Day 6

'It was a dark and stormy night': The literary cliché that inspired a contest for bad writing

It's an infamous literary punchline and the inspiration for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which rewards the best opening line to the worst possible book.
(Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/Getty )

The highly anticipated A Wrinkle In Time opens in theatres this weekend, based on the 1962 novel by Madeleine L'Engle.

L'Engle opened her novel with the line: "It was a dark and stormy night."

The cover of Charles M. Schulz's 1971 book 'Snoopy and It Was a Dark and Stormy Night'. (Henry Holt and Co.)

If the line sounds familiar to someone who never read the book in English class, then it may be from its popularization by everyone's favourite world famous author: Snoopy.

The Peanuts character typed out books on top of his dog house, always starting them with that same sentence.

But the infamous line, referred to by some as "the literary posterchild for bad story starters," was first penned 188 years ago.

Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton was an English novelist and playwright who opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the line:

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.

Now, every year, writers across the world compete to win a writing award named in his honour. The aim of the contest: to write the best opening sentence for the worst possible story.

In search of bad writing

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest was started in 1982 by Scott Rice, who is now Professor Emeritus with the English Department at San Jose State University

After doing a seminar paper on Bulwer-Lytton and judging "writing contests that were, in effect, bad writing contests but with prolix, overlong, and generally lengthy submissions," Rice decided to start his own contest where the writing was intentionally bad and preferably brief.

To be fair to Bulwer-Lytton, Rice now acknowledges that the author was likely playing with the phrase: "It was a dark and stormy night." Rice says Bulwer-Lytton was being playful and creative. Nonetheless, the contest goes on.

In its first year, held only on campus, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest received a grand total of three submissions.

The next year, Rice opened it up to the general public. Press coverage helped elevate the competition, with more than 10,000 writers trying their luck at creating the best worst sentence.

And just what does the winner of such an esteemed contest receive? According to the website, "in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive … a pittance."

The reigning purple prose champ

Last year, the grand prize winner was Kat Russo of Loveland, Colorado.

Her win follows a lifetime love of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Russo was first introduced to the contest in middle school by her father, and would print off examples to share with her friends at lunch.

Kat Russo, of Loveland, Colorado, is the 2017 winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest and says she's been hooked on the one-liners since she was in middle school. (Kat Russo)

"I was completely hooked," says Russo. "It was the skill, the sheer skill that people could write something hilarious in a sentence."

After years of reading other people's entries, she says she finally worked up the courage to submit own writing.

And when she found out she'd won, Russo says she couldn't believe it.

"[It] was mind-blowing. It was great to be a part of this thing that was one of the formative experiences of my youth," she says.

After leaping around her living room, she began calling her family. Her father was familiar with the prize, but the rest of her family? Not so much.

"Honestly though, I think when I explained to them what I'd won, they kind of heard 'won contest' and 'writing' and everything else just blanked out and they were excited for me," says Russo.

Elvish gardening tips

Russo's winning line reads:

The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn't know much at all about gardening.

She says her inspiration for the sentence comes from her love of fantasy.

"I'm a giant nerd. Books, movies, Dungeons and Dragons, and then in all of these instances elves were these wise, flawless creatures with this really in-depth connection with nature and I wanted to invert that trope."

Though she says she's working on a few entries for this year's contest, she says last year's win gives her a lifetime of bragging rights.

"It will go on any resumé that I complete for probably ... forever."

To hear more from Kat Russo, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.