The 2011 Winners
As those of you who have followed this contest over the past decade-plus
are well aware, there have been a number of tweaks to the rules over the
years. For instance, the word limit has been bumped up a couple of times,
largely because I've received one or two great entries that went just a
leetle beet over. This may have been a mistake, because most
entries that come near the word limit are indistinguishable from the
looooong Bulwer-Lytton sentences that this contest is reacting against.
For instance, here's an entry that fell into this trap — I've
blanked out the words so as not to make the entrant feel bad, but something
that runs on and on like this is not what this contest is looking for:
Xxxxxxxx xx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx, xx xxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx, xx xxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxx,
xx xxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxxxxxx, xxx xxxxxxxxxxxx
xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xx, xxxxx Xxxx xxx.
On the flip side, one of the rule changes that has proved to be a great
help was one I made several years ago, when I added a parenthetical to one
of the bits near the end: "winning entries (or winning portions of longer
entries) and any honorable mentions will be linked to this page [...]".
Never did that come in more handy than this year. A lot of the entries
for 2011 consisted of a great ten-word clause buried in a 30-word sentence.
But speaking of going on and on, I should stop talking about the entries
and start presenting them. The winner of the 2011 Lyttle Lytton Contest
The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.
As is often the case, I'm betting that this won't be one of the readers'
favorites, but to me this was the top of the heap. First, you've got the
eyeroll that comes from the ham-handed contrast between "red hot" and "cold
blue" — and then a second later you realize that "red hot"
actually means a temperature of about 1000 kelvin, and is therefore
hilariously inadequate as a descriptor of the sun, a gigantic nuclear
furnace with a core temperature of roughly ten million kelvin.
Intentionally writing a sentence that seems unintentionally bad is hard;
writing one that suggests an author going for hyperbole and accidentally
winding up with woeful understatement is masterful. Thus, we have our
A couple of runners-up:
Pfft — he knew the silent but deadly whisper of
a silenced SIG SG 550 rifle with a 650mm barrel and a 254mm rifling
On the most basic level, it's funny that the guy in the story can tell all
that from a "pfft," but what puts this on the medal stand is that there
actually are millions of gun fetishists out there who totally get off on
this kind of shit. Imagining a story written in the specs-heavy style of
the letters page of Guns & Ammo would be amusing; the fact
that this type of thing already constitutes a genre makes this into satire
and is therefore funnier.
This is the story of how one woman overcame breast cancer by never
ever losing faith in herself.
Pretty much the same thing here. This would be a high finisher (and Berman
Prize winner, if I were still doing those) just on the basis of the premise
and the "never ever," but the fact that there is a whole industry
built on this kind of thing, as skewered by Barbara Ehrenreich in
Bright-Sided, makes the dart sharper.
And then one more I want to single out for special acclaim —
does this count as third place or fourth? Anyway:
When my homie pulled out his gat, the first thing I said was, That
is very tight!
I dunno — that just makes me laugh every time I see it. Maybe
it's that I can't take the slang usage of "tight" seriously after seeing
also raises the question, "And what was the second thing?")
Arridey! On to the honorable mentions. As those who've been following
this contest for a while know, a big part of the reason I started it was
to see what it could teach me about the fine line between "funny" and
"not so much." And, as noted at the beginning, one of the big lessons
this go-round — one that took me forever to learn, to the limited
extent that I have — is the value of knowing when to quit.
Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about:
Cowboy Bret said to Dave (another cowboy), Now lets rustle
up these cattles.
The quote could go on from here, and maybe the extra clauses would be funny
too, but they'd undermine the impact of "let's rustle up these cattles."
So, at least where this contest is concerned, that's where you stop.
A wind was blowing from east to west, as if it were the sun, blowing
instead of shining.
Specifying that the wind was "blowing instead of shining" is the funny part.
Adding anything else after that would diminish the sentence's punch, and
this is the Lyttle Lytton Contest — it's all about punch.
Now, sometimes the effect of an entry has less to do with a single phrase
than with an overall tone; but again, once that tone is established,
it's time to get out. For instance:
I passed the fledgling plastic to the checkout chick. Cred?
All by itself, this evokes the faux-beatnik, "treat the modern world as
cyberpunk" approach of the novel it purports to begin; we don't need any
more of the novel to get the point, so for this contest, this is the place
And while going on in the same vein damages the immediate impact of an
entry, even more damaging is to throw in a different source of comedy
altogether. Consider this honorable mention:
The blood that was dripping onto the parched floor resembled a
Rorschach ink-blot test, invented in 1921 by Hermann Rorschach.
As it stands, that's funny because of the inanity of making a simile and
immediately launching into a tangent about the origin of the reference.
To add characters with silly names would detract from the effect.
Longtime readers will recognize the old "unnecessary explanation" trick,
so I guess it's time for some more of those; what I like about these three
is that they're all of different types. You've got literal overexplanation:
He, from a physical stature, was short.
Caw! Caw! went the birds as the massacres happened (the
birds represent sadness).
Actually, just to contradict myself — that's a good example of
density, because "'Caw! Caw!' went the birds" is also funny. And then
He kissed Abigail sensually, as if to say I still need you
with his lips.
That one has an interesting mechanism to it, as it takes a familiar
figure of speech related to kissing ("he thrilled her with his lips,"
"she consoled him with her lips," etc.), a second familiar figure of
speech related to nonverbal communication ("she said it with her eyes,"
"he said it with his actions"), and combines them... and in a sense it
works, because it's about nonverbal communication through kissing...
but then you look at the phrase "say it with his lips" and you're like,
wait a sec.
Then we have the obligatory "odd wording" group:
Bring me the light of your love, Steve purred into my ears.
My heart medication! slowly remembered Dwayne, but his
lateness was a stark reality.
This was the story of a brave man, a freeman, who cant stop
That one has the added bonus of seeming like it's trying to be a shitty
Ayn Rand knockoff. Whereas I'm not sure quite what to make of the
AAHHH she screamed in horror as her infant rocketed from
inside her towards the free world.
Me, I like a girl with a couple extra pounds on her,
said Tom, subtly negging his target.
I think this one works because of a register shift — "subtly"
and "negging" make for an odd pairing.
The spice filled up my taste buds, and was quite lovely.
The phrase "filled up my taste buds" is amusingly wrong, but the daintiness
of "quite lovely" is also worth a chuckle.
Mongoose-to-cobra, two serpentine forms, he was my rival; are we
fighting in these holes, or are we really making love?
It seems that there's always one that gets in based on the "...whut?"
Then there's this:
Princess Amabel brushed her silky golden hair and tried not to think
about my breasts.
The list of questions this raises could go on indefinitely. I think my
tentative hypothesis would be that we've got a smug narrator pleased that
her figure makes the princess feel inadequate, but I suppose that it could
also be the awkward wedding night of a prince with gynecomastia.
A few genre pieces now; we'll start with mystery:
The detective could smell the murder on the knife.
NOOOOOOOOOON! cried Poirot Jr., falling to his knees and
rending his fledgling moustaches, But when will ze killings
Not sure what's up with the popularity of the word "fledgling" this year.
Sci-fi police procedural:
You just may be the most beautiful perp Ive ever laid
sensors on, thought the robot lieutenant as his humanoid partner
ate donuts unaware.
At a rough guess I'd say these last two are just about as long as these
things can be... more than three chunks of information to process and
it's hard to keep a sense of the whole sentence.
This story is about a man and a woman, with lots of things sticking
He lived in a time of stories told by many.
Her parents, her boyfriends — Angel
knew shed never be truly understood by anyone.
The scare quotes make that one. Maybe what Angel really needs is a mentor
who can connect with modern youth — perhaps this narrator:
Lets rap about the issues of today.
And to close out this category:
No matter how hard life got, Zade thought, ska would always be there.
Sadly, ska was only there for him until about 1996.
For 2011 I reopened the old "last sentence" category, which I had tried
once before and then didn't renew; the entries tended to be very samey
and not nearly as good as the openers. The same was true this year, so
I suspect this category will be returning to the land of wind and ghosts.
I'll get to the standout in a moment, but since it's a found piece, I'll
first post the two originals that seemed to merit an honorable mention:
As I stood there, looking at the ground, I thought to myself, Was
it all worth it?, but then my train of thought was interrupted by
a small, yet angry, cobra.
Then she died sobbing. Except platinum-level members at my website
can download an awesome premium ending that has sex instead.
These are both a little gimmicky, but still cute. But the next one is a
tour de force. As noted, it's not original to the person who submitted it,
and is in fact a piece of deliberate comedy — i.e., someone did
a parody of a bad writer, and someone else forwarded it to me:
Slowly, carefully, and with a lot of understanding, he put his mouth
onto her mouth.
name withheld, quoting Achewood 2009.0630 by Chris Onstad
Like the tag says, this is from a comic called Achewood; I know
nothing about it, but
is about someone trying to write a story, and pretty much every sentence
would have been a strong contender to win this contest. Go read
it — it's seriously brilliant. But don't forget to come back
...the Found category! This is always a little weird, because tends to
be divided into a couple of subcategories: bad lines in actual published
pieces of fiction, and lines that are amusing to imagine as opening a
novel. In the former category, I have to give the nod to this:
While they had been together after being married, exalting in their
love, something had been outside the door, exalting in death.
Brian Click, quoting Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth
I was unfamiliar with this writer, so I assumed that this had to be
tongue-in-cheek... but apparently not. Yikes. It's not only the same
sort of unsubtle contrast we saw in the Original category this year,
but it doesn't even actually say what's happening: presumably "exalting
in their love" means sex (as is traditional for those who are "together
after being married"), but "exalting in death"... are we talking people
being murdered outside the door there, or just some kind of demon thing
pumping its eldritch fist and going, "Yeeaaahhhh, death!"?
In the second category, adaptations, the imaginary trophy goes to:
The intruder attempted to break down the reinforced door with his
axe, shouting phrases like We will get our revenge!,
Revenge! and Blood!
Asher Stuhlman, quoting Wikipedia on Kurt Westergaard
The sequence of shouts there is basically perfect.
Some honorable mentions:
After the firestorm, Sally Quinn entered the concrete meditation
labyrinth her husband had built for her on their country estate in
St. Marys County, Maryland, to think.
anonymous, quoting Evgenia Peretz, Vanity Fair 2010.07
As if Sally Quinn weren't already America's answer to Marie Antoinette.
The heating was down, all the toilets closed and there was no way
to get something hot to drink.
Christos Dimitrakakis, quoting Reuters 2010.1217
This is actually a quote by a woman who declined to give her name to
the Reuters reporter, possibly due to what that sequence tells us about
her choice of beverages.
Like a present that suddenly arrived, we come into this world. We
come into this world in miniature.
Rachel Spitler, quoting a segment on NBC's Today
I'm not sure that most women in labor would call it all that sudden.
I'm also not sure that the revelation that newborns are smaller than
adults merits the anadiplosis.
I want to close with a few weird cases... first, a couple of entries
which are remarkable largely for where they were found:
Several billion years ago, that whirling speck of dust known as
the Earth, fifth in size among the planets, came into being.
Colin Whisler, quoting David Kennedy et al., The American Pageant
Taken out of context and imagined as the beginning of a novel, sure,
that's amusingly bad enough to be worth an honorable mention... but as
Colin notes: "Keep in mind that this is an American history textbook."
Aie. Then there's this:
Her cheeks were rosy and so was my love — bursting with
fragrance and softness.
Jared Wheeler, quoting Kaplan's guide to the AP English test
Again, this sort of florid incoherence ("bursting with softness"?) usually
makes it onto the list... except Kaplan is holding it up as a good
example of... "imagery"?! Uh, good luck with that AP test, kids.
Here's one that I guess I have to put in the Found category because it was
not written by the person who submitted it... but apparently it came from a
message board thread that was basically "what I would submit to the Lyttle
Lytton Contest if I could be bothered to get off this message board":
Shame on you, he scorns at you in anger, Shame!
anonymous, quoting "arachnobot"
And finally, we have a sentence that doesn't work at all as the beginning of
a novel, nor really as the end of one, but which was submitted by so many
different people that I guess I have to post it if only so that I won't
receive it another dozen times next year:
Wow, said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton
who was not involved in the work.
a whole bunch of different people, quoting Dennis Overbye, nytimes.com,
And that wraps it up for the 2011 Lyttle Lytton Contest. I guess this whole
Internet thing is really taking off, because the number of entries this
contest gets in a given year continues to balloon — meaning that
there are also more entries every year that, on a different day, might well
have made it onto the list. So if you were disappointed, please try again,
and never ever lose faith in yourself.
Return to the Lyttle Lytton page!