Most “prizes” for bad writing, such as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award and the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, “reward” labyrinthine, clause- and adjective-festered prose. I propose that we come up with an award for worst simple sentence. After all, anyone can write poorly by heaping modifiers atop modifiers. But just as it’s generally tougher to write short than to write long, conjuring up in a handful of words a sentence that makes the reader lift his head up from a book and moan “What the …?” requires a special talent.
(Yes, I’m aware that with this post I’m leaving myself wide open to Muphry’s Law. Go on, buy a copy of my book Beyond Billicombe and have at me. )
One of my nominees for what I'm calling the WTF Awards cropped up in a book I read in April, yet I still remember the sentence eight months later. The protagonist is running from a murderous psycho (of course) in some sort of underground tunnel lined with stone busts and other sculptures: “The next instant, the great stone head plopped down on Lucas with a sickening crunch.”
Would a heavy stone sculpture, one weighty enough to make a “sickening crunch” upon landing, “plop”? A pebble might plop into a pond; I definitely plop onto a chair at the end of a crazed workday. I don’t think that, say, the head of Michelangelo’s David would plop onto a passing Florentine were an earthquake to strike the city.
My other nominee is even shorter: “Two excited men trudged up.” Remove “excited” from that sentence. You’re picturing two tired, maybe dusty, probably stoop-shouldered men, silent save for their heavy panting, barely making their way up. Now focus on just the first three words of the sentence, “Two excited men.” These men are chattering or yelling, their words tumbling one atop the other; gesturing; hopping from one foot to the next. If you’re excited, you aren’t trudging. If you’re trudging, you aren’t excited.
How does this happen? In the first instance, the author might have been trying her darnedest to avoid a pedestrian verb such as fell. In the second, um, maybe the author doesn’t know the meaning of trudge?
Regardless, those ill-chosen words yank the reader from the scene and shatter the illusion that the fictional world is a real one. They also make me doubt that the authors themselves fully imagined the scenes they were describing.
For all the grief that Edward Bulwer-Lytton gets, it was clear that he saw and heard the scenes he described. Take the much-maligned opening of his novel Paul Clifford, the first phrase of which has been immortalized by Snoopy: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
I’ll take that over excited trudging any day.
Do you have any sentences you’d like to nominate for the WTF Awards? If so, post them in the comments section below. (Hopefully I’m not responsible for any of them…)