Genre: Cowboy/Western Tales
Good News (1980)
Two men sit on a rock halfway up the slope of a desert mountain. Sundown: The air is still, caught in the pause between the heat of the day, the cool of the evening. Doves call in twilight, testing the tentative peace. Downslope from the men a rattlesnake slides from its dark den, scales hissing over stone; the yellow eyes glow with hunger—death in its glance.
The Brave Cowboy (1956)
He was sitting on his heels in the cold light of the dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass.
The opening sentence is so clearly and cleanly constructed that the complete scene almost automatically forms in the movie screen of our minds. The narrator continued with a metaphorical flourish:
“Beside him was his source of fuel: a degenerate juniper tree, shriveled and twisted, cringing over its bed of lava rock and sand. An underprivileged juniper tree, living not on water and soil but on memory and hope. And almost alone.”
Kirk Douglas was so taken with the novel—and the anti-establishment protagonist, a modern-day cowboy named Jack Burns—that he quickly secured the film rights and adapted it into the 1962 film Lonely Are the Brave.
“A College Vagabond”, in Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-Fire Stories (1906)
The ease and apparent willingness with which some men revert to an aimless life can best be accounted for by the savage or barbarian instincts of our natures.
The narrator continued: “The West has produced many types of the vagabond—it might be excusable to say, won them from every condition of society. From the cultured East, with all the advantages which wealth and educational facilities can give to her sons, they flocked; from the South, with her pride of ancestry, they came; even the British Isles contributed their quota. There was something in the primitive West of a generation or more ago which satisfied them. Nowhere else could it be found, and once they adapted themselves to existing conditions, they were loath to return to former associations.”
“The Story of a Poker Steer,“ in Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-Fire Stories (1906)
He was born in a chaparral thicket, south of the Nueces River in Texas. It was a warm night in April, with a waning moon hanging like a hunter’s horn high overhead, when the subject of this sketch drew his first breath. Ushered into a strange world in the fulfillment of natural laws, he lay trembling on a bed of young grass, listening to the low mooings of his mother as she stood over him in the joy and pride of the first born.
The Return of Little Big Man (1999)
My name is Jack Crabb, and in the middle of the last century I come [sic] West with my people in a covered wagon, at age ten went off with and was reared by Cheyenne Indians, given the name of Little Big Man, learned to speak their language, ride, hunt, steal ponies, and make war, and, in part of my mind, to think like them, and in my teen years was captured by the U.S. Cavalry and went on to have many adventures and personal acquaintanceship with notables of the day and place like General George A. Custer, James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and many others, surviving Custer’s fight at the Little Bighorn River, which the Indians called the Greasy Grass.
Crabb continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “Now I already give a detailed account of these and other episodes of my early life to a fellow name of Ralph Fielding Snell, who come to the old folks’ home back a few months, or years—when you’re old as me such distinctions don’t matter much; I happen to have just turned 112. Yeah, I don’t believe it either, but I’m the one that’s got to live with the fact.“
Little Big Man (1964)
I am a white man and never forgot it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.
With these simple first words, the 111-year-old Jack Crabb—the only living survivor of Custer’s Last Stand—introduces himself. As he continues in the second paragraph, readers get their first glimpse of what the book holds in store for them: “My Pa had been a minister of the gospel in Evansville, Indiana. He didn’t have a regular church, but managed to talk some saloonkeeper into letting him use his place of [sic] a Sunday morning for services. Hoosier fourflushers on their way to New Orleans, pickpockets, bullyboys, whores, and suchlike, my Pa’s favorite type of congregation owing to the possibilities it afforded for the improvement of a number of mean skunks.“ Crabb, one of literary history’s most colorful characters, was brought to life in a spectacular way by Dustin Hoffman in a 1970 film adaptation of the book.
In a fascinating fourteen-page “Foreword by a Man of Letters,“ Berger’s narrator, a fictional writer named Ralph Fielding Snell, sets the stage for the novel by writing: “It was my privilege to know the late Jack Crabb—frontiersman, Indian Scout, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, adopted Cheyenne—in his final days upon this earth. An account of my association with this remarkable individual may not be out of order here, for there is good reason to believe that without my so to speak catalytic function these extraordinary memoirs would never have seen the light of day. This apparently immodest statement will, I trust, be justified by the ensuing paragraphs.“
Dances with Wolves (1988)
Lieutenant Dunbar wasn’t really swallowed. But that was the first word that stuck in his mind.
The opening words attempt to capture the emotional experience of Union Army Lieutenant John Dunbar when, in the 1860s, he first witnessed the vastness of the American frontier, now known as The Great Plains. The narrator continued:
“Everything was immense.
“The great, cloudless sky. The rolling ocean of grass. Nothing else, no matter where he put his eyes. No road. No trace of ruts for the big wagon to follow. Just sheer, empty space.
“He was adrift. It made his heart jump in a strange and profound way.”
In 1990, the novel was adapted into a film directed by and starring Kevin Costner (it was his directorial debut). A critical as well as a commercial success, it was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1990. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, it won seven (including Best Picture and Best Director). It also became the second Western in film history (after Cimarron in 1931) to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
The Way to Bright Star (1998)
Thinking about the circus coming to town led me to pull out this shoe box of faded photographs that I keep in the bottom of Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk. I have not looked at them for a long time, maybe a year or more.
The words come from Ben Butterfield, an aging ex-circus performer who is living and working in a small Midwestern town in 1902. As he opens the shoe box, he does not yet realize that the old photographs will be stimulating a flood of memories about an amazing coming-of-age odyssey from forty years earlier.
Butterfield continued: “I just now found my favorite, the one of Queen Elizabeth Jones, of course, and there she is—in her white riding tights, her golden hair done up halo style, her lips parted in the joyful smile that is like none I’ve ever seen on any other human being’s face.“
The boy shot Wild Bill’s horse at dusk, while Bill was off in the bushes to relieve himself.
If a first sentence can bring a big smile to a reader’s face—and that was certainly true in my case—it automatically deserves the designation of a Great Opening Line. In his 2007 writing guide Hooked, writer and writing teacher Les Edgerton hailed this as an exemplary opener. About it, he posed this question to his readers: “Can you imagine not wanting to find out what happens to this kid when Bill returns from his whiz and find his horse dead and primed for the glue factory?”
As the master of the Indian Spring school emerged from the pine woods into the little clearing before the school-house, he stopped whistling, put his hat less jauntily on his head, threw away some wild flowers he had gathered on his way, and otherwise assumed the severe demeanor of his profession and his mature age—which was at least twenty.
“M’liss,” in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)
Just where the Sierra Nevada begins to subside in gentler undulations, and the rivers grow less rapid and yellow, on the side of a great red mountain, stands “Smith’s Pocket.” Seen from the red road at sunset, in the red light and the red dust, its white houses look like the outcroppings of quartz on the mountain-side.
This is a beautiful description—easily brought to life in our imagination when we close our eyes—and a perfect way to begin any story. The title, by the way, is the nickname of Melissa Smith, the daughter of the man for whom the tiny town is named.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” in Overland Monthly (January 1869)
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere from the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.
The narrator continued: “Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause, was another question. ‘I reckon they’re after somebody,’ he reflected; ‘likely it’s me.’”
The short story, which helped establish Harte’s reputation as a serious writer, went on to become one of his most popular tales, aided by four stage versions—all operas!—and five screen adaptations.
“The Idyll of Red Gulch,” in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)
Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea-bush, in pretty much the same attitude in which he had fallen some hours before.
The narrator continued: “How long he had been lying there he could not tell, and didn’t care; how long he should lie there was a matter equally indefinite and unconsidered. A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition, suffused and saturated his moral being.”
The Cold Dish (2004)
“Bob Barnes says they got a dead baby out in BLM land. He’s on line one.”
She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek.
With these words, the literary world was introduced to Walt Longmire, the sheriff of Wyoming’s fictional Absaroka County. A prototypical Western lawman, Walt is ruggedly handsome, laconic, and prone to thoughtful introspection as he surveys the beautiful natural world that surrounds him. Like so many of the iconic fictional lawmen who’ve preceded him in the genre, he also has a powerful sense of duty and honor, and a deep and abiding commitment to seeing that justice is done. He has thus far appeared in eighteen novels and eighteen short stories.
In 2012, Johnson’s Longmire novels were adapted by Warner Horizon into “Longmire,” a television series on the A&E Network (for a time, it was the highest-rated original crime drama series on the network). With Australian actor Robert Taylor in the starring role, and a strong supporting cast, the series continued for six seasons, the first three on A&E and final three on Netflix.
The Gunslinger [Book 1 of The Dark Tower series] (1982)
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
In a 2011 Lit Reactor article, Meredith Borders included this opener in her list of “The Ten Best Opening Lines of Novels.” About it, she wrote: “Stephen King began writing The Gunslinger when he was a sophomore in college; he has said that the opening sentence came to him as a forceful inspiration that he could not ignore. Twelve and a half years later, the novel was published.”
The inspiration for the novel was Robert Browning’s 1852 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” A few years after the novel was published, King reported, “I played with the idea of trying a long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem.“ In her 2011 post, Borders agreed that King had accomplished what he set out to do, writing, “The words are stark and lovely, instantly giving the sense that we are in medias res of an epic adventure lasting through time out of mind.”
It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once, the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt. If he did not succeed this time he would never know it, for he would be dead.
“The Gift of Cochise,“ in Collier’s magazine (July 5, 1952)
Tense, and white to the lips, Angie Lowe stood in the door of her cabin with a double-barreled shotgun in her hands. Beside the door was a Winchester ’73, and on the table inside the house were two Walker Colts.
The narrator continued: “Facing the cabin were twelve Apaches on ragged calico ponies, and one of the Indians had lifted his hand palm outward. The Apache sitting on the white-splashed bay pony was Cochise.“
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been warned. He got it straight, with no beating around the mesquite.
“Mister,” I said, “if you ain’t any slicker with that pistol than you were with that bottom deal, you’d better not have at it.”
Trouble was, he wouldn’t be content with one mistake, he had to make two; so he had at it, and they buried him out west of town where men were buried who die by the gun.
And me, William Tell Sackett, who came to Uvalde a stranger and alone, I found myself a talked-about man.
He rolled the cigarettes in his lips, liking the taste of tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert.
The narrator continued with this description of protagonist Hondo Lane: “He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.”
The book is a novelization of John Ford’s classic 1953 film “Hondo,“ starring John Wayne. The film was an adaptation of “The Gift of Cochise,” a 1952 L’Amour short story originally published in Collier’s magazine. When Wayne read the story, he was so impressed with the tale—and with protagonist Hondo Lane—that he quickly purchased film rights for $4,000. L’Amour did not write the screenplay, but he owned the rights to produce a novelization of the film. His novel was published the same day the film was released, and it became an immediate bestseller.
The Man Called Noon (1970)
Somebody wanted to kill him.
The idea was in his mind when he opened his eyes to the darkness of a narrow space between two buildings. His eyes came to a focus on a rectangle of light on the wall of the building opposite, the light from a second-story window.
He had fallen from that window.
Wherever buffalo grazed, cattle were rounded up, or mustangs tossed their tails in flight, men talked of Bijah Catlow.
The narrator continued: “He was a brush-buster from the brazada country down along the Nueces, and he could ride anything that wore hair. He made his brag that he could outfight, outride, outtalk, and outlive any man in the world, and he was prepared to accept challenges, any time or place.“
A rifle fired from the house and Radigan dove for the brush, falling on his hands as a second bullet clipped brush ahead of him. He rolled over, catching a quick glimpse of Angelina Foley herself standing near the porch, working the lever on the Winchester.
Lonely on the Mountain (1980)
There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.
This is the entire first paragraph of the novel, and the words are presented in italics in the book. We shortly discover that the three Sackett brothers believe they are the wisest words they ever heard from their deceased father.
The novel’s narrator is Tell Sackett, the eldest brother, and he continued in the second paragraph: “Pa said that when I was a boy. There was a hot, dry wind moaning through the hot, dry trees, and we were scared of fire in the woods, knowing that if fire came, all we had would go.”
This is my all-time favorite opening line and one of history’s most inspirational quotations. I first came across it during an extremely dark period of my life, and still remember the impact it had on me. The idea that someone else had sunk to similar depths and survived—and even went on to thrive—had an invigorating, even liberating, effect on my thinking. For decades, I’ve quoted the line in counseling sessions, leadership seminars, and private conversations—and the most common reaction from people has been: “Hold it! I’d like to write that down so can I remember it later.”
Alan Le May
The Searchers (1954)
Supper was over by sundown, and Henry Edwards walked out from the house for a last look around. He carried his light shotgun, in hopes the rest of the family would think he meant to pick up a sage hen or two—a highly unlikely prospect anywhere near the house. He had left his gun belt on its peg beside the door, but he had sneaked the heavy six-gun itself into his waistband inside his shirt.
Henry Edwards, a West Texas settler in the mid-1800s, has an uneasy feeling, but he doesn’t want to alarm his family. Those familiar with John Ford’s classic 1956 film adaptation—starring John Wayne and a young Natalie Wood—know the reason why.
In the novel’s first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Martha was washing dishes in the wooden sink close by, and both their daughters—Lucy, a grown-up seventeen, and Debbie, just coming ten—were drying and putting away. He didn’t want to get them all stirred up; not until he could figure out for himself what had brought on his sharpened dread of the coming night.”
“The Tonto Woman” (1982); reprinted in The Tonto Woman and Other Wester Stories (1998)
A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession.”
Vega continued in the opening paragraph: “Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only.” And the priest would say, “Do you mean bad women or good women?” And Ruben Vega would say, “They are all good, Father.”
The Bounty Hunters (1953)
Dave Flynn stretched his boots over the footrest and his body eased lower into the barber chair.
In a 2019 CrimeReads.com article, editor-in-chief Dwyer Murphy described Elmore Leonard “the king of the opening line” and Raymond Chandler as “the master of the opening paragraph.” I understand where Murphy is coming from, but, as you’ll see in the other Leonard entries, he also penned some spectacular opening paragraphs.
Sin Killer [Book 1 of the Berrybender Narratives] (2002)
In the darkness beyond the great Missouri’s shore at last lay the West, toward which Tasmin and her family, the numerous Berrybenders, had so long been tending.
N. Richard Nash
Cry Macho: A Novel (1975)
He was not yet within sight of the ravine when Mike heard the first shot.
The narrator is describing Mike Milo, an aging Texas rodeo star who has agreed to travel to Mexico City to kidnap the eleven-year-old son of Howard Polk, his former boss and a Texas rancher who is divorced, and severely estranged, from a Mexican woman who was his wife. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Somebody had once told him—was it Howard?—that when the Mexican police shoot, the first shot is a boast, the second is a bullet.”
Cry Macho was originally written as a screenplay, but was adapted into a novel after the author failed to sell the film rights. Over the decades, numerous filmmakers attempted to turn the novel into a film, but without success. Clint Eastwood finally succeeded in producing, directing, and starring in a 2021 film adaptation. While the film received mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office, I thoroughly enjoyed it—and was also thoroughly impressed by what the 90-year-old Eastwood was still capable of doing.
In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw. Like a lot of things, it didn’t happen all at once.
First I had to get married.
After these opening words, I have just one question: how can you not read on? This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).
After this delightful opening, North took the classic western novel and turned it on its head. In a Ms. magazine review, Karla J. Strand wrote: “A western unlike any other, Outlawed features queer cowgirls, gender nonconforming robbers and a band of feminists that fight against the grain for autonomy, agency and the power to define their own worth.” I also enjoyed NPR commentator Maureen Corrigan’s summary description of the novel: “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.“
Robert S. Phillips
Louis L’Amour: His Life and Trails (1990)
Louis L’Amour. The name itself sounds highly improbable for the author of Western and adventure novels. As one of his early editors said, L’Amour on a paperback sounded like “a Western written in lipstick.”
In my opinion, this is one of the all-time great opening paragraphs for a biography. If more biographers began with openers like this, the entire genre would be improved a thousandfold.
True Grit (1968)
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.
The opening words come from the elderly Mattie Ross, who is recalling how her incredible story began when she was a young girl. She continued: “I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
In a 2018 LiteraryHub.com post, managing editor Emily Temple described this as a “Perfect First Paragraph.” She wrote: “Portis has Mattie’s voice and character nailed from the very first lines…. She is fourteen, after all, and a girl, which means that most of the other characters in this book consider her ill-suited for chasing after her father’s murderer. But the reader is already pretty sure that she is not ill-suited, having been inside her head.”
Eventually, young Mattie hires a hard-drinking, one-eyed U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to help find her father’s killer. John Wayne was so taken with the Cogburn character that he quickly bought the film rights. In the 1969 film adaptation the very next year, Wayn’es performance won him the Best Actor Academy Award.
In a 2010 Newsweek article, Malcolm Jones wrote: “True Grit is one of the great American novels, with two of the greatest characters in our literature and a story worthy of their greatness. It is not just a book you can read over and over. It’s a book you want to read over and over, and each time you’re surprised by how good it is. In every Portis novel, someone makes some kind of journey. His protagonists all have a little Don Quixote in them. They are at odds with the ordinary ways of making do, and they don’t care what the world thinks. In True Grit, these elements are the raw ingredients for one of the finer epic journeys in American literature.”
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)
It is the finest outhouse in the Dakotas. It has to be.
This is the entire first paragraph—and it may be the only opening sentence in literary history to celebrate an outhouse. In the next paragraph, the narrator provides rich, back-up detail:
“Spiders, mice, cold drafts, splinters, corncobs, habitual stenches don’t make it in this company. The hands have renovated and decorated the privy themselves. Foam rubber, hanging flower pots, a couple of prints by Georgia O’Keefe (her cow skull period), fluffy carpeting, Sheetrock insulation, ashtrays, an incense burner, a fly strip, a photograph of Dale Evans about which there is some controversy. There is even a radio in the outhouse, although the only radio station in the area plays nothing but polkas.”
The Shootist (1975)
He thought: When I get there nobody will believe I could have managed a ride like this and neither by God will I.
It is 1901, and the man is question is John Bernard Books, the only surviving gunfighter in the vanishing American West (he was brought to the Big Screen in 1976 by John Wayne in his last film role).
In a note to the reader at the beginning of the book, Swarthout explained that the term “gunfighter” had not yet been invented in 1901, and a man in Book’s profession was commonly called a “gun man” or a “shootist.” In the novel, Books is headed to El Paso to consult a physician about a concerning medical condition. His horse is also suffering with a painful fistula. The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph:
“It was noon of a bodeful day. The sun was an eye blood-shot by dust. His horse was fistulowed [sic]. Some friction between saddle and hide, of thorn or stone or knot of thread, had created an abscess on the withers, deep and festering, the cure for which he knew was to cauterize and let the air heal by staying off the animal, but he could not stop. If the horse had suffered, he had suffered more. This was the ninth day of his ride, and the last.”
The Massacre at Fall Creek (1975)
Jud Clasby, hidden in the yet unleafed sassafras clump, watched the work going on in the camp. The three squaws and four children were as pretty a sight as he had ever seen.
West’s opening words are so cleanly and crisply written that we can close our eyes and perfectly imagine the scene. In the remainder of the opening paragraph, the narrator provided a glimpse into the nature of the man doing the observing:
“Pretty as does with their fawns, he thought. He did not actually think—he spoke silently to his listening self. He was a long hunter, alone for months at a time harvesting pelts, and though he never said a word aloud, he continuously commented to himself, Because of this habit, he never knew the loneliness other hunters spoke of. He talked all day long to the silent self who accompanied him.”