Kids, Don’t Try This At Home:
Some Really Awful Opening Lines

By PJ Parrish

It is a dark and stormy night.  Really.  The wind is wailing against the window panes as I write this.  No snow down here in Tallahassee, but we’re getting the rear end of the big winter storm that is pounding across the country.

I’d say this is as good a time as any to talk about some really really really bad opening paragraphs.  Plus, the holidays are upon us and I have to go to fight the huns and visigoths at the mall soon, and don’t have a lot of time and energy to give you any good craft advice tonight.  My brain is fried.  I’ll bet yours is as well. So…

My last post of 2019 is devoted to one of my favorite writing contests — the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest! It’s held every year by the English Department of San Jose State University. Entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”  The contest is named after the esteemed English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Here’s the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

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.

Man, it just doesn’t get any better than that.  Although many writers, since 1982, have been inspired to try. The contest honors bad openings in all genres — click here to read them all. Here’s this year’s Grand Prize winner.  I’m not sure what the genre is, but I think the world is coming to an end.

Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago. — Maxwell Archer, Mt Pleasant, Ontario, Canada

And since I am sucker for a pun, here’s the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award:

Emile Zola wandered the dank and soggy streets of a gloomy Parisian night, the injustice of the Dreyfus affair weighing on him like a thousand baguettes, dreaming of some massage or therapy to relieve the tension and pain in his aching shoulders and back, and then suddenly he thought of his Italian friends and their newly invented warm water bath with air jets and he rapturously exclaimed that oft misquoted declaration — “Jacuzzi!” — Robert R Moore, North Falmouth, MA

Geez, I wish I had written that. Here’s the winner in Romance:

The villa in Tuscany is abandoned now, and nature, in the form of invasive vegetation, is reclaiming the small vineyard where Rodolfo and Susannah made love each afternoon, beginning with the creeping Coccinia virginiana, followed by the woody Polemonium gloriosa, and ending, of course, with the drooping Glandularia vulgaris. — Bob Pellicone, Lincroft, NJ

Wasn’t this made into a chick-flick starring Diane Lane and that really hot Italian guy? But I’ve saved the best for last.  Here are the winner and runners-up from the Crime/Detective category. I’ve also added some critiques after each because, as we all know, we can learn a lot from awful writing. Read on, crime dogs, and for the moment at least, feel a million times better about your own work in progress. I know I do.

Realising that his symptoms indicated a virtually undetectable, fast acting neurotoxin, CIA coroner Quinn Abner frantically wrote up the details, lay on the floor and, as a professional courtesy, did his best to draw a chalk outline of himself. Jeremy Das, Loughborough, England.

What’s wrong here? Well, we all know better than to start a novel out with a gerund phrase, right? Tsk, tsk…

 

Olivia followed her breasts into my office where I was studying the dead flies on the window sill and dropped a large brown envelope on my desk, which rearranged the dust as it came to rest next to my right elbow, causing me to lose interest in the flies as I watched her walk away, watched carefully while wondering if the motion of her hips could bring a dead man back to life, which led to wondering what she could do to a man who was still alive. —  Will Dennehy, Cambridge, MD

Oh no, no, no…not another dame walks into the pebbled-glass detective office! This is a cliche, of course. Don’t let this happen to you. (Fred MacMurray could have used that advice).

As he pounded on the door, Billy ‘Four-Toes’ Capalone, wondered, not for the first time, if he wouldn’t have been better off in the joint, or even taking a concrete nap, but instead, he straightened his tie and gripped his bible, determined not to blow his cover in the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program. — Arlen Feldman, Colorado Springs, CO

How many times has James told us not to open with a character wondering? Egads…

Eyes bleary from yet another night of fruitlessly staking out the Ritz Motel in West Hollywood’s seedier quarter, hoping to get some usable dirt on Mrs. Hennigan’s wayward hubby Bill, Niles Cranworth, P.I., pushed the start button, cranked the wheel over, and pointed his well-traveled Chrysler 300 southward on La Cienega Boulevard (“La Cienega,” he noted with irony, being Spanish for “the cienega”). — Andrew Lundberg, Los Angeles, CA

Well, at least we know where we are in this opening. But I think the writer’s research is showing.

Detective Wilhelm Schmidt’s raspy voice poured through the telephone receiver like a dump truck of gravel unburdening its load—much like the trucks that worked around the clock at Rohrer’s Quarry off of 1-81, transporting payloads of lime, sandstone, crushed rock, and gypsum—though with Detective Schmidt’s heavy German accent, excavation on its own would not suffice, and a second, albeit entirely different industry would need to be invoked to really paint a crystal clear picture of his voice. — Cody Hanna, Lancaster, PA

There’s nothing worse than a writer in love with the sound of his own metaphor.

Prisoner #4420991 selected two large snow cones for his pre-execution last meal, much to everyone’s surprise, but #4420991 knew that death by lethal injection would come as sweet relief when balanced against the snow cone headache he expected to have. — Greg Homer, Diamond Springs, CA

Don’t ya hate it when the bad guy doesn’t have a name?

 

“I remember the moon had a face like Hannibal Lecter and that the wind blowing through the trees reminded me of the music from Psycho,” stated Effie Laudermilk as she sat in the courtroom stand on trial for the murder (which she vehemently denied) of her boyfriend whose partially eaten body was found in his car at the bottom of a pond. –Randy Blanton, Murfreesboro, TN

You know, I sorta kinda like this one. Peace out to all our friends here at the Kill Zone.  An end-of-the-year tip of the hat to all of you who comment on our posts. May all your book ideas be merry and bright, and all your pages not white. (ie blank). And a big shout-out to all our First Page Critique writers. Yoose guys rock. See you next year.

7+
This entry was posted in Writing by PJ Parrish. Bookmark the permalink.

About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

23 thoughts on “Kids, Don’t Try This At Home:
Some Really Awful Opening Lines

  1. I will be the outlier because I LIKE Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘bad’ first line (although I would happily remove the “(for it is in London that our scene lies)” part.

    What he does better than all the other examples is immediately provide a strong sense of place that puts you right there–this is a skill that I find absent in a lot of fiction. Reading is for escapism, and you can’t escape if you’re reading & still very much aware that you’re sitting in your easy chair waiting to be transported to another place.

    I shall now have to read the whole book and see what I think.

    • BK,
      You know, I don’t know the history of how poor Bulwer-Lytton and his opening got to be infamous. Anyone know? And yeah, I love the parathetical placement tag!) Notice how many of the entrants copied that?

      • Kris: Snoopy, the “World Famous Author”, started using it as his opening line in rejected novel after rejected novel. That riff became a popular culture staple. It was natural to adopt it—and its original creator—for a bad first line contest.

  2. My favorite worst opening line? “Olivia followed her breasts into my office…” I can’t stop laughing.

    When my son was a teenage receptacle for every raging hormone known to man, he could’ve said this. So glad he didn’t.

    Thank you for a highly entertaining post. I can now look over my opening lines and gloat a little, just a little…maybe.

    • I mean, if you’re going start with a dame walking into a room, at least give it a twist: Here’s one from Robert Crais:

      I was standing on my head in the middle of my office when the door opened and the best looking woman I’d seen in three weeks walked in.

  3. This contest is always a hoot. My all-time favorite was a winner years ago:

    With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

  4. My favorite was the detective drawing an outline of himself. Can picture that as the beginning of a pink panther movie.

    Happy holidays, everyone.

  5. Funny! The first example made me think of the 1949 movie, DOA, starring Edmond O’Brien. A sad but intense movie about a man trying to find his killer before the poison he’s ingested kills him.

    The advice not to start with weather and scenery is about long paragraphs or pages. Weather and scenery starts can work. First, put Hamlet on the battlements, show what’s happening around him, have the ghost show up, then concentrate on his confusion.

    Bulwer-Lytton was a bestseller in his time so his writing wasn’t as bad as we think it is. Just different times and tastes.

    • The opening of Hamlet might be perfect:

      “Who’s there?”

      It sets the creepy tone of the squirrely guard on the ramparts but also encapsulates the play’s whole theme of identity, deception and Hamlet’s existential angst. Plus, the guard had seen a ghost wandering around the night before. Good stuff!

  6. Thank you for the laughs (and a few tips). I too liked the one about the woman following her breasts into the room. As bad as it is, you have to admit it does give you a vivid visual. 😉

    Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • Yeah, I had the same visual…mainly because I remember those super-pointy bras women wore in the 40s and 50s. (For all you youngins, go Google anything with Janet Leigh in it.)

  7. I’ve been laughing into my tea this morning with these. My favourite one has to be:
    “As he pounded on the door, Billy ‘Four-Toes’ Capalone, wondered, not for the first time, if he wouldn’t have been better off in the joint, or even taking a concrete nap, but instead, he straightened his tie and gripped his bible, determined not to blow his cover in the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program.”

    Thanks for the laughs on this dreary, rainy, and humid morning (for I am in New Zealand during a really nasty summer storm).

Comments are closed.