1. “She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.” - Chris Wieloch
No? Perhaps you’re not into detective fiction. Try a love story:
2. “As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.” — Cathy Bryant
Not bad. But perhaps a metaphor is better:
3. “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.” — Sue Fondrie
No? Too florid? Try this one:
4. “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. — Molly Ringle
You could do worse – or maybe you couldn’t – by beginning your story with a cataclysm:
5. “Gerald began – but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash – to pee.” — Jim Gleeson.
Or perhaps with a dramatic entrance?
6. “Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.” — Jim Guigli.
Some girl. But this one sounds like a heart-breaker too:
7. As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual. — Dan McKay
No good? Why don’t we start with an ending:
8. She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight … summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp’s tail … though the term “love affair” now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism … not unlike “sand vein,” which is after all an intestine, not a vein … and that tarry substance inside certainly isn’t sand … and that brought her back to Ramon. — Dave Zobel
But it may be better to set the scene properly first:
9. Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life. — Dr. David Chuter
If you’re writing a cerebral, literary novel, your first sentence should make it clear:
10. She wasn’t really my type, a hard-looking but untalented reporter from the local cat box liner, but the first second that the third-rate representative of the fourth estate cracked open a new fifth of old Scotch, my sixth sense said seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so, nervous as a tenth grader drowning in eleventh-hour cramming for a physics exam, I swept her into my longing arms, and, humming “The Twelfth of Never,” I got lucky on Friday the thirteenth. — Wm. W. “Buddy” Ocheltree
Whatever you do, let the reader know what kind of story you’re writing:
11. The countdown had stalled at T minus 69 seconds when Desiree, the first female ape to go up in space, winked at me slyly and pouted her thick, rubbery lips unmistakably – the first of many such advances during what would prove to be the longest, and most memorable, space voyage of my career." — Martha Simpson
No, perhaps you’re right. They say starting with the weather is best:
12. "Sultry it was and humid, but no whisper of air caused the plump, laden spears of golden grain to nod their burdened heads as they unheedingly awaited the cyclic rape of their gleaming treasure, while overhead the burning orb of luminescence ascended its ever-upward path toward a sweltering celestial apex, for although it is not in Kansas that our story takes place, it looks godawful like it." — Judy Frazier
Bad? Really terrible?
Well, they’re meant to be.
They are all past winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored by the English department at San Jose State University. Entrants are invited to compose the worst opening sentence to a novel they can imagine – the examples above are all grand winners of the sumptuous first prize of $250.
The competition attracts over ten thousand entries every year – they don’t do it for the money, they do it for the love of the sport.
Some of them have an element of genius:
‘She made you want to dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.’
I think Elmore Leonard might have coveted that zinger.
The competition was named after English novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began his 1830 novel, ‘Paul Clifford’, this way:
“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.”
So this is why you should never start your novel with a dark and stormy night … or a bright and sunny day. It’s not just poor technique; it’s because it reminds people of Bulwer-Lytton!