The 2023 Winners

Welcome to the 2023 edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest, which in its twenty-third year has finally migrated to its own subdirectory.  Please let me know if anything broke in the move.

I suppose that the big news relevant to this contest over the past year has been the release of ChatGPT and the corresponding explosion of computer-generated text in all sorts of different arenas.  This is not an entirely new thing, of course; it was way, way back in 2021 that a computer-generated sentence won the Found division of the contest.  (“I used to be a detective, with my hat and my desk, until the war.”)  A number of folks submitted entries generated by ChatGPT—​and of course there may have been even more than I know about, since I’m only talking about the ones that were labeled as such.  It was interesting to see that just over the course of a few months, the output noticeably improved; here is an entry from last July:

The actors stepped onto the stage and saw their audience, an audience of corpses, decomposing, maggots, and bones.

GPT-3 beta, quoted anonymously

I like that one a lot; it was a shoo-in to make it onto the list of winners.  How­ever, it also has that off-kilter “I don’t really understand what I’m processing” vibe that you may recall from the “AI recipes” or “AI cat names” that went around a few years ago.  But here’s one that was submitted in February:

The rain pelted against the windowpane like tiny water balloons thrown by a mischievous cloud.

ChatGPT, quoted by Noah

And that absolutely seems to me like it could have been written by a human.  Longtime readers can attest that a lot of entries revolve around similes, and this is a great example of one that uses the old comedic trick of looking through the telescope the wrong way around.  That is, it compares a natural phenomenon (raindrops) to an artificial simulacrum of that phenomenon (water encased in latex), which in this case isn’t even an adequate analogue (as water balloons are the wrong size, necessitating the addition of the word “tiny”).  Add in the personification of the cloud as throwing the raindrops as a form of mischief and this pretty much has to win the Found category this year, doesn’t it?  Except, of course, it wasn’t found but generated.  And that’s twice in three years.  So I guess I may need to start up a division just for computer-generated entries, though it’d have to operate on the honor system since in text you can’t tell when a protagonist has fourteen fingers. 

Here are some honorable mentions from the Original category that were also built around similes:

The night Gilbert left her, Lily paced around the room in circles, like a lonely car on a moonlit Hot Wheels track.


I’ve discussed in previous years how the pleasure of getting a reference has a multiplier effect in how funny a joke seems, and that was certainly the case for me with this entry.  I guess that these days you can design your own Hot Wheels tracks and put loop-de-loops in them and whatnot, but when I was a kid and my little brother got a Hot Wheels track for his birthday, it was… just a loop.  The car just went around and around, and the only control you had was “make car go” or “do not make car go”.  I was mystified.  How is this fun?  How?

He was short and fat, like his penis, which was also both, but this story is not about his penis, but about him instead.

Conrad Wesley

There are plenty of obvious reasons why this is bad.  The comparison is crass.  The wording is awkward.  The author is short-circuiting the story by explain­ing that the simile is just a simile and is not intended to indicate the focus of the story.  But one point that came up in a radio interview I did recently about Lyttle Lytton was that a fault shared by a lot of these sentences over the years is that they announce what the book is going to be about, and that’s generally not how novels actually begin.  It’d be interesting to canvass the canon and see how many works do start off by proclaiming their subjects.  I’ll have my research staff look into that.  Once I’m in a position to hire a research staff.

I suckled from my morning coffee like a calf from her mother’s bountiful teat.

Shannon F.

A quick detour to an entry that has nothing to do with similes but is relevant to the above:

Loris is in her womb now, as I’m looking at her.  And one day she will nurse at those superb breasts.

Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick
quoted anonymously

The book quoted above (and yes, the italics are in the original) is from 1960.  In 1974, Dick suffered from a series of drug-induced hallucinations and spent the rest of his life in the grip of a sort of religious insanity, believing at vari­ous points that he had been possessed by the spirit of the prophet Elijah and that he was living a parallel life as a persecuted Christian in first-century Rome.  During this period he wrote a book called The Divine Invasion which I had to read for a college class.  “In the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrian­ism,” the novel explains, “a sifting bridge had to be crossed by the newly dead person.  […]  Judaism in its later stages and Christianity had gotten their ideas of the Final Days from this.  The good person, who managed to cross the sift­ing bridge, was met by the spirit of his religion: a beautiful young woman with superb, large breasts.”  So I guess it goes to show—​you can go mad, you can become a radically different person, but perhaps there is always some deep-seated element fundamental to who you are that will never change.

Okay, back to the similes.

Across oceans, our shimmer-selves have taken to the cool of shadows, shadows that have split open like ebony imaginariums. editorial statement
quoted by Christopher Carter

That one goes to show how uncanny it can be when a lyrical writer composes a simile that perfectly reflects lived experience.  Just yesterday my shimmer-self, whatever that is, took to the cool of a shadow, whatever that means, and when the shadow split open, whatever that means, it did so just like an ebony imaginarium, whatever that is.

Of course, a simile does not have to use the word “like”; as any fifth-grade teacher will tell you, the word “as” also frequently signals a simile, and even tends to specify the quality that provoked the comparison.  For instance:

“With whom did you leave my 30 million bucks?” snarled Jacko, the Uzi in his hand as polished and deadly as the grammar in his mouth.

Harper J. Cole

Phrases such as “as if” and “as though” can also do the trick:

The night was black and thick, thickening every minute, as though some dark god had mixed the darkness with flour, corn starch, or some other thickening agent.

Jon Acuna Miller

I usually recommend that entrants stick to one joke per entry, but there have been plenty of great submissions over the years that have managed to move from one source of humor to another within the same sentence and make it work.  Here we have the initial register shift from talking about a “dark god” to talking about flour and corn starch, and then we have a second shift from specific, common ingredients to a more technical, abstract phrase (“thicken­ing agent”) that people don’t really use in everyday speech.  It reminded me of an old interactive fiction game in which a character remarks that “probably some sort of foaming cleanser is in order”, and the fact that people don’t actually say either “foaming cleanser” or “is in order” when speaking in a normal register made it the best line in the game.

By the way, I originally had one more “as” simile in this batch, but as I was composing this page I discovered the entry I had in mind didn’t really qualify for this contest.  It was by Chiara Caballero, and it read, “Her eyes were as dark as a piece of dark chocolate nobody wants to eat.”  I had originally moved that into the folder of winners because it made me laugh, but having to give it a moment’s thought made me realize that the reason I laughed is that it is good comedic writing.  While I have been pleased to see that we seem to have moved past this, for a while there it seemed like we were stuck in a dark chocolate arms race, as confectioners kept trying to one-up each other: “85% cacao? Pfah! Our chocolate is 93% cacao!” “Oh yeah? Well our Ultimate Mid­night Bar is 117% cacao!”  And all these ultra-dark chocolate bars were basic­ally inedible.  So this simile is not only an amusing allusion to this bleak cultural moment, but in signaling the shade of chocolate at which “intense” tips over into “outright gross”, it’s actually impressively precise.

There was another entry that I eventually took off the list for being too good, an entry signed “Matthew R.”: “Carla Delvecchio was hot sex on a stick.  She made women look like girls and girls look like babies.”  That’s… just… I mean, consider the underpinnings of this sentence:

  • life stages can be arranged into a hierarchy of increasing sexiness

  • Carla here is so sexy that she makes the category of “women”, previously thought to equal “fully sexy”, look like the category of “girls”, i.e., “not yet fully sexy”

  • thus, those in the “girls” category must look even less sexy by compari­son, which would put them on par with the next category down, i.e., babies

That last step in particular reads to me like it must be deliberate comedy.  I mean, it’s a punchline.  The first sentence establishes the premise; the first half of the second sentence describes a reasonable implication of that prem­ise; the second half continues with a logical extension of that implication, except even though the route there seems perfectly sensible, it leaves you with a statement that is just bonkers.  So, effective comedy rather than an effective simulation of unintentional comedy.

But I believe someone mentioned hot sex on a stick?

My life exploded on the day I found my wife galloping, like the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, Cuckoldry, upon her fateful steed, my brother’s manhood.

Felipe Bemfica

That one starts with a simile—​the galloping of the narrator’s wife is merely like that of the fifth horseman of the apocalypse—​but concludes with a meta­phor, as it suggests that the narrator’s brother’s manhood is the wife’s fateful steed.  This is indirect comparison, as our pre-existing framework of know­ledge tells us that no one actually has a horse for a penis.  Though if a novel did feature a character who did, it might actually be worth spending the first sentence announcing that the story would in fact be about that.

Anyway, having broken the seal, let’s add some metaphors to the mix.  One thing I found interesting in trying to organize this year’s batch of winners was that rarely were the metaphors one-offs; rather, they tended to be extended:

Detective Shepherd was a toothbrush of the law, scrubbing the plaque of criminality from the bloody gums of society.

Peter Holm

Actually, let me take another detour here to rattle off the other honorable mentions from the crime and mystery genre:

“Another murder. I hate these crimes,” said Inspector Jack Slaten.  He hated them even more than he hated other crimes.

Jake Scott

The occupant of the vehicle was a 5'7 Latino male, about 145 pounds, with black hair & brown eyes.  I, a 5'11 Caucasian male, 200 pounds, with brown hair & blue eyes, approached on foot.


Detective Horne took a pensive drag from his vape pen.

Flynn Suvia

Detour over.  Back to extended metaphors:

I was Icarus, she was the sun, and the once-glittering poetry of our love was my wax-fastened wings.

Elle Spohrer

You may notice that the entry above was submitted by last year’s winner.  Which, especially since we’re still in the metaphor section, makes for a pretty good segue to the winner of the 2023 Lyttle Lytton Contest:

The sorrowful sun sank into the tears that were the waves, and Sammy too began to cry a bit.

W. Oakley

And… usually I have a long explanation of how the winner separated itself from the rest, but this year no entry jumped out at me as the obvious cham­pion as has sometimes happened in previous editions of the contest (e.g., 2018).  I just whittled down the folder of entries to about a hundred that looked like contenders to make it onto this page, then to a few dozen that did make it onto this page, then to maybe a dozen semifinalists, then to a trio of finalists… and this was the one that make it all the way past the last cut.  Its central metaphor has the tenor and vehicle switched (that subtle butchery I tend to go for), and the whole thing just really puts the “pathetic” into “pathetic fallacy”.

Here are the other finalists, by the way:

He wrote his name in the wet concrete.  His finger the pen, his arm the pen and his body the pen holder.

Joey B.

This entry uses a trick that I had some success with during my very brief foray into standup around the turn of the millennium.  You’re probably famil­iar with the rule of three: the first two items establish a pattern, and the third deviates from it, provoking laughter.  But what can really upset expectations is to make the second item the same as the first.  It’s the difference between “The only things I know how to cook are toast, instant noodles, and boeuf bourguignon” and “The only things I know how to cook are toast and toast”.  Same thing here.  First: his finger is the pen.  Second: is arm is… uh, apparently also the pen.  And then his body is the pen holder, because where else are you going to stash your arm when you’re not using it?  You don’t want to just leave it lying around, you know.

It was really happening.  Jesse Evans was dumping that bitch Kathleen, and two lunch tables away, Hailey’s heart was pumping like its life depended on it.

Aimee Lim

This one came very close to a victory because it met the standard of plausi­bility I tend to look for in the overall winners: the voice delivering this bit of middle school cafeteria drama sounds like it could very well be narrating a young-adult novel.  And its key simile seems to work, at first glance: the phrase “life depended on it” is so conventional (a quick search turns up over eight million hits) that it’s natural just to accept it and keep going.  Then your brain interrupts a paragraph later to say, “Hey, wait—​is a hyperbolic simile actually a hyperbolic simile if it’s literally true?” The timing of that inter­ruption places this a cut above.

But moving on from similes:

James turned the key in his new front door like he was turning away from his sins and over a new leaf.


Hello, AP Language students!  That there, where the author uses the single word “turning” as part of two different phrasal verbs with different meanings, is called semantic syllepsis!  If you can spot an example of this when you’re doing your rhetorical analysis essay, you’ll have that point for Row C in the bag!  However, despite the use of the word “like”, I don’t think this sentence qualifies as a simile.  A simile is a comparison, and James turning the key in the lock of his new home is not similar to him turning away from his sins and turning over a new leaf; rather, it’s symbolism, and the word “like” signifies that turning the key may represent those things.  The phrase “turning over a new leaf” is a metaphor, though: the “leaf” is a page in a book, and while a life is not a book with pages and chapters, the sentence is indirectly making that comparison. 

Oh, and this sentence makes the list because none of those figures of speech are used well here.  While Aimee’s submission took a little time to register as defective, that happened as sort of a mental background process.  The syllep­sis here adds processing time to the reader’s experience right up front, for no benefit.  The imaginary author is clearly hoping to get credit for cleverness in incorporating three different meanings of “turn” into the same sentence, but nah.  And the metaphor’s a cliché.  Put it all together and you have a successful example of simulated failure.

Dr. Shockter shocked her with his electricity powers just as seeing her adoption papers had.

Cass Bidwell

Similar deal here: the verb “shock” is used sylleptically, as it governs two clauses, but is meant literally in the first and figuratively in the second.  In this case, though, the humor is less a matter of cringe comedy at an imaginary author who is trying too hard than of an amusing mismatch between a super­villain’s paranormal ability and the experience of having to revise one’s under­standing of one’s parentage.  But like the entry above it, this one does force the reader to pause to consciously parse it.  Which I guess means we’re ready to move on to the entries that rely on garbled language!

The sun rose through the diner behind which Thomas as a boy had often gone to kiss girls’s window.

Isaac Lyman

The pileup of prepositional phrases would make this sentence difficult to hack through even if it worked, which it doesn’t, either syntactically or semantic­ally.  The sun cannot rise through a diner; flat-earthers, don’t @ me.  Mean­while, the word “girls” has been cast into the possessive as if it were singular, while the word “window” is treated as though it were plural.  Perhaps more to the point, the sentence indicates that Thomas is kissing the window rather than the girls themselves.  Though I guess maybe that is how it worked during the that first year of covid.

Post-publication update: a reader points out that I have parsed this all wrong.  Apparently the joke is that a pared-down version of the sentence would just be “The sun rose through the diner’s window”, but by adding a complex relative clause to describe the diner—​“behind which Thomas had often gone to kiss girls”—​the imaginary author has created a monstrosity that is easy to misinterpret, as evidenced by the fact that I totally did.  I was thrown by the reader’s claim that the sentence, while in dire need of a rewrite, is technically syntactical—​how can it be, with the non-word “girls’s” in it?—​so I did some research, and apparently the consensus among grammarians is that this apostrophe placement is proscribed after a supplementary relative clause but is not necessarily proscribed after an integrated one.  Is our imaginary author just giving us extra information about the diner, or distinguishing it from other diners?  But this is academic.  Give this construction to a hundred editors, and a hundred and five of them will at the very least change it to “the window of the diner”.

And even with that change, you’d still have a pileup of prepositional phrases!  Speaking of which:

Barnes stood on the wide stairs looking down through a wide hall into the living-room of the country place and at the group of youths.

“Six of One” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
quoted by Pedro Degiovanni

Not your finest sentence, old sport.

It was while living in New York that she observed a beam of light coming in her bedroom window at age five and knew that art was her calling.

Wikipedia entry on Felicia Bond
quoted anonymously

Hmm—​if that beam of light was age five, I guess maybe it came from Barnard’s Star?

You look at the clock.  It’s 3 o’clock in the morning like clockwork, and immediately might grit your teeth., 2022.0614
quoted anonymously

To be fair, this is a quote from an interview.  So while it immediately would grit my teeth to have “clock”, “o’clock”, and “clockwork” right next to each other if this were composed and edited prose, the issue is not so much that the interviewee said something garbled—​we all do, sometimes—​as that the writer chose to include that garbled quote in the article.  Though maybe that was on purpose.  CNN’s new regime has been demanding that the network be more like Fox.

When my wife was killed, all I could think about for months was the uncalled-for uxocide.

Hollis Krause

The language in that one isn’t garbled, exactly, though my research indicates that the word our imaginary author wants is not “uxocide” but “uxoricide”.  Either way, though, it highlights an issue most writers have to confront at one point or another: what do you do when you know there is a word that perfect­ly expresses the concept you wish to convey, yet you suspect that most of your audience won’t know the word?  It’s always a tricky judgment call: what does the word add (in precision and prosody), and what does it take away (in adding to the audience’s processing burden)?  For instance—​to use an example close to this one—​it is common to describe a civil war as a “fratricidal blood­letting” because even though the word “fratricide” is not common, it does convey in a single word that the war has pitted brother against brother, fig­uratively or literally.  By contrast, this entry makes the list because its vocab word is even more obscure, and adds nothing—​that it was specifically a wife who was killed has already been established.  (The use of “uncalled-for” also raises questions of its own.)

But for another -cide of the story:

The day I died the coroner declared my death a suicide, but later we would learn the truth: that the world had murdered me.

Jacob Gordner

That was one of our jury picks for this year; here’s another:

Jennifer finally became into a woman and blood dumped out her wet folds triumphantly.


Judy Blume, if you’re reading this, I’m so sorry.

Though I guess that, based on the above, Jennifer here is one person for whom the following isn’t true:

Each of us is pregnant with a better version of ourselves.

tweet by Marianne Williamson, 2010.0826
quoted by Vince H.

Hmm, let’s see what Marianne Williamson got up to after this tweet.

Politico: “Those interviewed say the best-selling author and spiritual adviser subjected her employees to unpredictable, explosive episodes of anger.  […]  ‘It would be foaming, spitting, uncontrollable rage,’ said a former staffer […].  ‘It was traumatic. And the experience, in the end, was terrifying.’  Williamson would throw her phone at staffers […].  In one instance, Williamson got so angry about the logistics of a campaign trip to South Carolina that she felt was poorly planned that she pounded a car door until her hand started to swell, according to four former staffers.  Ultimately, she had to go to an urgent care facility, they said.”

Looks like she got the abortion, then.

Well, if you can’t improve yourself, at least you can improve your outfit:

When cave woman first braided twigs and leaves and created the first “jewelry”, she knew instantly it took her basic cave cloth to new heights.

J. Peterman clothing catalog
quoted anonymously

Here’s someone who’s come quite a way from basic cave cloth:

I’m wearing an off-the-shoulder gown with a gigantic hoop skirt, thought the princess as she descended the staircase.

Laura Fentress

This is a nifty example of narrative paraprosdokian: what initially looks like first-person narration turns out to be an external narrator’s report of a character’s internal monologue.  An internal monologue that is very, um, straightforward.

Here’s another entry that starts with “I’m” and then heads in an unexpected direction:

“I’m ravenous” said her gurgling belly, to which she replied by eating a sandwich.


Perhaps a beverage to go with that?

All around was a sea of ice cold milkshake, but not the sort one wanted to dive into.

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, 2013
quoted by Eric Fegan

Ah, then perhaps a different beverage.

She licked her own human tears from her face as she found it brought her comfort.

Mandy Chen

I hope Sammy found the same.  Though perhaps I’m making assumptions about Sammy.

Continuing with the theme of sorrow:

I felt blue, and my glum mood was reflected back at me in the same colored sky.


It has been pointed out that the famous opening line of Neuromancer—​“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”—​probably makes modern readers who have never encountered TV static think that this is just a weird way to say that the sky was blue.

But, glum or not, better a blue sky than this:

The brilliant smoke of darkstone fyre choked out the light of the brightstar.

Erika Kyle

A couple more from the same genre:

Winter’s hauberk jangled its victorious rhythm as she thrusted her dirk at the wyvern.


As their blades clashed, Vilmor was shocked to find the hardness of his stropathian steel blade outmatched by the hardness of his opponents one of vorhoovian copper.

Zeke Dawson

Speaking of hardness—​and no, that doesn’t mean we’re getting to a batch of sex-themed entries, as the sexual quotient of this year’s crop has calmed down to pre-2020 levels:

I slammed on my brakes harder than a wall of bricks.

Genevieve Nagel

That’s an interesting case of sylleptic comparison: “hard” can mean “with great force” and “capable of withstanding force exerted against it”, but not simultaneously.  Actually, now that I look at it, the two halves of Genevieve’s entry each call upon the key word “harder” to serve as a different part of speech—​the first half needs it as an adverb, the second an adjective.  Impressively subtle butchering, and in only 52 characters!

On the topic of great force:

Mike’s front door opened, the force of a freshly kicked door powering the sudden movement.

Jesse Galea

We’re getting near the end of this year’s list.  Up top I mentioned that the vast improvement in computer-generated text has been big news of late, and going hand in hand with that development has been a similarly vast improvement in the quality of “deepfakes”, computer-generated audio and video that are in­creasingly difficult to distinguish from real recordings.  As this Found entry from a news article about deepfakes puts it:

A picture is worth a thousand words, but a pixel is worth a billion truths.

San Francisco Chronicle, 2022.1215
quoted by Adam Williams

Of course, there’s a lot more to our cultural moment than A.I. (or at least programs that people are calling A.I.) hitting an inflection point.  Here are a couple of other entries that employ works of the past to speak to the current zeitgeist:

Percy and his 10th grade theater teacher, Mrs. Loveheart, had a non-grooming love greater than Shakespeare could have ever imagined.


The wrath of Achilles ( he/him | white | bisexual | demigod | ENFP | BPD ) is my theme.

Samantha Pine

That reminds me of the time my girlfriend overheard some high school girls talking about The Great Gatsby:  “Do you know what’s going on in this book?”  “Not really. The one thing I know is that the main character goes by he/him pronouns.”

…and wait, it occurs to me that Nick Carraway is also he/him, white, and bisexual!  Though not a demigod as I recall.  And a web search reveals a seeming consensus that he’s an ISFJ.

So if this is where we are now, where might we be headed?

The year is 2029.  I am awakened from a deep melatonin induced sleep as my pager blares incessantly.

“Chronicles of Dr. Karen NP”, 2020.0809
quoted anonymously

And as I brace myself for a terrifying future full of melatonin and pagers, I’d like to take a moment to give my thanks to those who help to spread the word about this contest, and to give particular thanks to the entrants themselves, without whom there would not be a contest about which to spread the word.  (Jacko’s grammar has nothing on mine!)  If you enjoy Lyttle Lytton and are looking for a way to support it, you can always toss 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.  What other projects?  Well, here’s a recent one—​and to introduce it, let me start with one entry I held back so I could finish on a high note:

Oh crap the deadlines in 4 hours I’m just going to dictate this on my phone and hope it goes well um um so there is this guy getting into a car and his name is Steve um keep talking keep talking

Asher Stuhlman

The protagonist’s name is Steve, it seems.  How old does that likely make him?  Or look at the some of the other named characters who showed up this year: Gilbert, Lily, Carla, Jack, Sammy, Jesse, Kathleen, Hailey, James, Thomas, Jennifer, Winter, Mike, Percy.  What do their names tell us about what gener­ation those characters might belong to?  Find out by visiting my new names site!  It will tell you that “Kathleen” is primarily a Baby Boomer name, “Jennifer” is strongly associated with Generation X, “Lily” and “Hailey” are probably Zoomers, and “Vilmor” is a product of the Norgolian Age.

Meanwhile, the 2024 edition of the contest is now underway.  If you entered this year but your entry was not selected for this page, please do try again; I have to draw a line somewhere, and many worthy entries don’t make it all the way to the final folder.  It is frequently the case that someone may miss the cut one year, and the very next year that same contestant’s hauberk is jangling a victorious rhythm.

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