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Dark and Stormy Writing

24 July, 2009

Q: When do people deliberately write bad prose?

A: When they are writing entries for the annual Dark & Stormy contest, or to use its official name, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

The aim is to pen a delightfully horrible opening sentence for a novel, relying on the following: ‘a self-serious attempt at dramatic flair, the imitation of formulaic styles, an extravagantly florid style, redundancies, confusing syntax, and sentences . . . that are exceedingly long.’ (Wikipedia) The contest attracts up to 10,000 entries each year. According to, it ‘spawns an embarrassment of dire fiction . . . both horrifying and hilarious. . . .’

The first D&S

The contest is named for Victorian novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Lord Lytton). His 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, opens with this sentence:

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.

To give Lytton his due, he also coined phrases still used today, such as the pen is mightier than the sword, the great unwashed, the almighty dollar.

Readers may remember the term ‘dark and stormy’ from the Peanuts cartoons. Snoopy often typed out the first line of yet another novel: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ or ‘He was a dark and stormy knight’.  The phrase has also found its way into modern stories, songs and films.

Winning (?) entries

  • Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’  Garrison Spik, 2008 winner
  • 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, 2006 winner
  • A small assortment of astonishingly loud brass instruments raced each other lustily to the respective ends of their distinct musical choices as the gates flew open to release a torrent of tawny fur comprised of angry yapping bullets that nipped at Desdemona’s ankles, causing her to reflect once again (as blood filled her sneakers and she fought her way through the panicking crowd) that the annual Running of the Pomeranians in Liechtenstein was a stupid idea.  Sera Kirk, 2001 winner
  • “Ace, watch your head!” hissed Wanda urgently, yet somehow provocatively, through red, full, sensuous lips, but he couldn’t you know, since nobody can actually watch more than part of his nose or a little cheek or lips if he really tries, but he appreciated her warning.  Janice Estey, 1996 winner
  • 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, 1991 winner
  • Dolores breezed along the surface of her life like a flat stone forever skipping across smooth water, rippling reality sporadically but oblivious to it consistently, until she finally lost momentum, sank, due to an overdose of fluoride as a child which caused her to lie forever on the floor of her life as useless as an appendix and as lonely as a five-hundred-pound barbell in a steroid-free fitness center.  Linda Vernon 1990 winner

Older D&S

Professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University, California started the contest in 1982. His compilations of D&S entries can be found in books such as Bride of Dark and Stormy and Son of It was a Dark and Stormy Night. I have a copy of the latter, which includes these gems:

  • I wouldn’t be so paranoid if everybody wasn’t persecuting me all the time,’ said Uncle Eugene to the other cotton pickers in the snowy white field, hitching up his bulging cotton sack, which trailed behind him like a giant white slug inching tremulously through the russet furrows.  M. U. Griffin
  • Trail boss was not a job to be taken lightly, Logan knew, as it meant rising long before dawn, with the frost still on the prairie and the corn flowers, then setting the wagoners to rights, the coffee brewing, the women and children stirring, the oxen feeding, and finally hitching up and rolling the Conestogas, but, ah, the sheep! Terrence Carroll
  • “The toilet’s stopped up again!” screeched Esmeralda Fnark in a voice that had failed to endear her to over fifteen men in the past three years.  Michael K. Young
  • I pray that Marjorie can find the courage to accept what must happen, Lloyd thought, his heart pounding like a washing machine full of galoshes at the prospect of leaving his beloved secretary and confidante, the only woman he had ever know who was both trustworthy and grammatically conservative.  Steve Aydelott
  • It was not the first time I had driven a man mad (though some had admittedly gotten no further than a state of mild irritability, and some remained merely peckish) by removing my cap to unleash a torrent of sable hair across my ivory shoulders (lest there be any confusion, my own hair, emerging in the usual way from my scalp).  Tori Twersky

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 July, 2009 2:59 am

    Ow, they make my head hurt!! LOL!


    • 30 July, 2009 6:31 am

      Yes, they’re fantastically, delightfully bad aren’t they. Like eating two super-chocolate sundaes.


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