The 2006 Winners

“What? Those are the winners?! Where is my glorious entry? Dammit, you wouldn’t know funny if it bit you on the ass!

No doubt.  This sort of thing is enormously subjective.  On a different day I might well have picked a slightly different group of winners, and a different judge would almost certainly have come up with a very different list.  It’s hard to draw a line between those that just barely make it in and those which are just barely left out.  So if your sentence doesn’t appear below, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was no good—​it just didn’t jump out at me the way these did.  And of course, I wouldn’t know funny if it bit me on the ass.

One thing that has become clear over the years is that this contest is hard.  By which I mean both what I said above—​it’s hard to draw a line between the weakest of the winners and the strongest of the rest—​and also that the contest presents a very tricky target to hit: opening lines that are so bad they’re funny.  Almost every entry succeeds on at least one of these two counts.  But going two for two is harder.  I won’t bother to list examples of entries that were bad without being funny.  But here are a couple that I liked, but in the wrong way.  One entry submitted by a Michael (no last name given) read, “It was only after the third corpse had been removed and all the blood had been cleaned off the walls that Jack decided that perhaps dentistry just wasn’t for him.”  See, that is the sort of sentence that would never be found at the beginning of a bad and therefore unintentionally funny book.  It’s clearly a joke, complete with punchline.  It might well be the beginning of a good comedic novel.  Which is fine, but not what this contest is about.  Here’s another one, by Brian Derksen: “The rain came down in buckets at first but later in the normal fashion, making it a whole lot safer out there.”  I laughed, but it’s not quite right.

Closer is this entry by Sarah Cornell: ’It was 5 AM, and much to my consternation, my pet rat was standing on my face.”  It doesn’t have the setup-punchline structure that dooms so many entries.  It’s not a pun, it’s not misdirection… but the other thing it’s not is bad.  Like, if I were an editor and had pulled this off the slush pile, I would proceed to sentence two.  See, it’s hard to write a Lyttle Lytton line on purpose!  It’s simulated unintentional comedy, and sometimes there’s just no competing with the real thing.  Which explains why a number of people this year submitted lines that they admitted they had found elsewhere.  If I hadn’t decided it was unfair to throw these into the pool with the original sentences, this would have been this year’s winner:

The mega beasts were united by only one thing: their size.

quoted anonymously

This sentence, the anonymous email reported, appeared in a Discovery Channel documentary.  I looked into this and found that, indeed, the Discovery Channel had aired a program called “What Killed the Mega Beasts?”.  It was directed by someone named Chris Lent, but I haven’t been able to find the writer listed anywhere.  Whoever it is has probably never heard of this contest, but he or she is going straight into the Lyttle Lytton Hall of Fame.

Here was another entry that would have been a contender had it been original:

His eyes were brown, although you wouldn’t know it just by looking.

quoted by Dan Shiovitz

Dan found this in a vanity press novel by one Paul Panks.  I’m speechless.

Before we get to the real entries, let me throw in one more.  This one I found myself.  You’ve probably heard it before.  But now imagine it as the first line of the foreword of a sweeping historical novel.  Ready?  Here we go:

I just recently came off a trip to the Far East, and it struck me that I was in a region of the world where wars had started.

George W. Bush

Thus, going forward, I will be dividing the contest into two divisions, one for original entries and one for found ones.  As for this year, the winner of the 2006 Lyttle Lytton Contest is:

This is the cipher key for all that follows: ▎ ▏ ▏ ▎ ▏ ▏  ▏ ▎  ▏ !

P. Scott Hamilton

To those of you saying, “That is too gimmicky! How am I supposed to quote that on my blog?”: hey, you can always quote the mega beasts.

Or you can go with this one, the runner-up:

Dora liked to explore.

Nicole Dickison

¡Madre de dios!  I mean, yes, on the surface this just recapitulates what we already know about Dora based on the title of her show.  But on the other hand, no!  She is just a kid!  She is not ready for Lynne Cheney to pack her off to Bryn Mawr to “explore” with Jessica Paré and Piper Perabo!  So much wrongness packed into four words!  Or is there?  I’ve been looking at this for months now and I still can’t tell whether it’s supposed to be suggestive.  I think that’s what makes it so good.

Comrade Todd Award:

Does the dance of love have to be a dairy of romantic sonnets; can it not be a Haiku and still be sensually poetic?

Sue Randolph

Good question.  (Coincidentally, shortly before I wrote this up, I was reading a rather inane diary post on and happened upon a comment that declared, “This is a Fabulous Dairy. Much more interesting than yet another ‘Why I Hate Bush Dairy’.”  Hmm, I guess most dairies are in blue states…)

Though Montfort Medals were originally given to sentences that referred to their own production, I’m sure that noted metalepsis fan Nick Montfort won’t mind if one is also awarded to this inadvertently postmodern gem:

“The hero has cancer,” thought the doctor grimly.

Jon Pile

And maybe throw in another one for:

Bill’s goiter had burst and it was on my head, Mary thought quietly.

Jim McGarva

What I like about the second one is not the content but rather the way the reader has to suddenly recast what seemed like simple narration as the thoughts of a character who is for some reason thinking in the narrative pluperfect.

As for the content, well… I am a little disappointed to find that, year after year, probably over half the entries resort to simple gross-out humor.  On the rare occasions that scatological comedy works, it’s because there is some other element in the sentence that makes it work, such as the ambiguity of:

“I can’t!” screamed Jake to whomever was outside the airplane’s single lavatory.

Neil Haven

Of course, not every winning entry relied on ambiguity.  This one conjures up a very clear mental picture:

Cries of “Ahoy!” broke the turgid silence of the golf course; the Cap’n approached.


Eventually I’m going to get tired of the “unnecessary clarification” gag, but apparently it still works for me:

James took Mary’s hand—​not in matrimony just yet, but plain physically—​and led her to the altar.

Jonas Sjöqvist

I woke up shuddering; my soul was now dead inside.

Daniel Koning

This year I ran a “Byg Lytton” side contest as an experiment—​part of my purpose here, apart from gathering funny lines for your amusement, is to explore (eek! there’s that word again!) what makes things funny or not.  I wondered to what extent the one-sentence limit was acting as a fetter restraining entrants from reaching even more rarefied comedic heights.  After all, I’d received many entries over the years that were funny as one sentence but would have been funnier as two.  What would happen if people could string multiple sentences together?

In most cases, the answer was that they created the sort of Bulwer-Lytton entries that led me to start this spinoff contest in the first place.  They took a goofy situation and rambled about it for a full 100 words.  Some entries I could see would have been better as Lyttle Lytton submissions.  For instance, the last Lyttle Lytton winner this year was actually submitted as part of a Byg Lytton entry:

Everyone in the year 2020 knows about nanobots!

Ben Syverson

On its own, that is indeed an amusingly bad way to start a science fiction novel.  In its original context, coming at the end of a fairly witty paragraph, I would have accepted it as the voice of a cheeky postmodern writer rather than an incompetent one… and this contest is about (simulated) incompetence.

My favorite Byg Lytton entries were those that took advantage of the opportunity to use multiple sentences while remaining punchy.  (And even some of those needed a little trimming.)  If I must pick a single winner, I choose:

The evil Intergalactic Emperor surveyed the destruction he wrought.  “Booyah!” he cried with glee.  “I’m in ur base! I’m killing all ur mans!”

James Wall

Don’t worry, future contests will not be filled with l33t.  But I love the idea of a menacing Darth Vader figure striding onto the scene and declaring, “I’m in ur base!”

On the other hand, this one is just as good:

“And that’s when I stabbed her in the face,” Jake finished.  The rest of the support group looked on in horror and abject confusion.  They weren’t sure what this had to do with testicular cancer, but they knew it had to be bad.

Amanda Teager

If I can’t pick co-winners, the reason that this one gets ranked #1B is that it’s actually too good.  The situation is definitely contest material, but the writer clearly has an ear for the language.  Look at the balance between the long strings of monosyllabic words used for the more basic elements of the tale (“And that’s when I stabbed her in the face”; “they knew it had to be bad”) and the contrasting polysyllabic phrases (“abject confusion”; “testicular cancer”).  That’s deft.

This year’s Berman Prize winner is:

On November the 22nd, 1963, an innocent man by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald stood inside the Texas School Book Depository, burdened with the knowledge of what would soon happen, but with no way that he could possibly prevent it.  Seconds later an American presidency was destroyed.  He never had a chance to tell his story.  This is his story.

Daniel Koning

The frightening thing is that I’ve actually seen ads for vanity press novels exactly like this.

Here’s another Montfort Medal contender, suggesting an unlikely origin for the 100,000 words to come:

Dear Mister Spray:
    I am writing to you to inform you of your son’s death.  What follows were his last words.

Steven Dasheiff

But hey, as long as we're handing out Montfort Medals, why not finish with Nick himself?

The door dilated1.

1This is in the future, when doors dilate instead of opening the way they do now.

Nick Montfort

And that just about wraps it up for this year.  See you in ’07!

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