winner:
The doctors all agreed the inside of Charlie’s intestinal tract looked like some dark, dank subway system in a decaying inner city, blackened polyps hanging from every corner like tiny ticking terrorist time bombs, waiting to burst forth in cancerous activity; however, to Timmy the Tapeworm this was home.
You can see all the winners here. Get inspired, and may the terse be with you!