The 2013 Winners

The "About Lyttle Lytton" section of the main Lyttle Lytton page explains why I started this contest back in 2001: every year I would read a news article about the latest batch of winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, and every year the winners were these interminable monstrosities that didn't make me laugh.  But I doubt I would have launched an alternative if not for the fact that, the previous year, a couple of my friends and I started doing standup, and we and a group of other amateur comics got together a few times to try out new material and then take it apart.  Why is this word better than that word, why is it funnier if you cut this phrase, and so forth.  I found this fascinating.  So I figured I'd start this contest, tell my friends about it, have them tell their friends about it, collect a bunch of material, and then write a blog post analyzing the best entries — not because I thought I had any standing to teach anyone anything about the principles of comedy, but because doing writeups on any topic, for an audience, forces me to clarify my nebulous thoughts.  Sometimes, once they're clarified, I can see that they were wrong, and I change my mind.  Which (ulp!) brings me to the winner of the 2013 Lyttle Lytton Contest.

I sort through the entries after the deadline, in an attempt to try to minimize any bias toward entries that arrive early (or late), but I can't help but look at most of them as they come in.  One really caught my eye, and even after looking at hundreds of other entries, it still stood out.  Here it is:

The men greeted each other, wearing various smiles on their faces.

Noah MacAulay

So I anointed that one the easy winner, and began to compose my typically long-winded apologia for it.  It started like this:

The principle that underlies this contest is that brevity is the soul of wit.  In the past that has meant a limit of 25, or 30, or 33 words; at present the limit is 200 characters.  So here's a question — while this will never be a rule, is it best to limit the number of sources of humor in an entry?  Here's what I mean.  Consider the following:

Prussian nobleman Baron Chili von Carne, the protagonist of this book, walked out of the O'Hare International Airport (ORD) men's room and into my heart.

That's not a real entry, but there were many that were constructed along similar lines.  This kitchen-sink approach seems to be based on the notion that if there are five different parts that are supposed to be funny, then stitch them together like Frankenstein's monster and they add up to knee-slapping hilarity!  And maybe for some readers they do.  But I find that not only do the different types of humor distract from one another, but if there's one clunker, it ruins the whole thing.  The entries that tend to rise to the top are the ones that deliver, not a flurry of different attempts at amusing badness, but a single haymaker.

And then of course I was going to talk about how, sure, it's amusingly limp to start your book with "The men" (vivid! intriguing!), and to have them doing something as mild as smiling, and to specify that their smiles are on their faces… but that, ultimately, what makes this work is one thing: the hilarious misuse of the word "various."  "Various" means "a bunch of different"; an album might be credited to "various artists," or a professor might deliver a lecture on various topics.  To pair it up with "smiles" is just weird!  They had a bunch of different kinds of smiles, but the author isn't going to specify what kind?  Ha ha ha ha!  And then there's the fact that the numbers don't line up — it seems to be suggesting that each guy had multiple smiles.  Because if "various" means "a bunch of different," and there are only two guys, then—

—and that's when I realized: it doesn't say there are only two guys.  For months I had imagined it as two guys.  But if "The men greeted each other" doesn't mean two guys waving, but a whole bunch of different guys gathering together and exchanging handshakes and such, then, yeah, I guess that if one had a cheerful smile and another had a nervous smile and another had a relieved smile and so forth, you could indeed describe them as having "various smiles."  It's still not good writing, but it's no longer so inappropriate as to mark this as the best entry of the lot.  It would have been an honorable mention.

And then it occurred to me to try doing a Google search on the phrase "various smiles on their faces" — and I got multiple hits.  I see no reason not to give Noah the benefit of the doubt that he came up with the phrase independently, but it was another reason to make me question putting it in the top spot.

What I ultimately decided was this: since when does it matter who "wins" this thing?  This isn't the Nobel Prize.  This is a silly web page.  I had something kind of similar happen in 2006, when I wanted to give the top spot to the one about the mega beasts, but since it was a found entry in the days before that was a separate division, it seemed unfair to choose it and not one of the original entries.  Still, to me the best sentence in '06 was the one about the mega beasts.  So, make of this what you will.  If you imagine two guys and therefore find "various smiles" hilarious, then, great, the entry above is the winner.  If you imagine multiple guys and therefore don't see "various smiles" as particularly inappropriate, then pick one of the entries below as the winner.  Perhaps this one, one of this year's runners-up:

The stranger rode into town with eyes that said his sixgun would have stories to tell, if it spoke any language other than the guttural tongue of violence.

Cormac Leggatt

I generally end up giving the second spot to the one that actually made me laugh the most, and this year is no exception.  I make several passes through a given year's batch of entries, and every time I got to "the guttural tongue of violence" I had a giggle attack.  It's not easy to achieve that perfect degree of overwroughtness, but like 2007's "unending holocaust of pain," this one hits the mark exactly.

On the flip side, we have this:

The town was built in the lowlands, risking flood, as if the founders dared the mighty mountains surrounding the town by asking for giant rivulets of detritus, saying “Give me them” to the mountains.

Ryan Maxwell

This is a little long for this contest, but I couldn't resist the "Give me them" — there's something about that "verb - indirect object - pronoun as direct object" combo that I find really funny.  The first time I heard the song "Toxic," the lines "I need a hit / Baby, give me it" had me laughing until it was over.

One more runner-up for you:

My dear wife jolted awake, rolled over, and looked at me. “I just lucid dreamed that I killed you,” she said sadly.

Ian Waddell

Am I the only one who's run into multiple people who were just a little too into the whole lucid dreaming thing?  Even if you haven't and therefore don't enjoy the nose-tweaking aspect of this one, I still think it goes to show that the difference between "fairly normal scenario" and "classic Lyttle Lytton entry" is often just one word.

On to the honorable mentions.  While most people submit entries that contain some sort of error that is meant to make them funny, I have a soft spot for those that are funny for what they imply about the author, or the fan base, or the publishing industry, or society in general.

We had succeeded in evaluating the strengths and needs of the enemy battlestation. “Eureka,” I exclaimed. Prepare to utilize Attack Plan Theta on the rear defensive shield!

J. Forbes Stimson

What's funny about this isn't the exaggeration, because it isn't really exaggerated.  Do a search on "Attack Plan Theta" and you will get dozens of hits.  Distilling a whole genre down to this and submitting it to the contest is like hanging a urinal in an art gallery: the change of context encouranges you to think about things you might take for granted.  Like, take this pseudo-military spacewar jargon.  If you take a job writing a genre piece, this comes with the territory.  There have been days when turning "hero blows up the station somehow" into "'Prepare to utilize Attack Plan Theta on the rear defensive shield!'" was what I did at work that day.  And I don't know what Attack Plan Theta is.  And the audience doesn't know what Attack Plan Theta is.  As far as the communication of meaning is concerned, this phrase is an empty vehicle.  And yet it really is a requirement of the genre — this sort of sequence doesn't feel "authentic" without it.  Isn't that funny?

Madison was a shy, awkward, inwardly beautiful teenaged girl just like you.

Brandon Specktor

Go to your local Barnes & Noble (if you can still find one).  There will be a wall solidly packed with shelves.  Those shelves will be filled with books.  Chapter One of every one of those books will be attempting to establish the above.  So, hey, why not just cut right to it and save space?

Pius XIII stood on the balcony, triumphant. Earlier, when the white smoke had vacated the chimney, not one citizen of FurRome would have bet on a Shibu-Ina to emerge.

Sebastian Grillmaier

Habemus puppy.

Charging, sprinting, loping with great speed, the cheetah lunged at Theodore Roosevelt, but he already had that cheetah dead to rights.

Alex Richardson

I just love the tone of this — like the author is scoffing at the cheetah.  There is a soupçon of Honey Badger Guy in the phrase "he already had that cheetah dead to rights," which is an impressive thing to get across in text.  I also got the sense that the author was kind of sad that he couldn't go back in time and give Theodore Roosevelt a high five.

It seems like we're seguing into the entries that did rely on awkward language choices.  I tend to especially admire those whose awkwardness is structural — it seems to me that they carry a higher degree than those that hinge on a word or a phrase.  For instance:

“This isn’t fair!”, wept Case, who had previously been the team captain but due to events yet to be described was not now.

Bob Nicholson

This one is kind of a twofer: not only do I not want to read a book about Case's quest to reattain his position as team captain — I reached my fill of that sort of thing back when I was reading hundreds of SAT essays about overcoming setbacks — but ending with a staccato "was not now" is great.

“Please, just give me the answers to the test!” said Ron. Jacob pulled his mouth over his teeth as if to say “I am not going to give you the answers.”

Jack Goodger

This one is interesting to me in that, to my ear, Jacob's dialogue contains exactly the right amount of repetition to be funny.  Take away "give you the answers," or add "to the test," and it just doesn't work quite so well.  It's a curious thing.

Then of course there's the phrase "pulled his mouth over his teeth," which brings me to the ones built around an awkward phrase:

Jacques entered out of the rain, drenched from that selfsame precipitate.

Alice Wilders

That selfsame one!

Carrie sat alone, at the most expensive restaurant in town, for the third time that month. Maybe if she turned her violet-eyed head the right way, she would get swept off her feet by a gorgeous man.

Joy Lester

Again, I do like plausibility, so this one made me smile — while I haven't read a lot of fanfic, I've read enough to have seen that phrases like "turned her violet-eyed head" are standard fare in beginners' efforts. Which brings me to this:

The fast man raced quickly after the other man, while a third man tried to keep pace with the first man.

Kenneth McMahon

I would love to be able to say that when I was starting out, I never resorted to numbering the unimportant characters.  I would be lying.

One more that relies on a phrase:

The sex I had with a girl last night filled me with a feeling of 100% Grade A joy.

Patrick Maginnis

Sadly, most of the joy I've felt lately has been institutional-grade.

One other entry in this vein made the cut:

John ejaculated with such strength as if to say “I love you Mary.”

Michael Haddad

I'm very glad to hear that John's penis was not limited to the guttural tongue of violence.

So we've done sentence structure, we've done phrases… I guess that brings us to a couple of entries that, like our Schrödinger's winner, may be amusingly bad for several reasons but ultimately hinge on a single word:

Amy gasped for her last breath, as she entered the intoxicating room of her brother.

Hannah Loomis

“BOOM!” said the bomb very loudly.


And then there's word choice that is poor because the chosen word isn't one:

It was a beautiful night, and the full moon glew like it had never glown before.

Joshua Vincent

Or phrases that are not just infelicitous, but wrong:

The fireman squad extinguished the house, as it was aflame.


It's nice to know that a fireman squad will be on its way after a bomb says boom.

Lots of entries showcase a wacky simile, but most of these don't really fit what this contest is going for.  Still, with so many of them, I feel like I should pick at least one for the list, and I liked this one pretty well:

Sirens had always made Simon feel safe, like being inside a strong man’s muscles.

Roland N.

And while I'm here, how about a metaphor:

As all true prophets know, the lips of fate are tightly sealed, and only the crowbar that is the passing of time can manage to pry them open.

Kirsten Walther

I'll conclude the original entries with a special jury prize, which is occasionally awarded to entries that people other than me have singled out for recognition:

Taft slid slowly, carefully into the bathtub. He knew that it would be the best bath that he and the bathtub had ever had.

Lawrence Friday

Pfff, Taft.  That cheetah would have him dead to rights.

Found entries:

Okay, that brings us to our final category, the found entries.  These are a bit different from the original sentences; as noted, in an original sentence some semblance of plausibility is an asset, but found entries have the plausibility angle covered insofar as they're, y'know, real.  As in, someone actually did publish this year's winner of the found division:

Like Venice in Italy, Thailand’s magical Bangkok is built on a wide network of canals. So it should be no surprise that the art of the noodle is equally prized in each.

Chicken Pad Thai page on
quoted by Peter Berman

One gimmick that pops up on a regular basis among the original entries is the inclusion of a non-germane appositive describing a character… and this reads so much like one of those entries that it's really kind of astonishing:

As Joseph Leahy, whose research focused on the biodegradation of hydrocarbons, ducked for cover, a bullet tore through the top of his head, severing his right optic nerve.

"What Made This University Researcher Snap?",
quoted by Kaj Sotala

I try not to do this too often, but I usually can't help but include at least one entry that was already part of a work of fiction:

FROM THE DIARY OF PIOTR KULCZYNSKI: My name is Piotr Kulczynski.

The Radiant Warrior by Leo Frankowski
quoted by Eitan Amiel

And I guess we'll close with one more:

For years, scientists have been trying to harness the raw power of an eclipse.

Mitsubishi Eclipse commercial
quoted by Hugh Schreiber

Well, to be fair, that is how the solar panels work on Bizarro World.

So that's it!  As always, let me say that there were many fine entries in addition to those above, and on a different day the list of winners might have looked a little different.  What keeps this contest going year after year, when you'd think everything would have been done by now, is the amazing creativity of the contributors.  So even if you didn't win this year, rest assured that I appreciate all the entries that I get.  Thank you for giving me them!

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