The Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest – Patterns of Success

originally published 3-18-2015 on Summer Haven Blog

Today, Summer Haven will help you win a fiction writing contest by showing you the patterns in the winning entries.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” starts Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton‘s novel Paul Clifford (1830). The first sentence of the novel has become infamous as one of the worst lead lines ever.

In 1983, Professor Scott Rice of San Jose University started a contest to commemorate Bulwer-Lytton’s most notorious achievement, asking participants for a bad opening sentence to a made-up novel. The very worst would win first prize. This contest continues today and has had winners from around the world. Check their website for contest rules.

The 2013 winner, Chris Wieloch of Brookfield, WI, submitted the following:

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.

The 1983 winner (the first year’s winner), Gail Cain of San Francisco, CA, submitted this:

The camel died quite suddenly on the second day, and Selena fretted sulkily and, buffing her already impeccable nails – not for the first time since the journey began –pondered snidely if this would dissolve into a vignette of minor inconveniences like all the other holidays spent with Basil.

From 1983 to the most recent contest, there are trends or patterns in the winning submissions that might be of some help if you plan to enter. We’ve scoured each and every one noting what tends to win.

Percentage Patterns of Winning Submissions of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

  1. Winning entries tend to be timeless. Dates are not usually mentioned. Themes are not usually pegged to any one decade, unless you’re writing an historical fiction. (See Paul Revere reference in 1995 Winning entry).
  2. Over 90% of the winning entries use people as the focus. Almost every entry is about a person observing something. e.g “Professor Frobisher couldn’t believe he had missed seeing it for so long – it was, after all, right there under his nose…” (1989 Winner) The rest incorporate an affinity for anthropomorphic landscapes. (See Winners 2000, 1991 ) and animals (1987). See #18 below for further analysis of the people used.
  3. 81 % of entries use the 3rd person. Followed by 1st person narrative at less than 13% and 2nd person narratives at just over 6%.
  4. 68% of winning entries incorporate an analogy, a simile, a euphemism, etc. e.g. “Dolores breezed along the surface of her life like a flat stone forever skipping across smooth water…” (1990 Winner).
  5. Almost 50% of the people in the winning entries are having a romance or infer a romance, even if it’s not the focus of the sentence. e.g. “…so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese…” (2003 Winner).
  6. 42% of the entries reference the female body. e.g. “Like an expensive sports car, fine-tuned and well-built, Portia was sleek, shapely, and gorgeous…” (1988 Winner).
  7. 39% describe some form of impending harm or violence. e.g. “…Roger stood over his victim with a smoking .45, surprised at the serenity…”(1994 Winner).
  8. 38% use a famous name or brand. In all cases, this name or brand has been well-known for decades or centuries. “…seventh heaven was as close as an eighth note from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…” (1993 Winner). See #18 below for further discussion.
  9. Just under 36% of winning entries incorporate death.
  10. Just under 36% of winning entries describe a change in relationship.
  11. 32% use nature or describe a landscape.
  12. 32% of winning entries incorporate animals, live plants or insects.
  13. 29% of winning entries incorporate food or the idea of it. e.g. “…wrapped only in her celery-green dressing gown, her creamy bosom rising and falling like a temperamental soufflé…” (1992 Winner).
  14. 21% of the entries are parodies of mystery novels or detective stories. But most of those won in the 1990s.
  15. 13% reference the male body. It’s usually above the neck. e.g. “As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites…” (2012 Winner)
  16. There are no political winners nor runners-up, as far as we can tell, unless the politics are centuries old and very famous. (See Paul Revere in 1995 Winning entry)
  17. Entries with popular culture references rarely win (See 1993 and 2009 Winners). This discrepancy may be an attempt to keep the winners timeless. However, you are more likely to find pop culture references among the runners-up. But even they have been famous for many decades. See the Dorothy Entry and the Hitchcock runner-up.
  18. People are usually fictional. If you use an actual person’s name, the name has been famous the world over for many decades or sometimes centuries. (See Martha Stewart reference in 2004 Winning entry ). In other words, don’t go for the flavor of the month. That person or brand might not be famous next year and the joke will fail over time, which makes it less likely to win.

Here’s a chart:


In other words, if the preceding winners are any indication, the entry most likely to win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest will be

(1) a romance

(2)between people

(3) that uses an analogy/euphemism/simile, etc.

(4) includes a female,

(5) is in the 3rd person and

(6) describes or infers doom or discomfort to someone or thing.

Or perhaps the trend is shifting and we’re completely wrong.

The official Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest rules may be found here: