The 2021 Winners

Welcome to the twenty-first edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest.  Even back when I first started this competition, I had a number of colleagues in the interactive fiction world who never used their real names online.  At the time I thought that was like wearing a Halloween mask to a summer cookout, but with each year that goes by it feels more like wearing a gas mask to a mustard gas bombardment, and there have been times that I’ve found myself wishing I’d had their foresight.  It looks like many of you out there are of the same mind.  This contest has long had a “no pseudonyms” rule; obviously I can’t stop people out there from pulling a David Dennison, but at least I can weed out entrants like LavenderNinja86.  However, there is a box on the entry form that allows people to request that their submissions be anonymous.  Anony­mous entrants have even won some side contests: the Paul Clifford contest in ’03, the political speech in ’04, and the Found division in ’08, ’10, and ’17.  But an anonymous entrant has never won the main contest.  This year came down to two contenders: one signed with a first name and last initial only, and the other fully anonymous.  To what extent did any subconscious bias against anonymity lead me to pick the former over the latter?  No idea.  But I did go with the partially signed entry as the winner of the 2021 Lyttle Lytton Contest, and here it is:

“Clang! Clang!” protested the knights’ swords, as they were each stopped by the metal wall of the other.

Bianca M.

And, yes⁠—judging from the comments this contest has attracted over the years, people rarely find the winning entry as funny as some of the other entries.  But as I’ve said in earlier installments, for the winner, at least, plausibility is very important to me.  And I don’t just mean that as a box that entries need to check off in order to qualify for the top spot.  To me, the plausibility itself is what’s funny⁠—that shock of recognition of what it’s like to try to compose interesting, elegant sentences when you’re just starting out.  “All right, so what would stop a moving object… hey, a wall would! So there’s my metaphor! The sword was stopped like it hit a wall… and, hang on, the same thing is happening to the other sword! Oh, wow, this is perfect!”  Throw in some inappropriate personification, and you’ve got the entry that looked to me like the best simulacrum of authentic bad writing.

Before I get to second place, here are some other finalists:

She tucked her bra-length hair away from her eyes.

Anna Molenaar

Selecting a limit for the lengths of entries was tough.  In the early years I kept running into entries I really wanted to include but which were just over the line, so over time the limit rose from 25 to 30 to 33 words before I finally set it to 200 characters.  But despite this relaxation of the length limit, the rules do state (in boldface, even!) that “brevity is one of the chief aims of this contest”, adding that “entries that fall well short of the limit are likely to do better than those that push up against it. Before you submit your entry, look it over: is there anything you could cut out? A lot of submissions over the years have consisted of a great ten-word sentence buried within a thirty-word entry.”  That’s what we have here.  The contest rules specify that these results pages feature “winning entries (or winning portions of longer entries)”.  This full entry read, “She tucked her bra-length hair away from her eyes, which were about eight inches away from her bra, and got to her feet, which were a meter and a half away from her bra.”  Now, you may find that funnier than the portion that was selected as a finalist.  The issue we run into is, again, plausibility.  The portion above is fairly plausible; change “bra-length” to “shoulder-length” and it becomes completely unremarkable.  I can imagine a novice author struggling with the question of how to describe hair just a little bit longer than that, and landing on this.  It’s amusing that one tiny change, defensible enough if removed from a social context (“Hey, that’s how long her hair was! I was just trying to be accurate!”), ends up suggesting a whole backstory about an imaginary author with an underwear fetish he may not even be fully aware of.  The full entry, by contrast, does more than suggest.  The imaginary author goes on and on and on and on about the character’s bra, defining everything in relationship to it, verbally creating a bra-centered universe.  The problem is that as funny as that might be on its own merits, going on and on and on and on about anything is antithetical to a contest meant to showcase brevity.

Of course, so is this comment, so let’s move on to another finalist:

John craved Stella’s lips like an infant rhesus monkey craved cloth mother.

Sofie Z.

I think what makes that one work is that the reference is one that anyone who’s taken an introductory psychology class will get, but it takes juuust a fraction of a second for the brain to retrieve.  So the information you need clicks into place, producing a sense of satisfaction⁠—“Oh, yes, okay! I get it! That works!”⁠—just in time to be upended by the realization that, no, it totally does not work to make that the comparison you draw to convey the way John craved Stella’s lips.

Before we circle back around to second place, let’s look at some other entries built around comparisons.  This first one hits a similar “I can see how that sort of works, but then again, no” note as the previous entry:

My man has a voice like a lion eating dark chocolate.

Rachel Spitler and Andy Holloway

Here are some more that run with the food theme:

The sun set over the southern Italian hillside like a meatball rolling off a plate of spaghetti.


She was fair and young, like a ball of fresh mozzarella cheese.

Stephanie Byers

But these two are the similes that really jumped out at me this year:

I awoke to find sunlight shining through my bedroom window, like it was the middle of the night and thousands of flashlights were outside my window.

Joe V.

The comedic trick of comparing a natural phenomenon to a less impressive artificial one dates back at least to Mark Twain having Huckleberry Finn compare the sound of thunder to that of rolling barrels down a flight of stairs.  But it’s a good one, and it works here too.

Maria’s love pricked me, like an EpiPen pricking an enchanting diabetic woman.


To use a “transferred epithet” is to deliberately apply a modifier to the wrong noun⁠—i.e., not to the noun actually being described, but to another one associated with it.  For instance, it is common to speak of a “lazy afternoon”, but the afternoon itself is not lazy⁠—the laziness is felt by the people experi­encing the afternoon.  A “nude photo” is not itself unclothed: the person pictured in the photo is.  What we see in the entry above is not exactly a transferred epithet, but it’s something similar.  The comparison is between Maria’s love pricking the speaker and an EpiPen pricking a person.  It seems safe to assume that the person the speaker thinks of as an enchanting woman is Maria, not the generic recipient of the injection, so the switcheroo hits that “not quite right” sweet spot.  Throw in the confusion between diabetes and anaphylaxis and you have a very strong entry.

This next one isn’t a simile, but it is a comparison of a sort:

I slapped open the door with the haste of a black mamba.

Hugo Orrantia

That’s another fun trick: the character exhibits quality Q in performing action A, and in so doing resembles noun N, which is known for possessing quality Q, except, whoops, N can’t actually do A.  Also, in reducing this to something that looks like algebra, I have wound up writing a worse sentence than the entry itself. 

Thus, in a frantic attempt to distract you with some even worse writing, I will now dust off the old Comrade Todd Award and turn to a couple of entries that read like… well, like this:

McGreer smirked at his stunned opponent on the floor. His hands that would be for helping are for hurting now.

Eli Macker

Warren softly wept over the tender brests that contained the now unbeating heart of his wife.

Ann Menkova

There’s a lot going on with that one.  There is of course the Comrade Todd stiltedness of “now unbeating”, and the fact that it is specifically her breasts (or, rather, “brests”) that Warren weeps over upon his wife’s demise, but perhaps more subtle is the confusion between the archaic use of “breast” to mean the front of the torso, specifically when viewed as the seat of the emotions⁠—music hath charm to soothe a savage breast, etc.⁠—and the much more common definition today, i.e., to what reference books call “upper ventral prominences” that might be brushed by the ends of one’s bra-length hair.  Even the use of the word “contained” is amusing.  It suggests that in this novel, Warren and his pals go to strip clubs and say, “Whoa, check out the heart containers on her!

And I guess that from there the most logical segue is to this:

Thog stretched luxuriously, the morning light brushing hungrily over her luscious prehistoric breasts.

Dorian Moreland

There was a dramatic uptick in the number of sex-themed entries last year, and while this year saw a bit of a regression to the mean, that still left enough such entries among the honorable mentions to warrant a section of their own:

“Yum, oof, argh!”  My friend was having sex, as I could tell from the noises.

Jake Scott

Jennie’s heart was pounding, her hymen trembling, and Mike was shy to infiltrate both.


I tried to fix the you-shaped lacuna in my heart with a cadre of vacuous women and vacuous pussy.

Greg Lee

When he first saw her, blood rushed into his head, and not only his head, but also his pants, and then there was this wonderful explosion, not of blood, but of the juice of life.

Jonas S.

But the nod for this category goes to this entry, which almost won the entire contest:

As I walked briskly into the crowded and steamy room, I could feel the vagina inside my head dripping in anxiety.


I think the key to this one is the repeated overwriting of the word “dripping”.  The phrase “steamy room” primes the reader to assume that any “dripping” will involve sweat, but this clashes with the expectations set by the word “vagina”, which suggests that the “dripping” will involve sexual fluids and indicate arousal.  Instead, both are upended by the revelation that the dripping actually indicates anxiety, somehow.  All in all, it’s similar to the 2018 winner (another reason this entry had to settle for second place), minus the vampires, but plus the impressively WTF-inducing phrase “the vagina inside my head”.  A tour de force.

But if you think the loss of the vampires is a major blow, here’s an entry that might be more up your alley:

Madilyn Jenson’s blood type was O-positive (the tastiest for vampires), but to the dismay of Jake and his vampire friends, she guarded it like a prized possession.

Damien Snyder

Continuing in a supernatural vein:

Richard was haunted by the ghosts of his past, and unlike Slimer or Vigo the Carpathian, these were not so easily busted.

David Otto

Another formidable foe:

Though his half-ape, half-android DNA made him immune to dying and poison, there was one thing Number 2229 wasn’t immune to⁠—fire.

Florence Boggs

Number 2229 isn’t the only one who lacks such immunity:

“KRAKOW!” went the bolt of lightning as it struck my 3 bedroom 2.5 bathroom house, burning it down.


As seen above, “too many details” is a time-honored trope in this contest; here are some other examples among this year’s honorable mentions:

“Dammit! The perp’s getting away!” shouted Officer O’Malley as he revved his 2015 Ford Transit Connect Wagon LWB XL into gear.

Benoit Brekker

Little Jessica pondered how to seat her ten playmates around the table, but none of the 181,440 arrangements (ignoring rotations and reflections) seemed quite right.

Josh Hinman

Try as he might’ve to resist (Nxg7+), Birgitte castled and captured (Kd8 Qf6+! Rde1!! Nxa2+ Qc1) her way to checkmate John’s king; but not his heart.

Jonah Simon

I see that the last five entries have all included numbers, so why break the streak?

The human body is over 95% water, and so too is the human family.

Diane Heaton

I suppose that the mention of water brings us to this entry:

The little mermaid went on land to kiss a prince, but everyone was wearing masks, because (and she didn’t know this) it was COVID times, and so her fantasy quest begins.

Asher Stuhlman

Though pestilence descended upon the land about three months before last year’s deadline, this was the first year that the entire contest took place amid a pandemic.  It is therefore no surprise that the above was one of several covid-themed entries.  Here are a couple of others:

Though his science lab had vanquished many a bacterium, Doctor Edgar knew not a vaccine for the heart of woman.


In an already trying year, we were forced to take our work home⁠—even the murderers.

Piotr Cymbalski

After sex/romance, crime/mystery is probably the most popular genre for entries in this contest:

“I guess it’s just Bell Biv now,” murmured Special Agent Lance Bass, squatting over the lifeless DeVoe.

Terry Thompson

Hey, a pop culture reference I actually recognize!  I confess that I’m not familiar with any of the cited people’s work, but at least I recognize the names, which puts me way ahead of where I usually am when it comes to submissions that name-check celebrities.  I’m sure that there have been plenty of entries over the past several years that might well have delighted many readers, but which left me stumped: “Who is ‘Logan Paul’?” “What’s a ‘Macklemore’?”  Sometimes I even have to check whether an entry is making a pop culture reference or just inventing a name for its protagonist:

Hope Wolfwood… If women were men, she was Superman.

Connor Cavanaugh

Shawn Hardwick stood anxiously in his room, disassembling and reassembling his gun like he learned how to in Seal Team Six training.

Ziva Travers

The entry above is what in 2018 I called a “perennial”: it uses a trope that has become familiar over the years this contest has been running (in this case, military fiction, like 2015’s winner and 2011’s runner-up) and still finds a way to make it work.  Here are some others.  This one vaguely reminds me of 2013’s winner, in that it seems to think it’s describing a larger set of people than it actually is:

Jennifer gawked in awe. Every last one of the three men was more handsome than the last.

Ben Weston

Amusing overuse of a word, or in this case a word root, reminiscent of 2012’s “skim milk” entry:

The farmer sprayed his crops with neonicotinoid pesticides as he filled his lungs with the paleonicotinoid nicotine.


Hair color again, with the suggestion that some are better than others:

The children flowed through the class door as my mind registered them⁠—brown, black, brown and golden haired Luci.


And let’s wrap up the original entries with some miscellaneous honorable mentions:

The moon shone her pock-marked visage earthwards, casting her imperfect luminescence on the frolicking youth below.

Madeline Manning

A father washes the dishes. His hands tighten with the tightness of someone who had lost grip of something precious years ago, maybe his wife.


“The time is nigh!” The words zoomed from synapse to synapse as Seth clutched the baton from his teammate, determination oozing from his sweat glands.

George Perlman

Kendra knew in her heart that her struggles were first-world problems, but she tackled them with third-world tenacity.

Luke Fowler

Finally, the Found division.  Entries from last year were rolled over this year, so what follows are entries from both 2021 and 2020.  The winner, submitted⁠—you guessed it⁠—anonymously, is:

I used to be a detective, with my hat and my desk, until the war.

a writing prompt generator
quoted anonymously

From prose generated by computers to prose written for them:

Priscilla, the greatest friend of my heart… has stabbed me in it.

World of Warcraft
quoted by Cam Wright

Sticking with computers⁠—I haven’t really been involved in the interactive fiction community in years, but it appears that a significant proportion of the audience for this contest still hails from the IF world, because quite a few of the submissions over the past couple of years were drawn either from actual IF works or from commentary on those works.  Here are some examples:

The surface of ale in your mug reflected stars through the windows of the dark tavern.

Who Are You, Mr. Cooper? (choice game)
quoted by Adam Thompson

I’m a Joe Blow who works in a mine or a coal plant or, fucking, you know, a coal energy plant or a metal factory, you know, a metal refinery or a metal shop, and I’m sort of interested in text adventures.

Classic Text Adventures podcast
quoted anonymously

As you can see above, some Found division entries are from works of fiction (sometimes actual first lines!), while others, fitting the original intent of the division, repurpose non-fiction and ask readers to imagine how these lines might read as the start of a novel.  Here are a couple of examples of the former:

When he parked at the casino a half hour later, Jimmy had no idea that he was being watched and filmed by a shadowy man with a heart as empty as a cave.

The Way of the Shadow Wolves (Steven Seagal / Tom Morrissey novel)
quoted by Alexander Rose

Craig vaguely stared at his ceiling while wave after wave of Post-Traumatic Stress washed over him. This is what mental illness feels like, he mused.

unspecified fanfic
adapted anonymously

And then a few of the latter:

In this Los Angeles neighborhood, police helicopters are common, but traditional bank loans are not.

CNN broadcast, 2020.0422
quoted by Ryan S.

She was living in Kyoto, studying indigenous Japanese religion. She was supposed to be working on a scholarly book about her research, but started writing intensely erotic Batman fan fiction instead.

“A Feud in Wolf-Kink Erotica Raises a Deep Legal Question”
New York Times, 2020.0523; quoted by William Li

The boy swallowed milk and kisses.

cited as a “good” example of zeugma on Wikipedia; originally coined by Yeshayahu Shen
quoted by Anneka Sontroem

The focus on sex and reproduction that has been a hallmark of the main contest for the past couple of years has also made its way into the Found division:

The shaft of the penis is familiar to many.

Come as You Are (Emily Nagoski self-help book)
quoted by [a presumably different] Emily

Forty may be the new thirty, but try telling that to your ovaries.

“Are You as Fertile as You Look?”, New York Times, 2011.0831
quoted by Dakota Killpack

And to complete this year’s installment of the Lyttle Lytton Contest:

Any time you’re going through a door, you don’t know what’s on the other side.

I (Almost) Got Away With It (TV show), 2012.0613
quoted by Michael Cortese

And so as I walk out my front door to find myself utterly bewildered by my own patio, let me quickly make the usual concluding remarks.  First, thanks to all the entrants, as well as to all those who help to spread the word about this contest, which these days happens mostly on platforms I haven’t heard of.  Sorry if you were one of the entrants who wound up falling just outside the top 50; the strength of the entries has improved over the years, and what is #51 today might well have been something like #3 in some of those ’00s installments.  If you enjoy Lyttle Lytton, please consider supporting it by tossing a few cents at my Patreon account, the proceeds from which pay for my annual spike in hosting fees and allow me to devote some time to this and other projects.  I’m actually planning to take a sabbatical from my day job this year in order to focus on some of those neglected projects, so you may stand a better chance of actually seeing a return on your investment.  Or maybe I’ll just end up spending the year writing intensely erotic Batman fan fiction.  I guess we’ll see!

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