A Celebration of
Great Opening Lines
in World Literature

Launched: January 1, 2022

This website is dedicated to the memory of John O. Huston (1945-2022)

Genre:  Novels

Result set has 1056 entries.
Edward Abbey
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.

Megan Abbott
The Queenpin (2007)

I want the legs.

The unnamed narrator, a young bookkeeper at a seedy nightclub, is referring to the legs of Gloria Denton, a forty-something queenpin (think kingpin) in the underworld of casinos, racetracks, and similar venues. In the book, the opening line is presented in italics and comprises the entire first paragraph. In the second, the narrator continued:

“That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.“

In 2008, The Queenpin won both the Edgar Award and the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original.

Megan Abbott
Dare Me (2012)

After a game, it takes a half-hour under the shower head to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair.

The narrator is 16-year-old Addy Hanlon, a high school cheerleader who describes herself as having “hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band.“ She continued: “Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.“

Kobo Abe
The Ark Sakura (1984)

Once a month I go shopping downtown, near the prefectural offices. It takes me the better part of an hour to drive there, but since my purchases include a lot of specialized items—faucet packing, spare blades for power tools, large laminated dry cells, that sort of thing—the local shops won’t do. Besides, I’d rather not run into anyone I know. My nickname trails after me like a shadow.

The entire opening paragraph piques our curiosity, but especially the final sentence. The narrator then goes on to advance the story in an intriguing way:

“My nickname is Pig—or Mole. I stand five feet eight inches tall, weigh two hundred and fifteen pounds, and have round shoulders and stumpy arms and legs. Once, hoping to make myself more inconspicuous, I took to wearing a long black raincoat—but any hope I might have had was swept away when I walked by the new city hall complex on the broad avenue leading up to the station. The city hall building is a black steel frame covered with black glass, like a great black mirror; you have to pass it to get to the train station. With that raincoat on, I looked like a whale calf that had lost its way, or a discarded football, blackened from lying in the trash. Although the distorted reflection of my surroundings was amusing, my own twisted image seemed merely pitiful.“

The narrator’s use of rich, vivid detail is a hint of things to come. In a 1988 New York Times review, Edmund White wrote about the book: “It is a wildly improbable fable when recalled, but it proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within. For instance, the hollowed-out interior of the mountain is so well described that by the end of the book the reader is capable of drawing a map of its intricate corridors and chambers, its booby traps and depots—and especially its high-suction toilet that has the talismanic force of a coffin.“

Chinua Achebe
A Man of the People (1966)

No one can deny that Chief the Honorable M. A. Nanga, M.P. was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense.

The narrator is Odili Samalu, an idealistic school teacher in a fictional African country resembling post-colonial Nigeria. About Samalu, John Day wrote in a 1966 Time magazine review: “He is, in fact, perhaps the most engaging character in fiction about Africa since the hero of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, who was factotum to a white colonial official.“ From the outset, the phrase they would tell you seems significant—and that proves to be the case as the story unfolds.

André Aciman
Eight White Nights (2010)

Halfway through dinner, I knew I’d play the whole evening in reverse—the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candlelit faces beamed with laughter and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere as I wandered from room to room, thinking that perhaps I should have arrived much earlier tonight, or a bit later, or that I shouldn’t have come at all, the classic sepia etchings on the wall by the bathroom where a swinging door opened to a long corridor to private areas not intended for guests but took another turn toward the hallway and then, by miracle, led back into the same living room, where more people had gathered, and where, turning to me by the window where I thought I’d found a quiet spot behind the large Christmas tree, someone suddenly put out a hand and said, “I am Clara.“

This is a tour de force of an opening sentence, all 170 words of it. Opening sentences of 100-plus words are rare because they’re so exceptionally difficult to pull off. But when they’re crafted at a high artistic level, as we see here, they are to be treasured. When I first came across this gem from Aciman, one of our greatest contemporary writers, my thoughts immediately went to John Barth, who famously observed: “In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.“

Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [book one in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1979)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.“

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator went on: “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper....“

Douglas Adams
The Restaurant At the End of the Universe [book 2 in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1980)

The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

These are the first words of Chapter 1, and it’s hard to imagine a better way to begin the book.

The first words of a brief Preamble to the book are also beautifully expressed: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.“

Douglas Adams
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.“

If you can begin a novel with an observation that has every chance of becoming a world-class quotation, you’re off to a great start—and that’s exactly what happened with this first sentence (all of the major quotation anthologies quickly picked it up).

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk.“

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Chain-Gang All-Stars (2023)

She felt their eyes, all those executioners.

The opening words come from Loretta Thurwar, a black female convict who is about to appear on “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” a wildly popular television show in which inmates in America’s private prison industry compete in gladiator-style death-matches for the ultimate prize: an unconditional release from prison.

This dramatic first sentence was brought to my attention by Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, who described it as “a knock-out.” He went on to add:

“With this short, arresting line, Adjei-Brenyah manages to immediately convey the deadly plot of this novel, but he also telescopes the story’s most profound theme about the condition of being watched, of being turned into a media object.”

Adjei-Brenyah’s novel went on to be named a finalist for the National Book Award.

Ama Ata Aidoo
Changes: A Love Story (1993)

Esi was feeling angry with herself. She had no business driving all the way to the offices of Linga Whatever. The car of course stalled more than once on the way, and, of course, all the other drivers were unsympathetic. They blew their horns, and some taxi drivers shouted the usual obscenities about “women drivers.“

The protagonist is Esi Sekyl, a highly educated, career-oriented data analyst in Ghana’s Department of Urban Statistics. Deeply unhappy in her marriage, she has no clue that this unplanned trip to the Linga HideAways Travel Agency—and chance meeting with the agency’s owner—will change her life.

Esi continued: “In spite of how strongly she felt about it all, why couldn’t she ever prevent her colleagues from assuming that any time the office secretary was away, she could do the job? And, better still, why couldn’t she prevent herself from falling into that trap?“

Conrad Aiken
Great Circle (1933)

Why be in such a hurry, old fool? What good is hurry going to do you? Wrap yourself in a thick gauze of delay and confusion, like the spider; hang there, like the spider, aware of time only as the rock is aware of time; let your days be as leisurely and profound as months, serene as the blue spaces of sky between clouds; your flies will come to you in due season.

These are the cautionary inner reflections of the protagonist, Andrew Cather, who is on a train from New York City to Boston. He will be returning home three days early, and is not sure what he will find when he arrives (one possibility—both feared and, in some ways, desired—is that his wife will be in the arms of a lover).

Aiken was deeply interested in psychoanalysis, and this early psychological suspense novel was believed to be one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite novels.

Ayad Akhtar
American Dervish (2012)

I remember it all with a vividness that marks the moment as the watershed it would be.

The “it” was the moment protagonist Hayat Shah had his very first taste of pork (the son of Pakistani immigrants, he was at a college basketball game with friends when a food vendor mistakenly gave him a bratwurst instead of the beef hot dog he ordered). That bite set in motion a series of life-altering decisions that went on to change everything for Shah in this coming-of-age tale set in 1980s Wisconsin.

Vassily Aksyonov
Generations of Winter (1994)

Just think—in 1925, the eighth year of the Revolution, a traffic jam in Moscow!

The opening words of the novel—which the Washington Post called “the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace“—describe a scene unimagined several years earlier, when famine and epidemics had almost completely paralyzed the post-czarist country that was becoming known as “Russia of the Reds.“

Mitch Albom
The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003)

This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.

Mitch Albom
For One More Day (2006)

“Let me guess. You want to know why I tried to kill myself.“ — Chick Benetto’s first words to me.

This is a story about a family and, as there is a ghost involved, you might call it a ghost story. But every family is a ghost story. The dead sit at our tables long after they have gone.

Mitch Albom
The First Phone Call From Heaven (2013)

On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.

Albom clearly knows how to write a great first sentence, but he’s also adept at writing a compelling first page. Here’s how he continued after the opening sentence:


She ignored the ring and dug her nails into the plastic.


She clawed her forefinger through the bumpy part of the side.


Finally, she made a rip, then peeled off the wrapping and scrunched it in her palm. She knew the phone would go to answering machine if she didn’t grab it one more—



Too late.

“Ach, this thing,“ she mumbled. She heard the machine click on her kitchen counter as it played her outgoing message.

“Hi, it’s Tess. Leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can, thanks.“

A small beep sounded. Tess heard static. And then.

“It’s Mom...I need to tell you something.“

Tess stopped breathing. The receiver fell from her fingers.

Her mother died four years ago.

Kate Albus
A Place to Hang the Moon (2021)

Funeral receptions can be tough spots to find enjoyment, but eleven-year-old Edmund Pearce was doing his best.

In her debut novel, Albus had her narrator continue: “He was intent on the iced buns. Some of them had gone squashy on one side or the other, some had lost their icing when a neighboring bun had been removed, and a few had been sadly neglected in the icing department from the start.”

As the opening paragraph continued, the narrator neatly captured additional age-appropriate behavior for an eleven-year-old boy: “Undaunted, Edmund picked through the pile, finding two that met with his approval. He shoved one into each of his trouser pockets and, scooping up a handful of custard cream cookies to round out the meal, navigated through the crowd until he found a vacant armchair. There he settled, quite content despite the occasion. It helped that he’d never cared much for his grandmother, anyway.”

Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (1868)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,“ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!“ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,“ added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got father and mother, and each other,“ said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The first four lines of Alcott’s debut novel introduce us to all four March sisters—and provide a glimpse of what we are to learn about each of them as the story unfolds.

Louisa May Alcott
Eight Cousins: or The Aunt-Hill (1875)

Rose sat all alone in the big best parlor, with her little handkerchief laid ready to catch the first tear, for she was thinking of her troubles, and a shower was expected.

This has long been one of my favorite opening lines—mainly because it is such a fabulous metaphor. Over the years, whenever the subject of someone’s potential crying comes up, I’ve been inclined to say, “To piggyback on a line from Louisa May Alcott, ‘A shower is expected.’”

Felipe Alfau
Chromos (1990)

The moment one learns English, complications set in.

This simple opening sentence can be appreciated at so many different levels—all of them interesting, and all of them highly relevant to the immigrant experience. In their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,“ the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 41.

Written in the 1940s, but not published until 1990, Chromos anticipated many of the later immigrant narratives that would become so important in American fiction. The book came from out of nowhere to be nominated for the 1990 National Book Award, and is now regarded as a masterpiece of metafiction.

Nelson Algren
The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query room desk.

Nelson Algren
A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)

“He’s just a pore lonesome wife-left feller,“ the more understanding said of Fitz Linkhorn, “losing his old lady is what crazied him.“

“That man is so contrary,“ the less understanding said, “if you throwed him in the river he’d float upstream.“

For what had embittered him Fitz had no name. Yet he felt that every daybreak duped him into waking and every evening conned him into sleep. The feeling of having been cheated—of having been cheated—that was it. Nobody knew why nor by whom.

Isabel Allende
The Wind Knows My Name (2023)

Vienna, November 1938

A sense of misfortune hung in the air. From the early morning hours, a menacing breeze had swept through the streets, whistling between the buildings, forcing its way in through the cracks under doors and windows.

“Just winter settling in,” Rudolph Adler murmured to himself in an attempt to lighten his mood. But he couldn’t blame the weather for the tightness in his chest, which he’d felt for several months now.

Allende has penned some exceptional openers in her career, and this one nicely plants the idea that something is amiss in Rudolph Adler’s world—and has been for some time now. For savvy readers, the Vienna location and “November 1938” date provides an unsettling clue. In the novel’s third paragraph, the narrator continued:

“The stench of fear, like rust and rotting garbage, clung to his nostrils; neither his pipe tobacco nor his citrus-scented aftershave lotion could mask it. That afternoon, the stink of dread stirred up by the wind was suffocating, making him feel dizzy and nauseous. He decided to turn away the patients left in his waiting room and close up early. Surprised, his assistant asked if he was ill. She’d worked with the doctor for eleven years and had never known him to shirk his duties; he was a punctual, methodical man.”

For a number of openers from Allende’s nonfiction works, start here.

Margery Allingham
Police at the Funeral (1931)

When one man is following another, however discreet may be the pursuer or the pursued, the act does not often pass unnoticed in the streets of London.

The narrator continued: “There were at least four people who realized that Inspector Stanislaus Oates, only lately promoted to the Big Five, was being followed down High Holborn by the short, squat, shabby man who yet bore the elusive air of a forgotten culture about him.“

Dorothy Allison
Cavedweller (1998)

Death changes everything.

It was a little after dawn on the twenty-first of March 1981 when Randall Pritchard torqued his Triumph Bonneville off the 101 interchange southeast of Silverlake. The seventeen-year-old girl behind him gave a terrified howl as she flew off the back of the motorcycle, cartwheeled twice, and slammed facedown on the pavement, breaking both wrists and four front teeth and going mercifully unconscious. Randall never made a sound. He simply followed the bike’s trajectory, over the railing toward the sunrise, his long hair shining in the pink-gold glow and his arms outstretched to meet the rusty spokes of the construction barrier at the base of the concrete pilings. A skinny, pockmarked teenager from Inglewood was crouched nearby, rummaging through a stolen backpack. He saw Randall hit the barrier, the dust and rock that rose in a cloud, the blood that soaked Randall’s blue cotton shirt.

“’Delia,’“ the boy told reporters later. “The man just whispered ’Delia’ and died.“

This is the dramatic opening to an ambitious and absorbing story about Delia Byrd, a California rock-and-roll singer who decides to return to her childhood home in Georgia after her second husband has died in a horrifying motorcycle crash. Accompanied by their daughter, Cissy, she is also hoping to reunite with two older daughters she abandoned years earlier when, feeling she had no other options, she escaped from a verbally and physically abusive first marriage.

It is a common misconception that great opening lines are restricted to only a single, first sentence. The opening sentence of Cavedweller is a nice specimen, but think about what would be missing if this compilation had stopped after “Death changes everything.“

Lisa Alther
Kinflicks (1976)

My family has always been into death.

The opening words of this modern American classic come from Ginny Babcock, a teenage girl growing up in a privileged white family in Tennessee. She continued: “My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a tracheal puncture with the same deftness as a junky a vein.”

In a Time magazine review, Paul Gray described the book as “abundantly entertaining,” and wrote about it: “The novel proves again—if any doubters still remain—that women can write about physical functions just as frankly and, when the genes move them, as raunchily as men. It strikes a blow for the picara by putting a heroine through the same paces that once animated a Tom Jones or a Holden Caulfield. And it suggests that life seen from what was once called the distaff side suspiciously resembles the genitalia-centered existence that male novelists have so long monopolized. The organs are different; the scoring is the same.” [NOTE: In his review, Gray’s unusual use of the word picara was a reference to the lovable rogues featured in picaresque novels]

Martin Amis
The Rachel Papers (1973)

My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me.

Readers who take the bait in the opening sentence are quickly reeled in as the narrator continues: “It’s such a rangy, well-traveled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. I wear glasses for a start, have done since I was nine. And my medium-length, arseless waistless figure, corrugated rib-cage and bandy legs gang up to dispel any hint of aplomb.“

M. T. Anderson
Feed (2002)

We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

This delightful opening line suggests that teenagers will always have their own special argot, even in the dystopian future. The words come from a shallow, fun-loving teenager known only as Titus. After a disappointing trip to the moon, the “feed” going into his brain begins to malfunction—and the temporary absence of spoon-fed information from corporate controllers reawakens a questioning attitude that has been almost completely extinguished.

In a 2007 NPR blog post “Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers,” Nancy Pearl wrote: “Who could resist the first line of the chillingly satirical Feed by M. T. Anderson?” She went on to add: “That line sets the stage for the plot of this futuristic world that’s become overrun with rampant consumerism. Computer chips are implanted in most babies at birth. There’s no need to go to school, since you can Google any information you might need; there’s no need to talk to anyone, since you can IM instantaneously. There’s certainly no need to think, especially since the banner ads that float through your mind tell you exactly what you need to buy, do, and be to join the “in” crowd. But what happens when someone hacks into the computer feed that everyone is receiving? This is a terrific choice for both teen and adult book discussion groups.”

Anderson’s cyberpunk novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and went on to be included in Time magazine’s list of the “100 Best YA Books of All Time.”

Jennifer Apodaca
Ninja Soccer Moms (2004)

The thing about revenge is that it takes a woman who is well and truly pissed to get it right.

These opening words—which won the 2005 Ross Thomas Award for Best First Line in a Mystery or Thriller—describe Samantha “Sam” Shaw, a soccer mom who got thoroughly pissed off when, after her husband’s unexpected death, she discovered not only that he was cheating on her but that almost everybody knew about it.

I’ve been searching—without much success—for more information about the Ross Thomas Prize for Best First Line. I did find one other mention of the contest (see the Laura Lippman entry here), but nothing else. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.

Katherine Applegate
The One and Only Bob (2020)

Look, nobody’s ever accused me of being a good dog.

This is a sequel to The One and Only Ivan, Applegate’s wonderful 2012 children’s novel about a talking gorilla, and, if anything, it is even better. For reasons I’m not sure I completely understand, I absolutely love books narrated by talking animals, and this one starts off with a fabulous opening line. On the rest of the first page, Bob truly finds his “voice” as he continues:

“I bark at empty air. I eat cat litter. I roll in garbage to enhance my aroma.

“I harass innocent squirrels. I hog the couch. I lick myself in the presence of company.

“I’m no saint, okay?”

And so it goes—with a staccato-like delivery style that would be the envy of a stand-up comic—for 340 pages of one of the best animal-narrated stories I’ve ever read.

Jeffrey Archer
Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (1976)

Making a million legally has always been difficult. Making a million illegally has always been a little easier. Keeping a million when you have made it is perhaps the most difficult of all.

These are the memorable opening words to the book that launched Archer’s spectacular writing career. In the debut novel, the narrator continued:

“Henryk Metelski was one of those rare men who had managed all three. Even if the million he had made legally came after the million he had made illegally, Metelski was still a yard ahead of the others; he had managed to keep it all.“

After a financial scandal forced him to give up his political career in 1974 (he’d been a Member of Parliament since 1969), Archer was facing bankruptcy. He said to his wife, “The only way I can get out of this is to write my way out of it.“ And so he did. The novel became a bestseller, as did many of the three dozen other novels he would go on to write.

Jeffrey Archer
Kane & Abel (1979)

She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.

Kane & Abel was Archer’s second novel and, of the scores of books he went on to write, it was his most successful, selling nearly forty million copies (Wikipedia lists it as one of the 100 best-selling books of all time). In a 2017 article in Dubai’s Khaleej Times, Archer said: “If you’re going to open a book and you want to make people say, ‘I’m not going to put this down,’ you’re going to have to have a sensational opening sentence.” He went on to add that many people had written to him over the years saying Kane & Abel’s opening line “made it impossible not to go on reading.”

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it was the woman’s last cry or the child’s first that alerted his youthful ears. He turned suddenly, sensing the possible danger, his eyes searching for an animal that was so obviously in pain. He had never known any animal to scream in quite that way before.”

Sholem Asch
The Nazarene (1939)

Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence.

Sholem Asch
The Apostle (1943)

Seven weeks had gone by since that memorable day when on the hill of Golgotha Yeshua of Nazareth had been crucified by command of Pontius Pilate.

Isaac Asimov
I, Robot (1950)

I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. I’d spent three days at U. S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home with the Encyclopedia Tellurica.

The name of the encyclopedia immediately suggests a place that exists in the future. But where? And when? And how does it differ from the present day?

Isaac Asimov
The Robots of Dawn (1983)

Elijah Baley found himself in the shade of the tree and muttered to himself, “I knew it. I’m sweating.“

He paused, straightened up, wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand, then looked dourly at the moisture that covered it.

I hate sweating,“ he said to no one, throwing it out as a cosmic law. And once again he felt annoyance with the Universe for making something both essential and unpleasant.

Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
Nightfall (1990)

It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon.

In only six simple words, we already know we have left earth and are about to have an out-of-this-world adventure

Mateo Askaripour
Black Buck (2021)

The day that changed my life was like every day before it, except that it changed my life.

In this debut novel, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller, the narrator is a young, black, Bed-Stuy resident named Darren. On the surface, it’s a simple opening line, but it has a compelling subliminal message: When the day that changes our life finally arrives, we may not recognize it as all that significant because it will look just like all the other days. It was one of my choices for my Smerconish.com compilation of The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

In the first paragraph, Darren continued: “I suppose that makes it as important as a birthday, wedding, or bankruptcy, which is why I celebrate the twentieth of May every year like it’s my birthday. Why the hell not.“

In an “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book, Askaripour also began memorably, writing: “There’s nothing like a Black man on a mission. No, let me revise that. There’s nothing like a Black salesman on a mission.“

Kate Atkinson
Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.

The novel begins at the exact moment the narrator is conceived, and it captures precise details, including key aspects of her parents’ lovemaking patterns. The narrator, who will ultimately be known as Ruby Lennox, continued in the first paragraph: “At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to sleep—as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”

Atkinson’s brilliant opening had a vague, but familiar feeling about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why until I read what she wrote in her Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of the book: “The beginning of the book is a nod to Tristram Shandy.” She went on to add that her novel—like Sterne’s classic work and, indeed, all of literature—is “about the journey of the self toward the light.”

Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Atkinson’s debut novel, and what a way to start a career. It won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award and is now regarded as a modern classic.

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

In a 2011 blog, the English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “Typical of Atwood, her first sentence begins at once lucidly simple and loaded with implications. It’s a sentence that aches with time.“

The narrator of tale, a handmaid known as Offred, continued: “The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.“

Among its numerous awards, Atwood’s powerful dystopian novel won Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1985. In 2017, Hulu adapted the novel into a ten-episode streaming series, with Elizabeth Moss starring as Offred. After the first season, the series received 13 Primetime Emmy nominations, winning eight, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The series continues to be Hulu’s most popular offering, and is now in its fifth season.

Margaret Atwood
Cat's Eye (1988)

Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.

The narrator and protagonist is middle-aged painter Elaine Risley, who's been invited back to her childhood home of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. She opens with a thought she first learned from her brother Stephen, after which she begins to regain long-forgotten memories of her youth.

In a 2011 Lit Reactor article, Meredith Borders wrote: "The line is lovely in its simplicity, and more to the point, piercingly accurate. What is a book if not a bridge across the dimension of time, allowing one to revisit the past and envision the future? Elaine recalls with exquisite clarity the days of her childhood, the pain of youthful rejection, and the delicate pride of finally embracing her sense of self."

Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin (2000)

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.

The opening words come from Iris Chase, an elderly woman who is reflecting on the death of her younger sister in 1945, at age twenty-five. At her death, Laura left behind a sci-fi novel titled The Blind Assassin, which went on to become a posthumous cult classic. Atwood’s complex, multi-layered, novel-within-a novel was panned by many critics, but went on to win numerous awards, including the 2000 Booker Prize.

Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake (2003)

Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide come in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

Margaret Atwood
The Heart Goes Last (2015)

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it's no palace to begin with. If it was a van they'd have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they're lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn't make the car any bigger.

Margaret Atwood
The Testaments (2019)

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Louis Auchincloss
The Embezzler (1966)

I have the distinction of having become a legend in my lifetime, but not a very nice one.

The opening words come from Guy Prime, a fictionalized version of a real-life Wall Street executive who was at the center of a major financial scandal in the 1920s. In the opening paragraph of the novel, which was named a National Book Award finalist, he continued:

“In this year 1960, perhaps not every schoolchild (for what do they know of America’s past?) but surely every college man who has taken even a casual course in current history knows of Guy Prime. I am a symbol of financial iniquity, of betrayal of trust, of the rot in old Wall Street before the cleansing hose of the New Deal. If I had not existed, Franklin Roosevelt (who had a far more devious soul than mine) would have had to create me.”

Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice (1813)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Described by English writer and editor Robert McCrum as “The archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale,“ these opening words have achieved legendary status, appearing near the top of almost every Top Ten list ever compiled.

In How to Read Literature (2013), British scholar Terry Eagleton described this line as “One of the most renowned opening sentences in English literature” and “a small masterpiece of irony.“ Eagleton went on to add: “The irony does not exactly leap off the page. It lies in the difference between what is said—that everyone agrees that rich men need wives—and what is plainly meant, which is that this assumption is mostly to be found among unmarried women in search of a well-heeled husband.“

In the novel, the narrator continued: “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.“

Over the years, Austen’s opening line has been tweaked many times. For some exceptional examples, see the entries by Erin Blakemore, Meghan O’Rourke, Alexandra Petri, and Curtis Sittenfeld.

Jane Austen
Emma (1815)

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey (1817)

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.

Paul Auster
City of Glass [Book 1 of The New York Trilogy] (1985)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”

In a 2017 blog post (“Superb First Paragraphs Can Teach Writers”), writer and editor John Fox wrote: “Love that this starts with a telephone ringing, and that the person calling is not asking for him. By withholding such information, Auster creates a fantastic mystery. And the rest of the paragraph emphasizes how pivotal this phone call was, and also introduces the notion about the meaning of narrative and story, which the rest of this novel will concentrate on.”

In his post, Fox continued: “Remember that the one and only true rule for the first paragraph is that it has to make the reader want to read the rest of the book. And Auster certainly accomplishes that here.”

Paul Auster
Mr. Vertigo (1994)

I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water.

This arresting opening line comes from Walt Rawley, a St. Louis orphan who, at age nine, was rescued from the streets by a mysterious circus performer named Master Yehudi. Set in the 1920s, Yehudi brings Walt into a Kansas circus troupe filled with colorful, larger-than-life characters, and, after learning how to levitate, the former street urchin achieves fame as “Walt the Wonder Boy.” In the opening paragraph, the picaresque protagonist further piques the reader’s interest by saying:

“The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it, and I’m not going to pretend I learned the trick overnight. Master Yehudi found me when I was nine, an orphan boy begging nickels on the streets of Saint Louis, and he worked with me steadily for three years before he let me show my stuff in public. That was in 1927, the year of Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, the precise year when night began to fall on the world forever. I kept it up until a few days before the October crash, and what I did was greater than anything those two gents could have dreamed of. I did what no American had done before me, what no one has ever done since.”

Paul Auster
Timbuktu: A Novel (1999)

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would get rid of it.

The opening paragraph gets off to a terrific start, and continues like this for a full 270 words, as the character named Mr. Bones describes—with great concern—the deteriorating condition of someone who is very, very dear to him.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the story takes a dramatic turn as we learn that Mr. Bones is a dog. The narrator continued: “What was a poor dog to do? Mr. Bones had been with Willy since his earliest days as a pup, and by now it was next to impossible for him to imagine a world that did not have his master in it.”

Willy, a homeless man who lives in Brooklyn, is also concerned about the fate of Mr. Bones in a Willy-less world, and the two characters soon embark on a journey to rectify the situation. It’s a compelling novel, and a few years ago, I was delighted to learn that it was a personal favorite of celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl.

In a 2006 piece she did for National Public Radio, Ms. Pearl wrote: “Mr. Bones narrates the story of his life with Willy G. Christmas, which began when Mr. Bones was a pup and Willy was Willy Gurevitch, the brilliant son of Polish refugees. Now, Willy and Mr. Bones are on a search for Willy’s old high school English teacher, perhaps the only person who recognized Willy’s poetic gift. But it’s likely that Willy is going to die soon, and although Mr. Bones is pretty sure he knows what happens when people die—Willy has told him often enough that they go to Timbuktu—he’s not quite sure that dogs can go there too. And if not, where would he be without Willy? This novel, both like and unlike anything else that Auster has written, introduces two unforgettable characters.”

Natalie Babbitt
Tuck Everlasting (1975)

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.

These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued ominously: “It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”

In a 2016 blog post on “What Makes a Great First Line,” literary agent Amanda Luedeke wrote: “The first line from Tuck Everlasting ...doesn’t do much in the way of drawing the reader into the action–it actually goes out of its way to describe a notable lack of activity–but it serves as an example of another effective function of an opening sentence: laying a foundation.”

Luedeke went on to write that “Babbitt paints a quick picture of a certain time of year, evoking the weather (probably hot) and the pace of life (slow) at the moment the story opens, and we absorb these details and are primed to interpret the characters and events to come...without her having to explain everything...right up front.”

Fredrik Backman
Beartown: A Novel (2017)

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

In a “Literary Lifestyle” blog post, Jules Buono wrote: “Beartown begins at the end and, with an opening line as ominous as this one, you just know there’s an epic tale to be unraveled.” The opening words form the entirety of the first chapter, and it’s impossible to imagine someone reading them and not immediately turning the page to learn more.

While the opening words suggest a crime novel, Beartown is regarded as a “sports novel,” often described as “the hockey version of Friday Night Lights.” In a New York Times review, however, book editor Gregory Cowles accurately titled his piece, “A Different Kind of Sports Novel.” Cowles also paid a high compliment to the author, writing, “As popular Swedish exports go, Backman is up there with Abba and Stieg Larsson.”

Fredrik Backman
Anxious People (2020)

A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single bad idea.

On its own, this is a wonderful opening paragraph—especially the final line—but the second paragraph is even better. It begins with the narrator breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the reader: “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.”

This is a killer line, in my opinion, and I quite literally paused in my reading to savor it before reading on. The narrator then continued: “So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.”

Like his previous novels, Anxious People became an immediate New York Times Best Seller and was quickly adapted into a six-part Netflix mini-series that premiered in the final days of 2021.

Enid Bagnold
National Velvet (1935)

Unearthly humps of land curved into the darkening sky like the backs of browsing pigs, like the rumps of elephants.

The narrator continued: “At night when the stars rose over them they looked like a starlit herd of divine pigs. The villagers called them Hullocks.“

James Baldwin
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

Everybody had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.

James Baldwin
Another Country (1962)

He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies, in the top row of the balcony, since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs.

The narrator is describing Rufus Scott, a young, black, gay New York man who is trying to make his way in a world that isn’t exactly cooperating with him. The entire first paragraph is a beautiful description of a dark and bleak existence, and the “caterpillar fingers” portion is disturbingly compelling. The narrator continued: “He was so tired, he had fallen so low, that he scarcely had the energy to be angry; nothing of his belonged to him any more.“

In a 2013 essay in Political Research Quarterly (“Socrates in a Different Key: James Baldwin and Race in America”), Joel Alden Schlosser wrote: “While Rufus has tried to escape the streets to the movies, he cannot elude the threat of violence—both in the film and in sexual predations. Tired, low, dispossessed: Rufus appears already beaten by the end of the novel’s first paragraph.“

James Baldwin
Just Above My Head (1979)

The damn’d blood burst, first through his nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

The narrator, the brother of a famous black, homosexual musician named Arthur Montana, continued: “The telephone call did not go into these details, neither did the telegram: urgently demanding my arrival because my brother was dead.“

Iain Banks
The Crow Road (1992)

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

This is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated “hooks” in Young Adult literature, but I would argue that it is one of the best opening lines in all of literature. Colin Falconer placed it No. 13 on his 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,” wryly observing about it: “Hard not to be hooked after that. The day your grandmother explodes is always an important day.“

The opening words come from Prentice McHoan, a Scottish university student who returns home for his grandmother’s funeral (her death was the result of a forgotten pacemaker). In the novel, he continued: “I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”

Gwen Banta
The Fly Strip (2016)

I think a guy’s name must have some bearing on how his life will turn out. Malcolm Clapper...now that’s a peculiar name to be saddled with, huh? I suspect my mom was still sucking on the ether tube when she labeled me and my kid brother, Leland. Maybe she was hoping for a unicycle act. Anyway, as a result of my lean frame, I ended up with a good nickname, “Weed.“

In this coming-of-age tale, set in the 1960s, the narrator and protagonist is a 17-year-old high school student with a memorable literary name—Weed Clapper—and a clear Holden Caulfield quality. He continued: “Since Ginzberg, Kerouac and all the beats smoke weed, I think my nickname gives me an air of sophistication. And it’s a dang sight better than ’Peaches.’“

John Banville
Ancient Light (2012)

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.

The narrator is Alexander Cleave, an aging actor who begins his twilight meditations on life with memories of an adolescent affair with a woman more than twice his age. He continued: “Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.“

John Banville
April in Spain: A Novel [Book 8 in the Quirke series] (2021)

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that.

Banville is a writer of serious literary novels (he won the Booker Prize for The Sea in 2005), but he has always had a soft spot in his heart for crime fiction. Most of his crime novels were penned under the name Benjamin Black, but he wrote this most recent one under his own name—and he began it in a way that is perfectly fitting for the genre. It was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com compilation of The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Maybe ‘liked’ wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid. But money was never the motive, not really. Then what was? He had given a lot of thought to this question, on and off, over the years. He wasn’t a looney, and it wasn’t a sex thing, or anything sick like that—he was no psycho.”

In a 2014 Guardian interview, Banville surprised many when he revealed that he preferred his crime novels to his more serious literary works: “I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they [the Banville novels] are attempts to be works of art [and] all I see are the flaws, the faults, the failures, places where I should have kept going to make a sentence better.”

Amelia E. Barr
The Maid of Maiden Lane: A Love Story (1900)

Never, in all its history, was the proud and opulent city of New York more glad and gay than in the bright spring days of Seventeen-Hundred-and-Ninety-One. It had put out of sight every trace of British rule and occupancy, all its homes had been restored and re-furnished, and its sacred places re-consecrated and adorned.

Yes, The Maid of Maiden Lane is a novel, and a love story at that. But it begins with a remarkable historical assessment of the state of the city—and the new American nation—shortly after the Revolutionary War had come to a successful end. The narrator continued: “Like a young giant ready to run a race, it stood on tiptoe, eager for adventure and discovery—sending ships to the ends of the world, and round the world, on messages of commerce and friendship, and encouraging with applause and rewards that wonderful spirit of scientific invention, which was the Epic of the youthful nation.“

James M. Barrie
Peter and Wendy (1911)

All children, except one, grow up.

The son of a weaver, Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh before moving to London in 1885 to pursue a writing career. In 1897, he befriended Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a London couple with three young sons, George, John, and Peter (they ultimately added two more boys to the mix). Barrie loved playing with the boys, and regaled them with many fanciful stories, including one in which Peter was a bird before he was born and, after his birth, retained the ability to fly.

In 1902, Barrie introduced the character of Peter Pan in his novel The Little White Bird, but it was only a minor role, and Peter never advanced beyond infancy. Two years later, he developed Peter into the character we all know today for the 1904 London stage production, “Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.“ The play was a spectacular success, and catapulted Barrie into worldwide celebrity.

In 1911, Peter Pan was already one of the world’s most famous fictional characters when Barrie extended the stage play into a full-blown novel titled Peter and Wendy. The novel’s opening line is now regarded as a classic in world literature. What is less well known, though, is how Barrie continued the first paragraph:

“They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.”

James Barrington
Overkill [Book 2 of Agent Paul Richter series] (2016)

Most of the time they didn’t fuck around with the executions. A bullet in the back of the head or a blade drawn across the throat and the body left pretty much where it fell. But when Rashid was there it was different. Rashid liked to play.

In a 2007 post on his “Gravetapping” blog, writer and reviewer Ben Bouldon wrote “This is one of the coolest openings I have read recently.” I agree. The first portion is starkly straightforward, and it ends with a haunting phrase that couldn’t be more removed from the usual sense of the word play.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Bizarrely, Rashid looked more like a caricature of an accountant than anything else—small and slight, hunched, with thick pebble-lensed glasses—but nobody smiled when he was around. He had learnt his trade in the back streets of Baghdad and Basra, and refined his skills working on Russian prisoners seized by the Afghans. The smell of death was on him.”

Christy Barritt
Never Happen to You [Book 3 in True Crime Junkies series] (2023)

Heidi Billingsworth stood barefoot in the kitchen and stared out the window at the melting tundra surrounding her. Her back ached from where the leather belt had slapped against her as punishment for her disobedience.

A provocative opening paragraph like this will have readers asking for more, and the next three lines—laid out in three separate paragraphs—will “hook” them for good:

She should be used to being disciplined by now.

She tried not to make him mad. To do as he said.

But it seemed as if every day she failed to meet her captor’s expectations.

John Barth
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

Whenever I hear writers opining that a novel’s opening words should be pithy and punchy, I think about the many brilliant opening sentences that stretch out to more than 100 words—as in this gem from one of the modern era’s most acclaimed writers.

Barth’s 119-word opening sentence dazzled the critics of his day, and continues to impress modern readers. In a 2010 Time magazine feature on “The 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005,” critic Richard Lacayo wrote:

“A feast. Dense, funny, endlessly inventive (and, OK, yes, long-winded) this satire of the 18th-century picaresque novel—think Fielding’s Tom Jones or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—is…impossibly rich, a wickedly funny take on old English rhetoric and American self-appraisals.”

Bruce Barton
The Man Nobody Knows (1952)

It was very late in the afternoon.

If you would like to learn the measure of a man that is the time of day to watch him. We are all half an inch taller in the morning than at night; it is fairly easy to take a large view of things when the mind is rested and the nerves are calm. But the day is a steady drain of small annoyances, and the difference in the size of men becomes hourly more apparent. The little man loses his temper; the big man takes a firmer hold.

It was very late in the afternoon in Galilee.

This lovely, philosophical beginning has the flavor of an older, wiser person—a teacher or clergyman, perhaps—passing along time-honored wisdom. As the third paragraph begins, we begin to sense that the book is a fictionalized version of a very real historical figure. Reading on, we discover that Barton—one of the era’s most successful business executives—has reframed the life of Jesus, portraying him as a brilliant adman, a superb salesman, and a role model for businesspeople everywhere.

L. Frank Baum
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner.

The opening words introduce us to the young, female protagonist, but provide no information about why she is living with relatives. They also provide a hint about what is to come: “There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.“

Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney
Bored of the Rings: A Parody (1969)

"Do you like what you doth see...?" said the voluptuous elf-maiden as she provocatively parted the folds of her robe to reveal the rounded, shadowy glories within. Frito's throat was dry, though his head reeled with desire and ale.

In this brilliant Harvard Lampoon parody of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the narrator continued: "She slipped off the flimsy garment and strode toward the fascinated biggie unashamed of her nakedness. She ran a perfect hand along his hairy toes, and he helplessly watched them curl with the fierce insistent wanting of her."

M. C. Beaton (pen name of Marion Chesney)
Dishing the Dirt (2015)

After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.

But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.

In a 2016 NovelSpaces.com post, mystery writer Susan Oleksiw wrote: “There are as many ways to open a story as there are storytellers, but all have the same goal, to pull the reader into the tale. The opening lines establish tone also, dark or light, humorous or not. The general rule is to establish a normal world that is upset, and the results of the ‘upset’ are the story.”

About Beaton’s opening words above, Oleksiw wrote: “This is a gentler lead-in but the promise is there. Into this bucolic world of natural beauty comes darkness, and a woman determined to combat crime.”

Gorman Bechard
The Second Greatest Story Ever Told (1991)

It was a tight squeeze.

This is the only novel I’ve seen that begins with a description of the birth of a baby, and the first words capture the event accurately and succinctly. The new-born is Ilona Ann Coggswater, who we will shortly learn is no ordinary baby, but the first daughter of God.

The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “And though the safety, comfort, warmth, and humidity of her mother’s womb seemed preferable to the glare and rubber gloves that now surrounded her, it was checkout time.”

Bechard is better known as an independent filmmaker and documentarian, but his debut novel demonstrated great talent at satirical writing. He also provided an intriguing epigraph to the first chapter—an updated version of John 3:17: “For God did not send His Daughter into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Her might be saved.”

Gorman Bechard
The Hazmat Diary (1992)

March 1, 2050

I repulse her. Entertain her. Enlighten her. Lead her. Teach her. Carry her. Ignore her. Lecture her. Embarrass her. Sadden her. Help her. Hinder her. Watch her. Psychoanalyze her. Probe her. Question her. Answer for her. Fuck her. Forgive her. Wrong her. Confuse her. Understand her. Hold her. Cry with her. Lie to her. Laugh with her. Feed her. Drive her. Support her. Culture her. Contour her. Sodomize her. Plagiarize her. (I’m plagiarizing her now.) Vitalize her. Victimize her. Intrigue her. Haunt her. Stalk her. Catch her. Skin her alive. But mostly I love her.

Yes, I love her.

And I know the feelings are mutual.

All of them.

This is the first entry in a diary found by a character named Anatole Laferriere III in 2099, over four decades after an apocalyptic American Revolution in 2058 resulted in the former superpower descending into Third World status. The diary, written by a 37-year-old bartender named Doc was one of a number of diaries found in a region of the country once known as New England. Originally planned as a follow-up to Bechard’s debut novel (The Second Greatest Story Ever Told), it became a groundbreaking, but little-read multi-media web-novel in the early days of broadband. It was reissued in print and electronic versions in 2010.

Gorman Bechard
Good Neighbors (1997)

The last day of Reggie DeLillo’s life started off with a bad cup of coffee, then went downhill from there.

Gorman Bechard
Ninth Square (2002)

It was the title that first intrigued her. Not so much the word itself. But its meaning. This usage. How it applied in this very specific situation.

The woman in question is Midori Strumski, a 19-year-old Yale University drama major with a thick dictionary in her hands. The first line immediately achieves its purpose, causing the reader to wonder, “What is the title, or the word? And what does this very specific situation mean?” The word, we shortly discover, is escort.

The narrator continued: “The thickest dictionary in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library defined it as a noun in four different ways…. It was the last of these that she felt best fit. Guidance on a journey. Because, in a way, an escort’s job was to guide semen along on its journey out of the penis and into, or onto, whatever the customer’s pleasure.”

Samuel Beckett
Murphy (1938)

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

In a 2018 post on CulturaColectiva.com, Zoralis Pérez included this opener in a compilation of “15 First Sentences from Classic Books That’ll Convince You to Read Them.” About the complete list, Pérez wrote:

“When it comes to choosing a new read, you should take into account every little piece of information you can get about it (after all, it’s a pretty big commitment) and the cover is your first impression of the story, so of course, it matters. However, even more important than the cover, it’s the first sentence. A book’s first sentence is like a first kiss or the first time you lock eyes with the person you love. It’s brief and sometimes a little strange, but if you like it, it’s the start of something great.”

Samuel Beckett
Company (1980)

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

In the novel, the protagonist continued in the first paragraph: “But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.“

As soon as it was published, this picaresque novel—Bellow’s third—was being recognized by fellow writers as something special. Delmore Schwartz hailed it as “a new kind of book.“ Martin Amis paid it the highest compliment of all: “The Great American Novel. Search no further.“ By the end of the year, the novel was almost a no-brainer to win the 1954 National Book Award for Fiction, and it put the author on a clear path that would ultimately lead to the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In a 2005 NPR essay, literary critic Alan Cheuse ranked the opening sentence right up there with the first sentences of Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since those two works, Cheuse wrote, “no one but Bellow has fashioned an opening as memorable and as powerful and as important.“ He continued his rave with a memorable metaphor: “This line that sprung open the padlock of American art language by using the pick of free-style diction. This line that announced that American writers didn’t have to glove their knuckles anymore when they knocked at the door.“

Saul Bellow
Herzog (1964)

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

The novel’s first sentence introduces one of Bellow’s most famous characters, a 47-year-old academic who is currently experiencing a major mid-life crisis (In David Mikic’s 2016 biography Bellow’s People, he wrote that the “opening line rings with a desperate man’s strange wit”).

Saul Bellow
Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all.

Marie Benedict
The Other Einstein (2016)

October 20, 1896

Zürich, Switzerland

I smoothed the wrinkles on my freshly pressed white blouse, flattened the bow encircling my collar, and tucked back a stray hair into my tightly wound chignon. The humid walk through the foggy Zürich streets to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic campus played with my careful grooming. The stubborn refusal of my heavy dark hair to stay fixed in place frustrated me. I wanted every detail of the day to be perfect.

Some books have a great opening line, others a great opening paragraph, and still others a great opening chapter—and that is the case with Benedict’s wonderful historical novel about Einstein’s first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Maric.

I’m only presenting the quite serviceable opening paragraph here, but I urge you to check out the entire first chapter. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and you won’t regret it. In a blurb for the book, writer Kathleen Tessaro (The Perfume Collector and more) wrote that Benedict’s novel “has the reader rooting for our heroine from the very first pages.”

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
The First Ladies (2023)

New York, New York

October 14, 1927

Nearly fifty blocks whir past my cab window as I ride through the upper reaches of Manhattan from the Hotel Olga in Harlem. Traveling toward the Upper East Side, I feel as though, somewhere, I’ve crossed an invisible line. The shades of complexions fade from colored to white.

To be effective, a great opening doesn’t have to bowl you over, it just has to strike a responsive chord—and that’s exactly what happened when I began reading this book. In this case, the deal was completely sealed when I learned that the speaker was the legendary civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the person she was visiting that day was the future First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. In the opening paragraph, Bethune continued: “Not that it mattered to me. I have never been hindered by the views and prejudices of others, not even the Ku Klux Klan.”

The story is told in alternating chapters, with Bethune speaking in one, and Roosevelt in the other. Chapter Two begins this way:

New York, New York

October 14, 1927

Move, I tell myself. Walk across the room and offer your hand in welcome. But as I watch Mary McLeod Bethune stroll around the drawing room alone, I don’t break away from the conversation I’m having with the head of the American Association of University Women. The sight of the only colored woman in the room unnerves me, and I wonder about the wisdom of including the renowned educator in this national luncheon of women’s club heads. Were my mother-in-law and I naive to invite her?

Brit Bennett
The Mothers: A Novel (2016)

We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip.

For me, this was a simple-but-irresistible first sentence, causing me to wonder, “What was the gossip, exactly?“ and “What made it hard to believe?“ Bennett’s debut novel, published in her mid-twenties, went on to become one of the year’s most acclaimed books, with words like “compelling,“ “striking,“ “brilliant” and “mesmerizing” being routinely tossed around. Bennett may have been new to the world of fiction, but few who were familiar with her previous essays and articles were surprised when the National Book Foundation put her on their “5 Under 35” list of promising debut novelists.

Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half: A Novel (2020)

The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting.“

Bernadine Evaristo, author of the Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other summarized the reaction of many readers when she wrote: “The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerizing novel, which gripped me from the first word to the last.“ Bennett’s novel, her second, debuted at Number One on The New York Times Best-Seller List. A month later, she signed an HBO deal for a limited series, with her serving as the executive producer. It is currently in production.

John Berendt
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994)

He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.

Berendt’s debut novel is often classified as a “non-fiction novel” (like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood), because it was based on a real 1981 crime—the murder of a male prostitute by a respected antiques dealer in Savannah, Georgia (he was also the victim’s employer and lover).

The novel was a commercial and critical success, winning the 1995 Boeke Prize and named a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. In 1997, Clint Eastwood adapted the novel into a film (starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack) that did wonders for Savannah’s tourist industry.

Elizabeth Berg
Talk Before Sleep (1994)

This morning, before I came to Ruth’s house, I made yet another casserole for my husband and daughter. Meggie likes casseroles while Joe only endures them, but they are all I can manage right now. I put the dish in the refrigerator, with a note taped on it telling how long to cook it, and at what temperature, and that they should have a salad, too.

Great opening lines don’t necessarily bowl readers over, they simply provide subtle hints about what’s been happening and where the story is going. Another casserole? All I can manage? Her own family taking second priority to time at Ruth’s? Talk Before Sleep turns out to be a moving story about a friendship between protagonist Ann Stanley and her cancer-stricken friend Ruth Thomas.

Elizabeth Berg
Say When (2003)

Of course he knew she was seeing someone. He knew who it was, too.

The narrator, a happily (or so he thought) married man named Griffin, continued: “Six months ago, saying she needed a new direction in her life, saying she was tired of feeling helpless around anything mechanical, that she had no idea how to even change a tire. Ellen had taken a course in basic auto mechanics—’Know Your Car,’ it was called.“

Elizabeth Berg
The Story of Arthur Truluv (2017)

In the six months since the November day that his wife, Nola, was buried, Arthur Moses has been having lunch with her every day.

The narrator continued: “He rides the bus to the cemetery and when he gets there, he takes his sweet time walking over to her plot: she will be there no matter when he arrives. She will be there and be there and be there.“

Thomas Berger
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.“

Thomas Berger
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.“

Lou Berney
Dark Ride (2023)

I’m lost, wandering, and somewhat stoned.

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Hardy Reed, a 21-year-old stoner who, standing in the middle of a city parking lot, loses his bearings while trying to find a municipal courthouse to process a traffic ticket. He continued with a series of reflections that can only be described as the kind of pot-induced ideation where even the most mundane aspects of life take on a cosmic significance:

“This parking lot, when you’re in the middle of it, seems much vaster and more expansive than it does from the street. Or do I just seem much less consequential? That’s the question. One for the ages.”

This delightful opening serves as a perfect set-up for an affable underachiever who has no clue his life is about to take a turn for the serious—the deadly serious—when he inadvertently discovers unmistakable signs of child abuse in two children sitting alone on a courthouse bench.

About the novel, writer Don Winslow wrote: “Dark Ride effortlessly grabs you and does not let you down until the final page.” I was delighted to honor Berney’s terrific opener in my Smerconish.com compilation of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (see the full list here).

Tamara Berry
Murder Off the Books [Book 3 of the By the Book Mysteries] (2023)

Gertrude’s corpse lay at an unnatural angle on the floor of the Paper Trail Bookstore. Her pale skin glowed eerily under the lights, her deathly pallor made starker by the winged liner that circled her eyelids like a burlesque raccoon. No one in the store could discern the cause of her death, but it was obvious to any trained eye that—

“Ouch. I think there’s a rock under my hip. Wait a sec.”

The corpse wriggled, shifted, and dislodged a pebble from beneath the waistband of her torn black jeans.

“Never mind,” she said as she popped the rock into her mouth. “It’s just a jelly bean.”

A neat twist is always a good way to grab a reader’s attention—and this one nicely takes us from the grisly viewing of a corpse to a comical scene of a person struggling to play the role of one.

Michael Blake
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.

William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist (1971)

Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.

What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.

So begins a novel that has become a classic in horror fiction: the story of the demonic possession—and subsequent exorcism—of an eleven-year-old girl. Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in 1949 when the campus was bristling with news of recent exorcism, and the story stayed with him, untold, until he finally put it together in fictional form twenty years after he graduated.

An immediate best-seller, the novel was adapted by William Friedkin into a 1973 film by the same title. Now regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, it was the first in the genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it received ten nominations, winning two, for Best Adapted Screenplay—written by Blatty, incidentaly—and Best Sound).

Hila Blum
How to Love Your Daughter (2023)

The first time I saw my granddaughters, I was standing across the street, didn’t dare go any closer.

In the opening sentence, our heartstrings have already been seriously tugged—and we will shortly learn the tragic backstory. A middle-aged woman is so estranged from her daughter that she has never been allowed to see her two granddaughters. In a desperate attempt to cope with this enormous loss, she goes to great pains to make sure her presence is not discovered as she surreptitiously attempts to catch a glimpse of the girls from afar.

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator—who we will shortly discover is an Israeli woman named Yoella—continued:

“The windows in the suburban neighborhoods of Groningen hang large and low—I was embarrassed by how effortlessly I’d got what I’d come for, frightened by how easily they could be gobbled up by my gaze. But I, too, was exposed. The slightest turn of their heads and they would have seen me.”

In a New York Times book review, Flynn Berry described the book as “A stone-cold masterwork of psychological tension.“ I was pleased to include Ward’s exceptional opener in my compilation of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

Martin Booth
A Very Private Gentleman: A Novel (2005)

High in these mountains, The Apennines, the spinal cord of Italy, with its vertebrae of infant stone to which the tendons and the flesh of the old world are attached, there is a small cave high up on a precipice.

Metaphorical openings—if they are well crafted—can be extremely effective, and this one is particularly impressive. As we read it, there’s a clear suggestion that, whatever the quality of the forthcoming tale, it will be very well told. In a 2010 blog post, writer and editor Alyssa Linn Palmer wrote: “I picked this book up at a friend’s place and with just the first line, I was hooked.”

Bruce Borges
The Bitter Past (2023)

We don’t have a lot of murder in Lincoln County. The long stretches of open road provide us with more than our share of high-speed vehicular deaths, the images of which can haunt your dreams, but there just isn’t a lot of killing other people on purpose. When we do encounter it, it’s never like this. This is something from hell.

These provocative opening words come from narrator and protagonist Porter Beck, the sheriff of Lincoln County, in the high desert of Nevada. Borgos’s debut novel was published to great praise from his fellow mystery writers. About it, Craig Johnson (author of the Longmire series of books) wrote: “A crisp jolt of cask-strength, 100-proof writing.”

Phyllis Bottome
The Dark Tower (1916)

In the opening sentence of her debut novel, Bottome—who was only seventeen at the time—found an intriguing way of introducing one of the novel’s major characters.

Phyllis Bottome
A Servant of Reality (1919)

Anthony Arden closed his eyes; he was trying to let the unutterable misery of two years slip from him. It was over; it was all over, as over as an extracted tooth, but he could not yet feel relief or exultation.

The opening words describe the novel’s protagonist, an English soldier who has finally found his freedom after two years in a WWI German POW camp. About him, the narrator continued:

“When he closed his eyes he escaped seeing the very fat, red neck, passing without gradation into the round-shaped head of his German guard.”

Phyllis Bottome
The Kingfisher (1922)

Jim was not sure when it first dawned on him that there was such a thing as security. When he did realize it he supposed it to be like one of those things, procurable for others, but unprocurable for him, which were marked at a shilling in the shop windows.

The novel begins with what can only be described as a sad reality—a child’s realization that there is something other than the insecurity he has experienced his entire young life, but, at the same time, feeling that a better life is somehow out of reach.

Bottome was a popular English writer who became a student as well as a patient of the legendary psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler. Her novels show a level of psychological sophistication well before the field of psychology ever took hold in England and America.

Phyllis Bottome
The Lifeline (1946)

Mark Chalmers was, as far as he knew, exactly the kind of man he wanted to be. He earned enough money for his tasks; he had done nothing discreditable; women admired him, boys obeyed him; and men of his own age definitely disliked him....

By the simple insertion of the unexpected word disliked, the narrator not only gets our attention, but suggest that the protagonist may be a more complicated figure than he appears to be.

In the novel—Bottome’s only spy novel—Chalmers is a 36-year-old Eton College schoolmaster who is preparing for his annual climbing trip in the Austrian Alps. As the summer of 1938 approaches, Chalmers is asked by a friend in England’s Foreign Office to unobtrusively deliver a private message to a man living in Innsbruck. Chalmers is fully aware that an element of intrigue is involved. After all, the country was only recently annexed by Germany, and the Foreign Office’s offer to pay for his holiday expenses was a clear indication that some risk is involved in carrying out the assignment.

Rhys Bowen
Her Royal Spyness [Book 1 of the Royal Spyness series] (2007)

There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.

Any opening sentence that arouses a reader’s curiosity has done its job, and this one does it very nicely—making readers immediately wonder what those two disadvantages are and heightening interest in a subject we don’t typically think about: minor royals. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator—a minor royal [34th in line for the English throne] named Lady Georgiana Rannoch—continued:

“First one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family, without being given the means to do so. One is expected to kiss babies, open fetes, put in an appearance at Balmoral (suitably kilted), and carrying trains at weddings. Ordinary means of employment are frowned upon. One is not, for example, allowed to work on the cosmetics counter at Harrod’s, as I was about to find out.”

Rhys Bowen
Proof of the Pudding [Book 17 of The Royal Spyness series] (2023)

You have probably heard that Darcy and I were expecting a baby in August, but that wasn’t the arrival I was nervous about at that moment.

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Lady Georgiana Rannoch—know as Georgie to fans of the series. The first sentence immediately draws readers in as they predictably think, “So what arrival are you nervous about?”

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described the book as “Whimsical,” adding, “Bowen successfully melds a whodunit with comedy as few contemporary writers can.”

C. J. Box
Savage Run [Book 2 in The Joe Pickett Series] (2002)

On the third day of their honeymoon, infamous environmental activist Stewie Woods and his new bride, Annabel Belloti, were spiking trees in the forest when a cow exploded and blew them up. Until then, their marriage had been happy.

Some great opening lines—and, indeed, even entire novels—begin with a single image that simply popped into an author’s mind, and that appears to be the case here. In a 2021 post on the “Writers in the Storm” Blog, Margie Lawson, a friend of the author, wrote: “Chuck had an idea about starting a book with an exploding cow. He didn’t want to lose it, so he named two characters and wrote that first sentence. He wrote the rest of the story three years later.”

C. J. Box
In Plain Sight [Book 6 in The Joe Pickett Series] (2007)

When ranch owner Opal Scarlett vanished, no one mourned except her three grown sons, Arlen, Hank, and Wyatt, who expressed their loss by getting into a fight with shovels.

In a 2007 post on his “Gravetapping” blog, writer and reviewer Ben Bouldon wrote: “This is one of the best opening lines I’ve read. It has everything. Bite. Mystery. Appeal. Humor—dark as it is. And it’s just damn intriguing…and oh how it makes me want to read on and on.”

T. C. Boyle
The Road to Wellville (1993)

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-cereal coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene and some seventy-five other gastrically correct foods, paused to level his gaze on the heavyset woman in the front row. He was having difficulty believing what he’d just heard.

The narrator continued: “As was the audience, judging from the gasp that arose after she’d raised her hand, stood shakily and demanded to know what was so sinful about a good porterhouse steak—it had done for the pioneers, hadn’t it? And for her father and his father before him?“

John Boyne
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017)

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.

In a 2017 book review in SFGate.com, writer and editor Alexis Burling called this a “whopper of an opening sentence.“ Writing more expansively on the novel’s dramatic opening, Viola Hayden of the Curtis Brown literary agency offered the following assessment in one of the firm’s 2020 blog posts:

“This is a sprawling opening sentence, but every part has earned its place. We meet our narrator—and a mysterious ’we’—and you get such a strong sense of their wry voice. This is clearly Ireland and that inimitable Irishness is captured and conveyed beautifully; it’s not quite contemporary (’long before’) but it’s rural, religious, hypocritical and vengeful. The word ’whore’ slaps you around the face when you reach it after being lulled into a comfortable meander by the litany of descriptions. And it changes your impression of the direction of the book—now you know our narrator likely has a poor opinion of the church, rather than of their mother. Overall, a belter.“

Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

It was a pleasure to burn.

This legendary opening line is loaded with ambiguity. Is the narrator himself burning, and finding pleasure in it? Or is he finding pleasure in burning something else? With these six simple words, we are immediately thrust into a dystopian future, where the narrator, a fireman named Guy Montag, finds pleasure in burning books that have been outlawed by government censors in an autocratic state (we also eventually learn that the title refers to the temperature at which books spontaneously erupt into flame).

The opening line of Fahrenheit 451 has been admired since the book was published, and for the past fifty years it’s been discussed in every creative writing class that has ever existed. One of my favorite comments appeared in a 2011 LitReactor article by Meredith Borders, where she explained why the beginning is so effective: “The sentence is made up of six words, elegant in their brevity and crushing in their implications. Fireman Guy Montag lives his entire life taking casual pleasure in government oppression—until a series of events leads him to look at his life and society with growing horror.“

Christianna Brand
Nurse Matilda (1964)

Once upon a time there was a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.

So begins the story of Nurse Matilda, a hideously ugly witch who mysteriously arrives at the household of the Brown family, which is beset by some of the naughtiest children in England. The book was very popular in Great Britain, and resulted in two sequels: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (1974). The opening paragraphs of the two sequels are worded slightly differently from the original novel, but they both end the same way: “...and all the children were terribly, terribly naughty.”

In 2005, the novels were loosely adapted into the film Nanny McPhee, starring Colin Firth and Emma Thompson (she also wrote the screenplay). In addition to a new name for the title character, there were some other changes as well, but the essential story remained the same—a nanny with magical powers arrives at an out-of-control home and transforms the life of a family being disrupted by some very naughty children. One other important thing from the novel also made it into the film, and I was delighted to see it retained. Let me explain.

I’m a longtime fan of the literary device known as chiasmus (pronounced ky-AZ-muss), and in 1999, I introduced it to popular culture in my book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. Brand’s 1964 novel contains a wonderful example. Describing her approach to caring for children, Nurse Matilda says: “When my children don’t want me, but do need me: then I must stay. When they no longer need me, but they do want me: then I have to go.”

When I heard about the film coming out, I eagerly awaited its appearance, wondering if this very special observation would be included. Happily, with a slight change in wording, it did. In an early scene, when Nanny McPhee first meets the seven children, she says to them: “When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. If you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.” A hearty thanks to the literate Emma Thompson for including the chiastic sentiment in her screenplay.

Richard Brautigan
A Confederate General from Big Sur (1965)

When I first heard about Big Sur I didn’t know that it was a member of the Confederate States of America.

There’s nothing like the assertion of a historical impossibility to arrest a reader’s attention, and Brautigan does that very nicely in the opening sentence of his debut novel, published when he was twenty-eight. In the novel, Brautigan—a popular San Francisco street poet in the early days of the “hippie” movement—tells the story of Lee Mellon, an alienated and often delusional California man who believes he is a descendant of a heroic Confederate general from Big Sur, California. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“I had always thought that Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas were the Confederacy and let it go at that. I had no idea that Big Sur was also a member.”

A critical and commercial failure after it was published, the novel soon went out of print. It was re-issued two years later—after the success of Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967)—and is now regarded as a counter-culture classic.

Richard Brautigan
Sombrero Fallout (1976)

“A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the Main Street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.”

As the book opens, this entire passage is presented in quotation makes, and we quickly surmise that it is the opening paragraph of a novel the author is currently writing. As the story unfolds, Brautigan does something I’ve never before seen in literary fiction. Here’s how Eric Lorberer, editor of The Rain Taxi Review of Books, described it in a Fall, 2000 essay:

“As the novel opens, a writer is writing a novel, gets discouraged, and throws the opening lines in the trash. While one track of the novel chronicles the next hour in the writer’s life, the other follows the discarded lines, which ‘decided to go on without him.”

David Brin
The Postman (1985)

In dust and blood—with the sharp tang of terror stark in his nostrils—a man’s mind will sometimes pull forth odd relevancies.

The narrator is describing the mind of protagonist Gordon Krantz, a wandering apocalypse survivor who, after losing everything to bandits, stumbles upon a United States Postal Service uniform. He originally dons the uniform solely for warmth, but eventually decides it will be helpful in his attempt to build faith in a “restored” United States of America. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“After half a lifetime in the wilderness, most of it spent struggling to survive, it still struck Gordon as odd—how obscure memories would pop into his mind right in the middle of a life-or-death fight.“

Critics began hailing Brin’s novel from the day it was published, and it went on to win the 1986 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel. The tale was brought to the big screen in a 1997 film adaptation, with a memorable performance by Kevin Costner.

Anne Brontë
Agnes Grey (1847)

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

These opening words from English governess Agnes Grey are among the most beautiful ever written on an important question: what can we learn from an analysis of our past? As she continues, there is a tantalizing suggestion that some of her own personal choices might have been questionable: “Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself: shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.“

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (1847)

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

When many readers think of Jane Eyre, their minds go to the legendary closing line (“Reader, I married him”), but the novel’s opening line has also been admired by many for its subtle, straight-to-the-point strength. In The 100 Best Novels in English (2015), Robert McCrum called Brontë’s opener “a haunting first line” that “takes her audience by the throat with a fierce narrative of great immediacy.”

In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake. Jane Eyre occupies the former category: the opening sentence, rather than being a standalone moment, is the beginning of a discursive paragraph deftly bringing in landscape, weather and social frictions, all major themes throughout the book. But the first sentence, flexible and authoritative, quickly establishes the voice of the narrator.”

And, finally, in a 2019 BBC.com “Culture” post (“What Are the Best First Lines in Fiction?”) Hephzibah Anderson wrote about the opening line: “As sentences go, its charms are discreet to say the least. And yet those 10 words, as anyone who returns to them having reached the novel’s end, capture so much about its eponymous heroine’s character—her low expectations, her bottomless capacity for disappointment.”

Anita Brookner
The Debut (1981)

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In a chapter titled “Lines That Linger; Sentences That Stick” in More Book Lust (2005), celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl described this as one of her favorite opening lines. About it, she wrote: “A line that every compulsive middle-aged reader can identify with.“

In the novel, the narrator continued about Dr. Weiss: “In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.“

Geraldine Brooks
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)

I used to love this season.

It is apple-picking time in the harvest season of 1666 and, after only six words, we’re wondering what happened—and already know it must have been bad.

Geraldine Brooks
March (2005)

This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments. I pause there to mop my aching eye, which will not stop tearing. The line I have set down is, perhaps, on the florid side of fine, but no matter: she is a gentle critic.

The opening words come from Mr. March, a Union Army chaplain who is reflecting on a letter he is writing to his wife back home in Concord, Massachusetts. A moment later in the letter, he specifically references his daughter Jo—an aspiring writer—in a thought that references all four of his daughters: “I hope my dear young author is finding time amid all her many good works to make use of my little den, and that her friendly rats will not grudge a short absence from her accustomed aerie.“

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Brooks got her inspiration for the book from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). The title of the novel refers to the four March sisters, who are living with their mother in the family home while their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. Though physically absent, Mr. March maintains a presence in their lives through his frequent letters home. In one passage that particularly struck Brooks, Alcott wrote: “Jo said sadly, ’We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.’ She didn’t say ’perhaps never,’ but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.“ March got mixed reviews from critics, but was devoured by Brooks’s fans, went on to become a bestseller, and was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Dee Brown
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.“

Margaret Wise Brown
The Sailor Dog (1953)

Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog. Scuppers was his name.

In Nonfiction Matters, her 1998 book for young readers, writer Stephanie Harvey wrote: “These words churned in my mind throughout childhood. I return to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Sailor Dog time and time again because of that first line.”

Rita Mae Brown
Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)

No one remembers her beginnings. Mothers and aunts tell us about infancy and early adulthood, hoping we won’t forget the past when they had total control over our lives and secretly praying because of it, we’ll include them in our future.

The opening words come from Molly Bolt, perhaps the first larger-than-life lesbian protagonist in American literature. She continued: “I didn’t know anything about my own beginnings until I was seven years old, living in Coffee Hollow, a rural dot outside of York, Pennsylvania. A dirt road connected tarpapered houses filled with smear-faced kids and the air was always thick with the smell of coffee beans freshly ground in the small shop that gave the place its name. One of those smear-faced kids was Brockhurst Detwiler, Broccoli for short. It was through him that I learned I was a bastard. Broccoli didn’t know I was a bastard but he and I struck a bargain that cost me my ignorance.“

Rita Mae Brown
In Her Day (1976)

“Notice the sensuous curve of the breast.“

The whirr of the slide projector didn’t cover up the snicker of an immature male. Carole shot him a pitying look and continued with her lecture.

In this opening scene, we’re introduced to Carole Hanratty, a 44-year-old art history professor. All her life, Hanratty has believed that rationality transcends emotion—and then she meets Ilse, a young, revolutionary feminist.

Rita Mae Brown
Six of One (1978)

I bought mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise.

Rita Mae Brown
High Hearts (1986)

“Girl, my fingernails could grow an inch just waiting for you.“ Di-Peachy leaned in the doorway to Geneva’s bedroom.

This is an okay opening line, but not a particularly memorable one. I include it here because Brown’s opening line in the book’s Foreword is sensational: “Novels, like human beings, usually have their beginnings in the dark.“

Rita Mae Brown
Venus Envy (1993)

“Dying’s not so bad. At least I won’t have to answer the telephone.“

This whistling past the graveyard reflection comes from 35-year-old Frazier Armstrong, an art gallery owner who has learned that her lung cancer is so advanced she has only a short while to live.

The opening paragraph continued: “Frazier Armstrong breathed deeply, which wasn’t easy, since the oxygen tube stuck down her throat had rubbed it raw. ’Then again, I never will have to fill out the IRS long form, buy a county sticker for my car, be burdened with insurance payments that stretch into eternity, to say nothing of my business license and the damned money I pay to the county each year on my depreciating business machines. No more mortgage payments and no more vile temptation as the doors of Tiffany’s yawn at me like the very gates of hell.’“

Brown then found a way to recycle a famous Oscar Wilde quip as her narrator continued about the dying patient: “She burrowed ever deeper into the hospital bed. Porthault sheets brought from home made the bed more comfortable but every time she glanced at the saccharine wallpaper, a dusty rose with tiny little bouquets, she thought, ’One of us has to go.’“

Rita Mae Brown
Loose Lips (1999)

Life will turn you inside out. No matter where you start you’ll end up someplace else even if you stay home. The one thing you can count on is that you’ll be surprised.

Rita Mae Brown
Alma Mater (2001)

If knowledge were acquired by carrying books around, I’d be the sharpest tool in the shed, Vic thought as she carted the last load up three flights of stairs on a hot summer day.

The opening words come from Victoria “Vic” Savedge, a striking, six-foot-tall, raven-haired beauty beginning her senior year at William & Mary College. As the novel begins, she has no idea that her longtime plans to marry the scion of one of Virginia’s most prominent families will soon be upended when she meets a new transfer student from Vermont, a young woman named Chris.

C. D. B. Bryan
Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes (1983)

I used to think I understood women; that I could get along with them reasonably well. Now, I am beginning to realize how many I have infuriated and how, in a sense, I have been at war with women for most of my life.

This is a first-rate opener, immediately placing readers inside the mind of a man trying to make sense of his past relationships with women. The candor reflected in his words suggest a man who’s thinking has resulted in some valuable insights

When I first came across the novel in the mid-1980s, I was immediately captivated. In many ways, the narrator’s opening words captured much of what I’d been thinking about in my own relationship history. Like so many men in that era, I believed I loved women, but often behaved in ways that were inconsistent with the behavior of someone who actually knew what the word love meant.

John Buchan
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him....

These opening words come from protagonist and narrator Major-General Richard Hannay, a WWI English spy who went on to become something of a prototype for later characters created by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. Buchan’s novel—one of the earliest “man-on-the-run” spy thrillers—might have been lost to history if not for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation, which became a movie classic.

In the novel, Hannay continued: “The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”

Christopher Buckley
Thank You for Smoking (1994)

Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.

Christopher Buckley
No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)

Babette Van Anka had made love to the President of the United States on eleven previous occasions, but she still couldn’t resist inserting “Mr. President” in “Oh, baby, baby, baby.”

In the novel—an absolutely hilarious “take” on presidential sex scandals—the narrator continued: “He had told her on the previous occasions that he did not like being called this while, as he put it, congress was in session. But she couldn’t stop thinking to herself, I’m screwing the President of the United States! In the White House! Unavoidably, the ‘Mr. President’ just kept slipping out.” The novel, one of my all-time favorites, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Christopher Buckley
The Relic Master (2015)

Dismas might have purchased the finger bone of the Apostle Thomas, but there was something not quite right about the man offering it for sale.

When you pick up any one of Christopher Buckley’s numerous works of fiction or non-fiction, you can confidently expect to be greeted by a great opening paragraph, and that is certainly the case with this, his first historical novel. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued:

“For one, his asking price was far too low. A relic of the finger that had probed the spear wound in Christ’s side would fetch as much as forty or fifty gulden. And he was asking only fifteen. More troubling was the absence of fragrant odor when Dismas held it to his nostrils. A genuine relic was always pleasant to the nose.”

Christopher Buckley
Make Russia Great Again (2020)

“How could you work for a man like that?”

“What were you thinking?”

“What possessed you?”

All the time I get this, even in here, which frankly strikes me as a bit rich. Who knew inmates at federal correctional institutions had such keenly developed senses of moral superiority?

The narrator and protagonist is Herb Nutterman, a longtime Trump Organization employee who is called out of retirement to become President Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Buckley has given us some terrific opening lines in his career, and it was wonderful to see the old master continuing to perform at such a high level. This one easily made my list of The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020 (to be seen here).

Christopher Buckley
Has Anyone Seen My Toes? (2022)

He shuffles to the bathroom scale and steps onto it with the enthusiasm of a man mounting the gallows.

The first sentence of Buckley’s most recent novel—a hilarious and heavily autobiographical examination of an aging writer’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic—perfectly captures an almost universal experience (since reading it, I haven’t looked at my bathroom scale in the same way again). I was delighted to honor the opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“He imagines metallic groans, the sound of springs straining to their limit, the creak of timbers about to crack. But how can this be? It’s a high-tech scale, probably engineered by people whose native language is German and wear white laboratory gowns. It was a hint-hint present from his wife, Peaches. It tells you not only how much you weigh but also how much you weighed yesterday, and how many calories you can consume today in order to weigh less tomorrow. But all this is academic, for he cannot see the numbers, owing to the protuberance of his belly.”

Charles Bukowski
Post Office (1971)

It began as a mistake.

Opening lines rarely get any simpler—or more effective. It’s almost impossible not to wonder, “What began as a mistake?“ Post Office is a heavily autobiographical novel that was based on Bukowski’s three years as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. The narrator is Henry Chinaski, a misanthropic alter ego who shows up in five Bukowski novels (he was also memorably played by Mickey Rourke in the 1987 film Barfly).

In the novel’s second paragraph, Chinaski continued: “It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft!“

Mikhail Bulgakov
The Heart of a Dog (1925)

Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying. There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me in this doorway and I’m howling with it. I’m finished.

The Heart of a Dog is a searing satire of Russian Bolshevism. Almost immediately banned by Communist authorities, the novella didn’t surface again until many decades later. The narrator of the tale, it quickly becomes clear, is a dog—and a dog with strong political opinions.

As the story begins, he is writhing in pain. He goes on to explain: “Some bastard in a dirty white cap—the cook in the office canteen at the National Economic Council—spilled some boiling water and scalded my left side. Filthy swine—and a proletarian, too. Christ, it hurts. That boiling water scalded me right through to the bone. I can howl and howl, but what’s the use?“

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Paul Clifford (1830)

It was a dark and stormy night.

A case could be made that these are the most famous opening words in literary history. They come from a popular 19th-century English writer who also composed some other famous lines, including “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar.” The opening words of a novel are often about setting an atmosphere, and this one is a doozy. The entire first paragraph goes this way:

“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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Almost immediately after the book’s publication, the Paul Clifford opening was regarded as an exceptional piece of writing. By the middle of the twentieth century, the line was so familiar it had become a cliché. In 1962, Madeleine L’Engle paid homage to the line when she opened her classic novel A Wrinkle in Time with the exact same words. When asked why she decided to do so, L’Engle said it was her way of indicating to the reader that a scary story was coming. She had heard it hundreds of times since her childhood, and it brought back childhood memories of huddling around campfires as a little girl and listening to scary tales.

By the mid-1960s, the phrase gradually began to become a victim of its own success. In a 1965 Peanuts cartoon, Charles Schulz featured a strip in which the character Snoopy attempted to write a novel. The first words came easy: “It was a dark and story night….” In future strips, however, whenever Snoopy sat down at his typewriter, these were the only words he could come up with. And thus began the line’s slow descent from fame to infamy.

A respectable writer, if not a particularly great one, Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t deserve the fate that has befallen him. In 1982, Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University, appropriated his name for an annual contest for deplorable writing (yes, deplorable writing). Every year for the past four decades, contestants in The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The competition attracted only three entries the first year, but in recent years routinely receives more than 10,000 entries (there are now so many entries, in fact, that winners are announced in a variety of categories (romance, westerns, detective stories, etc.).

Anthony Burgess
Earthly Powers (1980)

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.

Few opening lines in literary history exceed this one in what might be called in-your-face daring. A 2012 article on “Arresting Openings” in London’s The Telegraph described this opener as “outrageously provocative.“

Also in 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum hailed Burgess’s opening sentence as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,“ writing: “This is one of the supreme show-off first-person openings. Burgess challenges the reader (and himself) to step on to the roller coaster of a very tall tale (loosely based on the life of Somerset Maugham).“

Melvin Burgess
Junk (1996)

A boy and girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.

With these simple—but highly evocative—words, we are introduced to Gemma Brogan and David “Tar” Lawson, both fourteen years old and on the verge of escaping their highly dysfunctional home environments. Little do they know at this point of their journey that an even more dismal future awaits.

Burgess’s dark and gritty tale about teenage drug addiction went on to win the 1996 Carnegie Medal, awarded annually by England’s Library Association for the outstanding children’s book by a British writer. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, Junk was named one of the Top Ten winners of the award. In 1997, the book was published in America under the title Smack, yet another slang term for heroin.

When the novel came out in a 25th Anniversary edition in 2021, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare wrote about it: “Melvin Burgess’s ground-breaking Junk remains the best book about teenagers and drugs to this day.”

Stephanie Burgis
Kat, Incorrigible (2011; pub. in England in 2010 as A Most Improper Magick)

I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.

I made it almost to the end of my front garden.

The setting is Regency, England in 1803, and these delightful opening words come from Kat Stephenson, a young girl who discovers she has inherited magical powers from her mother, who died ten days after she was born. The novel went on to win the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Debut Children’s Novel by a British writer.

In a 2014 SFSignal.com “Mind Meld” post, writer Paul Weimer asked a number of writers to identify their favorite opening lines. Writer Beth Bernobich wrote about this opener:

“Imagine a cup of frothy hot chocolate, served in an elegant cup, with a dollop of cream—sweet, but with an edge of that dark chocolate bitterness—a perfect antidote to cold November days. The opening paragraph to Kat, Incorrigible…is that first sip that tells right away what a treat you’re in for.”

Stephanie Burgis
Scales and Sensibility (2021)

It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure.

Jane Austen’s legendary opening line from Pride and Prejudice has been tweaked in a multitude of ways over the years, but Burgis takes it in a whole new way in her YA fantasy update of Sense and Sensibility. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “But it was becoming increasingly obvious to everyone in Hathergill Hall that for Penelope Hathergill, actually having a dragon would guarantee disaster.”

James Lee Burke
Purple Cane Road (2000)

Years ago, in state documents, Vachel Carmouche was always referred to as the electrician, never as the executioner.

In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included this opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”

Frances Burney
Camilla (1796)

Repose is not more welcome to the worn and to the aged, to the sick and to the unhappy, than danger, difficulty, and toil to the young and adventurous.

The narrator continued: "Danger they encounter, but as the forerunner of success; difficulty, as the spur of ingenuity; and toil, as the herald of honor."

Amy Jo Burns
Mercury (2024)

Waylon Joseph crouched behind Mercury’s ballfield bleachers on the south end of town, smoking a cigarette and hiding from his wife.

I don’t know about you, but if any writer included the phrase “hiding from his wife” in an opening sentence, I’d be sure to read on.

Anna Burns
Little Constructions (2007)

There are no differences between men and women. No differences. Except one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.

About these opening words, critic Lucy Ellmann wrote in a 2007 Guardian review: "From the very beginning you know you're in good, if slightly scary, hands. Burns is raring for a fight, and her startling energy might just bring feminism, and even women, back into fashion."

Anna Burns
Milkman (2018)

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.

The opening words come from an 18-year-old protagonist known only as “Middle Sister” (we will shortly learn that no characters in the novel are formally named). The novel was hailed by critics from the outset, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

In a 2019 “Narrative Muse” post, Australian blogger Aisha Lelic wrote, “Milkman had me hooked with the very first line,“ adding: “Its hypnotic rhythm and tone reminded me of hard-boiled fiction—tough, terse, and cynical with a touch of loneliness and dread. And yet it’s nothing like hard-boiled fiction. In fact, Milkman is like nothing I have ever read.“

William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch (1959)

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.

This is the opening line of one of history’s most influential novels, first published in France as The Naked Lunch in 1959 by Olympia Press, but not in America until 1962 (from Grove Press) because of a protracted legal struggle against obscenity charges. The book continued to be “banned in Boston” until 1966, however, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a 1965 ruling that came in the last major obscenity trial in American literary history.

In addition to its free-wheeling, non-linear, experimental composition, the book helped bring the argot of the gritty underworld into popular usage. During the nine years it took to write the novel, the virtually unknown Burroughs had composing and editing help from some famous friends, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs credited Kerouac with the title, saying it meant seeing things very clearly (he explained: “It means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”). Kerouac, however, offered a different explanation, saying the title resulted from a mis-reading of “Naked Lust,” a title he had suggested to Ginsberg.

In 2015, Alan Bisbort, editor of the punk-inspired website PleaseKillMe.com included Burrough’s opener on his personal “10 Best Opening Lines” list. In 2010, Time included Naked Lunch on its list of the “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” And, finally, in a fascinating footnote, musicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their band “Steely Dan” after a revolutionary steam-powered dildo mentioned in the book.

Octavia E. Butler
Kindred (1979)

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

The opening words come from Dana Franklin, a 27-year-old black writer. A year earlier, she came to consciousness in a hospital to find her left arm amputated. When the police questioned her and husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, they were reluctant to tell the truth because their time-travel story is so far-fetched they know they will not be believed.

In the novel, Franklin continued: “And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn’t lost him too.”

Samuel Butler
Erewhon (1872)

If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances that led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself.

James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Readers bring themselves in very different ways to a book’s opening words, and a less perceptive reader might easily overlook the significance of this first sentence. The words come from narrator and protagonist Frank Chambers, a handsome young drifter who has been tossed out of a hay truck in front of a California diner operated by a middle-aged Greek man and his beautiful young wife. The book was an immediate hit, and the story so sizzling that it ultimately resulted in seven film adaptations (the best being the 1946 adaptation starring John Garfield and a voluptuous Lana Turner).

In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, Stephen King described Cain’s opening line as a “hook” that immediately engaged the reader’s interest. King then used the nine-word opening as a springboard for a 200-word analysis—and a mini-masterclass on writing:

“Suddenly, you’re right inside the story—the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting—and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.

“This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,“ we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing—fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.“

James M. Cain
The Institute (1976)

I first met Hortense Garrett at her home in Wilmington, Delaware on a spring morning last year. I wasn’t calling on her but on her husband, Richard Garrett, the financier, to make a pitch for money—a lot of money, twenty million or so. It was for a project I had in mind, an institute of biography which I hoped he would endow—and, incidentally, name me as director.

The opening words come from Lloyd Palmer, an English literature professor in search of money for an Institute he hopes to head. What he ends up with, however, is a boatload of trouble when he falls for the wealthy benefactor’s young, beautiful, and unhappy wife. The Institute was Cain’s last novel, written when he was eighty-five. The work may not have been up to his usual standard, but it had a first-class opening and provided much enjoyment to Cain’s many fans.

Joy Callaway
The Grand Design: A Novel of Dorothy Draper (2022)

I’d been lured to the dining room as prey.

A menacing opening line like this would be perfectly fitting for a high-octane suspense thriller, but it becomes even more impressive when we realize that the narrator and protagonist—18-year-old socialite Dorothy Tuckerman—is describing a 1908 “matchmaking” soiree for wealthy families at The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. As she continues in the novel’s opening paragraph, we begin to believe she is using the word prey figuratively rather than literally:

“I eyed the roast chicken in front of me and had pity on the poor fowl whose end was drizzled in sage butter and decorated with dainty carrots and pearl onions. I too was draped in finery for my final presentation—a Charles Worth ensemble of yellow-green silk with metallic gold floral brocade and beaded tassels at the back to accentuate my sleek figure.”

I also loved the masterly metaphorical way she began the novel’s second paragraph:

“I wasn’t the only one being prepared for a swift devouring. The dining room was filled with silk and chiffon served atop a platter of tradition and romance.”

Colleen Cambridge (aka Colleen Gleason)
Mastering the Art of French Murder (2023)


December 1949

Julia Child had a mayonnaise problem.

From the book’s title, it would be natural to surmise that this novel would have a Julia Child connection—and the first sentence confirms that suspicion in a lovely way. The words come from Tabitha Knight, an American woman who is in Paris on an extended stay with her French grandfather. Tabitha continues in the novel’s second paragraph:

“I knew all about it—every sordid detail—because, first, I was one of her closest friends in Paris…well, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone in the seventh arrondissement—from the Place du Palais-Bourbon to the Tour Eiffel—had heard about the mayonnaise problem. Julia was just that kind of person. She was gregarious and ebullient and giddy and enthusiastic.”

In a Washington Post “Hidden Gems” article. Karen MacPherson said about the novel: “Part historical fiction, part mystery, Mastering the Art of French Murder is totally delectable entertainment for fans of lighthearted detective fiction.”

I was delighted to include Cambridge’s exceptional opener in my annual Smerconish.com compilation of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” on (see the full list here).

Andrea Camilleri
The Terra-Cotta Dog [Book 2 of The Inspector Montalbano Series] (1996; in English 2002)

To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very iffy day—that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind—one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind.

I have a special affection for opening sentences that go on for 100-plus words, and even though this one, at 96 words, doesn’t quite make the magic number, it was so beautifully written that I believed it deserved inclusion in my collection

In a New York Times review, writer A. J. Finn (The Woman in the Window and more) wrote: “You either love Andrea Camilleri or you haven’t read him yet. Each novel in this wholly addictive, entirely magical series, set in Sicily and starring a detective unlike any other in crime fiction, blasts the brain like a shot of pure oxygen. Aglow with local color, packed with flint-dry wit, as fresh and clean as Mediterranean seafood—altogether transporting.”

Albert Camus
The Stranger (1942)

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

This simple reflection has achieved an iconic status in modern literature. The narrator and protagonist is a French Algerian known only by the name Meursault. He continued: “The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.“

Meursault seems incapable of expressing normal, or expected, emotions. As a result, he went on to become the personification of a form of emotional detachment now commonly called alienation.

Ethan Canin
For Kings and Planets (1998)

Years later, Orno Tarcher would think of his days in New York as a seduction.

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “A seduction and a near miss, a time when his memory of the world around him—the shining stone stairwells, the taxicabs, the sea of nighttime lights—was glinting and of heroic proportion. Like a dream. He had almost been taken away from himself. That was the feeling he had, looking back.”

Ethan Canin
A Doubter’s Almanac (2016)

From the kitchen window, Milo Andret watched the bridge over the creek, and when he saw Earl Biettermann’s white Citroën race across the span he hurried out the front door and picked up a short hoe. Biettermann was driving too fast. Reckless was the word for it—but that’s the way he’d always been. Arrogant. Heedless. Lucky to stumble onto the right roads, the right career, the right woman. Lucky even to be alive. For any other driver, the route from the bridge to the cabin would take five minutes: Andret figured it would take Biettermann three.

Even though we know nothing specifically about the two men, it is abundantly clear that one feels a strong animosity toward the other—an animosity almost certainly fueled by envy or jealousy. The opening paragraph also contains some provocative hints about where the novel might be headed—most notably the phrase the right woman.

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood (1966)

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.“

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.“

In Cold Blood is a “non-fiction novel” that was based on the real-life 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family by two ex-convicts who were later arrested, convicted, and executed for the crime. It became an immediate bestseller and is the second-bestselling true crime story in publishing history, after Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter (1974).

Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game (2010)

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.

In a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s and young adult fiction (“Hook, Line, and Sinker”), Ciara Murphy wrote about this line: “Rarely do we start novels already rooting for a character from the very first sentence, but Orson Scott Card makes sure we do just that by immediately introducing us to ‘the one’. This line, from an unnamed narrator, describes a protagonist who we will shortly discover is named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.

Caleb Carr
The Alienist (1994)

January 8th, 1919

Theodore is in the ground.

The opening words refer to the burial of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U. S. President and, earlier in his career, New York City Police Commissioner. They come from narrator John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times and a friend of the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a New York City physician and noted alienist.

For those unfamiliar with the term alienist, a “Note” at the beginning of the novel explained: “Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illnesses were thought to be ’alienated, not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who treated mental pathologies were known as ’alienists.’“

In the novel’s second paragraph, Moore continued: “The words as I write them make as little sense as did the sight of his coffin descending into a patch of sandy soil near Sagamore Hill, the place he loved more than any other on earth. As I stood there this afternoon, in the cold January wind that blew off Long Island Sound, I thought to myself: Of course it’s a joke. Of course he’ll burst the lid open, blind us all with that ridiculous grin and split our ears with a high-pitched bark of laughter. Then he’ll exclaim there’s work to do—’action to get’—and we’ll all be martialled to the task of protecting some obscure species of newt from the ravages of a predatory industrial giant bent on planting a fetid factory on the little amphibian’s breeding ground.“

Caleb Carr
The Angel of Darkness (1997)

There’s likely some polished way of starting a story like this, a clever bit of gaming that’d sucker people in surer than the best banco feeler in town. But the truth is that I haven’t got the quick tongue or the slick wit for that kind of game.

The narrator is Stevie Taggert, the proprietor of a Manhattan tobacco shop. Taggert is a good friend of John Moore, an elderly New York Times reporter who’s been struggling to find a publisher for a manuscript he has completed about a grisly murder case solved years earlier by their mutual friend, the alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. When Taggert suggests that Moore might be approaching things in the wrong way, the reporter gets testy and essentially says: if you think you can do a better job, do it.

The result is Taggert’s story about the case of Libby Hatch. Taggert begins the tale by apologizing for his deficient writing skills, but in doing so expresses himself more than adequately, even artfully. He continued: “Words haven’t figured much in my life, and though over the years I’ve met many of what the world counts to be the big thinkers and talkers of our time, I’ve stayed what most would call a plain man. And so a plain way of starting will suit me well.“

Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,“ thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?“

Angela Carter
The Magic Toyshop (1967)

The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land.

After the intriguingly suggestive first sentence, the narrator brilliantly captures an adolescent girl’s sexual awakening in a memorable metaphor about exploring newly discovered land. The opening paragraph continued about Melanie’s foray into new territory:

“She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama, or Mungo Park.”

For more than a half-century, countless numbers of teenage girls have found both comfort and camaraderie in Carter’s novel, and some of them were inspired to become writers. In a 2020 Guardian article, Anglo-Australian writer Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and other novels) paid The Magic Toyshop the highest compliment, writing:

“As a young girl experiencing that moment when your body is both the vessel for your self but suddenly, as if overnight, also a thing, a collection of objects for men to look at, assess, interpret and desire, Carter’s story seemed to speak directly to my life. That this was an experience from which art could be made felt like someone had opened a door somewhere.”

Cosstanza Casati
Clytemnestra: A Novel (2023)

Clytemnestra looks down at the steep ravine but can see no traces of dead bodies. She searches for cracked skulls, broken bones, corpses eaten by wild dogs and pecked by vultures, but nothing. There are only a few brave flowers growing between the cracks, their petals white against the darkness of the ravine. She wonders how they manage to grow in such a place of death.

Jennifer Saint (author of Ariadne and Elektra) had to be thinking about this opening paragraph—and much more—when she wrote about the book:

“Crackles with vivid fury, passion, and strength. A powerful, thought-provoking portrayal of a fascinating and complicated woman framed in beautiful prose. I loved it.”

Willa Cather
O Pioneers! (1913)

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

Willa Cather
My Ántonia (1918)

I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America.

The narrator is Jim Burden, a successful New York lawyer who was born in Virginia, orphaned as a boy, and raised by his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. He continued: “I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the ’hands’ on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.“

Willa Cather
Lucy Gayheart (1935)

In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart.

The narrator continued: “They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present. But when they do mention her name it is with a gentle glow in the face or the voice, a confidential glance which says: ’Yes, you, too, remember?’“

Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote (1605)

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.

In 1985, when Walker Percy was asked by staffers at The New York Times about his “favorite opening passage in a work of literature,“ he replied: “My choice is the first sentence of the first novel ever written—and perhaps still the best—Don Quixote.“ Percy went on to add: “My pleasure derives both from the sense of what Cervantes must have been feeling when he wrote it and from the anticipation of the coming adventures of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.“

Michael Chabon
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)

At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.

The narrator and protagonist of this coming-of age novel is 21-year-old Art Bechstein, the son of a mob money launderer who wants his son to pursue a legitimate career. Bechstein continued: “We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill-will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”

In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Talk about using a character to entice the reader. You just mention ‘gangster’ and everyone is all ears. And the emotional landscape of the son, and of his relationship to his father, is exceptionally clear. Consider how much information is packed into this single paragraph.”

Chabon was twenty-one and in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh when he began writing the novel. He continued work on it when he was accepted into the two-year Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine. Chabon used the novel as his thesis for an M.A. degree, awarded in 1987. One of his thesis advisors was UC-I professor Donald Heiney, who had written more than a dozen novels under the pen name of MacDonald Harris. Chabon’s professor was so impressed with the novel that he immediately passed it on to his agent. A year later, the book was published by William Morrow, became a surprise bestseller, and launched an extraordinary literary career for Chabon.

Michael Chabon
Wonder Boys (1995)

The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.

More than two decades after Wonder Boys was published, Chabon reflected on this opening line in a 2017 essay. He wrote that the words came effortlessly and provided all the questions that needed to be answered as he completed the book. He went on to add: “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived. I just had to tease it all out.“

Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

In a 2000 New York magazine review shortly after the book was published, Daniel Mendelsohn said the book "had me hooked from the first, wistful, epic-tinged sentence." The novel went on to win the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and in 2006 was hailed by Bret Easton Ellis (of American Psycho fame) as "one of the three great books of my generation." In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel Number 57 on its list of The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.

In a 2013 Atlantic magazine article titled "This Did Something Powerful to Me," staff writer Joe Fassler asked a number of authors to identify their "Favorite First Lines" from novels and other books. Roxane Gay, the American writer, professor, and social commentator, chose the opening words of Chabon's Amazing Adventures novel. She explained: "I love this sentence because it does so much work. The sentence is a story in and of itself and reveals Chabon's amazing talent for long, meandering sentences that are satisfying in both sound and substance."

Michael Chabon
Telegraph Avenue (2012)

A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.

Short, pithy first sentences, often called hooks, don’t have a monopoly on Great Opening Lines—and the shortest ones are simply unable to establish an atmosphere or develop characterization, as this beginning paragraph does so masterfully.

Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep (1939)

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

With these opening words, the literary world was introduced to Philip Marlowe, a Los Angeles private detective who would go on to be featured in six more Chandler novels (he also appeared in many later “authorized” novels by other others as well as in dozens of radio, film, and television adaptations). On the Big Screen, the role of Marlowe was played by such leading men as Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and Liam Neesom.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Marlowe continued: “The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor [sic] of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.“

In a 2013 blog post, Professor Joseph Bentz of Azusa Pacific University wrote that he had chosen The Big Sleep for an Honor’s course he was teaching. After the class finished a first-read of the book, he began the classroom analysis of the work by asking students to read the first few pages aloud. This exercise, he wrote, helped them realize that “Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it.“ Bentz concluded his post by writing: “The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.“

Raymond Chandler
The Lady in the Lake (1943)

The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.

Raymond Chandler
The Little Sister (1949)

The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: “Phillip Marlowe...Investigations.“ It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.

Some of the best opening lines quickly establish the “voice” of the narrator/protagonist, and Phillip Marlowe had one of the most recognizable voices in all of crime literature. In the opening paragraph, he continued:

“The door is locked, but next to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in—there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.”

Raymond Chandler
Trouble is My Business (1950)

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: "I need a man."

In "Raymond Chandler: The Art of Beginning a Crime Story," a 2019 CrimeReads.com article, editor-in-chief Dwyer Murphy wrote: "You'd be hard pressed to find an author equal to Raymond Chandler in jolting a story alive. If Elmore Leonard was the king of the opening line, Chandler made a case for himself as the master of the opening paragraph. Whether he's describing the weather, the face of a building, a street corner, or the glint in a doorman's eye, Chandler brought the scene instantly to life and gave you an immediate and overwhelming feeling that you were in a real place, encountering real people caught up in the little dramas and tragedies that define all our lives."

Raymond Chandler
The Long Goodbye (1953)

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.

These intriguing first words come from Philip Marlowe, who continued about Terry Lennox: “He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.“

Lan Samantha Chang
All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (2010)

Miranda Sturgis was an exceptional poet. Among the School’s distinguished faculty, she was the brightest star, and graduate students fought to gain admission to her seminars.

The narrator continued: “It was 1986, and the most fervent feared they had missed the age of poetry—that they were born into the era of its decline. To Miranda and the School they came in defiance of that decline; or, at the very least, to sit for two years in the circle of her radiance.“

John Cheever
Bullett Park (1967)

Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.

This unusual first sentence doesn't merely invite readers to imagine the opening scene, it instructs them to do so. The narrator continues with some other details he believes are important to add: "Beyond the platform are the waters of the Wekonsett River, reflecting a somber afterglow. The architecture of the station is oddly informal, gloomy but unserious, and mostly resembles a pergola, cottage or summer house although this is a climate of harsh winters. The lamps along the platform burn with a nearly palpable plaintiveness. The setting seems in some way to be at the heart of the matter."

G. K. Chesterton
The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.

This has long been my favorite Chesterton quotation, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was the opening line of a 1904 alternate reality novel that imagined what life in London would be like in 1984. In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this opener: “Astute observations accompanied by an implied sigh of disgust are tricky to master, but Chesterton, one of the most multifaceted men of letters, lights the way for you with this sample of the form.“

There are many who believe that the future date chosen for Chesterton’s novel inspired George Orwell to title his classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Lee Child
Killing Floor [ Book 1 of 27 in the Jack Reacher series] (1997)

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote:

“There’s a matter-of-factness to the opening lines of Lee Child’s first novel, Killing Floor, that is deceptive. A diner, lunchtime, eggs, and coffee—it’s hard to get more matter of fact than that. And yet, this simple opening segment’s immediacy captures our attention. The short, punchy sentences create a rhythm and pull us into the story with a series of equally matter-of-fact whys. Why was this guy arrested? Why is he eating breakfast at lunchtime? Why was he wet and tired and walking into town in the rain—who does that? Jack Reacher, of course.”

Child’s debut novel went on to win two of the highest honors given to mystery/crime novels, the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel. In 2022, it was adapted for the first season of the Amazon Prime Video series “Reacher,” starring Alan Ritchson in the title role.

Susan Choi
My Education: A Novel (2013)

Since arriving the previous week, I’d kept hearing about a notorious person, and now as I entered the packed lecture hall my gaze caught on a highly conspicuous man. That’s him, I declared inwardly, which of course was absurd.

The narrator is Regina Gottlieb, a twenty-one-year old woman who is beginning her graduate studies at an elite East Coast university. She continued: “It was a vast university, of thousands of souls. There was no reason these two kinds of prominence—scandalous noteworthiness, and exceptional, even sinister, attractiveness—must belong to the same human being. Yet they had. The man was Nicholas Brodeur, though I knew it for sure only later.“

Susan Choi
Trust Exercise (2019)

Neither can drive. David turns sixteen the following March, Sarah the following April. It is early July, neither one within sight of sixteen, and the keys to a car.

The opening paragraph ends on an ominous note, which is a time-honored way to begin a novel. From the outset, Choi's novel was hailed by critics, and it ultimately won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.

Agatha Christie
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

Mrs. Ferrars died on the night of the 16th-17th September—a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.

The opening words come from an English doctor named Dr. James Sheppard, the narrator of the novel and, in a surprise twist at the end, the perpetrator of the crime in question. In the novel’s opening paragraph, he continued: “It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latchkey, and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so. But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.“

In 2013, after polling over 600 members, the British Crime Writers’ Association hailed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as the best mystery novel in the history of the genre. Writing six years earlier in Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007), biographer Laura Thompson also gave it top honors, describing it as “The supreme, the ultimate detective novel. It rests upon the most elegant of all twists, the narrator who is revealed to be the murderer. This twist is not merely a function of plot: it puts the whole concept of detective fiction on an armature and sculpts it into a dazzling new shape. It was not an entirely new idea...nor was it entirely her own idea...but here, she realized, was an idea worth having. And only she could have pulled it off so completely.“

Agatha Christie
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage. The conversation, though in the main irrelevant to the matter in hand, yet contained one or two suggestive incidents which influenced later developments.

The narrator is the Rev. Leonard Clement, the local vicar and the narrator of this Miss Marple mystery. The key phrase in the opening words is one or two suggestive incidents, which prompted writer Karen Woodward to write in a 2014 blog post: “Right off the bat, the reader is busy hunting for clues and asking themselves which are the important bits and which are the red herrings.”

The vicar continued: “I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way), and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe, would be doing the world at large a service.”

Agatha Christie
Unfinished Portrait (1934; written under pen name Mary Westmacott)

Do you know the feeling you have when you know something quite well and yet for the life of you can’t recollect it?

Agatha Christie
The Moving Finger (1942)

When at last I was taken out of the plaster, and the doctors had pulled me about to their hearts’ content, and nurses had wheedled me into cautiously using my limbs, and I had been nauseated by their practically using baby talk to me, Marcus Kent told me I was to go and live in the country.

The opening words come from narrator Jerry Burton, who had been hospitalized with injuries from an airplane crash. The book is formally classified as a “Miss Marple Mystery,” but she doesn’t make an appearance until about three-quarters of the way into the book.

Agatha Christie
Endless Night (1967)

In my end is my beginning… That’s a quotation I’ve often heard people say. It sounds all right—but what does it really mean?

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Michael Rogers, who is clearly quoting a saying that has lodged in his mind. As Rogers continues, we see that he is experiencing something we’re all familiar with: we are intrigued by the clever or unusual phrasing of a quotation, but not exactly sure of its precise meaning.

Even when we don’t fully comprehend a quotation’s meaning, though, it can still provide a boost to our thinking. In Endless Night, for example, Rogers—a former English chauffeur with dark secrets in his past—continued:

“Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: ‘It all began that day, at such a time and place, with such an incident?’”

Agatha Christie
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975)

Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience or feeling an old emotion?

I have done this before….

Why do those words always move one so profoundly?

That was the question I asked myself as I sat in the train watching the flat Essex landscape outside.

The opening words come from Hercule Poirot, in his final appearance—and in the last book Christie published before her death in 1976. Aging, and crippled with arthritis, Poirot goes on to proclaim there is nothing wrong with what he fondly calls his “little gray cells.”

Gina Chung
Sea Change (2023)

This morning, Dolores is blue again. She’s signaling her readiness to mate, her eagerness to mount the rocks and corals of her tank and push herself against a male octopus, who will insert his hectocotylus into her mantle cavity and deposit sperm packets inside her until she is ready to lay the eggs.

I loved the opening words of this weirdly wonderful debut novel. In fact, I’d say they completely had me by insert his hectocotylus. The words come from the narrator—a thirty-something aquarium worker named Ro—who continued:

“Unfortunately for Dolores, there is no bachelor octopus around ready to father her orphan eggs, and so when she turns that milky, almost pearlescent blue that I know means she is in the mood for love, there is no one but me to see.”

In a review on Debutiful.net, Adam Vitcavage wrote: “Sea Change is a standout of the 2023 debut class. It will pull you in from the first page and not let go as you traverse through a sea of originality. It’s filled with stunning and scrumptious prose.”

Tom Clancy
The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988)

They called him the Archer. It was an honorable title, though his countrymen had cast aside their reflex bows over a century ago, as soon as they had learned about firearms.

The narrator, who is describing an Afghan mathematics professor-turned-freedom fighter, continued: “In part, the name reflected the timeless nature of the struggle. The first of the Western invaders—for that was how they thought of them—had been Alexander the Great, and more had followed since. Ultimately, all had failed.““

Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.

Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, also offered some memorable opening words in the Foreword to the book: “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.“

James Clavell
Shōgun (1975)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. Too many deaths on this voyage, he thought, I’m Pilot-Major of a dead fleet.

Harlan Coben
Six Years (2013)

I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.

In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote:

“This first line in Harlan Coben’s Six Years jumpstarts his ‘domestic thriller.’ The book sees a man’s love torn apart in a seemingly impossible manner. This is everyone’s worst nightmare—set down in a single, deceptively smooth sentence. You cannot help but want to read on to figure out how in the world such a thing could have happened.”

Harlan Coben
Don’t Let Go (2017)

Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy.

Of the many great opening lines Coben has penned in his career, this is my personal favorite. None of the others can match it in what might be called epistemological wackiness, and none are as laugh-out-loud funny. Don’t Let Go was Coben’s 30th novel, and, like the last ten, it debuted in the Number One spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

When asked about the opener in a CBS This Morning interview, Coben said, “I just thought I’d have fun with the first line ’cause we’re about to get dark.”

And get dark is a good way to describe the novel. Writing for the very first time in the first-person, present-tense, Coben let protagonist Napoleon “Nap” Dumas tell the entire tale— with most of it speaking directly to his dead twin brother (who died under mysterious circumstances while they were in high school). About the approach he took with the book, Coben said, “I’m trying to both break your heart and stir it a little.”

Harlan Coben
I Will Find You (2023)

I am serving the fifth year of a life sentence for murdering my own child.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t do it.

In a Good Morning America book launch interview with the author, host George Stephanopoulos said about Coben’s new novel, “This one grabs you on page one,” adding “Once you get to that opening, you can’t put the book down.”

In the novel, narrator and protagonist David Burroughs, continued: “My son Matthew was three years old at the time of his brutal murder. He was the best thing in my life, and then he was gone, and I’ve been serving a life sentence ever since.”

A modern master of great opening lines, Coben once said on the subject: “I want to hook the reader as fast as possible. If I can accomplish that with the first sentence, that’s what I want to do, but it’s a heck of a challenge. I think the first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, ‘Strap yourself in; we’re going on a very fast rollercoaster ride.’”

I was delighted to honor Coben’s terrific opener in my Smerconish.com compilation of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (see the full list here).

J. M. Coetzee
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.

The narrator, who is living in an unspecified time in the distant past, meets a man wearing a new and novel kind of protective eye covering. In the opening paragraph, he continued:

“Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention.“

When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, the Nobel Prize committee described Waiting for the Barbarians as “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.“

J. M. Coetzee
Disgrace (1999)

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

Solved the problem of sex? Rather well? At age fifty-two? I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to learn more. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. ‘Have you missed me?’ she asks. ‘I miss you all the time,’ he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.”

In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote about this opening paragraph: “This starts with sex, but remember that sex is primarily a way not to excite a reader sexually, but to communicate about the character. And this tells us an enormous amount about the character: divorced, thinks about sex as a problem to be solved, morally kosher with visiting prostitutes, and accepts that fake affection (affection that is paid for) is satisfactory. I keep reading not for the sex but for the character.”

With the terrific beginning above—and a writer of consummate skill—it’s no surprise that Disgrace went on to win the 1999 Booker Prize.

Jon Cohen
The Man in the Window (1992; republished 2013)

Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree.

Cohen’s 1992 novel was one of Nancy Pearl’s “Book Lust Rediscoveries,” an imprint of out-of-print books personally selected for republication by a woman who is often described as “America’s Favorite Librarian.” In her Introduction to the book, Pearl wrote: “When I read the entrancing first line of The Man in the Window, I knew I’d made no mistake [in picking it up]. Here was a novel to love.”

In her introduction, Pearl continued: “That first line…made it impossible for me to put the book down. I loved the interplay of the fantastic—an angel!—with the utterly prosaic—a horse chestnut tree. And the specificity: not just any old chestnut tree, but a horse chestnut.” Simply on the basis of Cohen’s opening line, Pearl concluded: “Clearly, this was a book that was written with a reader like me in mind.”

Eoin Colfer
Highfire (2020)

Vern did not trust humans was the long and short of it. Not a single one.

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction,” writing:

“Best known for his Artemis Fowl series for children, Highfire was Colfer’s first adult fantasy novel, a genre I had avoided because of my own narrow mind. But this line hooked me straight away. Vern, as it turns out, is a dragon, the last of his kind and a confirmed anthropophobic. The opening line shows that we have failed him. This fact is unequivocal. Why would he ever have anything to do with us in the future? I had to read on to find out in this wildly entertaining take on being antisocial.”

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “He had known many in his life, even liked a few, but in the end they all sold him out to the angry mob. Which was why he holed up in Honey Island Swamp out of harm’s way.”

Jenny Colgan
The Bookshop on the Corner (2016)

The problem with good things that happen is that very often they disguise themselves as awful things.

The opening words come from Nina Redmond, a Scottish librarian who has always dreamed of opening a bookstore. She continued: “It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, whenever you’re going through something difficult, if someone could just tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s completely worth it. It seems like absolutely horrible crap now, but I promise it will all come good in the end,’ and you could say, ‘Thank you, Fairy Godmother.’”

Sara Collins
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)

My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.

The year is 1826, the city is London, and these taut opening words come from Frannie Langton, a black Jamaican woman who has been accused of the double murder of her employers, the eminent English scientist George Benham and his French wife Marguerite. In the novel’s second paragraph, Frannie continued: “I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best,”

All in all, this is a compelling opening to a spectacular debut novel. About the book, writer Christine Mangan (Tangerine) wrote: “From the sweltering heat of the West Indies to the rain-slicked cobbles of London, Collins transports her readers to the nineteenth century with an enthralling historical thriller. Frannie Langton is an unforgettable heroine, one who boldly reclaims her narrative within the context of a history that seeks to silence her. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is gorgeous―Gothic writing at its very best.”

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games [Book 1 of The Hunger Games Trilogy] (2008)

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

The opening words come from sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, one of the modern era’s most popular literary heroines, thanks to the success of Collins’s blockbuster dystopian novel. She continued: “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

“The reaping?“ we immediately think, and in that exact moment, Collins achieves the goal of all opening paragraphs—seducing the reader into her world.

Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire [Book 2 of The Hunger Games Trilogy] (2009)

I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor.

The book begins with a bleak situation beautifully described by protagonist Katniss Everdeen. She continued: “I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sit, as motionless as the rock beneath me, while the dawn begins to lighten in the woods. I can’t fight the sun. I can only watch helplessly as it drags me into a day that I’ve been dreading for months.”

Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay [Book 3 of The Hunger Games Trilogy] (2010)

I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?

Katniss Everdeen begins the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy by surveying the complete destruction of her family home by the Capitol’s firebombs.

Carlo Collodi
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883)

Centuries ago there lived—

“A king!“ my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.

I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny that it looked like a ripe cherry.

As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy. Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:

“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of a table.”

He grasped the hatchet quickly to peel off the bark and shape the wood. But as he was about to give it the first blow, he stood still with arm uplifted, for he had heard a wee, little voice say in a beseeching tone: “Please be careful! Do not hit me so hard!”

So begins the story of a block of wood that ultimately became a wooden puppet named Pinocchio—and one of the most popular children’s stories of all time. Originally presented in 1881-82 in serial form in a popular Italian children’s magazine, the story was published as a single book in 1883. In 1957, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce hailed it as one of the greatest works in all of Italian literature, not just children’s literature.

In her classic Children’s Literature (1972), Francelia Butler said the novel “remains the most translated Italian book and, after the Bible, the most widely read.” The opening lines above are from Carol Della Chiesa’s 1926 translation.

Blayney Colmore
Dead Reckoning (2014)

Up in my attic, sorting through a decaying box packed with forty years of personal detritus, is proving more gripping than the tedious job I anticipated. Alice, my exacting wife for most of these forty years, all but pulled out my fingernails to get me to do this.

In this heavily autobiographical novel, Colmore, a retired Episcopal priest, tells the story of Henry Simpson, a retired Episcopal priest. The narrator continued: “Old notes from seminary (good God, Henry, that paper on the sources of the Pentateuch belongs in a museum), a couple of citations commending my parish for housing the homeless. And tchotchkes my sisters and I couldn’t bring ourselves to toss out after our mother died.”

Blayney Colmore
The Spy and the Priest: Which Way to Heaven? (2016)

Max Hartman shifted his considerable weight from one cheek to the other in his leather Eames chair. Sitting in that chair, sometimes with his feet on the matching footstool, sometimes flat on the floor, was the only place other than in bed be could be comfortable for more than five minutes at a stretch.

In this opening paragraph, we are introduced to Max Hartman, an aging ex-CIA operative, the spy of the book’s title, and a childhood friend of Andy Coffer, the priest. The narrator continued: “Despite five major back operations, a sixth scheduled the next month, he’d felt no relief from the sciatic and lumbar pain. Prescription OxyContin and morphine had made him feel slow and stupid without touching the pain.”

Michael Connelly
The Poet (1996)

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker—somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.

But my rule didn’t protect me.

In The Poet, the first of three novels featuring investigative reporter Jack McEvoy, these opening words beautifully establish the “voice” of the protagonist, provide a window into his thinking process, and—in that final portion—pique our curiosity. In a 2010 blog post, mystery writer James Hayman wrote that Connelly’s first words are “among the best openings of any mystery or thriller I know.”

When the novel was issued in paperback in 2004, it included an Introduction by Stephen King, who described the opening sentence—Death is my beat—as “a blue-ribbon winner.” About the first sentence, King continued: “We are immediately hooked and pulled in. It’s not a cheat-line, either, but one that perfectly sets the tone: dark, brooding, just plain scary.“

King also heaped praises on the entire work, calling it “a marvelous and sustained piece of story-telling.” And finally, while admitting he doesn’t “use the word classic lightly,” King enthused, “The Poet may well prove to be one.”

Barnaby Conrad
La Fiesta Brava (1953)

On August 27, 1947, a multimillionaire and a bull killed each other in Linares, Spain, and plunged an entire nation into deep mourning. The bull’s name was Islero, and he was of the Miura strain. The man’s name was Manolete, and he was the essence of everything Spanish. His story is the embodiment of la fiesta brava.

In 1985, staffers at The New York Times asked a number of prominent American authors to identify their “favorite opening passage in a work of literature.“ Elmore Leonard selected this one, explaining: “It must be my favorite, because it’s the only opening passage of a book I can recall and recite word-for-word some 35 years later, and be moved by it. With a simple documentary sound, the passage sets the stage for drama, tragedy, and never fails to give me a chill.“

Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (1900)

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.

The narrator is describing the title character, a disgraced British seaman who ends up in the South Seas, where he prefers to keep his real name secret and is known only by the pseudonym of Jim. In this classic novel of redemption, Jim proves to be such a hero to the Malaysian natives that they end up paying him the highest respect by addressing him as Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim.

The narrator continued in the novel’s first paragraph: “His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, appareled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler’s water-clerk he was very popular.”

Pat Conroy
The Great Santini (1976)

In the Cordova Hotel, near the docks of Barcelona, fourteen Marine Corps fighter pilots from the aircraft carrier Forrestal were throwing an obstreperously spirited going away party for Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, the executive officer of their carrier based squadron. The pilots had been drinking most of the day and the party was taking a swift descent toward mayhem.

The opening paragraph provides no information about where the novel is going, but it nicely captures the environment the protagonist is coming from. The narrator continued: “It was a sign to Bull Meecham that he was about to have a fine and memorable turbulent time. The commanding officer of the squadron, Ty Mullinax, had passed out in the early part of the afternoon and was resting in a beatific position on the table in the center of the room, his hands folded across his chest and a bouquet of lilies carefully placed in his zipper, rising out of his groin.”

The novel’s protagonist was based on Conroy’s actual larger-than-life father, U. S. Marine Colonel Don Conroy—a highly decorated fighter pilot and, in his private life, a highly abusive father. For a sense of exactly how abusive he was, see the entry by Wright Thompson, and be prepared for a heart-wrenching description.

Conroy’s father was still living when The Great Santini was published and, not surprisingly, he predicted the novel would be read only by “psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals, and women.” When the book—and subsequent film—became hugely successful, though, Colonel Conroy reflected deeply on his son’s portrayal of him, became a changed man, and went on to earn his son’s deep respect and affection. About his father’s profound personal transformation, Conroy went on to write: “He had the best second act I ever saw.”

In 1979, the novel was adapted in a critically acclaimed film, with Robert Duvall giving an Oscar-nominated performance as Bull Meecham. Michael O’Keefe, in the role of Meecham’s son Ben—a thinly disguised Pat Conroy—received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.

Pat Conroy
The Prince of Tides (1986)

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

The narrator, Tom Wingo, is a South Carolina teacher and football coach who has spent a lifetime struggling to overcome a dysfunctional childhood (the character was memorably portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Nick Nolte in a 1991 film adaptation).

Wingo continued: "I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders."

Pat Conroy
Beach Music (1995)

In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me.

This dramatic opening line comes from narrator and protagonist Jack McCall, a cookbook and travel writer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Conroy himself—a Southern writer with complicated family entanglements.

In the first paragraph, McCall continued: “Our sweet Leah was not quite two when my wife, Shyla, stopped her car on the highest point of the bridge and looked over, for the last time, the city she loved so well.”

S. A. Cosby
Razorblade Tears (2021)

Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might nothing came to mind.

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction,” writing:

“Clearly, Cosby’s protagonist Ike has endured a lot of suffering and has also been on the wrong side of the law. With this line, Ike wins our sympathy. Men with badges have been turning up since childhood. Such a clever way to tell us that Ike is flawed, and also weary. And now we want to know the cause of the misery that is about to be revealed.”

Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

This is one of the most beautiful opening sentences in the history of American literature—so beautifully crafted that all we have to do is close our eyes and let the scene slowly appear in our minds. As impressive as is the opening sentence, things only get better as the opening paragraph continues:

“As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills.“

In a 1914 article in the Yale Review (“Stephen Crane As I Knew Him”), Hamlin Garland wrote: “The first sentence fairly took me captive. It described a vast army in camp on one side of a river confronting with its thousands of eyes a similar monster on the opposite bank.”

A little over a century later, in The 100 Best Novels in English (2015), Robert McCrum described Crane’s classic work as “the godfather of all American war novels.” He also sang the praises of the opening paragraph, writing: “The Red Badge of Courage is not a conventional historical novel. Its texture is cinematic; at the same time, breaking the rules, it eschews all reference to time and place. As the ‘retiring fog’ lifts on the opening page, an army is revealed ‘stretched out on the hills, resting.’ This is followed by a brilliant passage, surely an inspiration to subsequent generations of screenwriters.”

In her 1998 biography, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Linda H. Davis dropped a delicious tidbit about the novel’s opening words: Apparently, Crane had told close friends that the entire first paragraph came to him one night in something like an epiphany, with “every word in place, every comma, every period fixed.” Lacking a typewriter, he carefully wrote it out in longhand—and in ink—on legal-sized paper, and it went on to appear in exactly that way when the book was ultimately published.

Wes Craven
Fountain Society (1999)

The cell held fifteen men. It was ten by twelve and stank of sweat, filth and fear. The only amenity offered was a hole in the center of the concrete floor which served as a toilet.

This was Craven’s first—and only—novel, and he gets off to an exceptional start. The narrator continued: “The cell contained, so far as Rashid al-Assad had been able to gather, three Lebanese commandos who kept to themselves and were dreaded even more than the jailers. One of their number had been beaten badly during capture and was raving with fever and gangrene. This kept the others in a murderous mood.“

James Crumley
The Last Good Kiss (1978)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Crumley, who was described by London’s The Guardian newspaper as “The poet laureate of hard-boiled literature,” once told an interviewer that it had taken him eight years to write this single first sentence. It appears to have paid off, as it went on to become his most widely quoted line. In 2008, The Last Good Kiss was described by writer Doug Moe as “the most influential crime novel of the last 50 years.”

In a 2008 obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, writer and editor David McCumber wrote: “When I finally caught up with Jim Crumley, he was drinking whiskey with a poet named Martha Elizabeth in a ramshackle joint in Missoula, Mont., drinking the heart right into a gray winter afternoon. Those of you who know James Crumley’s work will recognize that as a terrible paraphrase of what’s been called the best opening sentence in the history of crime fiction.”

James Crumley
The Mexican Tree Duck (1993)

When the 3:12 through freight to Spokane hit the East Meriweather crossing, the engineer touched his horn and released a long, mournful wail into the wet, snowy air of our second early fall storm in Western Montana. It sounded a hell of a lot like the first note of a Hank Snow ballad.

In a 2008 obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the writer and editor David McCumber cited this as yet another favorite opening line of crime fiction fans. He went on to add: “The freights come right past my window here, Jim, and when I hear that wail on winter’s gray afternoons, I’ll think of you.“

Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt (2020)

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes.

This is the first sentence of a bestselling book that, while heavily criticized as inauthentic by many in the Latinx community, was hailed by such legendary writers as Stephen King and John Grisham.

Perhaps the most extraordinary words of praise, though, came from writer Don Winslow (The Border and other works), who wrote: “From its heart-stopping first sentence to its heart-shattering last, Cummins’s story of immigrants is just what we need now. Gritty yet sensitive, realistic yet hopeful, grand and granular, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a Grapes of Wrath for our times.”

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges in the tiled wall behind him. But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed.”

Roald Dahl
James and the Giant Peach (1961)

Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life. He lived peacefully with his mother and father in a beautiful house beside the sea. There were always plenty of other children for him to play with, and there was the sandy beach for him to run about on, and the ocean to paddle in. It was the perfect life for a small boy.

These words could begin any typical children’s book, but things take a dramatic, dark, and disturbing turn as the reader moves on to the second paragraph: “Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.“

Roald Dahl
Matilda (1988)

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.

This is an intriguing way to begin any book, but especially a children’s book. This is no ordinary children’s book, however. Dahl’s narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “Well, there is nothing very wrong with all of this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, ‘Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick.’”

Emily M. Danforth
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012)

The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.

With an opening sentence like this, readers immediately sense they’re in for quite a ride—and they won’t be disappointed. In Miles City, Montana in 1989, twelve-year-old Cameron Post is beginning to experience sexual feelings for other girls when her parents die in an automobile accident. Placed in the care of her grandmother and a deeply religious aunt, Cameron’s struggle for authenticity takes place in an environment with many obstacles, including “conversion therapy” for gay adolescents.

In a 2012 review in the Los Angeles Times, Susan Carpenter hailed Danforth as a “talented wordsmith,“ adding that she writes with “impeccable phrasing but emotional and visual clarity, drilling down into individual moments and dwelling there in slow motion to help readers experience Cameron’s hopes and fears.“

In 2018, the film was adapted into a film, starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role. At the Sundance Film Festival, it was awarded the U. S. Grand Jury Prize, the film festival’s highest award.

Hilary Davidson
The Damage Done (2010)

It was the bright yellow tape that finally convinced me my sister was dead.

This dramatic opening serves as our introduction to travel writer Lily Moore, who will soon be making a transition to private investigator. In a 2011 blog post, bibliophile Linda S. Brown wrote about the first sentence: “We’ve all seen enough crime shows to know just what that yellow tape means. In fourteen words, Davidson paints a vivid scene, one we won’t forget.”

This was Davidson’s debut novel after working as a travel writer for ten years, and it went on to win the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel.

Robertson Davies
Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)

I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from his case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.

I’m a sucker for tales told by dead narrators, and this is one of the best in that sub-genre. In this case, the narrator and protagonist is a Canadian film critic named Connor “Gil” Gilmartin. The novel begins when he unexpectedly arrives home to find his attractive wife in flagrante with a fellow film critic—a man he has always dismissively referred to as “the Sniffer.“ After his wife’s lover strikes him on the temple with a walking stick, killing him instantly, Gilmartin continued:

“How did I know that I was dead? As it seemed to me, I recovered consciousness in an instant after the blow, and heard the Sniffer saying, in a quavering voice: ’He’s dead! My God! I’ve killed him!’ My wife was kneeling by my side, feeling my pulse, her ear to my heart; she said, with what I thought was remarkable self-possession in the circumstances, ’Yes, you’ve killed him.’“

Simone de Beauvoir
The Mandarins (1954)

Henri found himself looking at the sky again— a clear, black crystal dome overhead. It was difficult for the mind to conceive of hundreds of planes shattering that black, crystalline silence! And suddenly, words began tumbling through his head with a joyous sound— the offensive was halted...the German collapse had begun.

The man looking upward is Henri Perron, editor of a leftist newspaper in Paris during WWII (Perron is believed by many to be a fictional version of Albert Camus). Word from the front lines is just arriving that Allied planes have scored a major victory over Nazi forces. The novel went on to win the 1954 Goncourt Prize.

Louis de Bernières
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992)

Once again, Cardinal Dominic Trujillo Guzman felt a pang like that of childbirth spear him in the belly, and he doubled over, clutching himself and moaning. As always when this happened, his only thoughts were of the guilt of his life.

This is a powerful opening sentence, and readers immediately begin to wonder, “What has this man done that haunts him so?“ The narrator continued: “In his anguish it was as if ancient coffers opened before his eyes, but instead of overflowing with gold doubloons, louis d’or, silver crucifixes encrusted with rubies, there spilled out demons.“

Louis de Bernières
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)

Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.

The narrator continued: “He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.“

In 2001, the novel was adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz.

Louis de Bernières
A Partisan’s Daughter (2008)

I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes.

Well, I suppose that every man would say that. People would disbelieve it just because you had to say it. It’s a self-defeating statement. If I had any sense I’d delete it and start again, but I’m thinking, “My wife’s dead, my daughter’s in New Zealand, I’m in bad health, and I’m past caring, and who’s paying any attention? And in any case, it’s true.“

Nina de Gramont
The Last September (2019)

Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle. In media res, that’s the Latin term….

The opening words come from Brett Mercier, a 32-year-old Cape Cod wife and mother of a baby girl who is just learning to walk. After a captivating first sentence, she provides a strong hint about her background (we soon learn she is the daughter of two college professors and is herself only a dissertation away from getting a Ph.D. in English literature). As she continues, Brett offers a thought aimed directly at bibliophiles and fans of great opening lines, two groups likely to be familiar with the Latin phrase that means, “into the middle of things.” In the opening paragraph, Brett continued:

“And though my specialty is American Renaissance poetry, I did have to study the classics. Homer, Dante, Milton. They knew about the middle, how all of life revolves around a single moment in time. Everything that comes before leads up to that moment. Everything that comes afterward springs from that moment. In my case, that moment—that middle—is my husband’s murder.”

In a blurb for the book, the writer Brad Watson (The Heaven of Mercury and more) wrote: “I was hooked by the first paragraph, which somehow contains all the beautiful, luminous grief of the whole story, and I truly did not want to let it go in the end.”

Nina de Gramont
The Christie Affair (2022)

A long time ago in another country, I nearly killed a man.

In a Wall Street Journal review, Tom Nolan wrote that the novel “Sizzles from the first sentence,” and I was pleased to include it in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In 1926, Agatha Christie was one of the world’s most popular writers when, after her husband told her he was leaving her for his mistress, she famously disappeared for eleven days. While Christie never talked about what happened, the story has been explored in a number of books and films—but never more ingeniously than in de Gramont’s novel, which told the story from the perspective of Nan O’Dea, the mistress of Agatha Christie’s husband. In the novel, O’Dea continued with a dark but powerful observation:

“It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. First comes rage, larger than any you’ve ever imagined. It takes over your body so completely it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. It conveys a strength you never knew you possessed. Your hands, harmless until now, rise up to squeeze another person’s life away. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect it’s frightening, but I daresay in the moment it feels sweet, the way justice feels sweet.”

Peter De Vries
The Tents of Wickedness (1959)

Charles Swallow was taking a bath, and as was his custom on such occasions, he had undressed before climbing into the tub.

Peter De Vries
The Vale of Laughter (1967)

Call me, Ishmael.

By the simple insertion of a comma, De Vries completely changes the meaning of Melville’s classic opening line from Moby-Dick. The opening words come from Joe Sandwich, a wisecracking stockbroker who is talking on the phone to a client named Ishmael (or, as he sometimes calls him, “Ish, baby”).

Sandwich continued: “Feel absolutely free to. Call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home and I’ll be glad to give you the latest quotation with price-earnings ratio and estimated dividend of any security traded in those tirelessly tossing, deceptively shaded waters in which we pursue the elusive whale of Wealth, but from which we come away at last content to have hooked the twitching bluegill, solvency.“

Louise Dean
Becoming Strangers (2004)

Before he’d had cancer he’d been bored with life. Since he’d taken dying seriously, he’d been busy; he was occupied with understanding the disease and training his body to resist it.

In a Feb. 20, 2004 review in The Guardian, critic Julie Myerson offered a thorough and thoughtful analysis of this opening. She began by writing: “The opening lines of Louise Dean’s quite exceptional first novel may not be much of a laugh, but they stopped this reader in her tracks. It rarely takes me more than a page or two to sense whether a novel’s going to take me somewhere worth going. In Dean’s case, those first 17 words were enough. My heart raced and I sat up. I knew.“

Myerson went on: “It’s not just the bald, frank darkness of those two opening statements, nor the ache of truth they contain. And it’s not just about the rise-and-fall rhythm of the words either, the pleasing arc that the collision of the two sentences somehow creates. No, most of all, I think, it’s what the writer makes you feel—instantly—about this mystery ’he’: a wave of naked curiosity. Who on earth is this man, whose life has been so vivified by death?“

Margaret Deland
The Vehement Flame (1922)

There is nothing in the world nobler, and lovelier, and more absurd, than a boy’s lovemaking. And the joyousness of it!

These delightful opening words describe 19-year-old Maurice Curtis, who, sitting on the lawn with his brand-new bride Eleanor, exclaims with a beguiling naivete:

“We have been married exactly fifty-four minutes. If I love you like this after fifty-four minutes of married life, how do you suppose I shall feel after fifty-four years of it?”

Nelson DeMille
The Maze [Book 8 in the John Corey series] (2022)

You can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning.

Some opening lines are like a warm handshake accompanied by a big grin—sending the message, “C’mon in. Even though we’re about to embark on some serious business, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun along the way.” This is one of two wonderful 2022 novels that begin with a modern proverb (see the other one from Marianne Wiggins here), and they both work beautifully. I was delighted to honor both openers in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

The opening line comes from former NYPD homicide detective, John Corey, who goes on to explain that he’s been enjoying a beer-drinking, crossword puzzle-playing vacation at his uncle Harry’s large Victorian house overlooking Long Island’s Great Peconic Bay. In the novel’s second paragraph, Corey goes on to make yet another clever observation:

“I’d been chilling here for about three weeks, and as I’d said the last time I was borrowing Harry’s summer house, the problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.”

Pete Dexter
Deadwood (1986)

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?”

Pete Dexter
The Paperboy (1995)

My brother Ward was once a famous man.

In a 2004 NPR interview with host Steve Inskeep, award-winning librarian Nancy Pearl hailed this as “the best contemporary first line,” adding, “Now that’s a line you couldn’t stop” after reading it. Inskeep immediately picked up on her words, saying, “Why was he once a famous man? Why is he not a famous man any more?” Pearl added that another attractive feature of the line was that it was in the past tense, posing the powerful question: “So what happened to him?”

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator—the unnamed brother of Ward James—further piques our interest by suggesting that the father of the two men has played an important role in the story: “No one mentions that now, and I suppose no one is inclined to bring it up, particularly not my father, who in other matters loves those things most that he can no longer touch or see, things washed clean of flaws and ambiguity by the years he has held them in his memory, reshaping them as he bring s them out, again and again, telling his stories until finally the stories, and the things in them, are as perfect and sharp as the edge of the knife he keeps in his pocket.”

Pete Dexter
Spooner (2009)

Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home. It was the first Saturday of December 1956, and the old folks home was on fire.

In a 2019 Book Chase blog post, reviewer Sam Sattler wrote about three favorite opening paragraphs, this one from Spooner, another from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and a third from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

About this one, he wrote: “A good first paragraph is one of the most important tools an author has available to grab my book-browsing attention—usually quickly and in less than 100 words. I can learn more about the style and readability of an author from an opening paragraph than I will ever gather from a canned dust jacket summary or some blurb from a fellow author of the writer’s that I wouldn’t believe in a million years anyway.”

Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.

It takes awhile to get to the conclusion of the opening paragraph, but the brilliantly constructed metaphor of love as a gamble at the end makes it all worth it.

Charles Dickens
A Christmas Carol (1843)

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

These opening words have been popular since they were first written, and even showed up in a clever bit of repartee a few years back. As the story goes, Harlan Ellison was giving a lecture on writing fiction when he confidently asserted, “The opening of a story must breathe! It must have life!” Before he could say another word, a voice from the back of the room retorted, “Marley was dead, to begin with.”

In Dickens’s classic novel, the narrator continued: “The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

The expression “good upon ’Change” has puzzled readers—especially American readers—since A Christmas Carol was first published. ’Change is a shortened version of Exchange (as in The Stock Exchange or The Royal Exchange). The meaning of the passage is that Scrooge’s reputation among money traders was so good that his signature could be absolutely relied on.

The saying dead as a doornail, you should also know, was not original to Dickens; he was simply repeating a popular colloquial expression that dates to the 14th century in England. The narrator went on to add about the phrase: “Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Charles Dickens
Dombey And Son (1848)

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

The narrator continued: “Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome, well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect as yet.”

Charles Dickens
David Copperfield (1849)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

I’ve long admired this opening and recently came across a 2020 Book Riot post from blogger Kathleen Keenan (“City Girl with a Twist”) that perfectly summarized my own feelings: “Whatever you think of Dickens as a writer, he knew how to establish a mood immediately.”

In the novel, generally regarded as the most autobiographical of Dickens’s works, the title character continued: “To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at midnight. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”

Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

This is the full 119-word opening sentence of the novel, but most people remember only the first twelve words—among the most famous and most beautiful in literary history. Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, but his words applied equally to the era he was living in: The Industrial Revolution. It was a time of massive contradictions (immense wealth and poverty; great knowledge and ignorance, etc.), and Dickens chose the perfect literary device—antithesis—to capture it.

Few descriptions of the passage can improve upon English writer Clare Balding’s assessment, offered in a Stylist.com article a few years back: “There is so much there, in one sentence. I love the rhythm and the perfect balance of every clause, the promise of what is to come and the juxtaposition of hope with dread. It is poetry as prose, perfect in itself and yet tempting you on to turn the page.”

In a 2015 blog post titled “More About Opening Lines.“, Dean Koontz wrote: “It’s the perfect example of how a bravura writer can break all kinds of rules and get away with it.:

Perhaps the most original analysis of the famous opening, though, came from American writer and writing teacher Peter Selgin. In Your First Page (2019), he described the passage as “the rhetorical equivalent of what, in a movie, would be a wide-angle establishing shot.” Selgin went on to add: “Rather than plunge us into the heart of the story, such an opening serves as a sort of framing device, an imposing ornate gate through which we pass to get to the story. Call it the red-carpet treatment. But gate and carpeting are there not merely to flatter but to orient us. Along with all the pomp and paradox, Dickens lays out the period in which his story is set.”

Charles Dickens
Great Expectations (1860)

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Denis Diderot
Rameau’s Nephew (1762)

Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal every afternoon about five. I am always to be seen there alone, sitting on a seat in the Allée d’Argenson, meditating.

The opening words—which are not exactly sizzling—come from an unnamed narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life author. Continuing in the first paragraph, though, the narrator heats things up considerably as he continues with one of literary history’s great metaphorical passages: “I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those young rakes in the Allée de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.”

This entire first paragraph—but especially the final portion—has such a modern, on-the-edge sensibility that it is hard to believe it was written more than a dozen years before the American Revolution (to be precise, it was written in 1761-62, but first published in a German edition by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805). According to historians, Diderot did not want the piece published during his lifetime for fear of being sued or arrested for his portrayal of the rich and powerful of the time (he had been briefly imprisoned in 1749 for some other writings, so his wariness was understandable). All modern translations of the work are based on a complete manuscript—in Diderot’s own handwriting—found by a French librarian in 1890.

It was because of passages like this that book critic Michael Dirda preferred Diderot over such other French Enlightenment writers as Rousseau and Voltaire. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), Dirda wrote that Diderot possessed “the kind of restless, original mind that throws off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler. He is irresistible.”

Joan Didion
Run River (1963)

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one.

The narrator continued: “She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp in the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.”

Joan Didion
A Book of Common Prayer (1977)

I will be her witness.

The simplest opening line can raise a host of questions. Why does she need a witness? Who is this woman she is referring to, anyway? And why is she bringing this up at the very beginning of the novel? There is also an intriguing hint about some kind of problem—or perhaps even danger—associated with being her witness.

Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet (1887)

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

This may not be the most compelling opening line in literary history, but it serves as an introduction to narrator Dr. John Watson, who will shortly learn about a fellow Londoner—someone said to be “a little queer in his ideas”—who is looking for someone with whom he might share an apartment. When Dr. Watson is first introduced to the man, he is startled when the stranger immediately says to him, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sign of the Four (1890)

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of his mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Morocco case. With his long, white nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt cuff.

After this dramatic opening, Dr. John Watson—the beloved sidekick and chronicler of literary history’s greatest consulting detective—continued: “For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

For more than a hundred and thirty years, new readers have been stunned to learn of Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (his famous “seven-percent solution”). Dr. Watson describes the scene masterfully above, and in the very next paragraph, reveals what can only be called—in modern terms—his own codependency: “Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I lacked the courage to protest.”

Arthur Conan Doyle
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.

Allen Drury
Advise and Consent (1960)

When Bob Munson awoke in his apartment at the Sheraton Park Hotel at seven thirty-one in the morning he had the feeling it would be a bad day.

Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca (1938)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

The opening words come from an unnamed female narrator who is known only as “the second Mrs. de Winter.” The first Mrs. de Winter, of course, is the title character. The first sentence went on to become one of literary history’s most celebrated opening lines, and I was shocked when it did not appear among the American Book Review’s “100 Best First Lines from Novels” in 2006.

In an April 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert McCrum said the opening words have a “haunting brevity.” And in a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote:

“Okay, most of us love Rebecca and can quote this sentence. But why is it so evocative? What does it do to us in a few seconds that keeps us reading this book? It sets a tone immediately and tips us off to a couple key points. First, it lets us know that something is lost to the narrator: a place called Manderley. And I, for one, want to know why. Why is this person dreaming of Manderley? It sounds like he/she can’t go there. Which naturally makes me want to go there, myself. Secondly, beginning a novel with a dream creates a hazy, unreal feeling. It evokes a gothic mood where the reader needs to pay attention to what may or may not be reality. And the author has hooked me already.”

Daphne Du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel (1951)

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though.

In Book Lust to Go (2010), celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl wrote, “I’ll never forget the first lines” of the novel, adding, “Those sentences still send a shiver up my spine.”

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Now, when a murderer pays the price for his crime, he does so up at Bodmin, after fair trial at the Assizes. That is, if the law convicts him, before his own conscience kills him. It is better so. Like a surgical operation. And the body has a decent burial, though a nameless grave. When I was a child, it was otherwise. I can remember as a little lad seeing a fellow hang in chains where the four roads meet. His face and body were blackened with tar for preservation. He hung there for five weeks before they cut him down, and it was the fourth week that I saw him.”

Daphne du Maurier
Mary Ann (1954)

Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile.

Lois Duncan
Killing Mr. Griffin (1978)

It was a wild, windy, southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them.

When the chilling idea of killing someone is so matter-of-factly expressed, it has a jarring quality—but also a compelling one. Duncan was a pioneering figure in what eventually became known as YA (Young Adult) fiction, and a number of her works, including Killing Mr. Griffin, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), and Summer of Fear (1976) were adapted into popular films aimed at a teen audience.

In a New York Times review (“Teaching Teacher a Lesson”), writer Richard Peck wrote about the Mr. Griffin book: “Lois Duncan breaks some new ground in a novel without sex, drugs or black leather jackets. But the taboo she tampers with is far more potent and pervasive: the unleashed fury of the permissively reared against any assault on their egos and authority. A group of high school seniors kill an English teacher who dares trouble them with grades, homework and standards.”

Peck went on to add: “The value of the book lies in the twisted logic of the teenagers and how easily they can justify anything.”

Maureen Earl
Gulliver Quick (1992)

When news of Gulliver Quick’s death first reached the newspapers, there were curious rumors of five women attempting to take equal responsibility.

Five women? This guy must’ve been quite The Ladies’ Man. The story then takes a mysterious tone as the narrator continued: “Although these tales were intriguing, they made little sense. Then, abruptly, the case was dismissed. Secrecy shrouded the affair, and the five women, released from further investigation by the Italian police, refused to discuss his death. Reporters, foiled by the women’s silence, eventually abandoned the story.“

Maria Edgeworth
Ennui (1809)

Bred up in luxurious indolence, I was surrounded by friends who seemed to have no business in this world but to save me the trouble of thinking or acting for myself.

Edgeworth was well known for her anti-aristocratic sentiments, and the opening chapters of Ennui provide a powerful commentary on the deleterious effects of great wealth and inherited privilege on English society.

The novel begins as a kind of memoir of Lord Glenthorn, a young English gentleman, who continued: “And I was confirmed in the pride of helplessness by being continually reminded that I was the only son and heir of the Earl of Glenthorn.“

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Adam Bede (1859)

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader.

The narrator continued: “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.”

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)

On the first of September, in the memorable year 1832, some one was expected at Transome Court.

Someone is coming, and given the phrasing some one, it is probably an important person, perhaps even a royal. But who, exactly? A sense of expectancy is created in the first few words, and continues for the remainder of the opening paragraph:

“As early as two o’clock in the afternoon the aged lodge-keeper had opened the heavy gate, green as the tree trunks were green with nature’s powdery paint, deposited year after year. Already in the village of Little Treby, which lay on the side of a steep hill not far off the lodge-gates, the elder matrons sat in their best gowns at the few cottage-doors bordering the road, that they might be ready to get up and make their curtsy when a travelling-carriage should come in sight; and beyond the village several small boys were stationed on the lookout, intending to run a race to the barnlike old church, where the sexton waited in the belfry ready to set the one bell in joyful agitation just at the right moment.”

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Middlemarch (1871-72)

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

The opening line of Middlemarch is both an elegantly phrased description of nineteen-year-old Dorothea Brooke and a perfect illustration of the quality of writing that awaits the reader in the rest of novel.

As the opening paragraph continues, Eliot doesn’t disappoint: “Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible—or from one of our elder poets—in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.”

George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Daniel Deronda (1876)

Was she beautiful or not beautiful?

These are the first thoughts that spring to the mind of the title character as he finds himself strongly responding to a brief glance from a woman who is experiencing a run of bad luck at a roulette table in a German gambling resort. As the opening paragraph unfolds, his thought process continues:

“And what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?“

Jordan Ellenberg
The Grasshopper King (2003)

I think it’s best that I begin with a legend—a mostly true one.

It’s rare for a math genius to write an entertaining and engaging book of fiction, but Ellenberg, one of America’s most respected mathematicians, proves it can be done—and with a most inviting opening sentence as well.

Bret Easton Ellis
American Psycho (1991)

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

My reaction when I first read these stream-of-consciousness opening words was, “I believe we’re in for quite a ride here!” And I wasn’t disappointed. In what is generally regarded as a searing indictment of yuppie culture during the 1980’s Wall Street Boom, the narrator and protagonist is Patrick Bateman, a greedy, superficial, possession-flaunting, Donald Trump-idealizing Manhattan investment banker whose mental instability takes a horrifyingly dark turn.

In 2011, English blogger Matt Tuckey wrote about the opening words: “Here Ellis instantly sets up the voice of the narrator—intelligent but muddled, overstimulated and in a very bad place mentally. The narrator’s thoughts jump from one thing to another, a trait of the insane, and a trait of those who are exposed to too much advertising. He ties together commercialism and insanity in one immense sentence—two themes which run strong on every page of the book. Brilliant.”

In a 2000 film adaptation, actor Christian Bale memorably inhabited the role of Bateman, leading critic Roger Ebert to write that he was “heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability.”

Rhian Ellis
After Life (2000)

First I had to get his body into the boat.

In Book Lust (2003), librarian and bibliophile Nancy Pearl counted this as one of her favorite first lines, writing that it contained “a definite hint of mystery, not to say menace.“

In the novel, the narrator continued: “This was more than ten years ago, and I’ve forgotten some of what came before and after, but that night and the following day I remember in extravagant detail. I had lain awake all night, trying to imagine how I might get him off the bed and down the stairs and into the rowboat, since he weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds and might have gone stiff.“

Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man (1952)

I am an invisible man.

This simple but powerful opening statement comes from an unnamed black male protagonist in his third year at an unnamed all-black college. Now regarded as one of modern literature’s most powerful opening lines, Ellison almost tossed his first draft in the wastepaper basket as soon as he first typed it. Reflecting on that exact moment in a 1979 essay, he said his first reaction was to view the line as “an assertion so outrageous and unrelated to anything I was trying to write that I snatched it from the machine and was about to destroy it.“ He added, “But then, rereading it, I became intrigued. And as I sat musing, the words began to sound with a familiar timbre of voice.“

When Ellison returned to his typewriter, he stayed with the opening line and had his protagonist continue: “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.“ The novel went on to win the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction.

Nora Ephron
Heartburn (1983)

The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,“ I said, “is that I can’t even date.”

The narrator is Rachel Samstat, a New York City food writer who is married to a journalist with a reputation for womanizing. In her opening words, she chooses a most interesting way to disclose her reaction to the news that her husband has begun an extra-marital affair (Heartburn is a novel, but it reflects many of the details of Ephron’s four-year marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein).

In the first paragraph, Samstat continued: “Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word ’date,’ which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant.”

Louise Erdrich
The Plague of Doves (2008)

The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire. The baby’s crying set him on edge.

This is the dramatic first sentence of “Solo” a preliminary piece—a kind of preface—that was so powerful I had to put the book down before reading on. I won’t provide the rest of it here, but let me say that it would be well worth your while to read it for yourself. It’s one of the most arresting book beginnings I’ve ever read.

Erdrich’s novel was based on a real-life crime that happened in rural North Dakota in the 1890s. A finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, the novel went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, an American literary award honoring books that have made an important contribution to understanding racism and celebrating human diversity.

In a 2008 New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote: “With The Plague of Doves, [Erdrich] has written what is arguably her most ambitious, and in many ways, her most deeply affecting work yet.”

Louise Erdrich
The Sentence (2021)

While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use.

The narrator, a middle-aged Native American woman named Tookie, continued: “The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of the day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.”

Erdrich’s most recent novel covered a lot of ground—COVID, the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, a bookstore-haunting ghost named Flora—but the most enduring theme is suggested in the opening words. Writer Malcolm Jones (Little Boy Blues and others) summarized that theme beautifully in a New York Times book review: “Set in a bookstore, narrated by a bookseller whose former life in prison was turned around when she discovered books and began to read ‘with murderous attention,’ The Sentence testifies repeatedly to the power books possess to heal us and, yes, to change our lives. It may be that, as Tookie argues, ‘books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.’ But that harsh judgment notwithstanding, there are books, like this one, that while they may not resolve the mysteries of the human heart, go a long way toward shedding light on our predicaments. In the case of The Sentence, that’s plenty.” The opening words were so special that I included them in my Smerconish.com compilation of The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

Laura Esquivel
The Law of Love (1995)

When do the dead die? When they are forgotten. When does a city disappear? When it no longer exists in the memory of those who lived there. And when does love cease? When one begins to love anew. Of this there is no doubt.

The narrator continued: “That is why Hernán Cortés decided to construct a new city upon the ruins of the ancient Tenochtitlán. The time it took him to size up the situation was the same that it takes a firmly gripped sword to pierce the skin of the chest and reach the center of the heart: one second. But in time of battle, a split second can mean escaping the sword or being run through by it.”

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Virgin Suicides (1993)

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it is possible to tie a rope.

In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl described The Virgin Suicides as a “wonderful first novel” and wrote about the author: “Detroit native Jeffrey Eugenides has a talent for knock-your-socks-off first lines.” I agree. The opening paragraph is packed with disturbing, but enticingly interesting information about the Lisbon family. Reading that dazzling opener for the first time many years ago, there’s no way I could’ve put the book down.

The novel’s first chapter first appeared as a short story in The Paris Review in the 1990 winter edition, and went on to win the 1991 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Here’s how the short story opened:

“Cecelia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like Cato while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with her yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquility that they had stood mesmerized. But then Mrs. Lisbon lunged in, screaming, and the reality of the room reasserted itself: blood on the bathmat; Mr. Lisbon’s razor sunk in the toilet bowl, marbling the water. The paramedics fetched Cecelia out of the warm water because it quickens the bleeding and put a tourniquet on her arm. Her wet hair hung down her back and already her extremities were blue. S he didn’t say a word, but when they parted her hands they found the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest.“

In 1991, director Sofia Coppola adapted the novel into a film by the same title, with Kirsten Dunst as one of the Lisbon girls, and James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the parents.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex (2002)

I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

It’s hard to imagine a better opening line for a novel that explores the topic of intersexuality and gender identity. The words come from narrator and protagonist Cal Stephanides.

In a 2004 “Reading Matters” blog post, Kim Forrester captured my own reaction to the novel’s opening words by writing, “How could you not be intrigued?” About the story, Forrester continued: “The narrator, Calliope Helen Stephanides, tells an amazingly entertaining story, tracing not only her own incredible history but that of her entire family’s, beginning with her emigre grandparents, who have their own secrets to keep.” The novel went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Janet Evanovich
One for the Money [book 1 of the Stephanie Plum series] (1994)

There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.

Opening lines often establish the “voice” of the narrator and protagonist, and with these plain-speaking words, the literary world was introduced to a feisty New Jersey bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum (she ultimately served as the protagonist of twenty-eight Evanovich novels, most of them bestsellers). About her spectacular opening, what female reader wouldn’t nod her head in approval. And what male reader would have the temerity to disagree?

Janet Evanovich
High Five [Book 5 of Stephanie Plum series] (1999)

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked.

The opening words come from protagonist Stephanie Plum, who continued: “I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is sort of like being a bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants.”

Percival Everett
The Trees (2021)

Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.

Normally, it is inadvisable for an opening paragraph to include a word that will send readers scrambling for a dictionary, but in this case, it seems quite fitting to insert a word defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Absence of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.”

About Everett’s opening paragraph, Lorraine Berry wrote in a Los Angeles Times review: “The butt of the joke here is the white Establishment, reduced by Everett’s tropes and puns to a redneck laughingstock.”

Laurie Ezpeleta
Buried Mistakes: A Cry for Justice From Beyond the Grave (2014)

That night I dreamed.

Someone’s at the door. I don’t want to open it. But I must.

A young soldier stands before me, trembling. I nod and he follows me into the tiny room. I light the lamp so I can see him better. Then I sit on the small wooden crate that contains my belongings and wait.

He kneels on the floor before me, his body tense as the strings on the shamisen I used to play.

“The fighting was close today,” I say to him.

The soldier looks frightened—they all do. He nods and bows his head. But I have already looked into his eyes—eyes that have seen too much.

He reaches for me and I flinch. It’s a mistake.

His eyes flash as the wounded beast within him roars.

He hits me, striking at me with all of his pent up rage.

Then he rapes me.

We normally think of a “hook” as a short, pithy sentence that opens a novel in a compelling, intriguing, or powerful way, but Ezpeleta’s novel—inspired by the stories of the “comfort women” the Japanese military provided their soldiers during WWII—proves that a hook can be much longer; in this case, the ten short paragraphs that make up the entire Prologue of the book.

Douglas Fairbairn
Shoot (1973)

This is what happened.

While some opening lines are almost universally hailed, most of the others appeal to some and fail to impress others. This one was never particularly special to me, so I was surprised to discover it was one of Stephen King’s favorites. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, King described how important it was for writers to establish “a powerful sense of voice” in the very first line. He went on to offer a 153-word analysis of Fairbairn’s four-word opening:

“For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.

“A line like ‘This is what happened,’ doesn’t actually say anything—there’s zero action or context—but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.”

Colin Falconer
Silk Road (2011)

Toulouse, France 1293

They found him in the cloister, lying on his back with ice in his beard. He was half conscious, muttering about a Templar knight, a secret commission from the Pope, and a beautiful woman on a white pony.

Falconer, a widely acknowledged master of the historical novel, is also a master of the opening paragraph. Few writers are as skilled at laying the foundation, setting the stage, and introducing an air of mystery or intrigue—all in a sentence or two.

The narrator continued: “His fellow monks carried him back to his cell and laid him on the hard cot that had been his bed for the last twenty years. He was an old man now and there was nothing to be done. His eyes had the cold sheen of death. A brother went to fetch the abbot so that the old fellow might make his last confession.”

Colin Falconer
Isabella: Braveheart of France (2015)

“You will love this man. Do you understand? You will love him, serve him, and obey him in all things. This is your duty to me and to France. Am I clear?“

King Philippe of France is speaking to his daughter, Princess Isabella, about the man he has selected as her future husband, King Edward of England. The story takes an unexpected turn in the next paragraph when the narrator explains: “Isabella is twelve years old and astoundingly pretty, a woman in a girl’s body. She keeps her eyes on the floor and nods her head.”

Colin Falconer
The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane (2017)

Kitty O’Kane dreamed of a kind husband and a just life; what she had was haddock water for supper and a dribble of her own blood, seen at close quarters, on the toe of her father’s scuffed boot.

It’s a powerful opening line, and a sad reminder of the tragic fate of so many unfortunate adolescent girls. In what Falconer described as a novel “inspired by true events,” the narrator continued: “Big boots he had, sturdy. Good kicking boots. She tried to raise her head from the straw, but it was too much effort. She turned her head sideways; her ma stood in the doorway, she had her apron bunched in her fist, Mary in her arms, Liam and Ann peering from behind her skirts. Sean sat in the corner, a moldy blanket over his head, sobbing. No help for her there.”

Colin Falconer
Stigmata (2017)

Toulouse, France: 1205

God chose Fabricia Bérenger during a lightning storm. With one thunderous touch of his finger, he sent her reeling.

The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “The day had been mild, unseasonably so. The storm appeared suddenly, ink-black clouds broiling up the sky in the north, as the bells of Saint-Étienne were ringing for vespers. A blast of icy wind hit her like a slap as she ran across the marketplace, a blow so violent and unexpected that it almost knocked her off her feet.”

Colin Falconer
A Vain and Indecent Woman: The Scandalous Life of Joan of Kent (2018)

They call my little Joan the most beautiful woman in all England. Well, every father thinks that about his daughter. That she is special, and prettier. But I never had the opportunity to boast. My name is Edmund of Woodstock and I am the son of a king and the brother of a king and the grandfather of a king.

The narrator of the novel, the father of Joan of Kent, immediately piques our interest with the comment about never having had the opportunity to boast about his daughter. He then takes the story in a whole new direction when he continues:

“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.

“Died; I use the term loosely. I was murdered, but within the dictates of the law and with the full approval of the king, even though he was barely eighteen years at the time.”

Colin Falconer
Cry Justice [Book 4 in the Charlie George series] (2021)

The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.

Stark contrasts are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this exquisite opener is one of the best from a master craftsman. It was also one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

The opening paragraph also contains a suggestion that more dark humor will be awaiting the reader—and that proves to be exactly the case. The narrator continued: “The dead man looked disconsolate. Reasonably so, in the circumstances, Charlie thought.“

William Faulkner
Mosquitoes (1927)

“The sex instinct,” repeated Mr. Talliaferro in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, “is quite strong in me.”

Some opening lines are impressive at multiple levels. The sex instinct is quite strong in me, on its own, is a memorable line, but it takes on a special significance when it is embedded in a beautifully phrased observation about how human beings reveal themselves to one another.

Mr. Talliaferro is not some upper-class Englishman, but an American lingerie salesman who has attempted to construct a sophisticated persona. He continued with words that draw the reader in more deeply: “Frankness, without which there can be no friendship, without which two people cannot really ever ‘get’ each other, as you artists say.”

William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.

The opening words immediately suggest someone surreptitiously witnessing a fight, and that is almost certainly what Faulkner intended. Reading on, though, we discover that narrator Benjamin “Benjy” Compson, a 33-year-old intellectually disabled man, is peeking through a fence at a group of golfers. It turns out that eavesdropping on golfers is a frequent and pleasurable pastime for Benjy. His sister is named “Caddy,” and he dearly loves to hear golfers use her name as they call out “caddie!“ to those carrying their golf bags.

The novel’s title is taken from a famous soliloquy by the title character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more; it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”

Because the novel opens with Benjy’s narration, many early readers believed he was the idiot telling the tale, but other Compson family members—Quentin and Jason—narrated later sections of the novel, and critics have pointed out that their stream-of-consciousness narratives also displayed ample illustrations of idiocy.

When the book was published, noted critic Clifton Fadiman dismissed the novel as “trivial,” but it is now regarded as an American classic (in 1998, the Modern Library ranked it Number 6 on its list of “The 100 Best English-Language novels of the 20th Century”).

William Faulkner
Intruder in the Dust (1948)

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.

William Faulkner
The Mansion (1959)

The jury said “Guilty” and the Judge said “Life” but he didn’t hear them. He wasn’t listening.

The man in question is Mink Snopes, who’s been on trial for murder. The idea of a defendant not listening to a jury’s verdict or a judge’s sentencing is so unexpected it compels our attention and makes us wonder: what on earth could have been so monumentally distracting to him?

Alice Feeney
Sometimes I Lie (2018)

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

  1. I’m in a coma.
  2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
  3. Sometimes I lie.

After sixteen years as a producer and reporter for the BBC, Feeney decided at age 30 to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a writer—and it’s hard to imagine a better way to begin her debut novel. In a Shelf Awareness review, Elyse Dinh-McCrillis wrote: “Fans of psychological thrillers won’t be able to stop reading” after the gripping opening words.

Amber is a thirty-five-year-old British woman who awakens in a hospital room. Aware of everything going on around her, she quickly deduces she is in a coma of some sort, unable to move, speak, or even open her eyes. As she tries to makes sense of her situation, she begins to suspect her husband of foul play.

In a Shelf Awareness interview with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, Feeney was asked to describe herself using the same “template” that Amber Reynolds used at the beginning of Sometimes I Lie. She replied:

“My name is Alice Feeney. There are three things you should know about me:

  1. I write dark and twisty novels.
  2. I also love to cook.
  3. Sometimes I bake.“

Edna Ferber
So Big (1924)

Until he was almost ten the name stuck to him. He had literally to fight his way free from it.

This opening line suggests a child who has struggled mightily under the weight of an onerous nickname, and for me, it immediately brought to mind William Hazlitt’s famous observation on the subject: “A nickname is the hardest stone that the devil can throw at a man.” In this story, Dirk DeJong was so big as an infant that his mother described him as “so-o-o-o big”—and the expression stuck.

The narrator continued: “From So Big (of fond and infantile derivation) it had been condensed into Sobig. And Sobig DeJong, in all its consonantal disharmony, he had remained until he was a ten-year-old schoolboy in that incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie. At ten, by dint of fists, teeth, copper-toed boots, and temper, he earned the right to be called by his real name, Dirk Dejong.”

While Ferber was writing the novel, she had serious misgivings about its worthiness, and even worried it might diminish her reputation (when she submitted the final manuscript to her publisher, she wrote: “I think its publication as a book would hurt you, as publishers, and me as an author”). She couldn’t have been more mistaken. So Big went on to become the Number One bestselling novel of the year and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1925.

Edna Ferber
Giant (1952)

This March day the vast and brassy sky, always spangled with the silver glint of airplanes, roared and glittered with celestial traffic. Gigantic though they loomed against the white-hot heavens, there was nothing martial about these winged mammoths.

Looking up from a terminal in Texas’s brand-new Jett Rink Airport, the narrator is witnessing a sky filled with airplanes. Instead of being filled with bombs or munitions, though, these many private jets contain luxurious items and luxurious people, all invited to the Grand Opening of the airport.

The first paragraph continues: “They were merely private vehicles bearing nice little alligator jewel cases and fabulous gowns and overbred furs. No sordid freight sullied these four-engined family jobs whose occupants were Dallas or Houston or Vientecito or Waco women in Paris gowns from Neiman-Marcus; and men from Amarillo or Corpus Christi or San Angelo or Benedict in boots and Stetsons and shirt sleeves.”

In 1956, the novel was adapted into one of the biggest movies of the year (it received nine Oscar nominations, winning one for George Stevens as Best Director). Now regarded as a Hollywood classic, the film had an all-star cast headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean (in his last screen role).

Edna Ferber
Ice Palace (1958)

Every third woman you passed on Goat Street in Baronof was young, pretty, and pregnant. The men, too, were young, virile, and pregnant with purpose.

It sometimes happens that a memorable metaphor can elevate a so-so opening paragraph into a great one, and that is what we see here with the words pregnant with purpose. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued:

“Each, making his or her way along the bustling business street, seemed actually to bounce with youth and vitality.”

Elena Ferrante
Troubling Love (1992)

My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.

Elena Ferrante
The Days of Abandonment (2002)

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice.

Olga is a stay-at-home mother of two in what she regards as a reasonably happy fifteen-year marriage. About her husband Mario, she continued: “He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

Elena Ferrante
The Story of a New Name [Book 2 of The Neapolitan Novels] (2012)

In the spring of 1966, Lila, in a state of great agitation, entrusted to me a metal box that contained eight notebooks. She said that she could no longer keep them at home, she was afraid her husband might read them

The narrator is Elena Greco a lifelong friend of Lila’s. She continued: “I carried off the box without comment, apart from some ironic allusions to the excessive amount of string she had tied around it.”

Elena Ferrante
The Lying Life of Adults (2020)

Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.

The narrator is 13-year-old Giovanna, an Italian adolescent who is recalling a long-ago event that continues to sting despite her father’s later apologetic explanation. She continued: “The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via Dan Giacomo dei Capri, in Rione Alto.”

Jasper Fforde
The Eyre Affair (2001)

My father had a face that could stop a clock.

The words come from protagonist and narrator Thursday Next, the daughter of Wednesday Next and her husband Colonel Next, a former official in a British Special Operations Unit known as The ChronoGuard. She continued: “I don’t mean he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.”

Henry Fielding
Joseph Andrews (1742)

It is a trite but true observation that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.

This is one of literary history’s most admired opening lines, and it came in Fielding’s first full-length novel, published when he was thirty-five (the full original title was: Joseph Andrews, or The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams). Fielding said he wrote the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” and the cover of the book announced that it was “Written in imitation of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.”

The novel’s opening sentence has the quality of a Grand Declaration, and the narrator continues the lofty tone in the remainder of the opening paragraph: “And if this be just in what is odious and blameable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praiseworthy. Here emulation most effectually operates upon us, and inspires our imitation in an irresistible manner. A good man therefore is a standing lesson to all his acquaintance, and of far greater use in that narrow circle than a good book.“

Carrie Fisher
Postcards from the Edge (1987)

Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.

The words come from protagonist and narrator Suzanne Vale, an aspiring actress whose bipolar disorder becomes life-threatening when it is fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. Vale was a thinly-disguised version of the author, and the novel colorfully recounts numerous elements of her reckless life (after Fisher’s death in 2016, the Washington Post wrote: “The book’s opening line could stand in as a nutshell summary of Ms. Fisher’s problems—and humor”). In the novel’s first paragraph, Vale continued:

“Besides, what was I supposed to do? He came up to my room and gave me that dumb stuffed animal that looks like a thumb, and there I was lying in bed twelve hours after an overdose. I wasn’t feeling my most attractive. I’d thrown up scallops and Percodan on him the night before in the emergency room. I thought that it would be impolite to refuse to give him my number. He probably won’t call anyway. No one will ever call me again.”

In 1990, Mike Nichols adapted the novel into film, with Meryl Streep playing the lead role and Shirley MacLaine her mother. In a 2106 Entertainment Weekly interview, Fisher was asked how the relationship between Suzanne Vale and her mother paralleled her relationship with her real-life mother, Debbie Reynolds. She replied: “I wrote about a mother actress and a daughter actress. I’m not shocked that people think it’s about me and my mother. It’s easier for them to think I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries”

Carrie Fisher
The Best Awful There Is (2004)

Suzanne Vale had a problem, and it was the one she least liked thinking about: She’d had a child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay.

In this sequel to Postcards from the Edge, Fisher continues to explore the twists and turns of protagonist Suzanne Vale—and she opens it in a most memorable way. When the book came out in paperback in 2005, the title was shortened to The Best Awful.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise (1920)

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.

This was Fitzgerald’s debut novel—a heavily autobiographical tale written in large part to impress a beautiful young woman named Zelda Sayre—and it begins in an intriguing and strangely graceful way. From the outset, we get the clear impression that we’re in the hands of a confident writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The narrator continued: “His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopedia Britannica, grew wealthy at thirty through the death of two elder brothers, successful Chicago brokers, and in the first flush of feeling that the world was his, went to Bar Harbor and met Beatrice O’Hara. In consequence, Stephen Blaine handed down to posterity his height of just under six feet and his tendency to waver at crucial moments, these two abstractions appearing in his son Amory.”

By the way, Fitzgerald’s romantic ploy worked. A year earlier, southern debutante Zelda had rejected him because of his questionable financial prospects. When the book became an immediate sensation—indeed, almost a cultural event—she quickly accepted his proposal of marriage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (1925)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Nick Carraway, and they now enjoy an almost legendary status among literature lovers. Here’s what Maureen Corrigan, the longtime book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” had to say about them in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures (2014):

“That little speech should clue us in on how much breeding is going to count in this novel—as well as on just how slippery the meaning of The Great Gatsby is going to be. Indeed, the thick ambiguity of Gatsby’s language is one of the reasons why, despite its scant number of pages, it reads like a much longer story. Are we supposed to think that Nick is a prig for introducing his pedigree to us? Are we supposed to give him points for being aware of his own class privileges and acknowledging his social empathy? Whatever impression Nick wants to make, the novel has opened by trumpeting its obsessive subject: class. We might as well be in the turn-of-the-century New York City of Edith Wharton.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Last Tycoon (1941)

Though I haven’t ever been on the screen I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party—or so I was told.

In December of 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack—at age 44—before he could finish his roman à clef of the legendary film producer Irving Thalberg. His friend Edmund Wilson stepped in to finish the novel, and it was published as “an unfinished novel” a year later.

Fannie Flagg
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987)

The Whistle Stop Cafe opened up last week, right next door to me at the post office, and owners Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison said business has been good ever since. Idgie says that for people who know her not to worry about getting poisoned, she is not cooking.

Judith Flanders
A Cast of Vultures (2017)

There was every possibility that I was dead, and my brain hadn’t got the memo. Or maybe it was that I wished I were dead. On reflection, that was more likely.

The reflection comes from Samantha “Sam” Clair, a London book editor and amateur sleuth. In this third mystery novel chronicling the exploits of Clair, Flanders has her irrepressible protagonist continue with this explanation: “I opened one eye and took stock. Head, pounding. Brain, fried. Eyes swollen shut, mouth like the bottom of a parrot’s cage. Stomach—I decided it was better not to go there. I’m a publisher, and I’m smart, I didn’t need to inventory further. I was hungover, and, even worse, for zero enjoyment the night before.”

Ian Fleming
Casino Royale (1953)

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake [sic] and revolt from it.

Casino Royale was the world’s introduction to a British spy who bears little resemblance to the super-stud action hero later portrayed by Sean Connery in the blockbuster films produced by Albert Broccoli. It was also the debut novel for Fleming, a former WWII intelligence officer who wanted to write “the spy novel to end all spy novels.”

In the next paragraph, the protagonist is introduced: “James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.”

In a 2012 Introduction to a reprint of the novel, British writer Alan Judd wrote: “What do these first few lines do? To start with, they take us immediately there. You don’t have to have been in a casino at three in the morning—as most of Fleming’s early readers wouldn’t have—to get the glamour and the tawdriness. We trust the guide who writes so casually but persuasively about soul-erosion, and we’re introduced to a man who, whatever else he may be, is human like us: he gets tired, while having qualities we might aspire to—he’s a calculated risk-taker, has a degree of self-knowledge, is decisive.”

Gillian Flynn
Dark Places (2009)

I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.

The graphic and somewhat disturbing opening words come from Libby Day, the only survivor of the fictional Day family massacre in rural Kansas in 1985. From the outset, the book triggered memories of the real-life 1959 murder of the Clutter family, also in Kansas, and also described by a gifted writer.

A book review in London’s Daily Mail nicely captured the contrast: “Set in the bleak Midwest of America, this evocation of small-town life and dysfunctional people is every bit as horribly fascinating as Capote’s journalistic retelling of a real family massacre, In Cold Blood, which it eerily resembles.”

Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl (2012)

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I’d know her head anywhere.

The novel begins with an unusual set of reflections for a husband to have about his wife, but they are the thoughts of Nick Dunne about his wife Amy (about Nick’s somewhat bizarre meanderings, Barry Lancet wrote in a 2016 Criminalelement.com blog post: “The beginning of Gone Girl set the tone for a dark story about a dark marriage”).

What starts off as unusual moves in the direction of creepy as Nick continues: “And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?”

As the novel progresses, Amy disappears and—not surprisingly—an air of suspicion begins to hover around her husband. After the book was published, many believed Flynn was inspired by the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson in California. While admitting some parallels, Flynn said she had not relied on any true crime accounts. Flynn also went on to write the screenplay for the 2014 film adaptation of the novel, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

Gillian Flynn
The Grownup (2014)

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

These are among the most arresting opening lines I’ve ever read, but I don’t expect to see them appearing in too many Top Ten lists anytime soon. Originally published as a short story under the title “What Do You Do?” it first appeared in Rogues, a 2014 anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. After winning the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, it was retitled and published as a stand-alone book in 2016.

The unnamed narrator, a sex worker in a massage parlor, has given so many hand jobs over the past three years that she has been forced to retire because of a somewhat predictable medical condition: carpal tunnel syndrome. In the opening paragraph, she continued:

“For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is not to overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over. Basically, it’s like a golf swing.”

Vince Flynn
Term Limits (1997)

The old wood cabin sat alone, surrounded by trees and darkness. The shades were drawn, and a dog lay motionless on the front porch. A thin stream of smoke flowed out of the chimney and headed west, across the rural Maryland countryside toward Washington, D.C. Inside, a man sat silently in front of the fireplace, shoving stacks of paper into the hot flames.

Even if an opening paragraph is not dramatic or compelling, it can still entice readers if it is an exceptional word painting. After reading this opener, I closed my eyes for a moment and visualized the entire scene with ease. We soon learn that the man torching documents is Scott Coleman, a former Navy SEAL who is described as “an assassin of assassins, an exporter of death, trained and funded by the United States government.”

In the early 1990s, after receiving a medical discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps, Flynn was working in a commercial real estate job in Minneapolis when he felt inspired to write a political thriller. He quit his job, moved to Denver, and bartended at night while working on the book during the day.

After five years and sixty rejection letters, he decided to self-publish the book. When the book found an audience back in Flynn’s home state of Minnesota, Pocket Books came knocking, and published a hardcover edition in 1998 (a paperback version came a year later.) The book was hailed by critics, made the New York Times Bestseller list, and established Flynn as a major new writer. He went on to write twenty more novels, most of them bestsellers, before his premature death at age 47 in 2013 after a three-year struggle with an aggressive prostate cancer.

Ken Follett
The Key to Rebecca (1980)

The last camel collapsed at noon.

The narrator is describing a camel belonging to Alex Wolff, a fictional character based on the real-life WWII Nazi spy Johannes Eppler, an Egyptian-born man of German and Arab cultural heritage. Code-named “The Sphinx,” Eppler was described by the German General Edwin Rommel this way: “Our spy in Cairo is the greatest hero of them all.” The novel’s first sentence has long been admired by lovers of great opening lines, and The Last Camel Died at Noon even went on to become the title of a 1991 novel by American suspense writer Elizabeth Peters.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with this delightful observation about camels: “It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.”

Ken Follett
The Pillars of the Earth (1989)

The small boys came early to the hanging.

These are the opening words of the Prelude to the novel. The narrator continued: “It was dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.”

Ken Follett
The Armor of Light (2023)

Until that day, Sal Clitheroe had never heard her husband scream. After that day, she never heard it again, except in dreams.

Follett has crafted some memorable opening lines in his career, and it’s nice to see the old master doing it again. In this case, it is clear that something horrific has happened to Sal’s husband, and there is an unmistakable suggestion that the terrible event has taken his life.

Whenever an emotionally-loaded word like scream is introduced in the first sentence, it typically plays an important role in the plot of the story—and that is certainly the case in this fifth volume of Follett’s “Kingsbridge” novels (the first was Pillars of the Earth in 1989).

I was pleased to feature Follett’s opening words in my annual Smerconish.com post on “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (you can see the full list here).

Richard Ford
Wildlife (1990)

In the fall of 1960, when I was 16 and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.

In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III wrote about this opening sentence: “This is an engaging voice: earnest without being morose; honest without being exhibitionistic; understated, humble and wise from years of trusting in questions more than in answers.”

Richard Ford
Canada (2012)

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.

In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III provided some of the most complimentary words every written about a novel’s opening paragraph:

“On a purely plot-hungry basis, turning the page seems the only thing to do, but—as is so often the case with the fiction of Richard Ford—what actually happens in the story feels secondary, or at best equal, to the language itself. In the hands of a lesser writer, this can create problems: the prose begins to feel self-indulgent, written not to illuminate any truths but to please the writer, and in the process, story itself is lost and the reader is left behind. But Canada is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure—a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”

C. S. Forester
The African Queen (1935)

Although she herself was ill enough to justify being in bed had she been a person weak minded enough to give up, Rose Sayer could see that her brother, the Reverend Samuel Sayer, was far more ill.

These words introduce us to an English spinster who has joined her missionary brother in an Anglican mission in German East Africa. It is the beginning of WWI, and the German military commander has conscripted the mission’s entire native population. Rose and her brother are left alone to fend for themselves. If he dies, what will become of her?

In the opening paragraph, the narrator further communicates the gravity of the situation by continuing: “He was very, very weak indeed, and when he knelt to offer up the evening prayer the movement was more like an involuntary collapse than a purposed gesture, and the hands which he raised trembled violently. Rose could see, in the moment before she devoutly closed her eyes, how thin and transparent those hands were, and how the bones of the wrists could be seen with almost the definition of a skeleton’s.”

Rose Sayer is a multi-faceted character whose eccentricities, uptightness, and controlling tendencies are ultimately overcome by her feistiness, loyalty, and depth of feeling (the character was memorably brought to life by Katharine Hepburn in John Huston’s 1951 film adaptation of the novel).

C. S. Forester
The Beat to Quarters (1937)

It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.

The Beat to Quarters was the first of three novels (the other two were Ship of the Line and Flying Colors) that Forester adapted for the swashbuckling 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower, with Gregory Peck in the title role. Eventually, Forester wrote a total of eleven Hornblower novels.

Karen Joy Fowler
The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)

Each of us has a private Austen.

This enigmatic opening line is an almost perfect way to begin a perfectly delicious novel. In the opening pages, the narrator goes on to describe what Jane Austen means to five of the six members of a Sacramento-area book club established by a never-married fifty-ish woman named Jocelyn (a control freak who breeds Rhodesian Ridgebacks, she delights in her role as a matchmaker, much like Emma Woodhouse).

Jocelyn quickly enlists her childhood friend Sylvia, who has been recently dumped by her husband, and her older friend Bernadette, an eccentric and multi-married 67-year-old. The fourth member she recruits is a forty-something college linguistics teacher named Grigg (we will learn later that they met a year earlier, and the report of their first meeting is quite Austenesque). Her choice of Grigg comes over the staunch objections of Bernadette, who fears a male member will prefer pontification over communication. But Jocelyn persists, believing that his growing up with three older sisters will make him a suitable member. Of the first four members, Grigg is the only one who does not have “a private Austen.”

The fifth member is Allegra, Sylvia’s gorgeous 30-year-old daughter, a kind of niece to Jocelyn, and an historically heterosexual woman who has lately been describing herself as a lesbian. The sixth and final member is a 28-year-old high school French teacher named Prudie. She is the only true-blue Austen devotee in the group, and the only currently married member, but she is currently questioning just how satisfying her marriage is.

The book is comprised of six chapters, one for each of Austen’s novels. For those who might need it, the final portion of the book contains helpful summaries of each one.

In a New York Times review, writer and word maven Patricia T. O’Conner described the book as “a perfectly cut and polished little gem with just enough facets. But that’s not the half of it. This exquisite novel is bigger and more ambitious than it appears. It’s that rare book that reminds us what reading is all about.”

In 2007, the novel was adapted into a film with an impressive ensemble cast, headed by Naomi Watts, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, and Amy Brenneman. While the film takes significant departures from the novel, it was equally enjoyable—and ended up being one of my favorite films of the year.

John Fowles
The Collector (1963)

When she was home from her boarding-school I used to see her every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like.

The opening words end in an unsettling way, and they take an eerie—even ominous—turn as the narrator, a shy and socially inept English man named Frederick Clegg, continues: “When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I stood by the window and used to look down over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with X, and then when I knew her name with M.”

The Collector is a dark and disturbing debut novel about a disturbed butterfly collector who kidnaps (in his mind, he “collects”) a young art student named Miranda Grey and keeps her captive in his basement. In a New York Times review, Alan Pryce-Jones wrote: “There is not a page in this first novel which does not prove that its author is a master storyteller.” In 1965, William Wyler adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film starring Samantha Eggar (and she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress).

Dick Francis
Proof (1985)

Agony is socially unacceptable. One is not supposed to weep. Particularly is one not supposed to weep when one is moderately presentable and thirty-two. When one’s wife has been dead six months and everyone else has done grieving.

The words come from Tony Beach, a young wine merchant whose wife died six months earlier. He continued: “Ah well, they say, he’ll get over it. There’s always another pretty lady. Time’s a great healer, they say. No doubt they’re right. But oh dear God…the emptiness in my house.”

Dick Francis
Straight (1989)

I inherited my brother’s life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.

The narrator is Derek Franklin, an English steeplechase racer whose career is being threatened by a number of recent injuries. It looks like his financial worries might be over when he becomes the sole inheritor of his deceased brother’s estate—but it’s just the beginning of his troubles.

Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections (2001)

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.

Franzen opens the novel with a time-honored gambit—in this case, quite literally warning readers that something terrible is soon to happen.

The novel, Franzen’s second, was hailed by critics from the day it was published, and few were surprised when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club. After Franzen expressed ambivalence about being associated with some of the “schmaltzy” books Winfrey had previous selected, she rescinded her invitation to have him appear on her television show. It was a mild and momentary kerfuffle, however, and almost completely forgotten when the book won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2001 and named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

Jonathan Franzen
Strong Motion (2010)

Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.

This is the entire first paragraph of the novel, and it immediately raises an important question: what must have happened in Eileen’s early life that would cause her to hesitate when asked such a simple and straightforward question?

Jonathan Franzen
Crossroads (2021)

The sky broken by the bare oaks and elms of New Prospect was full of moist promise, a pair of frontal systems grayly colluding to deliver a White Christmas, when Russ Hildebrandt made his morning rounds among the homes of bedridden and senile parishioners in his Plymouth Fury wagon.

This is a soft opening, but it nicely sets the stage for an opening paragraph that ends with a most enticing line:

“A certain person, Mrs. Frances Cottrell, a member of the church, had volunteered to help him bring toys and canned goods to the Community of God that afternoon, and though he knew that only as her pastor did he have a right to rejoice in her act of free will, he couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present than four hours alone with her.”

Charles Frazier
Cold Mountain (1997)

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a handful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.

As Confederate soldier W. P. Inman lies in a makeshift military hospital near Raleigh, North Carolina, he awakens to the sensation of flies zeroing like dive bombers on a gaping wound in his neck. It’s a grisly but captivating opening.

Frazier’s debut novel went on to become a surprise best-seller, with worldwide sales of over three million copies. In a New York Times review, James Polk wrote: “For a first novelist, in fact for any novelist, Charles Frazier has taken on a daunting task—and done extraordinarily well by it. In prose filled with grace notes and trenchant asides, he has reset much of the Odyssey in 19th-century America, near the end of the Civil War.”

The book was awarded the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a film of the same title, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger (who won a Best Supporting Actress for her role.)

Marilyn French
The Women’s Room (1977)

Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room.

This is the opening sentence of one of the most influential novels in the history of the feminist movement. The book quickly became a New York Time best-seller and ultimately sold over 20 million copies in over 20 different languages. In a 2009 New York Times obituary, Gloria Steinem was quoted as saying that the book “expressed the experience of a huge number of women and let them know that they were not alone and not crazy.”

The intriguing first sentence described Mira Ward, an American wife and mother of two. In the middle of a conventional and unfulfilling marriage to her husband Norm, a doctor, she sinks into a suicidal depression after he suddenly divorces her. As she begins to pull herself out of the deep hole she is in, she experiences a powerful feminist awakening after she enrolls in a graduate program in English Literature at Harvard University. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies’ in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath. She called it that out of thirty-eight years of habit, and until she saw the cross-out on the door, had never thought about it.”

Kinky Friedman
Greenwich Killing Time (1986)

I held the mescal up to the light and watched the worm slide across the bottom of the bottle.

This is an impressive opening line in Friedman’s debut novel, and it only gets better as the narrator and protagonist, a fictionalized version of the author, continued: “A gift from a friend just back from Mexico. The worm was fat and white and somewhat dangerous looking with great hallucinogenic properties attributed to it. You were supposed to eat it and it was supposed to make you so high you would need a stepladder to scratch your ass. We’d see.”

Diana Gabaldon
Outlander [Book 1 of Outlander Series] (1991)

People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.

Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.

Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.


Diana Gabaldon
Voyager [Book 3 of Outlander Series] (1993)

He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd, in the circumstances.

I have a soft spot in my heart for oxymoronic opening lines, and this intriguing reflection describes the slightly disoriented James Fraser, whose eyelids are sealed shut from dry blood as he comes to consciousness in the middle of a casualty-filled battlefield. After removing a dead body that has been heavily draped over one of his legs, he senses hovering crows above and hears sounds of wailing from injured soldiers lying nearby.

The narrator says of him: “Memory flooded back, and he groaned aloud. He had been mistaken. This was hell. But James Fraser was unfortunately not dead, after all.”

Diana Gabaldon
Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone [Book 9 of the Outlander Series] (2021)

You know that something is coming. Something—a specific, dire, and awful something—will happen. You envision it, you push it away. It rolls slowly, inexorably, back into your mind.

You make what preparation you can. Or you think you do, though your bones know the truth—there isn’t any way to sidestep, accommodate, lessen the impact. It will come, and you will be helpless before it.

You know these things.

And yet, somehow, you never think it will be today.

It’s been seven years since the last novel in the series—a period of time called a droughtlander by Gabaldon fans—and the Prologue of her most recent installment contains this eloquent description of an experience that will resonate with almost all readers. It was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

Neil Gaiman
American Gods (2001)

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

The novel begins with this introduction to Shadow Moon, a convict who is about to be released from prison after his wife has been killed in a car accident. About these opening words, sci-fi writer Philip Palmer said in a 2011 blog post: “Wonderfully restrained evocative prose, with a laugh-out-loud funny joke in the middle sentence. After this great start, the book gets even better.”

The narrator continued:

“The best thing—in Shadow’s opinion, perhaps the only good thing—about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he’d plunged as low as he could plunge and he’d hit bottom. He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.”

Neil Gaiman
The Graveyard Book (2008)

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

In a 2018 blog post on “10 of the Greatest First Lines in Literature,” Svani Parekh wrote:

“Who can resist reading on? It’s an explosive first line that sucks a reader right into the plot. To me, this especially shows that ‘Start in the Middle of the Action’ applies not just to opening lines, but to the beginnings of stories in general. Start at a crucial point where the stakes are high. You can always flashback later to explain how your character got to where he is.”

Mary Gaitskill
This is Pleasure: A Story (2019)

I’d known Quin for maybe five years when he told me this story—really not even a story, more like an anecdote—about a woman he’d met on the street. Quin believed that he could perceive a person’s most essential nature just by looking at him or her; he also believed that, in the same way, he could know what they would most respond to. He was a little conceited about these supposed special abilities, and that was how the story began.

Quin is a successful Manhattan book editor with a reputation for being something of a womanizer, The narrator is Quin’s colleague and friend, a woman named Margot. She continued: “He saw a melancholy-looking woman, a ‘former beauty,’ as he put it, walking by herself in Central Park, and he said to her, ‘Aren’t you the gentle one!’ She replied, ‘And aren’t you the perceptive one for seeing it!’ After a few minutes of talk, he invited her to have tea with him. She agreed.”

Rivka Galchen
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (2021)

Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbor Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, never have seen a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.

The year is 1619, and the opening words come from Katharina Kepler, an illiterate and curmudgeonly herbalist who, we will shortly learn, is also the mother of the renowned mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. In this fictionalized, darkly comic portrayal of an actual 1620 witchcraft trial, Katharina’s son actually shows up at the proceedings to defend his mother against the charges.

Paul Gallico
The Silent Miaow: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats (1964; photographs by Suzanne Szasz)

When I was a very young kitten, I had the misfortune to lose my mother and find myself alone in the world at age six weeks. However, I was not unduly disturbed by this since I was intelligent, not ill favored, resourceful and full of confidence in myself. Also I had had the advantage of several weeks of instruction from my mother before her unfortunate encounter with a motorcar at night.

This is the opening paragraph of a book that, in an “Editor’s Foreword,” Gallico said was written by a cat. According to Gallico, the manuscript of the book was left on his doorstep, and he originally thought it was written in some kind of cipher. The title, for example was:

                  £YE SUK@ANT MUWOQ
   Q Nabal Dir Kottebs Dra7d abd J1/4 N14dd ca6s

In the Foreword, Gallico said he set the book aside after failing in his first attempts to solve the cipher. When he returned to the book a few months later, the solution came to him in a Eureka! moment. He wrote:

“It was no code at all, and was never intended to be. People unfamiliar with the use of a typewriter produce a pattern of error that is repetitive. The above [title and subtitle] however, is a different sort of stumbling. It is exactly the kind of garbling that might be expected if the typewriter key were to be struck or depressed not by a finger, but by a five-toed paw, which in attempting to hit, say, the ‘a’ would spread out to cover the ‘q,’ ‘w,’ or ‘s,’ so that any one of those others might make the imprint instead of the vowel sought.”

Gallico’s Foreword also contained several other tidbits of interest, but I’ll leave them for interested readers to track down on their own. When the book was published, the titled page indicated that it had been “translated from the feline” by Gallico, a well-known cat lover and author of other cat-related books, including Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God (1957).

Paul Gallico
The Poseidon Adventure (1969)

At seven o’clock, the morning of the 26th of December, the S. S. Poseidon, 81,000 tons, homeward bound for Lisbon, after a month-long Christmas cruise to African and South American ports, suddenly found herself in the midst of an unaccountable swell, 400 miles south-west of the Azores, and began to roll like a pig.

This is the inviting opening paragraph of one of the 20th century’s most famous “disaster” novels, an edge-of-your-seat tale about a group of passengers attempting to escape from a capsized ocean liner before it sinks to the bottom of the sea.

After the novel was published, it was only a modest commercial success, but three years later the story took on a life of its own when it was adapted into a hugely popular 1972 film with an ensemble cast that included five Oscar winners: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons. Released in December of 1972, the film became the highest-grossing film of 1973.

John Galsworthy
In Chancery [Volume 2 of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)

The possessive instinct never stands still.

The narrator continued: “Through fluorescence and feud, frosts and fires, it followed the laws of progression even in the Forsyte family which had believed it fixed forever.”

John Galsworthy
The Man of Property [Volume I of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.

An upper middle-class family in full plumage is a magnificent metaphor in its own right, but when encased in a beautifully-crafted observation about a well-to-do English family, it makes for an unforgettable opening line.

John Galsworthy
Maid in Waiting (1931)

The Bishop of Porthminster was sinking fast; they had sent for his four nephews, his two nieces and their one husband. It was not thought that he would last the night.

Two nieces and their one husband? I’m sure Galsworthy must’ve enjoyed crafting that phrase.

V. V. Ganeshananthan
Brotherless Night (2023)

I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know.

This is one of my favorite opening lines of the year, and it came within a nose of making my annual “Best of 2023” list. In a Storizen.com review, Swapna Peri wrote: “The narrative opens in New York City in 2009, with a striking first line that ignites the reader’s curiosity.” As the opening paragraph continues, the protagonist—a Sri Lankan physician named Sashi—also ends the first paragraph memorably:

“I met a lot of these sorts of people when I was younger because I used to be what you would call a terrorist myself.”

Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Opening lines don’t get much better that this one. In fact, in a 2014 Vox.com post, writer Max Fisher wrote a piece titled “Gabriel García Márquez Wrote the Greatest Opening Line to a Book, Ever.” He went on to add:

“The question of what constitutes the greatest first line to any novel in literary history is not something that can ever really be decided. But Marquez’s is surely as good a contender as any. It has been repeatedly ranked as one of the best, for example in 2006 by the American Book Review, which declared it the fourth-best opening line in literary history. The other top sentences, by Herman Melville and others, are worthy but ultimately unpersuasive competitors: for inventiveness, for vividness, and for the sheer force by which Marquez’s first line compels you to drop everything and go read his novel from beginning to end, there is no real equal.”

In Colin Falconer’s 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,” he ranked the line Number Two. About it, he commented succinctly: “So many questions and all from just one sentence.”

Gabriel García Márquez
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

For savvy readers, the phrase bitter almonds is always associated with a tragic end, and the desire to learn more naturally results. The narrator continued: “Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.“

Gabriel García Márquez
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)

The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.

In a 2005 review in The Oxonian Review (titled “The Nonagenarian and the Nymphette”), Glen Goodman wrote: “For most readers, this opening line may smack more of Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov than of the perfumed, sensual prose of Gabriel García Márquez; but, like the Nobel Prize winner’s previous novels, the first sentence of Memoria de mis putas tristes (literally “memoir of my sad whores”) engages the reader while encapsulating the central motivation of the narrative. The book—García Márquez’s first work of fiction in a decade—details the nonagenarian narrator’s first encounter with actual love, revealing the late-blooming romantic hidden deep within himself.“

Erle Stanley Gardner
The Case of the Velvet Claws [Book 1 of Perry Mason series] (1933)

Autumn sun beat against the window.

Perry Mason sat at the big desk. There was about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was like the face of a chess player who is studying the board.

These are the words that introduced criminal defense attorney Perry Mason to the literary world (he went on to become legendary in the crime/mystery genre, featured in 82 novels and 4 short stories). The opening is so well crafted that, after only a few words, we already have a distinct sense about the nature of the man. About him, the narrator continued in a simple, but quietly elegant way: “That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression. He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.”

This first novel featured a formula that would be followed in almost all the novels to follow: one of Mason’s clients is wrongly charged with a serious crime (usually murder), only to have his lawyer dramatically reveal the identity of the true criminal in a courtroom proceeding. Six of the early novels were adapted into films in the 1930s, but Mason didn’t become firmly established in popular culture until actor Raymond Burr brought him to life in a CBS television series that premiered in 1957 and continued in both television and film iterations until Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993 (his final portrayal of Mason came in the 1993 television film The Case of the Killer Kiss, which was aired a few months after his death and dedicated to his memory).

Peter Gault
Goldenrod (1984)

I never tire of looking at myself.

When I first came upon these opening words, I thought to myself, “Sounds like something Narcissus would say.” I also found myself wondering if the author had deliberately crafted the first sentence with this legendary mythological figure in mind. Sure enough, he did. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“I can stare for hours, without a minute of boredom. I take off my clothes and stand naked in front of one of those full-length mirrors and simply contemplate my body. It’s a narcissistic ritual—I don’t deny that—but it is more than mere narcissism. It’s like a religious ceremony. It expands my consciousness. It’s a form of transcendentalism.”

The opening words put us immediately into the mind of protagonist Ken Harrison, an 18-year-old high school senior who has it all. He’s smart, handsome, and, as the only male child in a household of eight children, has a mother who dotes on him. The star of the hockey team, he also has—of course—a beautiful girlfriend. As this young prima donna struts around the opening pages like a peacock, there’s a clear suggestion that his future may not be as idyllic as his past.

Lisa Genova
Inside the O’Briens: A Novel (2015)

Damn woman is always moving his things. He can’t kick off his boots in the living room or set his sunglasses down on the coffee table without her relocating them to “Where they belong.” Who made her God in this house? If he wants to leave a stinking pile of his own shit in the middle of the kitchen table, then that’s where it should stay until he moves it.

Where the fuck is my gun?

“Rosie!” Joe hollers from the bedroom.

Inside the O’Briens is a dramatic fictional portrayal of the onset and development of Huntington’s Disease in a Massachusetts police officer named Joe O’Brien. In a beginning note to the reader, Genova briefly described the disease and concluded about it: “It has been called the cruelest disease known to man.”

Elizabeth George
A Great Deliverance [Book 1 in the Inspector Lynley series] (1988)

It was a solecism of the very worst kind. He sneezed loudly, wetly, and quite unforgivably into the woman’s face.

It’s always a bit of a risk to use an unfamiliar word in an opening line, but solecism is such a delicious word that I was delighted to see George use it in the opening line of her debut novel. Almost always used to describe a grammatical mistake, the word is sometimes extended to mean a social faux pas or breach of proper etiquette—as we see here. In this case, the man committing the disgusting deed is Father Hart, a Catholic priest.

About the incident, the narrator continued: “He’d been holding it back for three-quarters of an hour, fighting it off as if it were Henry Tudor’s vanguard in the Battle of Bosworth. But at last he’d surrendered. And after the act, to make matters worse, he immediately began to snuffle.” [yes, she wrote snuffle]

A Great Deliverance introduced the literary world to Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, and it did so in fine fashion, winning the 1988 Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the 1989 Anthony Award in the same category. Descended from English royalty (he holds the title of eighth earl of Atherton), Lynley and his partner in crimesolving, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, would ultimately go on to be featured in twenty-one novels. From 2001 to 2008, the first eleven of the novels were adapted into “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” a popular BBC television series, with Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small in the leading roles.

Elizabeth George
A Suitable Vengeance [Book 4 in the Inspector Lynley series] (1991)

Tina Cogin knew how to make the most of what little she had. She liked to believe it was a natural talent.

These two sentences form the entire first paragraph of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Some floors above the rumble of nighttime traffic, her naked silhouette gargoyled against the wall of her half-darkened room, and she smiled as her movements made the shadow shift, creating ever new forms of black upon white like a Rorschach test. And what a test, she thought, practicing a gesture of come-hither quality. What a sight for some psycho!”

Elizabeth George
In the Presence of the Enemy [Book 8 in the Inspector Lynley Series] (1996)

Charlotte Bowen thought she was dead.

Elizabeth George
What Came Before He Shot Her [Book 14 in Inspector Lynley Series] (2009)

Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.

Jim Geraghty
Gathering Five Storms [Book 3 in The CIA’s Dangerous Clique series] (2022)

By every measure, the operation was a success, but it marked the first time Katrina Leonidivna had ever vomited on her target.

About the opening line, Gilion Dumas of the Rose City Reader was certainly speaking for me when she wrote: “Well, that’s a sentence that gets your attention.” The novel’s opener stands in stark contrast to most spy thrillers, where the central characters are often portrayed one-dimensionally, almost as if they had no regular human emotions. From the outset, we’re eager to learn more about the person named Katrina, not the agent/assassin by the same name.

Tess Gerritson
The Spy Coast (2023)

Paris, ten days ago.

She used to be the golden girl.

This may appear to be a simple opening line, but for me it was simply delicious: a six-word sentence perfectly capturing the experience of countless aging people all over the world. In this case, the senior citizen is Maggie Bird, an apparently unexceptional chicken farmer in Purity, Maine. In truth, she is former CIA spy whose retirement goal—along with several other former spooks in “The Martini Club”—was to put her former life behind her. In the opening paragraph, she continued:

How things have changed, she thought, staring in the mirror. Her hair, once artfully streaked with sun-kissed highlights, was now what could only be described as dead-mouse brown.”

About the book, David Baldacci wrote: “The Spy Coast is a marvelously plotted read with action-packed pages, g-force twists and turns, and a platoon of fascinating characters. I truly hope to see Maggie Bird and her team of silver-haired helpers on the pages again.”

Kaye Gibbons
Ellen Foster (1987)

When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.

If you will pardon the expression, this is a killer opening line. The words come from 10-year-old Ellen Foster, the victim of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse from her alcoholic father. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “I would figure out this way or that and run it down through my head until it got easy.”

The debut novel was hailed by critics from the outset, quickly became an Oprah Book Club selection, and eventually won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1997, the novel was adapted into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, with Jena Malone in the title role.

William Gibson
Neuromancer (1984)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

About this classic opening line, Mark Nichol wrote in a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post (“20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story”) : “Don’t expect any fluffy bunnies or fragrant blossoms or dulcet giggles to show up in this seminal cyberpunk story. A spot-on metaphor expresses the story’s nihilism, letting you know what you’re in for and lugubriously inviting you in.”

In addition to its acclaimed opening line, Neuromancer is also noteworthy for popularizing the term cyberspace and presciently imagining something very close to what we now know as the internet or World Wide Web. It was Gibson’s debut novel, and the very first novel to win the three biggest honors in the sci-fi genre: The Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.

Many years later, Gibson offered one of history’s best metaphors on the subject of great opening lines. In “The Handshake,” an essay in Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark (2017), a brilliant collection of brief works that grew out of his “By Heart” interviews in The Atlantic, Gibson wrote: “The first sentence is the handshake, on either side of the writer-reader divide. The reader shakes hands with the writer. The writer has already had to shake hands with the unknown. Assuming both have heard the click, we’ve got it going on.”

Emily Giffin
Meant to Be (2022)

I don’t remember my father. At least that’s what I tell people when they ask if I do. I was barely three years old when he died.

These opening words take on a special significance as soon as we realize they come from a fictionalized version of John. F. Kennedy, Jr. I was delighted to honor this soft-but-highly-evocative opening in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In the opening paragraph, Joseph Kingsley III, a handsome young man from a famous American family, continued:

“I once read that it’s impossible to have memories much before the age language fully develops. Apparently, we need words to translate our experiences, and if memories aren’t encoded linguistically, they become irretrievable. Lost in our minds. So I’ve accepted that my vague recollections of the day he was put to rest at Arlington National Cemetery are fabricated—an amalgam of photographs, news footage, and accounts from my mother that were somehow planted in my brain.”

Great writers are valued in large part because they’re able to put into words—often beautiful or even exquisite words—the experiences and emotions most of us can express in only the most inarticulate or incoherent ways. Giffin’s fictional reimagining of the courtship and marriage of JFK, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette was so beautifully told that Vanity Fair reviewer Keziah Weir called her a “modern-day Jane Austen”

Colleen Gleason (see also Colleen Cambridge entry)
The Clockwork Scarab [Book 1 in the Stoker & Holmes series] (2013)

There are a limited number of excuses for a young, intelligent woman of seventeen to be traversing the fog-shrouded streets of London at midnight. A matter of protecting one’s life or preventing another’s death are two obvious ones.

This first paragraph has an attractive element of intrigue, but it is what the young narrator goes on to say that implanted the “hook” in this reader:

“But as far as I knew, I was neither in danger for my life, nor was I about to forestall the death of another.

“Being a Holmes, I had my theories and suspicions as to who had summoned me and why.”

All in all, this is a tantalizing beginning, and a wonderful way to introduce readers to Mina Holmes, the niece of the world’s first consulting detective. And the tale only gets better when Mina meets—and teams up with—Evaline Stoker, the sister of Dracula-author Bram Stoker, to fight crime in Victorian-era London.

While composing this entry, I learned that Gleason’s work is part of a literary genre I was totally unfamiliar with: steampunk. You can learn more about it here.

Douglas Glover
The South Will Rise at Noon (1988)

Looking back, I should have realized something was up as soon as I opened the bedroom door and found my wife asleep on top of the sheets with a strange man curled up like a fetus beside her.

In his 2007 writing guide Hooked, writer and writing teacher Les Edgerton offered this and a number of other exemplary opening lines “that grab the reader and pull him in with a firm yank into the story.” About this one, he wrote:

“Glover not only sets the tone here (ironic humor—this isn’t the usual response of a man who finds his wife sleeping with another man), he raises all kinds of questions with this opening. Questions no reader can resist reading on to find the answers to.” Edgerton went on to add: “Bottom line is, if you give the reader an unexpected response to an event, as Glover does here, you’ve got that reader in the palm of your hand.”

Gail Godwin
Flora (2013)

There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

It’s common for an opening sentence to express the novel’s central theme, but it is rare for those opening words to be so eloquently expressed that they will likely find their way into a future edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. When I came upon this haunting opening sentence for the first time, I immediately set the book down and added the observation to my personal “Words to Live By” computer file. I now also regard it as the single best thing ever said on the subject of remorse.

The opening reflection comes from 70-year-old Helen, who is still tormented by memories from when she was ten years old. In the novel’s second paragraph, she pulls readers deeper into the story:

“That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”

About the novel and the author, John Irving wrote: “Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth--one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives. This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book.”

William Golding
Lord of the Flies (1954)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.

Golding’s classic dystopian novel starts off innocently enough, but quickly descends into a dark allegorical tale about the moral degeneration of a band of English schoolboys stranded on an island.

A quarter of a century after the novel came out, Golding shared with an interviewer the story of the book’s inception. Sitting with his wife in front of the home fireplace, he looked over at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” When she said, “That’s a first-class idea! You write it!” Golding concluded: “So I went ahead and wrote it.”

William Goldman
The Princess Bride (1973)

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

This is a spectacular first sentence, and it’s easy to understand why it has piqued the curiosity of readers for nearly a half century. When readers encounter this intriguing oxymoronic opening for the first time, most quite naturally wonder, “How can a book become a favorite if one never reads it?” There is a satisfactory answer to that question, of course, and it has to do with having a book read to you instead of actually reading it yourself.

As the novel unfolds, the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred from the outset, with Goldman suggesting he is writing an abridgement of a classic European tale by a writer named S. Morgenstern (the full title and subtitle is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the “Good Parts” Version). There is no such author, of course, and no classic book; it’s simply a literary conceit employed by Goldman in order to create a number of different ways the story could be interpreted and understood.

In 1987, Rob Reiner came out with a film adaptation that was only a modest success at the time, but is now regarded as a Hollywood classic (in 2016, it was added to the National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films”).

Oliver Goldsmith
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)

I was ever of [the] opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single and only talked of population.

Dr. Charles Primrose, the novel’s narrator and title character, continued with what have become legendary words on how to choose a wife: “From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year, before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife, as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.”

Elizabeth Goudge
The Little White Horse (1946)

The carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other’s arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves, and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.

This is a lovely in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening that ends with an important life lesson: different individuals find comfort and courage—and probably lots of other things as well—in different things. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.”

And, just to make sure her young readers got the message, Goudge continued in a third paragraph: “Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people—those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria, and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.”

After winning The Carnegie Medal in 1946, Goudge’s novel became a favorite childhood book for many Baby Boomers, including J. K. Rowling, who said in a 2011 interview: “The Little White Horse was my favorite childhood book. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.” in 2008, the book was adapted into a film titled “The Secret of Moonacre.”

Emily Gould
Perfect Tunes (2020)

When Laura was sixteen she wrote a perfect song.

The narrator continued: “It was the first song she’d ever written, so she didn’t understand how hard it was to write even an okay song, or how hard it was to make anything new, in general. She still thought, then, that making something was primarily a way to have fun.”

Robert Gover
The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding (1962)

Immediately, right off the bat, without further ado, here and now, I wish to say that much of what happened to me that fateful week-end is completely unprintable, since it all happened with a lady (colored) of ill repute. So all pornography-seekers are warned to seek elsewhere. I wish to make that point quite clear before proceeding further.

I first picked up this book after hearing the 21-year-old Bob Dylan praise it in a 1963 interview with Studs Terkel. I was a college junior at the time, and the opening paragraph immediately pulled me in. In addition to the Holden Caulfield-like quality of the narrator, I found myself intrigued by the very idea of “a fateful week-end” involving a young white guy and a black female prostitute (who, we later learn, turns out to be only fourteen years old).

In an Esquire review, Gore Vidal highly praised the book, writing: “Gover’s first stroke of inspiration is that neither boy nor girl can understand, literally, a word the other says. She speaks almost entirely in four-letter words and Negro-jazz argot; he speaks in ballooning Chamber of Commerce sentences which tend to pop just as some sort of meaning has begun to emerge from all that breath.” Vidal concluded his review by saying, “I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country.”

Sue Grafton
A is for Alibi (1982)

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.

This was the first of Grafton’s “alphabet series” of detective novels, inspired by Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a 1963 rhyming book in which English schoolchildren meet macabre deaths (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh,” and so forth). “I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” Grafton told The New York Times in 2015, adding “Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”

In writing the opening words to her first Kinsey Millhone novel, Grafton was almost certainly inspired by the first line of Ambrose Bierce’s 1886 short story, “An Imperfect Conflagration,“ where he wrote: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.“

Sue Grafton
B is for Burglar (1985)

After it’s over, of course, you want to kick yourself for all the things you didn’t see at the time.

In a WritersWrite.com interview with Claire E. White, Grafton might have been thinking about this opening line when she said: “With the mystery novel you have to know where you’re going, but not in any great detailed sense. I generally know whodunit, who died, and what the motive for the crime was. Then I have to figure out what I call the angle of attack. In other words, how do you cut into the story? Where does the story begin? What’s relevant in that first line or paragraph from the reader’s point of view?“ She concluded: “You would be astonished how long it takes me to figure that out from one book to the next.“

Sue Grafton
I is for Innocent (1992)

I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.

The narrator and protagonist, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, continued: “There was no beckoning white light at the end of a tunnel, no warm fuzzy feeling that my long-departed loved ones were waiting on The Other Side. What I experienced was a little voice piping up in an outraged tone, ‘Oh, come on. You’re not serious. This is really it?’”

Sue Grafton
O is for Outlaw (1999)

The Latin term pro bono, as most attorneys will attest, roughly translated means for boneheads and applies to work done without charge.

In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included this Grafton opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”

Sue Grafton
R is for Ricochet (2004)

The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?

The question is posed by Kinsey Millhone, who is clearly in a philosophical frame of mind. She continued with an additional reflection—one that suggests her current mood might be the result of a boneheaded move she’s made: “The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to realize.”

Sue Grafton
S is for Silence (2005)

When Liza Mellincamp thinks about the last time she ever saw Violet Sullivan, what comes most vividly to mind is the color of Violet’s silk kimono, a shade of blue that Liza later learned was called “cerulean,” a word that wasn’t even in her vocabulary when she was fourteen years old.

Sue Grafton
U is for Undertow (2009)

What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself.

The opening reflection—now one of my favorite quotations about the past—comes from narrator and protagonist Kinsey Millhone.

Günter Grass
The Tin Drum (1959)

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight.

The novel’s opening words come from Oskar Matzerath, a Polish man in his late twenties who is being confined in a mental hospital in the early 1950s. Is he a legitimate patient, or some kind of Cold War political prisoner? He offers a hint at the answer when he goes on to say: “There’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”

The Tin Drum was Grass’s first novel (his previous works were poetry, dramatic plays, and libretti for ballet), and he originally struggled to turn the ideas he had about the novel to words on a page. He struggled and struggled until the first sentence above came to him. After that, he reported, “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely.”

Robert Graves
I, Claudius (1934)

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

GUEST COMMENTARY from Jeff Jacoby, American journalist and Boston Globe Op-Ed columnist, who writes: “Even in a collection of great opening lines, this one by Robert Graves—151 words long—is masterful. The speaker is decisive, cynical, and candid. He introduces himself with a quintuple name that plunges the reader directly into classical Rome; the arch words that follow telegraph that a wild ride lies ahead. As indeed it does. Before this historical novel was published in 1934, Graves was best known as a poet and the author of a World War I memoir, Good-Bye to All That (1929). But I, Claudius—a novel written in the form of a long-lost memoir by the hapless, stammering, sickly, limping schlemiel who became the fourth Roman emperor—became a bestseller and Graves’s most famous work. Nearly a century later, it remains a classic of historical fiction.”

Jacoby has also penned some masterful opening lines. To view them, start here.

John Green
Looking for Alaska (2005)

The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.

In his debut novel, Green spun a captivating coming-of-age tale featuring Miles Halter, a young man with a peculiar fascination with the last words of famous people (as in “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” from Rabelais).

In the opening paragraph, Miles continued: “Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years.”

John Green
The Fault is in Our Stars (2012)

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

The opening words come from 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who continued: “Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

A review in The Manila Bulletin said about the author’s opening: “Just two paragraphs into the work, and he immediately wallops the readers with such an insightful observation delivered in such an unsentimental way that it’s hard not to shake your head in admiration.“

We soon learn that Hazel uses sarcasm and dark humor as a way of coping with her own diagnosis of terminal cancer (about which, she says, “thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs”). While attending the support group, she meets a fellow patient named Gus, and their unfolding story becomes totally engrossing. In a Time magazine review, Lev Grossman recalled Hazel’s observation that “Cancer books suck” to write that this particular cancer book “does not suck. In fact, it is damn near genius.”

In 2014, the novel was adapted into a terrific movie, starring the enormously talented Shailene Woodley as Hazel. In a New York Times review, A. O. Scott wrote: “The film sets out to make you weep—not just sniffle or choke up a little, but sob until your nose runs and your face turns blotchy. It succeeds.“

Graham Greene
Brighton Rock (1938)

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

About this opening sentence, English writer Julie Burchill wrote in a post on Stylist.com: “How simple is that line? How scary and straight to the point?”

In a 2016 “On Writing” post on TheConversation.com, Camilla Nelson, a Senior Lecturer in Writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia, was thinking about this line when she wrote: “It is the task of an opening sentence to pull the reader over the threshold into the world of a book. But the way they do this is often unexpected. They can start with an action, or better still, the dramatic foreshadowing of action.“ And when it comes to foreshadowing, Nelson wrote that the opening line of Brighton Rock was “difficult to beat.“

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong.”

Graham Greene
The Power and the Glory (1940)

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet.

Graham Greene
The Third Man (1949)

One never knows when the blow may fall.

When most people think about The Third Man, they think about the 1949 movie—almost universally regarded as one of the greatest films of all time—and not the novella.

Believing that “it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story,” Greene wrote a complete novella to fully develop mood, atmosphere, and characterization—all key elements he believed were difficult to convey in a screenplay. Even though Greene wrote in a 1950 New York Times article that “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen,” his publishers decided to publish the novella when the film was released.

Graham Greene
The End of the Affair (1951)

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.

In this acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix, an up-and-coming English writer who is having an affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman. In the opening paragraph, Bendrix continued on the subject of how—and especially when—to begin a novel:

“I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’”

Graham Greene
The Captain and the Enemy (1988)

I am now in my twenty-second year and yet the only birthday which I can clearly distinguish among all the rest is my twelfth, for it was on that damp and misty day in September I met the Captain for the first time.

In Greene’s final novel, published when he was eighty-three, he crafts what may well be his very best opening line. The narrator and protagonist, an Englishman named Victor Baxter, continued:

“I can still remember the wetness of the gravel under my gym shoes in the school quad and how the blown leaves made the cloisters by the chapel slippery as I ran recklessly to escape from my enemies between one class and the next. I slithered and came to an abrupt halt while my pursuers went whistling away, because there in the middle of the quad stood our formidable headmaster talking to a tall man in a bowler hat, a rare sight already at that date, so that he looked a little like an actor in costume—an impression not so far wrong, for I never saw him in a bowler hat again. He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle. I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.’’

In a New York Times review (titled “Father Lost Me in a Backgammon Game”), writer Brian Moore wrote: “The opening paragraph at once and magisterially upends us into Graham Greene’s universe.” Moore went on to add: “Won him? In a backgammon game? And who is this unlikely stranger who has come to claim his prize? In fewer than 20 pages we see the boy deftly abducted from his boarding school, introduced to the ways of a superb confidence man and taken, with his full consent, to live with Liza, a young woman who was once the mistress of the boy’s father. An author who can make us believe this scenario—and we do believe it—must be able to calibrate a precise balance between the unlikely and the plausible. But that, of course, is Graham Greene’s strength.”

Martha Grimes
The Dirty Duck [Book 4 in the Richard Jury Series] (1984)

The doors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre emptied another audience into a mean rain that always seemed to know the minute the performance ended.

The novel opens with an impressive metaphorical observation that also has a wry ring of truth to it. As the narrator continues, readers quickly get the comfortable feeling they’re in good hands:

“Tonight’s play had been As You Like It, and the faces of the crowd wore that disoriented look that said they hadn’t quite got their bearings, as if by some magical permutation the bucolic airiness of the Forest of Arden still glittered out here in the dark and the drizzle.”

Winston Groom
Forrest Gump (1986)

Let me say this: bein an idiot is no box of chocolates. People laugh, lose patience, treat you shabby. Now they say folks is sposed to be kind to the afflicted, but let me tell you—it ain’t always that way. Even so, I got no complaints, cause I reckon I done live a pretty interestin life so to speak.

With these words, we are introduced to one of the modern era’s most interesting fictional characters (brought to life by actor Tom Hanks in a 1994 film adaptation).

Gump continues his irresistible self-introduction in the novel’s second paragraph: “I been an idiot since I was born. My IQ is near 70, which qualifies me, so they say. Probly, tho, I’m closer to bein a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I’d rather think of myself as a halfwit, or something—an not no idiot—cause when people think of a idiot, more’n likely they be thinkin of one of them Mongolian idiots—the ones with they eyes too close together what look like Chinamen an drool a lot an play with theyselfs.”

In the 1994 film adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, the novel’s opening metaphor was changed to, “My mama always said, life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The movie version of the thought is the one that is best remembered today.

Sara Gruen
Water for Elephants (2007)

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

The narrator, ninety-something nursing home resident Jacob Jankowski, is about to embark on a remarkable reminiscence. Before jumping in, he continues: “When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder is this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it is decades before you admit it.”

Judith Guest
Ordinary People (1976)

To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.

This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines—a grand philosophical declaration with a dash of wit. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “People in cars on busy freeways call to each other Boycott Grapes, comfort each other Honk if You Love Jesus, joke with each other Be Kind to Animals—Kiss a Beaver. They identify, they summarize, they antagonize with statements of faith: I Have a Dream, Too—Law and Order; Jesus Saves at Chicago Fed; Rod McKuen for President.”

The opening words are the reflections of Conrad Jarrett, a 17-year-old Illinois high school student who eight months earlier attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a razor blade (six months before that, his older brother Buck was killed in a sailing accident on Lake Michigan). Recently released from a psychiatric hospital, the still-struggling Conrad is about to return to high school. The narrator continued about him:

“Lying on his back in bed, he gazes around the walls of his room, musing about what has happened to his collection of statements. They had been discreetly mounted on cardboard, and fastened up with push pins so as not to deface the walls. Gone now. Probably tossed out with the rest of the junk—all those eight-by-ten colorprints of the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, junior-high mementos. Too bad. It would be comforting to have something to look up to.”

Guest’s debut novel, the book had not yet been published when galley proofs were brought to Robert Redford’s attention. He immediately saw its potential and flew to Minneapolis to personally secure the film rights. One can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for Guest, a 40-year-old former teacher and aspiring novelist, to open her front door and see Redford standing there with her book in his hands. In 1980, Ordinary People became one of the year’s most popular films, ultimately winning four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Redford in his directorial debut.

Alan Gurganus
Plays Well with Others (1997)

There are just two kinds of people in the world: those who will help you and those who won’t.

Alan Gurganus
“He’s One, Too,” in The Practical Heart: Four Novellas (2011)

In Falls, North Carolina, in 1957, we had just one way of “coming out.”

It was called getting caught.

In this 2001 novella, the narrator continued: “Every few years, cops nabbed another unlikely guy, someone admired and married—a civic fellow, not bad-looking. He often coached a Pee Wee League swim team. Again we learned that the Local Man Least Likely to Like boys did!“

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

So begins the debut adult novel of a 41-year-old English writer who had previously penned more than a dozen children’s books. As the opening paragraph continues, readers are almost irresistibly drawn into the story by the intriguing “voice” of the narrator and protagonist, a 15-year-old autistic English boy named Christopher John Francis Boone:

“There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.”

From the day the book was published, it garnered the highest critical praise, and few were surprised when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the year. If anything, the novel’s reputation has only heightened over the years, with The Guardian ranking it Number 19 in its 2019 list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st century.”

If the title of the novel has a familiar ring, it’s because you’re thinking of a famous bit of dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and a Scotland Yard detective in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” Here’s exactly how it appeared in the tale 130 years ago:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Matt Haig
The Humans (2013)

I know that some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist.

From the outset, we surmise that the opening words are coming from a non-human—but that’s all we know for sure. And, as the narrator continues, we’re forced to concede that it may also have a wry sense of humor:

“For those that don’t know, a human is a real bipedal life form of midrange intelligence, living a largely deluded existence on a small, waterlogged planet in a very lonely corner of the universe.”

As the tale unfolds, we learn that the narrator is an extra-terrestrial who’s been sent to earth to learn more about human beings. To accomplish the mission, the alien protagonist assumes the form of Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematics professor at Cambridge University. Initially disgusted by almost all things human—especially their penchant for killing each other—the visitor from outer space gradually becomes accustomed to, and even impressed by, many of their unusual practices.

Matt Haig
The Midnight Library (2020)

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.

From the opening sentence, readers know the book will likely involve libraries and suicide, but few have a clue—at this early stage—as to where Haig’s speculative fiction novel is going to take them. The novel—a brilliant exposition of the theme of infinite possibilities—became an immediate bestseller and was shortlisted by the British Book Awards for the 2021 Fiction Book of the Year.

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
A Woman of Independent Means (1978)

Dec. 10, 1899 Honey Grove, Texas

Dear Rob,

I just asked Miss Appleton to put us on the same team for the spelling bee. Since we’re the only two people in the fourth grade who can spell “perspicacious,” our team is sure to win.

Can you come over after school? The gardener is clearing the hollyhock bed so there will be more room to play tag. It was my idea.


In this classic epistolary novel—a novel told solely in the form of letters—the letter writer is 10-year-old Bess Steed, a fictional character based on the author’s real grandmother. The novel was Hailey’s first, published the year she turned forty, and it took the publishing world by storm. About the novel, Ann Tyler wrote in The New York Times:

“Bess is so memorable a character that I seem here to be reviewing not A Woman of Independent Means but the woman herself.”

Hailey adapted the novel to a one-person stage play in 1983, starring Barbara Rush. In 1995, NBC television produced it as a six-hour mini-series, starring Sally Field.

James W. Hall
Under Cover of Daylight [Book 1 in the Thorn Series] (1987)

Standing in front of his dresser mirror, the young man pointed the revolver at his reflection. He held it there until the waver in his hand had subsided. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and brought the revolver down.

With these opening words, the literary world was introduced to a nineteen-year-old young man known only as Thorn (he would ultimately serve as the protagonist of sixteen Hall novels). Thorn’s parents died a few days after he was born, killed by a teenage drunk driver on the day they were returning home from the hospital. During his elementary school years, after learning that the killer had beaten the rap, young Thorn began thinking about how he would avenge his parents’ death.

The novel opens on the day of Thorn’s long-planned revenge and, once the deed is accomplished, picks up twenty years later. Thorn is now living in the Florida Keys, tying custom bonefish flies for a living, and about to get drawn into yet another revenge scenario, this time after the mysterious death of his adoptive mother. When the book was published, Hall was a professor at Florida International University. The founder of the school’s creative writing program, it must have been the thrill of a lifetime when he learned that Elmore Leonard, one of his literary heroes, had described his debut novel as “a beauty.”

James W. Hall
Body Language (1998)

Her memory of that day never lost clarity. Eighteen years later, it was still there, every odor, every word and image, the exact heft of the pistol, each decibel of the explosion detonating again and again in the soft tissue of memory.

“The soft tissue of memory” is a memorable metaphor, and it perfectly caps off this beautifully-written opening paragraph. The narrator is describing protagonist Alexandra Rafferty, a photographic specialist with the Miami Police Department. Eighteen years earlier, at age eleven and shortly after she’d been raped by a seventeen-year-old neighborhood boy, the family’s pet dog Pugsy was found dead in the family’s front yard. Feeling certain her rapist was responsible, Alexandra confronted him in his home a few days later—armed with a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol she’d taken from her father’s bedroom bureau. When the boy leaped off his bed to subdue her, she stumbled, the gun went off, and the bullet struck him in the jaw, killing him instantly.

About the novel, James Patterson wrote: “Body Language seduces you, then it grabs you, and it never lets you go. This is a first-rate thriller by a masterful writer.”

James W. Hall
Trickster [Book 16 in the Thorn Series] (2022)

Thorn had just finished tying off his skiff to the dock cleats when the girl appeared in his yard. The girl who would force him to reconsider every moment of the last twenty years.

GUEST COMMENTARY from Laurence Shames, bestselling author of The Key West Capers series and other books. About the novel’s opening words, Shames writes:

“There it is. In 34 words, none of them fancy, the author has introduced his hero, given us some waterfront atmosphere, let us know that the story at hand will reach into the deep past, and—most important of all—dropped the mysterious girl into our laps. Admirably efficient, but it’s in what comes after that Hall reveals the master’s touch. Having piqued our curiosity, he then throttles back into a leisurely five pages about fishing, fly-tying, the weather in the Keys, the zoning board (yes, seriously, the zoning board!) because he absolutely knows what every reader will be thinking and dying to find out: Yeah, but what about the girl? It takes consummate skill and confidence to handle these shifts in pacing, and James W. Hall is a magician with them.”

Shames has also penned some masterful opening lines. To view them, start here.

Dashiell Hammett
The Dain Curse (1929)

It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. It was small, not more than a quarter of a carat in weight, and unmounted. I put it in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours.

The opening words come from a nameless private detective known only as The Continental Op (the name comes from his work as an operative for The Continental Detective Agency). Hired to investigate a theft of unset diamonds from San Francisco’s wealthy Leggett family, the routine robbery case quickly turns into a murder investigation when the head of the family is found dead.

Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest (1929)

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

In response to a 2013 query from the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, American crime fiction writer Megan Abbot said that this was her “favorite first line” from a novel. A few years later, in a 2016 interview on Minnesota Public Radio, screenwriter and novelist Scott Frank assessed it similarly, saying: “It’s one of the best opening sentences in any novel anywhere.”

Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

In the public’s eye, Sam Spade is now closely associated with Humphrey Bogart, whose slight frame and dark features made him a far cry from the blond, well-built private eye Hammett originally envisioned.

In a 1934 Introduction to a new printing of The Maltese Falcon, Hammett wrote about his famous protagonist: “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”

Dashiell Hammett
The Glass Key (1931)

Green dice rolled across the green table, struck the rim together, and bounced back. One stopped short holding six white spots in two equal rolls uppermost. The other tumbled out to the center of the table and came to a rest with a single spot on top.

Ned Beaumont grunted softly—“Uhn!”—and the winners cleared the table of money.

Dashiell Hammett
Woman in the Dark: A Novel of Dangerous Romance (1933)

Her right ankle turned under her and she fell. The wind blowing downhill from the south, whipping the trees beside the road, made a whisper of her exclamation and snatched her scarf away into the darkness. She sat up slowly, palms on the gravel pushing her up, and twisted her body sidewise to release the leg bent beneath her.

Dashiell Hammett
The Thin Man (1934)

I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes the result was satisfactory. “Aren’t you Nick Charles?” she asked.

Elizabeth Hand
Hard Light [Book 3 in the Cass Neary Series] (2016)

A stolen passport will only get you so far.

In a 2016 Washington Post review, Maureen Corrigan called this a “snap-to-attention opening line.” The words come from Cass Neary, a New York photographer with what might be described as a highly-checkered past (writer Katherine Dunn [Geek Love and more] described Cass as “one of noir’s great anti-heroes”). In the opening paragraph, Neary continued:

“In my case, that was through Customs and Immigration at Heathrow, where I stood in the line for EU travelers, praying I wouldn’t have to fake a Swedish accent as an impassive official ran a check on my documentation.”

Kristin Hannah
The Four Winds (2021)

Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.

The exact nature of Elsa’s illness, the details of her dreams and fantasies, the specific novels that influenced her, and a number of other things as well, have not yet been revealed, but we’re eager to read on—and already rooting for the young, female protagonist.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator further stirred the pot by adding: “On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.”

Kristin Harmel
The Book of Lost Names (2020)

May 2005

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m midway through my shift at the Winter Park Public Library when I see it.

The book I last laid eyes on more than six decades ago.

The book I believed had vanished forever.

The book that meant everything to me.

These tantalizing opening words come from Eva Traube Adams, a semi-retired librarian who lives in Winter Park, Florida. In 1942, she was in graduate school when she fled Paris for a small town in the mountains and began forging documents for Jewish children seeking asylum in neutral Switzerland. In the novel, which was based on the true story of real-life forgers in WWII, Eva continued:

“It’s staring out at me from a photograph in The New York Times, which someone has left open on the returns desk. The world goes silent as I reach for the newspaper, my hands trembling nearly as much as it did the last time I held the book. ‘It can’t be,’ I whisper.”

Jordan Harper
She Rides Shotgun (2017)

His skin told his history in tattoos and knife scars.

If ever a first line deserved to be called a “hook,” this one most certainly does. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “He lived in a room with no night. And he was to his own mind a god.”

The opening words begin “Chapter O” (yes, chapter O), a kind of prologue to the book, and they compellingly describe Crazy Craig Hollington, a thoroughly unsavory character who is serving a life term in Pelican Bay State Prison. He is also the leader of the Aryan Steel prison gang.

From the outset, She Rides Shotgun was hailed by critics, winning the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Debut Novel and an Alex Award from the American Library Association. A starred review in Booklist magazine said about the book:

“From its bravura prologue to its immensely satisfying ending, this first novel comes out with guns blazing and shoots the chambers dry. It’s both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire.“

Chapter 1 of the book also begins with a terrific opening line—a captivating description of 11-year-old protagonist Polly McClusky: “She wore a loser’s slumped shoulders and hid her face with her hair, but the girl had gunfighter eyes.”

Karen Harper
American Duchess: A Novel (2019)

Everyone was calling it the wedding of the century. I was calling it the worst day of my life.

The stark opening words come from 18-year-old Consuelo Vanderbilt, heir to the family fortune. In a raw riches-for-title arrangement made by her domineering mother, she has been bullied into a marriage to England’s 9th Duke of Marlborough. She continued:

“Granted, I might have been watched like a hawk before—by a maternal hawk—but I had never felt my imprisonment in a gilded cage so strongly. Here I was on my wedding day, trapped in my bedroom with the door guarded by the biggest footman at the house so I would not flee.”

Thomas Harris
The Silence of the Lambs (1988)

Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. Clarice Starling reached it flushed after a fast walk from Hogan’s Alley on the firing range. She had grass in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.

Silence of the Lambs was the second Harris novel to feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter (the first was Red Dragon in 1981), and the first one to feature Clarice Starling. While the book was commercially and critically successful (it won the 1988 Bram Stoker Ward for Best Novel), neither Lecter nor Starling were widely known in pop culture until they were portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film adaptation in 1991. The film became the third film in Oscar history to win all of “The Big Five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “No one was in the outer office, so she fluffed briefly by her reflection in the glass doors. She knew she could look all right without primping. Her hands smelled of gun smoke, but there was no time to wash—Section Chief Crawford’s summons had said now.”

Thomas Harris
Hannibal (1999)

Clarice Starling’s Mustang boomed up the entrance ramp at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Massachusetts Avenue, a headquarters rented from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in the interests of economy.

In a New York Times review, Stephen King wrote: “Harris, the Thomas Pynchon of the popular novel…is in charge of his story and his material from the book’s opening.” After remarking that Harris fans have been waiting eleven years for the “rematch” between FBI agent Starling and “the great fictional monster of our time,” Hannibal Lecter, King added: “It seems so much as if he has never been away, even in this first sentence.”

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The strike force waited in three vehicles, a battered undercover van to lead and two black SWAT vans behind it, manned and idling in the cavernous garage.”

Josephine Hart
Damage (1991)

There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.

This is a magnificent first line—equally as good, in my opinion, as any of history’s classic aphoristic or epigrammatic openings. The words come from an introspective narrator who appears to be an older man reflecting on tragic mistakes he made not in his youth, but in his later, mature years. If you appreciate the quality of this first line, you will also likely appreciate the entire opening paragraph:

“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe. We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.”

Had he died at fifty, the narrator goes on to suggest, he would have been remembered as a doctor, an established politician, and a loving husband and father. But he concludes his opening reflections by saying, “But I did not die in my fiftieth year. There are few who know me now who do not regard that as a tragedy.” And with that remarkable conclusion, the reader is left wondering, “What exactly happened in this man’s sad life?”

Bret Harte
Cressy (1889)

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.

L. P. Hartley
The Go-Between (1953)

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Some opening lines go on to enjoy a life of their own as quotations, and this one has long held an honored place in The Big Three quotation anthologies: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, The Oxford Book of Quotations, and the Yale Book of Quotations (in each one, it is Hartley’s only entry). Many quotation lovers—including me—consider it one of the very best things ever written about the subject of the past.

Hartley’s elegant observation is also regarded as one of the best opening lines in literary history. The American Book Review ranked it Number 78 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels,” and writer Colin Falconer ranked it Number 20 on his 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History.” About it, Falconer wrote: “Wonderful metaphor, and so many questions arise from this simple sentence. You just have to know what he means and why the past is important to him.”

Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

Given the longstanding pattern of bestowing unearthly names on beings from other planets, Heinlein immediately gets our attention by going in a completely different direction (his delightful “exception to the rule” opening is now regarded as one of the sci-fi genre’s most outstanding opening lines). The allure of the first sentence is also enhanced by the traditional once upon a time beginning.

In a 2014 SFSignal.com post on “The Best Book Openings,” sci-fi writer John C. Wright wrote about Heinlein’s classic opener:

“The contrast of the oddest of oddities, a Martian, and the most quotidian of names, Smith, is here on display. The reader’s eye is pulled as if magnetically to the next line to discover how a Martian can have so very terrestrial a name. Also present is the slightest hint of one of the philosophical points of the novel: Smith is not a man from Mars, for he is not a man at all, since by upbringing he is an alien. In other words, this story asks what it means to be human, and that opening line serves to establish the question to be asked.”

Stranger in a Strange Land is now regarded as a true American classic. In 1962, it became the first science fiction novel to make The New York Times Best-Seller list (later in the year it also won the Hugo Award for Best Novel). In 2012, the Library of Congress hailed it as one of 88 “Books That Shaped America.“

Joseph Heller
Catch-22 (1961)

It was love at first sight.

Many readers were puzzled when this unspectacular opening sentence showed up on the American Book Review’s 2006 list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels” (it was ranked Number 59). In my view, it made the list not on its own merits, but because of the spectacular second line of the novel: “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

While most writers do everything they can to avoid clichés—especially at the beginning of a novel—Heller was able to pull it off because he used it as a “set-up” for his inspired second line. In the ABR post, however, nothing was said about the second line, leaving many readers confounded by the inclusion of a hackneyed cliché in an article celebrating history’s best opening lines. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927). See the Gantry entry here.

Joseph Heller
Something Happened (1974)

I get the willies when I see closed doors.

The opening words come from protagonist Robert Slocumb, a successful New York City advertising executive, who immediately explains: “Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just plain nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why.”

Given this glimpse into the mind of Slocumb, we begin to wonder if he is paranoid. Or suffering from PTSD? Slocumb, it turns out, is having similar thoughts. He begins the second paragraph this way: “Something must have happened to me sometime.”

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.

The narrator and protagonist, a WWI veteran named Jake Barnes, continued: “Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.”

Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms (1929)

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

In an October 25, 1998 New Yorker article (titled “Last Words”), writer Joan Didion hailed these opening words, writing: “That paragraph…bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one-hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one-hundred and twenty-six such words myself.”

Didion went on to write that the power of Hemingway’s opening paragraph also came from what he left out, what she called “deliberate omission” and “the tension of withheld information.” To make her point, she asked, “In the summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?”

A Farewell to Arms came three years after The Sun Also Rises and was Hemingway’s first bestseller, firmly establishing his reputation as a major American writer. The story was based on his own experiences as an ambulance driver in the Italian campaign in WWI. After being seriously wounded, he was cared for in a Milan hospital by an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky, and she ultimately showed up as the character Catherine Barkley in the novel.

Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

This simple-but-beautiful opening sentence introduces us to Robert Jordan, an American university professor who has become an anti-fascist guerilla fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Assigned to blow up a local bridge, he surveys the countryside he must traverse in order to make his way to the target.

The narrator continued: “The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.”

Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

The narrator continued: “In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”

Emily Henry
Beach Read (2020)

I have a fatal flaw.

We all have fatal flaws, but what makes them so dangerously self-destructive is that they’re almost always ignored, minimized, explained away, dismissed, or just plain denied. To see someone so readily admit to a fatal flaw, even in a novel, is unusual and refreshing.

The frank admission comes from January Andrews, a 29-year-old author of romance novels. After a taste of commercial success a few years earlier, Andrews is now broke and almost homeless. She continued on the subject of fatal flaws: “I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when I’m writing—building my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and can’t let go of, even when it stops serving them.”

The opening line of Henry’s novel resonated so much with me that I selected it as one of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a Smerconish.com post (to be seen here).

Emily Henry
People We Meet on Vacation (2021)

On vacation, you can be anyone you want.

The opening words—which comprise the entire opening paragraph of the Prologue—come from a twenty-something travel writer named Poppy. In the novel’s second paragraph, she continued:

“Like a good book or an incredible outfit, being on vacation transports you into another version of yourself.“

Emily Henry
Book Lovers (2022)

When books are your life—or in my case, your job—you get pretty good at guessing where a story is going.

The opening words come from protagonist Nora Stephens, a witty but somewhat uptight literary agent. In the opening paragraph, she continues with an explanation sure to draw book-lovers further in:

“The tropes, the archetypes, the common plot twists all start to organize themselves into a catalogue inside your brain, divided by category and genre.”

When I read the opening sentence for the first time, the phrase you get pretty good at guessing where a story is going stood out for me, and I had a suspicion it would play a significant role as the story unfolded. Turns out, I was right— but you’ll have to discover exactly how for yourself.

Mick Herron
The Secret Hours (2023)

The worst smell in the world is dead badger.

This is such an unusual first sentence that it accomplishes the goal of all opening lines—it implants the hook. And the rest of the first paragraph is spent reeling the reader in:

“He’d encountered it on his morning walk down a green lane; had caught the odor without seeing the corpse, but had guessed what it was before returning later with a shovel. Whether they all smelled that bad or whether this one had expired of noxious causes he didn’t know. As it turned out, he couldn’t do anything about it either—the creature had crawled into a tangled nest of roots to die, and it would require heavy machinery and a strong stomach to recover it. Lacking the former, and not wanting to put the latter to the test, Max opted for a third way: he’d walk a different route for awhile, and see if one of the local farmers shifted it in the meantime. Which was why he wasn’t sure the badger would still be there a couple of nights later, when he was running for his life.”

Hermann Hesse
Steppenwolf (1927)

The day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. Three times the mail had come with undesired letters and circulars to look through. I had done my breathing exercises, but found it convenient today to omit the thought exercises. I had been for an hour’s walk and seen the loveliest feathery cloud patterns penciled against the sky. That was very delightful. So was the reading of old books. So was the lying in the warm bath.

Impatient readers might be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking these are simply the meanderings of an aging, but contented man. But that would be a mistake. The protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, continued:

“But, taken all in all, it had not been exactly a day of rapture. No, it had not even been a day brightened with happiness and joy. Rather, it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn’t time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.”

Jack Higgins
The Eagle Has Landed (1975)

At precisely one o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 6, November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichführer of the SS and Chief of state Police, received a simple message: “The Eagle has landed.”

This is the first sentence of the book’s Prologue, and it immediately brings the reader into the heart of the story. In the novel, the narrator explained: “It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend.”

From 1959 to 1974, Higgins wrote thirty-four thrillers and spy novels—some under his real name (Harry Patterson), and others under a variety of pen names. The Eagle Has Landed was his thirty-fifth book and, after exploding on the literary scene, quickly outsold all of his previous novels combined (ultimately more than fifty million copies were sold). Now regarded as a classic in the spy/thriller genre, the novel was adapted into a 1976 film starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, and Robert Duvall. Directed by the legendary director John Sturges, it was the fifteenth highest-grossing film of 1977.

Many people believe Higgins authored the popular phrase the eagle has landed, but that would be a mistake. The saying first appeared on July 20, 1969, when U. S. astronaut Neal Armstrong said it about the landing of the Lunar Module Eagle on the surface of the moon.

Patricia Highsmith
Strangers on a Train (1950)

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again.

Highsmith is, of course, best known for her novels and short stories, but she also wrote a well regarded non-fiction book on the writing of fiction: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). On the subject of how to begin a book, she wrote in that work: “I prefer a first sentence in which something moves and gives action, rather than a sentence like, ‘The moonlight lay still and liquid on the pale beach.’” In her Strangers on a Train opener, she does that very nicely, setting the scene and also subtly suggesting that this is no ordinary train.

In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the novel into a film by the same title (Raymond Chandler was one of the film’s screenwriters). It received mixed reviews when it came out, but is now regarded as a film noir classic. The novel also inspired the 1987 black comedy Throw Momma from the Train, starring Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal.

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

In this in media res introduction to one of her most fascinating protagonists, Highsmith demonstrates her agreement with an idea she would later write about in her 1966 writing guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction:

“Some writers, assuming that a reader does not like to have his eye or brain taxed by a paragraph of thirty lines, prefer a short first paragraph of anything from one line to six.”

Patricia Highsmith
This Sweet Sickness (1960)

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.

After the first sentence, we don’t know any of the specifics, but we already feel certain that no good end can come from a jealousy of this magnitude. The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph:

“He had lived so long with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation.”

I love it when writers talk about their own opening lines, and, according to Francis Wilson, in a 2021 New York Review of Books article (“The Hidden Bookkeeper”), Highsmith offered the following thought about how she chose to begin This Sweet Sickness: “I meant to give a mood of emotional tension, of stubborn plotting also, of a bottling up of a force that will one day explode.“

Jennifer Hillier
Freak (2013)

There was something fucked up about a job where cocaine was overlooked, but cigarettes would get you fired.

The spectacular opening reflection comes from a female escort who is describing a topsy-turvy work environment where the bosses “didn’t care if you did blow, but if you smoked a cigarette and the client complained you were done. Unlike cocaine, cigarettes weren’t considered a performance-enhancing drug.”

In the second paragraph, the narrator continued: “In a stall in the bathroom of the Sweet Chariot Inn in downtown Seattle, Brenda Stich (professional name: Brianna) shook out another line of the wondrous white powder onto the back of her hand and snorted. It took about three and a half seconds for the shit to kick in, and thank God for it. It had been a long three days with the guy from New York, and she was delirious with exhaustion. The bitterness dripped down the back of her throat and she swallowed. The coke coursed through her veins, and just like that, the world was back in high definition.”

Jennifer Hillier
Things We Do in the Dark (2022)

There’s a time and place for erect nipples, but the back of a Seattle police car definitely isn’t it.

GUEST COMMENTARY from David Evans, a writer who lives in the woods of West Virginia on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. He writes: “I loved this opening line so much I ordered the book after reading such a grabber. In a New York Times review, Sarah Weinman found the first sentence especially appealing and surmised that Hillier must have had great fun writing it.” I concurred with Evans’s assessment and was delighted to honor her “hook” in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Paris Peralta didn’t think to grab a sweater before they arrested her, so she’s only wearing a bloodstained tank top. It is July, after all. But the air-conditioning is on high, and she feels cold and exposed. With her wrists cuffed, all she can do is clasp her hands together and hold her forearms up to cover her breasts. It looks like she’s praying.”

James Hilton
Lost Horizon (1933)

Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.

This is a wonderful opening line, perfectly capturing the mixture of sadness and disappointment that has been experienced by countless middle-aged people over the years when they’ve had some kind of reunion with childhood or adolescent friends.

James Hilton
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934)

When you are getting on in years (but not ill, of course), you get very sleepy at times, and the hours seem to pass like lazy cattle moving across a landscape.

The opening words come from Mr. Chipping, an aging and deeply beloved professor at the fictional Brookfield School, an English boarding school for boys. The image of “lazy cattle moving across a landscape” is so unexpected—and so delicious—that we are eager to read on in search of similar morsels.

Originally published as a short story in British Weekly in 1933, it was reprinted as the lead story in the April 1934 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The piece was so popular it quickly resulted in a book deal with Little, Brown and Company who published it at the height of the Great Depression in June 1934. A surprise best-seller, the novel was adapted into an acclaimed 1939 film starring Robert Donat (nominated for seven Academy Awards, it won only one, the Best Actor award for Donat). It would’ve likely taken home more awards, but it was competing against Gone With the Wind in all seven categories.

Joanna Hines [now writing as Joanna Hodgkin]
The Murder Bird (2006)

Five weeks before Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.

This is such a powerful opening paragraph that it’s almost impossible for me to envision someone reading it and setting the book down. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine you’re a hard-to-entice type. If so, perhaps the remainder of the first paragraph will win you over:

“Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering quietly on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband’s chest.”

S. E. Hinton
The Outsiders (1967)

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

In the world of Great Opening Lines, this is a modern classic. The narrator is 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, a Tulsa, Oklahoma “greaser” who is about to be attacked by members of a rival gang. Without giving away anything about the plot, The Outsiders is one of only a handful of novels in history in which the opening and closing lines are exactly the same.

The novel, which helped establish the YA (Young Adult) genre in American fiction, is now regarded as a modern classic. In 2019, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) included it on their list the 100 novels that have most “shaped our world.”

The novel was written by Susan Hinton while she was still in high school, but she was urged to publish it under the pen name S. E. Hinton to avoid the problem of female diminishment by male reviewers. She signed a book contract with Viking Press on her high school graduation day (and very shortly thereafter deposited the $1,000 advance they offered).

Tami Hoag
Ashes to Ashes (1999)

Some killers are born. Some killers are made.

Beginning a novel with a cliché is generally not advised, but it works in this case, sending a clear message—this is a book about a killer and how that killer was formed. The narrator continued with a reflection that further engaged the reader:

“And sometimes the origin of desire for homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make for an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know if the urge was inbred or induced.”

Alice Hoffman
Practical Magic [Book 1 of The Practical Magic series] (1995)

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.

This is the first sentence of an opening paragraph that extends a warm, almost irresistible, invitation to read on:

“If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was—lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, of science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame.”

Alice Hoffman
The Book of Magic [Book 3 of The Practical Magic series] (2021)

Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.

In a New York Times review, Joanne Ramos wrote: “So opens The Book of Magic, the final installment of Alice Hoffman’s popular Practical Magic series, a page-turning fairy tale of a saga that spans three books, one star-studded movie adaptation and multiple centuries of adventure and misadventure, love lost and found and bottomless cauldrons of sorcery in the lives of the bewitchingly witchy Owens family.”

The opening line warmed my heart, and I believe it will be similarly experienced by friends of libraries everywhere. In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “It was there that Jet Owens saw her fate in a mirror behind the reference desk. Even in her eighties, Jet was still beautiful. Each day she washed with the black soap the family prepared in March during the dark phase of the moon, with every bar then wrapped in crinkly cellophane. Jet had no aches or pains and had never been ill a day in her life, but fate is fate and it can often be what you least expect it to be. On this day, when the daffodils had begun to bloom, Jet saw that she had seven days to live.”

Rupert Holmes
Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide (2023)

So you’ve decided to commit a murder.

Many novels begin with a captivating juxtaposition of antithetical elements—and in this opening sentence we see the horrific crime of murder linked with the low-key normalcy of a study-guide phrase like, “So you’ve decided to learn woodworking.” Things only get better as we continue reading:

“Congratulations. Simply by purchasing this volume, you’ve already taken the all-important first step toward a successful homicide of which you can be proud, one that would gain you the admiration of your peers, were they ever to learn of it.

“This book will see to it that they don’t.”

About the book, writer Alafair Burke (Find Me and other works) wrote: “With dry humor and an eye for hidden clues, Rupert Holmes imagines a secret school that teaches the fine art of pulling off the perfect (and perfectly deserved) murder. An utterly creative and deliciously diabolical read.”

I was delighted to include Holmes’s opening sentence in my end-of-year Smerconish.com post on “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (you can see the list here).

Ann Hood
An Italian Wife (2014)

In America, anything was possible. This was what Josephine’s husband told her before he left their village to catch the ship in Naples.

Reading these opening words, I found myself wondering how many family members over the centuries have heard this exact phrase as they saw husbands and other family members leaving home for a new life in America. In the novel, the narrator adds a new twist by adding:

“She didn’t know him, this husband of hers. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents long ago, before Josephine had breasts or menstruated for the first time.”

Colleen Hoover
Verity (2018)

I hear the crack of his skull before the spattering of blood reaches me.

Yes, the first sentence is gory and gruesome, but it’s hard to imagine a more arresting first sentence—or a more dramatic way for Hoover to begin her dark, psychological thriller. In a 2022 Collider.com post, Hazel Khatter included this opener in her list of “10 Great Books That Hooked Readers From the Very First Line.”

The opening words come from Lowen Ashleigh, a struggling New York writer who is in standing on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk when a man just in front of her prematurely steps into the street and is struck by an oncoming truck. She lunged forward to stop him, but found herself “grasping at nothing” just before the collision. The cringeworthy tone of the first sentence continues as Lowen added, “I closed my eyes before his head went under the tire, but I heard it pop like the cork of a champagne bottle.”

The grisly opening scene has nothing to do with the plot of the rest of the novel, but it sets the stage—and the tone—for a novel that, according to a New York Post review, “Seamlessly blends romance and horror.”

Nick Hornby
High Fidelity (1995)

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nicholson
  5. Sarah Kendrew

One wouldn’t expect a list of anything to be a good way to begin a book, but when the list is preceded by the phrase “most memorable split-ups,” it immediately gets readers to reflect on their own romantic histories—and thereby becomes particularly enticing.

The opening words come from a 35-year-old London music junkie and record-store owner who is known only by his first name, Rob. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura. As soon as Rob “hooks” readers with his opening words, he reels them in as he continues in the second paragraph:

“These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.”

All in all, this is a brilliant opening. If you haven’t yet read Hornby’s spectacular debut novel, please try to rectify the error soon. In a New York Times review, Mark Jolly described the protagonist as “a fictional figure of Prufrockian pathos” and wrote the following about the novel: “Mr. Hornby captures the loneliness and childishness of adult life with such precision and wit that you’ll find yourself nodding and smiling. High Fidelity fills you with the same sensation that you get from hearing a debut record album that has more charm and verve and depth than anything you can recall.”

Nick Hornby
Juliet, Naked (2009)

They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.

The narrator is describing an American trip taken by Annie and Duncan, a British couple on what can only be described as an unusual shopping trip to America.

The first paragraph continued: “The simple truth of this only struck Annie when they were actually inside it: apart from the graffiti on the walls, some of which made some kind of reference to the toilet’s importance in musical history, it was dank, dark, smelly and entirely unremarkable. Americans were very good at making the most of their heritage, but there wasn’t much even they could do here.”

Nick Hornby
Funny Girl (2014)

She didn’t want to be a beauty queen, but as luck would have it, she was about to become one.

The opening line introduces readers to Barbara Parker, who is about to win the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant in northern England.

Nick Hornby
Just Like You (2020)

How could one say with any certainty what one hated most in the world? It surely depended on how proximate the hated thing was at any given moment, whether you were doing it or listening to it or eating it at the time.

The opening words not only raise important questions about the nature of hatred, they pave the way for an introduction to a protagonist who is known only by her first name, Lucy. She is an unhappy, soon-to-be divorced, 42-year-old schoolteacher with two school-age boys. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued about her:

“She hated teaching Agatha Christie for A level, she hated any conservative education secretary, she hated listening to her younger son’s trumpet practice, she hated any kind of liver, the sight of blood, reality T.V. shows, grime music, and the usual abstractions—global poverty, war, pandemics, the imminent death of the planet, and so on.”

Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner (2003)

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek.

The opening words come from a 38-year-old Afghan-American novelist we know only by his first name: Amir. Now a successful writer, he is reflecting on his life as a boy growing up in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. In the opening paragraph, he continued:

“That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking unto that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”

The Kite Runner was the debut novel of Dr. Khaled Hosseini, a 38-year-old California physician. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965, he was the eldest of five children born to the wife of an Afghan diplomat. The entire family moved to America in 1980 after his father was granted political asylum. In 1999, Hosseini was six years into his medical practice when he learned that the Taliban had banned kite-flying in Afghanistan. Appalled by the decision to ban an activity he loved so much as a child, he quickly penned a 25-page short story about the improbable friendship that develops between two kite-loving Afghan boys—one from a privileged family, the other the son of his father’s servant. When the short story was rejected by Esquire and The New Yorker, Hosseini filed the manuscript away, figuring his writing career was over.

Two years later, in 2001, a friend read the short story and urged Hosseini to turn it into a novel. The rest, as they say, is history. When the book was published in hardcover in 2003, Hosseini took a year-long sabbatical to promote the book. After a slow start, it became a darling of book clubs all across America and ultimately spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2007, the novel was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. In 2007, it was adapted to the stage, and in 2011 into a popular graphic novel.

Declan Hughes
The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006)

The night of my mother’s funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.

Some opening lines gently extend a hand to readers and say, “Come, join me.” Others, like this one, grab readers by the collar and exclaim, “C’mon, were off for a ride!” The narrator and protagonist is Ed Loy, a Los Angeles private detective who has recently returned to Dublin to attend his mother’s funeral.

As soon as the ride begins, though, it takes a quick and unexpected turn, as Loy continues: “Now she was lying dead on her living room floor, and the howl of a police siren echoed through the surrounding hills. Linda had been strangled; a froth of blood brimmed from her mouth, and her bloodshot eyes bulged.”

In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included Hughes’s opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”

Victor Hugo
Les Misérables (1862; Norman Denny translation)

In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806.

The first paragraph of Hugo’s classic novel isn’t exactly a bell-ringer, but the second paragraph clearly reflected Hugo’s belief that readers always perked up when they were provided with rumor and gossip. The narrator continued:

“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell, we must nevertheless give some account of the rumors and gossip concerning him which were in circulation when he came to occupy the diocese.”

William Bradford Huie
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1951)

A six-foot-tall, yellow-haired whore from Mississippi was the most successful revolutionary of the Second War. Her name was Mamie Stover.

Few protagonists in literary history have been introduced as effectively, or as memorably. The narrator continued: “She made a fortune. The war wasn’t a disaster for her; it was an opportunity. It multiplied the demand for her merchandise. It brought her long lines of eager new customers.”

Huie’s novel was a blockbuster, selling over three million copies in paperback alone When 20th Century Fox acquired film rights in 1955, they intended it as a vehicle for Monroe, but they were never able to finalize a deal. Jane Russell ultimately starred in the 1956 film adaptation, and her performance was widely praised, even by critics who panned the film as a highly sanitized version of the original novel.

Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this legendary first sentence: “Every once in a while there comes an opening line that seems to have an entire story folded up inside it. But it’s just the label on the envelope. And I challenge you to withstand the urge to open it up and read the message.“

In 2005, Time magazine included Their Eyes Were Watching God on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. The opening line served as a springboard to two paragraphs that capture a familiar theme in gender dynamics—men and women pursue their dreams in very different ways:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

In a 2020 ThoughtCo.com article, writer Julia Pearson nicely summarized the meaning of the opening paragraphs: “The metaphor of ‘ships at a distance’ describes how reality is shaped differently for men and women. Men view their dreams far away, and few are able to fulfill them (only ‘some’ who are lucky to have them ‘come in with the tide’). Women, on the other hand, don’t think of dreams as far-away vessels they will never set foot on. For women, ‘the dream is the truth.’”

Eva Ibbotson
Island of the Aunts (originally published in England under the title Monster Mission) (1999)

Kidnapping children is never a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.

This is yet another example of a novel for children treating a serious crime in a sensible or almost commendable way. In the novel, the narrator continued: “Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old, and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people.” The novel was named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2000.

Francis Iles (pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Malice Aforethought (1931)

It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.

In The Life of a Provincial Lady (1988), a biography of the English mystery writer E. M. Delafield, Violet Powell hailed this opener as an “immortal sentence.” I concur.

Iles is not especially well remembered by modern readers, but he was very popular in the 1920s and 30s (he also wrote under the pen names Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts). Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an “inverted detective story,“ a mystery novel in which the crime and the perpetrator of the crime are revealed at the beginning of the tale—and the rest of the story is centered around the solution.

Greg Iles
The Quiet Game [Book 1 of the Penn Cage series] (1999)

I am standing in line for Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World ride, holding my four-year-old daughter in my arms, trying to entertain her as the serpentine line of parents and children moves slowly toward the flat-bottomed boats emerging from the grotto to the music of an endless audio loop. Suddenly Annie jerks taut in my arms and points into the crowd.

“Daddy! I saw Mama! Hurry!”

I do not look. I don’t ask where. I don’t because Annie’s mother died seven months ago. I stand motionless in the line, looking just like everyone else except for the hot tears that have begun to sting my eyes.

This is a heart-tugging beginning, and every reader who’s ever lost a loved one will likely feel an immediate connection with the narrator, a former Houston prosecutor and bestselling writer named Penn Cage. Cage went on to be featured in six additional Iles mystery stories. A seventh is in-the-works.

Greg Iles
Dead Sleep [Book 3 of Mississippi series] (2001)

I stopped shooting people six months ago, just after I won the Pulitzer Prize.

A review in People magazine called this “A stunning opening to a complex thriller.” A perfect example of what writers commonly call a “hook,” the first sentence immediately grabs our attention and yanks us into the story. It is only after continuing to read, however, that we realize the narrator—a female photojournalist named Jordan Glass—doesn’t mean shooting in the traditional way. She continued:

“People were always my gift, but they were wearing me down long before I won the prize. Still, I kept shooting them, in some blind quest that I didn’t even know I was on. It’s hard to admit that, but the Pulitzer was a different milestone for me than it is for most photographers. You see, my father won it twice.”

John Irving
The World According to Garp (1978)

Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater. This was shortly after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and people were being tolerant of soldiers, because suddenly everyone was a soldier, but Jenny Fields was quite firm in her intolerance of the behavior of men in general and soldiers in particular.

The narrator continued: “In the movie theater she had to move three times, but each time the soldier moved closer to her until she was sitting against the musty wall, her view of the newsreel almost blocked by some silly colonnade, and she resolved she would not get up and move again. The soldier moved once more and sat beside her.”

The novel begins with a description of a feisty woman standing up to a rape attempt. In an Introduction to a 40th anniversary edition of the book in 2018, Irving wrote: “The World According to Garp was always a feminist novel, but in the passage of time I’ve become more of a feminist. Why? Because the inequalities and discrimination women faced in the start-up days of the women’s movement haven’t gone away…. Garp is a political novel, and the politics of sexual intolerance and suppression haven’t gone away.” The novel was Irving’s first bestseller, and the first to be translated into other languages. It went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Paperback General Fiction.

John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

These powerful opening words come from narrator John Wheelwright, who, along with his best friend Owen Meany, grew up in a small New Hampshire town in the 1950s. John described Owen as remarkable young man who saw himself as God’s instrument on earth, and as fulfilling a role that had been prophesied for him. The novel is generally regarded as an homage to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Grass, along with Charles Dickens, was an enormous influence on the adolescent Irving, and it can hardly be a coincidence that Owen Meany has the same initials as The Tin Drum’s protagonist, Oskar Matzerath. In a 2007 New York Times article (“A Soldier Once”), Irving formally acknowledged that the Meany book was written in “homage” to Grass.

In a 2019 Book Chase blog post, reviewer Sam Sattler identified his three favorite opening paragraphs, this one from Owen Meany, another from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and a third from Peter Dexter’s Spooner. About them, he wrote: “A good first paragraph is one of the most important tools an author has available to grab my book-browsing attention—usually quickly and in less than 100 words. I can learn more about the style and readability of an author from an opening paragraph than I will ever gather from a canned dust jacket summary or some blurb from a fellow author of the writer’s that I wouldn’t believe in a million years anyway.”

John Irving
Last Night in Twisted River (2009)

The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.

From the very first sentenced, the reader is thrust into a dramatic and dangerous scene. The technical term for this is in media res (Latin for “into the middle of things”), and Irving demonstrates great skill at employing the device.

In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “One of the loggers had reached for the youth’s long hair—the older man’s fingers groped around in the frigid water, which was thick, almost soupy with the sloughed-off slabs of bark. Then two logs collided hard on the would-be rescuer’s arm, breaking his wrist. The carpet of moving logs had completely closed over the young Canadian, who never surfaced; not even a hand or one of his boots broke out of the brown water.”

John Irving
In One Person (2012)

I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.

The narrator and protagonist, a bisexual novelist named Billy Abbott, continued: “We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”

Kazuo Ishiguro
A Pale View of the Hills (1982)

Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I—perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past—insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.

The opening words come from Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman who, after the end of her marriage to a British man, is now living alone in England. This was Ishiguro’s debut novel, and it launched a spectacular literary career that would ultimately win the author the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day (1989)

It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

The opening words of this 1989 Man Booker Prize-winning novel come from an English butler known only as Stevens. After spending a lifetime in service at Darlington Hall, he is now employed by Mr. Farraday, a wealthy American who purchased the estate after Lord Darlington’s death. When his new employer plans to make a five-week trip back to America, he urges Stevens to take a well-earned vacation on his own, and he sweetens the proposal by offering him the use of his personal car and agreeing to pay for the gas.

Stevens is initially hesitant, but the idea gradually takes hold in his mind—especially when he realizes it may allow him to follow up on a letter he has recently received from Miss Kenton, a housekeeper he had feelings for when they worked together many years ago. The rest of the story—including numerous flashbacks that prompt a sobering reevaluation of his entire life—was memorably brought to the big screen in the acclaimed 1993 film adaptation, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun (2021)

When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half the window.

An opening sentence often provides important clues about what is about to unfold, and such is the case with Klara and the Sun, the first novel to come from Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2017.

Since most people would say when we were young, and not when we were new, it comes as no surprise to learn that the narrator and her friends are non-human (given the designation AF—for Artificial Friends—they are robots designed to be friends to their owners). Since AFs depend on sunlight to recharge their batteries, Klara and Rosa’s position near the window becomes vitally important. The entire novel is a compelling allegory about loneliness and the deep need to make a connection in life.

Charles Jackson
The Lost Weekend (1944)

“The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of a riot.“

These words, on the printed page, had the unsettling effect no doubt intended, but with a difference. At once he put the book aside: closed it, with his fingers still between the pages; dropped his arm over the edge of the chair and let it hang, the book somewhere near the floor. This in case he wanted to look at it again. But he did not need to.

Short, pithy first sentences, often called hooks, don’t have a monopoly on Great Opening Lines—and the shortest ones are simply unable to establish an atmosphere or develop characterization, as this beginning paragraph does so masterfully.

The novel begins with Don Birnam, a 33-year-old Manhattan writer with a drinking problem, reading and reflecting on a passage from a book he is reading. The narrator continued about Birnam:

“Already he knew the sentence by heart: he might have written it himself. Indeed, it was with a sense of familiarity, of recognition, that his mind had first read through and accepted that sentence only a moment before; and now, as he relaxed his fingers’ grip and dropped the book to the floor, he said aloud to himself: ’That’s me, all right.’“

Jackson, a recovering alcoholic, was writing his debut novel, and he was clearly writing from hard-earned experience. The book was hailed from the outset, with Sinclair Lewis writing that it was “the only unflinching story of an alcoholic that I have ever read.“ It was quickly adapted into an acclaimed 1945 film, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland (it won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay).

Charles Jackson
A Second-Hand Life (1967)

In the yellow sunshine that was just beginning to warm the morning, Miss Winifred Grainger sat in the last of the lawn chairs that had not yet been put away for the winter, holding in her hand, which lay in the lap of her corduroy suit, a black-bordered announcement.

When I shared this opening line with my dear friend Linda Strydom, she was blown away by the beauty of the passage, writing:

“Now HOW would someone think of writing that she had sat in the last of the lawn chairs that had not yet been put away for the winter? And the image of the corduroy suit was so visual and tactile that I could almost feel the nap of it against the underside of my left pinkie. The author didn’t simply craft these sentences. He was there. He saw what was happening. For me, the exquisite phrasing was “the hook.“ The intended hook (the death notice held in her lap) was secondary, almost immaterial.

Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

The narrator continued: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.“

In a 2003 Preface to a new edition of Jackson’s novel, Stephen King wrote glowingly about this opening: “I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend words, words which add up to a total greater than the sum of the parts.“

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “Top 10 First Lines in Fiction.” About it, she wrote: “Immediately, we are drawn into a universe of uncertainty with this immaculate line. Here, for all living creatures, reality can overwhelm and therefore the suggestion of a dream world is a viable alternative. But as we all know, dreams can turn to nightmares and even the hint of what an insect might dream about sends shivers down the spine.“

Shirley Jackson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

In a 2017 Literary Hub post, Emily Temple hailed this as “The Best Opening Paragraph of All Time,“ and her assessment is easy to understand. I love the entire first paragraph, but the killer sentence is the final one. Did the family members all die as a result of mushroom poisoning? And did they all die at the hand of Merricat, as the narrator and protagonist wishes to be called?

In her post, Temple continued: “This paragraph is brilliant because of Merricat’s voice, and so is the rest of the book. It immediately teaches us who she is, and what this book is going to be like.“ Michael Douglas’s production company adapted the novel into an acceptable 2019 film, but one that didn’t do justice to the novel.

Rona Jaffe
The Other Woman (1972)

When Carol Prince was fourteen she wrote in her diary: "Someday I am going to be important." She did become important, but in a way she least expected.

Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady (1880)

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful.

In an article in Jay Parini’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature (2004), James scholar Melissa Knox wrote: “The novel’s first two sentences are among the most famous first sentences...in Western literature.“ She went on to add:

“The ambivalence, hesitance, quiet formality of these lines exemplify James’s own life as well as characterizing the novel of manners. The ’ceremony known as afternoon tea’ may be taken broadly as a metaphor for life and how it is lived, or whether to live it at all, as the second sentence implies: whether you drink the tea or not, and it is clear that many people never do, ’the situation’ remains ’delightful’.“

P. D. James
Cover Her Face (1962)

Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale Mrs. Maxie gave a dinner party. Years later, when the trial was a half-forgotten scandal and the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers, Eleanor Maxie looked back on that spring evening as the opening scene of the tragedy.

This was James’s debut novel, published when she was forty-two-years old. The book served as an introduction to Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish, a Scotland Yard detective, but he doesn’t show up until the fourth chapter, nearly fifty pages into the book. In the remaining thirteen books in the series, he makes far earlier appearances.

The opening paragraph is not particularly dramatic, but it is beautifully crafted. A murder occurred some years ago, followed by a sensational trial that has now faded from memory (and captured so perfectly by the inspired phrasing “the headlines were yellowing on the newspaper lining of cupboard drawers”). The seeds of the murder were sowed at a dinner party exactly three months before the crime, and we are immediately left wondering what transpired on the evening in question.

P. D. James
Original Sin (1994)

For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficiently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.

From the outset, we know this will be no ordinary crime/mystery novel, and we’re anxious to learn more about this “temporary shorthand typist.“

P. D. James
A Certain Justice (1997)

Murderers do not usually give their victims notice.

It’s direct, dramatic, and almost dazzling in its simplicity—in other words, an almost perfect opening sentence. As the narrator continued, things only got better: “This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror.“

In a 1997 Harvard Crimson review, Soman S. Chainani singled out the opening line for special tribute and wrote about the entire book: “A Certain Justice is most enjoyable because of its deliciously subversive literary flair. James’ prose is eloquent and yet strikingly lucid.“

Storm Jameson
A Richer Dust [Book 3 in the Triumph of Time series] (1931)

The past is a scene from which the light is slowly fading.

This is a spectacular metaphorical observation—and a fabulous opening line—from a female writer who was well known and widely praised in her era (she was so familiar to English readers that publishers selected her to write the Introduction to the 1952 British edition of The Diary of Anne Frank). Sadly, she has been largely forgotten by modern readers.

If Jameson’s opening line is stirring a thought in you—but you’re not sure why— it’s probably because you’re thinking about a similar but even more famous metaphorical opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This was the first sentence of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, and many regard it as one of the greatest opening lines in literary history. Even though I have no evidence to support my speculation, I’ve always suspected that Hartley might have been inspired by Jameson’s earlier opening line.

Pam Jenoff
Code Name Sapphire (2023)

Micheline threw the still-smoldering Gauloises cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the high heel of her black leather boot. Then she marched across the darkened Paris street and grabbed the man she’d never seen before by the lapels, throwing him back against the stained brick wall of the station.

“Kiss me!” she ordered in English, whispering tersely.

The novel’s opening words are quite literally filled with intrigue, and they have a film-noirish quality that is easy to visualize in the movie theaters of our minds. As the scene unfolds, we quickly learn that the man in question is an American soldier, and when the mysterious woman whispers in his ear “If you hope to live, follow me!” we eagerly go along for the ride.

Writer Patti Callahan (The Secret Book of Flora Lea) wrote about the book: “From the opening scene to the final page, Code Name Sapphire will not let you go.”

Ha Jin
Waiting (1999)

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.

In a 1999 New York Times book review (titled “The Eighteen-Year Itch”), Francine Prose wrote: “Waiting has the sort of first sentence...that commands us to read the second, which makes us read the third, and so on until we’re too caught up in the novel to marvel that its plot—the story of a couple waiting chastely and more or less patiently for 18 years until they can get married—should seem so suspenseful.“ The novel won the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction.

In a 2013 blog post, writer Colin Falconer ranked Ha Jin’s first sentence Number 9 on his list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History.“ About it, he quipped: “Every year?“

And in a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included the opening words in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction,” writing: “This line gives us a peek into a society where divorce is clearly not as straightforward as it is in western cultures. The reader is forced to wonder why Lin has to return to this village, where he’s returning from, why he wants to divorce his wife and how long this has been going on. We get the sense that our protagonist is tired of the annual pilgrimage and yet, he is relentless. He needs this release. We know immediately that the book is well named.“

Charles Johnson
Middle Passage (1990)

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.

The year is 1830 and the narrator is Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave from Illinois who moved to New Orleans a year earlier. As the story begins, Calhoun is attempting to flee the city by stowing away on a ship.

He continued: “In my case, it was a spirited Boston schoolteacher named Bailey who led me to become a cook aboard the Republic. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison...or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment--especially if you knew Isadora.“

Craig Johnson
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.

Jonas Jonasson
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2009)

You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to inform his surroundings of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.

So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old Folks’ Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out—into the flower bed.

This maneuver required a bit of effort, since Allan was 100 years old, on this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old Folks’ Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.

It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.

The entirety of Chapter One is composed of these four paragraphs, and there are few better openings to a comic novel, or any novel, for that matter. Once Karlsson makes his escape, he becomes a Forrest Gump-like figure who shares the stage with some of the 20th century’s most famous figures. He also participates in some of the century’s most explosive events—and, since Karlsson was a former munitions expert, I mean that literally.

The book became an immediate bestseller in Sweden, but Jonasson struggled to find a publisher for an English-language version. It was finally picked up by Hesperus Press, a tiny English publisher (only five employees), and went on to become an international bestseller, with more than 10 million copies sold. A film version, starring Will Ferrell, is in production.

Cynan Jones
Stillicide: A Novel (2020)

The boy’s hand opened and closed as if he reached for a glass of water but it was just the nerves dying through his body.

In one sentence, we’re completely hooked. Quickly transported to the opening scene, we see a young, gravely injured boy, lying on the ground just in front of us, his life slowly slipping away. The narrator continues with grisly, but gripping details:

“With the thick rain the blood from the wound ran a thin washed pink.

“Nearby again a pheasant crowed, a klaxon call as they make before thunder.

“The bullet had gone in at the boy’s jaw and removed that side.”

Gareth P. Jones
The Thornthwaite Inheritance (2010)

Lorelli and Ovid Thornthwaite had been trying to kill each other for so long that neither twin could remember which act of attempted murder came first.

Only in the opening lines of children’s literature do we find murder portrayed so matter-of-factly, or discussed in such a diabolically delicious manner. In the opening paragraph, the narrator went on to add:

“Was it Lorelli’s cunning scheme to put on a play about the French Revolution, casting Ovid in the role of an aristocrat to be executed using a working guillotine? Or could it have been that long hot summer when Ovid managed to produce an ice lolly containing a small but deadly explosive, triggered by the surrounding ice reaching melting point.”

In response to a query from me, Jones said that he considered the novel’s first sentence “one of my stronger opening lines.“ He went on to add, “I often describe the opening line as a key that unlocks the story and advise young readers to re-read it once they know what happens and see how the essence of the story is contained in that one sentence.“

Gareth P. Jones
Constable & Toop (2013)

In her last few moments of life, as the blood gushed from the knife wound in her neck, Emily Wilkins found her thoughts drifting to her mother’s death.

Erica Jong
Fear of Flying (1973)

There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them. And married a seventh.

The narrator is 29-year-old Isadora Wing, a Manhattan poet and journalist. On a flight to Vienna to attend a psychoanalytic conference, she is seated next to her husband Bennett, the psychoanalyst she married. She continues: “God knows it was a tribute either to the shrinks’ ineptitude or my own glorious unanalyzability that I was now, if anything more scared of flying than when I began my analytic adventures some thirteen years earlier.“

Erica Jong
How to Save Your Own Life (1977)

I left my husband on Thanksgiving Day. It was nine years since I met him and almost that long since I married him—time enough to know something isn’t working, and yet it wasn’t easy.

Erica Jong
Parachutes and Kisses (1984)

Isadora, separated from Josh, is like a kid in her twenties. Only like the kid she never was in her twenties—almost carefree. At thirty-nine, she finds herself possessed of a demoniacal sexuality—which has no need to justify itself with love.

Erica Jong
Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters (1997)

Sometimes, in dreams, my firstborn son comes back to me. I think he is my guardian angel. “Mama, Mamichka, Mamanyu, Mamale,“ he says, let me warn you...“

The narrator, Sara Solomon, continued: “And then he tells me something about some man in my life, or some business deal—and always it turns out that he is right, though I never quite remember his words when I awake. He speaks in that dream language of the dead.“

Erica Jong
Fear of Dying (2015)

I used to love the power I had over men.

The narrator and protagonist is Vanessa Wonderman, a sixty-something former actress. She continued: “Walking down the street, my mandolin-shaped ass swaying and swinging to their backward eyes. How strange that I only completely knew this power when it was gone—or transferred to my daughter, all male eyes on her nubile twentyish body, promising babies. I missed this power.“

James Joyce
Ulysses (1922)

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.

I was never all that impressed with this opener, but the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 21 in their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.“ In a 2012 Guardian article, English wordsmith Robert McCrum included it in his compilation of “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction.” About it, he wrote: “This is the classic third-person opening to the 20th-century novel that has shaped modern fiction, pro and anti, for almost a hundred years.”

One of literary history’s most influential novels, Ulysses was an epic “stream-of-consciousness” novel that had famous supporters and dissenters. T. S. Eliot said it was “the most important expression which the present age has found.” Vladimir Nabokov hailed it as a “divine work of art.” And Virginia Woolf wrote about it: “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Alan Judd
Dancing With Eva (2006)

For some weeks Edith left the opened letter on the white mantelpiece in the sitting room. It would have been easy—forefinger and thumb, a flick of the wrist—to consign it to the beech-log fire she always lit in winter before tea.

Edith Mecklenburg, now in the final years of her life, was Eva Braun’s personal secretary during WWII. After the war, she created a new life for herself in England, but a recent letter from someone in her past has disquieted her.

The narrator continued: “Then she could have tried to forget it, since he surely would not have written again. If you don’t hear from someone for half a century, then suddenly you do, you can assume he’s probably not going to pester you for a reply.“

Franz Kafka
The Metamorphosis (1915)

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

This line, with its fantastical and highly unexpected ending, has excited readers for more than a century. When the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez first read the line as an undergraduate at the National University of Colombia in the late 1940s, the effect was immediate and dramatic. “The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised,” he later recalled in a 1981 Paris Review interview. Márquez went on to add: “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”

One of the most famous first lines in all of literature, it was originally written in German this way: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” Since “Ungeheuren Ungeziefer” has no literal equivalent in English, it has been translated in a variety of different ways for English readers. In a 2015 Guardian article, writer W. B. Gooderham provided an invaluable service by compiling a variety of divergent translations. The version above, the most popular, comes from a 1933 translation by Edwin and Willa Muir. Here are the others:

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” [Stanley Corngold, 1972)

“One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.” [Joachim Neugroschel, 1993]

“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.” [Michael Hofmann, 2007]

“As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.” [Joyce Crick, 2009]

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa woke from a fitful, dream-filled sleep, he found that he had changed into an enormous bedbug.” [Christopher Moncrieff]

“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.” [Susan Bernofsky, 2014]

“One morning Gregor Samsa woke in his bed from uneasy dreams and found he had turned into a large verminous insect” [John R. Williams, 2014]

Franz Kafka
The Trial (1925)

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King had an off-the-cuff idea he shared with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler: “You could go around and ask people about their favorite first lines. I think you’ll find that most of them, right away, establish the sense of voice we talked about. Why not do it? I’d love to know, like, Jonathan Franzen’s favorite first line.” Fassler jumped on the idea and immediately reached out to nearly two dozen of his favorite writers, including Franzen.

As it turns out, Franzen’s favorite opening line was from The Trial, and here’s what he had to say about it: “The method of the whole novel is here in a nutshell. You think you’re being introduced to the persecution of an innocent man, but if you read the chapter that follows carefully, you see that Josef K. is in fact doing all sorts of bad things in his life. If you then go back and reread the first sentence, it becomes significant that the very first impulse of the narrator (who is aligned with Josef K.’s point of view) is to blame somebody else.”

Franz Kafka
Amerika (1927)

As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbor of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illuminate the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before.

Kafka began work on this story in 1912, just after finishing "Metamorphosis." After giving it a working title of Der Verschollene ("The Missing Person" or "The Man Who Disappeared"), he worked on the project in a desultory way for the next dozen years. It remained unfinished at his death in 1924.

In his will, Kafka left everything to Max Brod, his literary editor, close friend, and executor of his estate. Kafka wanted all of his unfinished literary works to be destroyed, but Brod used Kafka's raw notes to finish the tale. Brod changed the title to Amerika when it was first published in Germany in 1927, and he insisted on retaining the German title when an English language translation appeared in 1928.

Lauren Kate
The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove (2009)

Once upon a time you knew nothing.

It wasn’t your fault—you were just a kid. And growing up where you did, most people assumed that this was for the best. The longer it took a small town southern girl to catch on to the backward ways of her world, the better off everyone was.

In her debut YA novel, Kate plays off the classic once upon a time opener to introduce Natalie Hargrove, a Charleston, South Carolina high school senior with a saucy attitude (it’s not as in-your-face as Holden Caulfield’s, but it’s there nonetheless, and Natalie doesn’t hesitate to display it in her interactions with schoolmates). The first two paragraphs also achieve an important goal of great opening lines: giving a voice to the protagonist. In the third paragraph, Natalie continued:

“Back then, your biggest worries were not getting caught stealing that pack of Juicy Fruit from the drugstore…oh, and making it out of elementary school with some semblance of a soul.”

Kate went on to achieve international fame for her bestselling Fallen series, but The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove was the work that started it all. If, a few chapters into it, you sense something vaguely familiar about the story, it turns out to be the author’s reworking of the Macbeth tale.

Bel Kaufman
Up the Down Staircase (1964)

Hi, teach!

Looka her! She’s a teacher?

Who she?

Is this 304? Are you Mr. Barringer?

No. I’m Miss Barrett.

I’m supposed to have Mr. Barringer.

I’m Miss Barrett.

So begins a novel about Sylvia Barrett, an idealistic young college grad who has accepted a job as an English teacher at an inner-city high school. Published when the author was fifty-three years old, the book was based on Kaufman’s own first-year teaching experiences.

One of the first novels to respectfully capture the vernacular of urban youth, the book became a surprise hit (on The New York Times Best-Seller list for 64 weeks). Adapted into a popular 1967 film (starring Sandy Dennis), a stage version of the novel is still frequently performed in high school drama productions, and has become something of an American classic.

Bel Kaufman
Love, etc. (1979)

And they lived happily ever after. Well, not exactly. Actually, not at all. As a matter of fact, miserably. To tell the truth, their life together was sheer hell, and their struggles to free themselves from each other were disastrous.

After this nifty oxymoronic opening—with the captivating idea of a happily miserable couple whose marriage is not unlike a Chinese finger puzzle—only the nearly comatose would fail to read on.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Zorba the Greek (1946)

I often wished to write "The Saint's Life of Alexis Zorba," a laborer of advanced age whom I exceedingly loved.

These opening words--from the Prologue to the book--come from a 2014 English translation by Peter Bien, who worked from the original Greek edition of the book. Bien regarded the original 1952 translation as inadequate because the translator, Carl Wildman, spoke no Greek and relied on a French translation of Kazantzakis's original work. The original Wildman rendition began in a less dramatic, and almost bland way: "I first met him in Piraeus. I wanted to take the boat for Crete and had gone down to the port. It was almost daybreak and raining."

In the Bien translation, the dramatic opening words come from the novel's unnamed narrator, a young, bookish intellectual whose life was transformed by a Greek working-class man with an infectious passion for life. He continued: "The great benefactors in my life have been journeys and dreams. Very few people, dead or alive, have helped me in my struggles; yet if I wished to single out those individual souls who did engrave their traces most deeply upon my soul, I would presumably designate these four: Homer, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Zorba."

Nikos Kazantzakis
Report to Greco (1961)

I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect. Night has fallen, the day's work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground. Not because I am tired and cannot work. I am not tired. But the sun has set.

These opening words from the book's Prologue are so intriguing that we're drawn in for a taste of more. And we're not disappointed, for when we finally get to Chapter One, it begins: "I look down into myself and shudder. On my father's side my ancestors were bloodthirsty pirates on water, warrior chieftains on land, fearing neither God nor man; on my mother's side, drab, goodly peasants who bowed trustfully over the soil the entire day, sowed, waited with confidence for rain and sun, reaped, and in the evening seated themselves on the stone bench in front of their homes, folded their arms, and placed their hopes in God. Fire and soil. How could I harmonize these two militant ancestors inside me."

Brian Keene
Jack’s Magic Beans (2011)

The lettuce started talking to Ben Mahoney halfway through his shift at Save-A-Lot.

Keene is the author of more than forty books, primarily in the horror, crime, and dark fantasy genres (as much as anyone, he is responsible for the world’s current fascination with zombies). In 2019, when asked by a Goodreads user to identify his favorite opening line, he identified this one.

Brian Keene
The Complex (2016)

When everyone starts killing each other, Sam doesn’t notice at first because he’s too busy preparing to kill himself.

In 2019, Keene identified this as his second favorite opening line, and it’s easy to understand why. For his favorite, see the other Keene entry.

Garrison Keillor
Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007)

Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.

For decades, Keillor infused his Prairie Home Companion broadcasts with his wry wit, and it seems only natural—and fitting—that he would also bring it to the opening sentence of the second novel in his Lake Wobegon series.

Garrison Keillor
Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny (2012)

Call me a cynic, but I maintain that nothing can clarify a man’s thinking quite like looking down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of a man who is irked with you and considering homicide as a solution to his problems.

This is a first-rate opening line, fitting perfectly into the noir tradition of American crime stories. The novel represents the first literary appearance of Guy Noir, a fictional private eye that Keillor first introduced in 1995 on his Prairie Home Companion series. In the novel’s first paragraph, the ingeniously-named detective continued:

“This has happened to me from time to time in my so-called career as a private eye in St. Paul, Minnesota, and each occurrence promoted clear thinking, inconvenient though it was at the time. Christians try to find clarity through prayer, but you don’t really know what prayer is until you meet someone who’s prepared to shoot you.”

Thomas Keneally
Schindler’s Ark [published in America as Schindler’s List] (1982)

In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and—in the lapel of the dinner jacket—a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block in Straszewskiego Street on the edge of the ancient center of Crakow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine.

“Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,” said the chauffeur. “It’s icy like a widow’s heart.”

Caroline Kepnes
You: A Novel (2014)

You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are.

In a debut novel described by Stephen King as “Hypnotic and scary,” the opening words immediately establish a suspenseful, even sinister atmosphere. A young woman who has entered a bookstore is being watched, possibly by a store employee, or maybe a customer, and almost certainly a male. As the watcher continues, things begin to move in an almost creepy direction:

“You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”

You is the first of four novels to feature the anti-hero Joe Goldberg, a bookstore manager who is equal parts darkly sociopathic and charmingly lovable. The first two books formed the basis for a popular Lifetime television series of the same title, with Greg Berlanti in the Jacoby role.

Jack Kerouac
The Town and the City (1950)

The town is Galloway. The Merrimac River, broad and placid, flows down to it from the New Hampshire hills, broken at the falls to make frothy havoc on the rocks, foaming on over ancient stone towards a place where the river suddenly swings about in a wide and peaceful basin, moving on now around the flank of the town, on to places known as Lawrence and Haverhill, through a wooded valley, and on to the sea at Plum Island, where the river enters an infinity of waters and is gone.

Jack Kerouac
On the Road (1957)

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

The opening words come from Sal Paradise, the narrator and protagonist of one of the most influential books in American cultural history. The man mentioned in the first sentence is Dean Moriarty, a thinly veiled version of Neal Cassady, a beat poet who played a major role in the real-life philosophical development of Kerouac. By the way, nearly a decade later, Cassady was prominently featured in yet another major literary work—as one of the Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Two days after On the Road was published, Gilbert Millstein wrote in a New York Times review that it was “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ’beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.“ Millstein went on to compare the book to Ernest Hemingway’s most influential work, writing: “Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the ’Lost Generation,’ so it seems that On the Road will come to be known as that of the ’Beat Generation.’“

Kerouac’s classic novel is now regarded as more of a cultural phenomenon than a literary work, but Millstein immediately recognized it as a work of the highest order, writing: “There are sections of On the Road in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking [and] some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity.“

Jack Kerouac
The Dharma Bums (1958)

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.

Jack Kerouac
Satori in Paris (1966)

Something happened during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany). I received an illumination of some kind that seems to've changed me again, towards what I suppose'll be my pattern for another seven years or more: in effect, a satori; the Japanese word for "sudden illumination," "sudden awakening" or simply "kick in the eye."

Jack Kerouac
The Sea is My Brother (written 1943; first published 2011)

A young man, cigarette in mouth and hands in trousers' pockets, descended a short flight of brick steps leading to the foyer on an uptown Broadway hotel and turned in the direction of Riverside Church, sauntering in a curious, slow shuffle.

Often called "The Lost Novel," The Sea is My Brother was written by the twenty-one-year-old Kerouac in 1943, a full seven years before The Town and the City would launch his writing career in 1950, and fourteen years before he became a celebrity with On the Road. This opening paragraph suggests a talented young writer, but one who has not yet found the "voice" that would characterize his later writings.

In the second paragraph, the narrator continued: "It was dusk. The warm July streets, veiled in a mist of sultriness which obscured the sharp outlines of Broadway, swarmed with a pageant of strollers, colorful fruit stands, buses, taxis, shiny automobiles, Kosher shops, movie marquees, and all the innumerable phenomena that make up the brilliant carnival spirit of a midsummer thoroughfare in New York City."

Philip Kerr
The Other Side of Silence [Book 11 in the Bernie Gunther series] (2016)

Yesterday I tried to kill myself.

It wasn’t that I wanted to die as much as the fact that I wanted the pain to stop.

These are dramatic opening words, and I believe they perfectly capture the reality of most people considering suicide: they don’t want to end their lives so much as they want to bring an end to the unbearable pain they’ve been experiencing. In this case, the pain-sufferer is Bernie Gunther, an aging former Berlin homicide detective with a dark past. As the novel begins, he is working under a false name as a concierge at a hotel in the French Riviera—and he is definitely not a happy camper. In his opening words, he continued:

“Elizabeth, my wife, left me a while ago and I’d been missing her a lot. That was one source of pain, and a pretty major one, I have to admit. Even after a war in which more than four million German soldiers died, German wives are hard to come by. But another serious pain in my life was the war itself, of course, and what happened to me way back then, and in the Soviet POW camps afterward.”

Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)

They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.

These first words immediately suggest paranoid ideation, and that impression is confirmed as the narrator—who we will shortly learn is a Native American psychiatric patient named “Chief” Bromden—continues:

“They’re mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulking and hating everything, the time of day, the place they’re at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment [that] detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.“

In 1975, director Milos Forman adapted Kesey’s classic novel into an equally classic film, starring Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a mental institution. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress (to Louise Fletcher as nurse Ratched), and Best Supporting Actor (to Brad Dourif).

Ken Kesey
Sailor Song (1992)

Ike Sallas was asleep when it began, in a red aluminum Galaxxy, not all that far away and only a short skip into the future. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—and that wasn’t even the half of it.

After this nifty tribute to Charles Dickens, the narrator continued: “He was dreaming about his ex-wife Jeannie, and how good she looked in their duster days in Fresno—the clean, simple days, before the baby and the Bakatcha Movement were born. Before the decade came to be known as the Nasty Nineties.“ NOTE: Galaxxy is spelled correctly in the first sentence.

Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Off Season (1980)

They watched her cross the meadow and step over the low stone wall, into the woods beyond. She looked awkward. She would be easy to catch.

They took their time. Breaking off the white birch switches, peeling the bark away. They could hear her moving through the underbrush. They looked at one another and smiled, but said nothing. They peeled the switches, and then they started after her.

It was openings like this that inspired Stephen King to write: “Ketchum has become a kind of hero to those of us who write tales of terror and suspense. He is, quite simply, one of the best in the business.” And about this particular novel, King wrote that Off Season was “a kind of literary Night of the Living Dead.”

Ketchum has often been dismissed as a purveyor of violent pornography, but that would be writing him off too easily. In 2011, he received the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award for outstanding contribution to the horror genre.

Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Hide and Seek (1984)

I don’t believe in omens, but I think you can know when you’re in trouble.

Follow me on this, even if it sounds like bullshit.

Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Girl Next Door (1989)

You think you know about pain?

In a 2012 LitReactor.com article (“Storyville: Endings, Twisted and Otherwise”), writer Richard Thomas wrote about opening words: “You need to set your audience up. Whether you are writing a 500-word bit of flash fiction or an epic series, you need to plant that seed…that really gives you a clue as to what is to come.” And about this opener in particular, he wrote: “That is such a great set-up. The story that follows is all about pain and boy, what a hook.”

Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Box (1994)

“What’s in the box?” my son said.

“Danny,” I said, “Leave the man alone.”

It was two Sundays before Christmas and the Stamford local was packed—shoppers lined the aisles and we were lucky to have found seats. The man sat facing my daughters Clarissa and Jenny and me, the three of us squeezed together across from him and Danny in the seat beside him.

I could understand my son’s curiosity. The man was holding the red square gift box in his lap as though afraid that the Harrison stop, coming up next, might jolt it from his grasp. He’d been clutching it that way for three stops now—since he got on.

Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Lost (2001)

Katherine took another sip of vodka. Ask him, she thought. It’s sick but it’s what you really want to know most of all, isn’t it? So go on and ask him. Truth or lie you want to hear his answer. She lit a cigarette and shook out the match.

“So you didn’t tell me, Ray,” she said. “What did it feel like?”

“Huh? I did tell you.”

“You told me how it felt after. Not then. Not at the time.”

Daniel Keyes
“Flowers for Algernon,” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (April 1959)

Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey things that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its important so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old and 2 weeks ago was my birthday. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.

Charlie is a man with an IQ of 68, and these are the opening words from his very first “Progris riport.” A few weeks earlier, he was recruited to be the first human subject in an experimental surgical procedure designed to increase intelligence (an earlier procedure on a mouse named Algernon paved the way).

Keyes’ short story was widely praised, winning the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. A few years later, he expanded it into a critically acclaimed novel (it shared the 1968 Nebula Award for Best Novel). The tale went on to become a part of popular culture when it was adapted into the 1968 film Charlie, starring Cliff Robertson.

Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees (2002)

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

The words come from Lily Owens, a fourteen-year-old girl who, struggling under the care of an abusive single-parent father, continues to be haunted by memories of her mother, who died when she was only four.

It’s a terrific opening, but it was preceded by an even more spectacular epigraph, taken from Man and Insects, a 1965 text on beekeeping by L. Hugh Newman:

“The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness.“

Sue Monk Kidd
The Mermaid Chair (2005)

In the middle of my marriage, when I was above all Hugh’s wife and Dee’s mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk.

In a 2019 “Ask the Editor” post on PublishersWeekly.com, Betty Kelly Sargent, the founder and CEO of Bookworks, hailed this as one of her favorite opening lines. When asked by a reader, “Do you think it’s essential to start a novel with a dynamite first sentence?” Sargent replied:

“Absolutely. Your first sentence must entice, impress, surprise, and maybe even shock the reader. With all the competition for a reader’s attention these days, it’s important to try to hook your reader instantly, so spending the time it takes to craft a powerful opening sentence is well worth the effort…. Think of the opening sentence as an invitation to read your story—an invitation that’s hard to refuse.”

Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of Longings (2020)

I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.

This was one of my selections for The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020 (to be seen here). The idea that Jesus had a wife, and that she is telling the story of their life together, is compelling. It also raises a question few have ever asked: What kind of husband would Jesus have been?

In the novel, Ana continued: “He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan. I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.”

Laurie R. King
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994)

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Down, and nearly stepped on him.

With this opening line, the literary world was introduced to Mary Russell, a Jewish-American teenager who literally runs into the 54-year-old Sherlock Holmes while wandering through the Sussex Downs in the Southeast of England. The year is 1915, and Mary, whose parents died a year earlier in a motorcar accident in California, is now living with an English aunt. Holmes, now retired from his consulting detective practice, has become a beekeeper. The unlikely pair quickly become fast friends, and she soon becomes his apprentice in the grand art of detection.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is the first in a series of twenty delightful Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Stay tuned for more opening lines from the series.

Lily King
The English Teacher (2005)

October, 1979

That she had not killed him in her sleep was still the great relief of every morning.

This recurring—and disturbing—thought occurs every morning to protagonist Vida Avery. She is a single mom who teaches English at a prestigious New England prep school, and the him is her teenage son, Peter. About the opening line, writer Lloyd Ferriss wrote in a Portland Press Herald review: “From its powerful beginning, Lily King’s The English Teacher soars.” In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued:

“Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing, as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across the floor. He’d scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next morning.”

Lily King
Euphoria (2014)

As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.

“Another dead baby,” Fen said.

The opening words are gripping—even horrifying—but they immediately capture the reader’s attention. As it turns out, the pale brown thing may not be a baby after all, but who could stop reading after such a sizzling opener?

King’s novel, inspired by a field trip that anthropologist Margaret Mead made to New Guinea in 1933, was one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning numerous awards, including the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the 2014 New England Book Award for Fiction. It was also named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review.

Lily King
Writers and Lovers: A Novel (2020)

I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.

The opening words come from Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old aspiring writer who has been double-whammied by a recent romantic breakup and the death of her mother. Now living in the Boston area, her life is at a turning point, and it is not clear what the future holds in store for her. While working on a novel she has wrestled with for the past six years, Casey is waiting tables at a Harvard Square restaurant and living—although a more accurate term might be existing—in a small, dark, moldy room attached to a garage. A deeply absorbing novel about the ages and stages of one woman’s life, a Boston Globe review said about the work: “The novel is a meditation on trying itself: to stay alive, to love, to care.”

In a 2020 review in London’s Evening Standard, Curtis Sittenfield also hailed the novel, writing: “I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph.” Sittenfield went on to add: “The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life.“

Stephen King
Salem’s Lot (1975)

Everybody thought the man and the boy were father and son.

Great opening lines are often more like lures than hooks, and this one has been beckoning readers since the early stages of King’s career. In a 2020 essay on “Great Hookers I Have Known,“ King wrote about it: “I suppose if I had to pick a favorite opening sentence from my own work—and it still isn’t much of a hooker—it would be the opening sentence of Salem’s Lot.“

The man and the boy turn out to be the man and the girl, a father and daughter—Andy and Charlene “Charlie” McGee—who begin the novel “on the run” from government authorities.

You might also be interested in learning that, seven years earlier, in a 2013 interview, King identified yet another opening line from his works as his personal favorite. For more, see the Needful Things (1991) entry.

Stephen King
The Shining (1977)

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

This is the novel’s entire first paragraph—the protagonist’s simple but powerful assessment of a man who’s interviewing candidates for the job of off-season caretaker of a grand old hotel in the mountains of Colorado.

In the second paragraph, Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic, continued: “Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.”

In 1980, the novel was adapted into a Stanley Kubrick film with an unforgettable performance by Jack Nicholson. When King first saw the film, he hated it, but ultimately came to respect it as a work of art. He wrote in Danse Macabre (1981); “Even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there.”

Stephen King
Firestarter (1980)

“Daddy, I’m tired,“ the little girl in the red pants and the green blouse said fretfully.

You don’t regard this as a great opening line? Neither does Stephen King, and I’m including it here for that reason. I love King for many reasons, and one of the most important is his ability to cast a critical eye on his own creations. In a 2020 essay on great opening lines, he wrote: “I have written some extraordinarily unhookerish opening sentences. Take Firestarter. Of all my novels, it’s the one I remember as having the fastest takeoff—zero to seventy in about nine pages. But the opening sentence is about as exciting as a pair of dirty socks.“ After sharing the line, King went on to ask: “Do anything for you? Me neither.“

Stephen King
Cujo (1981)

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.

Here, King immediately gets our attention by juxtaposing the four most innocuous opening words of all time—once upon a time—with three of the most firghtening: a monster came.

Stephen King
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.”

Stephen King
“The Body,” in Different Seasons (1982)

The most important things are the hardest things to say.

This is one of my Top Ten Favorite Opening Lines, a short, simple, and boldly straightforward declaration that perfectly captures an eternal truth about the human experience. I’ve personally experienced the phenomenon a number of times in my personal life, and I’m sure you have as well. The opening sentence also helps to explain one of the reasons we love writers so much: they help us express deep and powerful feelings that we’d have trouble articulating on our own.

In the opening paragraph, the narrator, a Maine writer named Gordon “Gordie” LaChance, continued: “They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away.“

Fittingly, in 1982, Rob Reiner adapted the novella into one of my all-time favorite films, “Stand by Me.“ With Richard Dreyfuss providing the narration, King’s wonderful coming-of-age tale was brought to life by the young actors Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell.

In a 2017 essay, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and other novels) described the opening words of “The Body” as deeply meaningful when he first read them at age twenty—an age when he said it was common for people to believe the world doesn’t get them. “This passage,” he wrote, was “an expression of how alone we are, really, the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”

Years later, when Hosseini was a developing writer rather than a developing person, the words took on an added significance, something he could not appreciate at that earlier stage of life. He wrote: “This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your head, and onto the page or the computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.”

Stephen King
Christine (1983)

This is the story of a lover’s triangle, I suppose you’d say—Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine.

Christine may be the first novel in literary history to feature a lover’s triangle that includes two human beings and an inanimate object. What the reader doesn’t know at the end of this inviting first sentence, however, is that Christine is an inanimate object who will soon become quite animated—and one of the most jealous lovers of all time.

Stephen King
Misery (1987)

umber whunn

yerrrnnn umber whunnn


These sounds: even in the haze.

These four lines—which form the entirety of the first chapter—are the first sounds heard by bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon as he slowly emerges from an unconscious state. Even readers who correctly decipher the sounds (“Number One. Your Number One Fan”) have no idea where the story is going to take them.

Misery won the 1987 Bram Stoker Award and was adapted into a popular 1990 film starring James Caan as Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, his devoted—and deranged—fan. Bates’s performance was so spectacular she received a Best Actress Oscar later that year. When King was asked in a 2013 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session about which actor had best captured one of his characters in film adaptations of his works, he replied, “Kathy Bates was a great Annie Wilkes.”

Stephen King
The Dark Half (1989)

People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times.

Stephen King
Needful Things (1991)


All authors can cite the favorite opening lines they have themselves written, and this one is King’s. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, King said: “But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote—and I learned it from [James] Cain, and learned it from [Douglas] Fairbairn—is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.“

King went on to add: “All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that’s going to come. The story of neighbor against neighbor is the oldest story in the world, and yet this telling is (I hope) strange and somehow different. Sometimes it’s important to find that kind of line: one that encapsulates what’s going to happen later without being a big thematic statement.“

Stephen King
The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.

Stephen King
Lisey’s Story (2006)

To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.

The opening line introduces readers to the widow of the famous actor Scott Landon. After two years of struggling with the loss of her husband, she is finally getting around to cleaning out his office. In the process, all kinds of memories come flooding back to her—and, in typical Stephen King fashion, other strange and unusual events also begin to unfold.

In an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2013, King was asked which of his novels was his favorite. While he answered that it was Lisey’s Story, you should know he has answered this question differently over the years. The novel was a favorite of many other people as well, winning the 2006 Bram Stoker Award.

Stephen King
Joyland (2013)

I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually.

After a so-so start, the opening words of the novel begin to soar when narrator Devin Jones—a college student with a summer job at a North Carolina amusement park—continues: “By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?”

In a 2013 New York Times review, Walter Kim wrote about the protagonist: “Devin, who dreamed of being a novelist but ended up as a writer for magazines, comes across as a version of King himself, which lends his narration a winking, intimate quality.” And Kim went on to write about the book: “King’s ambition this time around isn’t to snatch us and hold us in his grasp but to loft us up high, then briskly set us down the way a Ferris wheel does. Or a first love.”

Stephen King
Later (2021)

I don’t like to start with an apology—there’s probably even a rule against it—but after reading over the first thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to.

The words come from Jamie Conklin, a young boy who is living in Manhattan with single mom Tia, a literary agent. Even though the opening words have a Holden Caulfield feel to them, Jamie is not an ordinary boy. Since birth, he has possessed a special ability to communicate with dead people.

In the opening paragraph, Jamie continued: “It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will soon find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in “Later on” and “Later I found out” and “It was only later that I realized.”

Tabitha King
Survivor (1998)

The girls came from nowhere, emerging from darkness suddenly, into the street directly in front of her.

When most people think of a thriller penned by an author named King, they quite naturally think of Stephen. But there’s another writer in the family as well, and, while not nearly as prolific as her better-known husband, Tabita King has produced seven novels, several non-fiction works, a few volumes of poetry, and scores of short stories.

In Survivor, she begins with a terrifying scene many of us have personally experienced—children darting out from the shadows and suddenly caught in the headlights of a vehicle we’re driving. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“She was above them behind the wheel of her Blazer, and as the girls lurched in her lights, the hilarity distorting their faces turned to terror, their arms upthrust as if against the glare. She was by then standing on her brakes. The Blazer shuddered and bucked, tires shrieking. Only inches from her bumper, the two girls seemed to reel as if in a strong wind.”

Barbara Kingsolver
The Bean Trees (1988)

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.

These are the fantastical opening words of Kingsolver’s career-launching debut novel. They also clearly establish the “voice” of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, a feisty young Kentucky woman named Marietta Greer (who changes her name to Taylor as she embarks on a westward adventure in her 1955 Volkswagen bug).

W. P. Kinsella
Shoeless Joe (1982)

My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.

The narrator and protagonist is Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who just happens to share the author’s surname. He goes on to quote his father as saying: “He’d put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe.“

In the novel, Kinsella hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a huge corn field. The field, he is told, will give Shoeless Joe Jackson, the central figure in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, a chance at redemption. The novel was acclaimed by critics from the outset and went on to win the 1982 Books in Canada First Novel Award.

After the novel was adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, the saying “If you build it, he will come” went on to become a cultural meme The saying was recently ranked 39th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time.

E. L. Konigsburg
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.

The opening sentence introduces us to 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, a sixth-grader from Greenwich, Connecticut who feels unappreciated by her parents. The narrator continued:

“Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from someplace but would be running to someplace. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum.”

In 1968, this classic work of children’s literature won the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal.

Dean Koontz
The Eyes of Darkness (1981)

At six minutes past midnight, Tuesday morning, on the way home from a late rehearsal of her new stage show, Tina Evans saw her son, Danny, in a stranger’s car. But Danny had been dead for more than a year.

Even though Koontz is a modern master of the Great Opening Line, he wrote in a 2015 blog post that he doesn’t deliberately attempt to create a hook that will snare a reader. He put it this way: “I don’t always—or even usually—craft a first sentence that is meant to be an immediate hook. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can seem artificial. I figure I’ve got at least a paragraph or two, more likely a page or two, with which to compel the reader to stay with the story, though not much more than that. Dickens routinely set his hooks within two pages, and there’s no better model than the one he offers.“

Dean Koontz
Dragon Tears (1993)

Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.

In 2015, Koontz surveyed his fans for their favorite opening lines from his novels, and this was one of the top seven vote getters (the other six also appear below). About this one, he wrote: "That the line from Dragon Tears was so often chosen doesn't surprise me. It promises threat and action soon, and it's just tongue-in-cheek enough to make the reader smile." It's rare for writers to speak personally and expansively about their opening line creations, so I am pleased to be able to present this and, below, some of his other thoughts.

Dean Koontz
Seize the Night (1999)

Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach.

About this fan favorite, Koontz wrote: "I also suspect some people would feel that the opening to Seize the Night is insufficiently gripping because it's just a visual, not a promise of anything. Maybe I have a lot of language freaks in my readership, but being a guy who grew up reading Ray Bradbury, I've always felt that a lyrical opening, even just a description of the sky, can hook the reader if its words are carefully chosen for their resonance and if it paints a scene that suggests mystery or wonder."

Dean Koontz
False Memory (1999)

On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding.

In his 2015 survey, this was also one of the top fan favorites. About it, Koontz wrote: “The one that most surprises me is False Memory. This is a long opening sentence—131 words!—which runs against most writing advice to keep sentences short, or at least shorter than this. People seem to like it because it conveys so much about the heroine and her character and sets her up as someone you want to know more about. Maybe I’ll open a book one day with a 500-word sentence just to see if I can get away with it.“

Dean Koontz
One Door Away From Heaven (2001)

The world is full of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can’t mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits.

The narrator continued: “Currently sunshine was Micky Bellsong’s medication of choice, and southern California in late August was an apothecary with a deep supply of this prescription.“

The opening words of this novel were a surprise winner in Koontz’s 2015 survey, leading him to write: “The line from One Door Away From Heaven does indeed surprise me. First of all, it’s not one sentence, but two, so picking it is a bit of a cheat. And this is a story in which I purposefully took a page or two to crank up the engine. Yet not only did this have a lot of votes, but a fine film producer, who once tried to get the book produced, also told me she bought her copy of the novel on the basis of that opening paragraph and realized, from that alone, that it was probably going to make a terrific movie. (That’s another story.) Why? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I suspect it appeals to people because it expresses something that they feel is true but haven’t before put into words themselves: that most people are in one way or another broken by their experiences, that we are all the walking wounded. This suggests that, against all the common wisdom of the publishing business, it might be all right to open a book with something as potentially off-putting as a bit of humble philosophy.“

Dean Koontz
Odd Thomas (2003)

My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist.

Dean Koontz
The Life Expectancy (2004)

On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me.

The narrator and protagonist, 30-year-old Jimmy Tock, continued in the second paragraph: “Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a pastry chef. He made éclairs and lemon tarts, not predictions.“

Dean Koontz
The Husband (2006)

A man begins dying at the moment of his birth.

About this opening line, Koontz wrote: "This is very humble philosophy, something everyone knows, but perhaps it strikes the reader because we never see our fate put quite so bluntly, especially when talking about birth, which is usually couched in joyful terms."

Dean Koontz
The Good Guy (2007)

Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spiderwebbed silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in flight.

Sometimes, as with a combination punch in boxing, a great opening line serves simply as a set-up for an even better second line--and that is certainly true here. The narrator continued: “At six feet three, weighing two hundred ten pounds, with big hands and bigger feet, Timothy Carrier could not maintain a profile as low as that of a skating mayfly, but he tried.“

Dean Koontz
Relentless (2009)

This is a thing I've learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter.

About this fan favorite from his 2015 survey, Koontz wrote: "The line from Relentless doesn't surprise me, but I suspect that it would surprise a number of people in publishing. It is widely believed that mixing humor with suspense is a sales killer, though with many books I have proved that bit of common wisdom is not true."

Milan Kundera
The Festival of Insignificance (2013)

It was the month of June, the morning sun was emerging from the clouds, and Alain was walking slowly down a Paris street. He observed the young girls, who—every one of them—showed her naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.

When they are beautifully crafted, sexually suggestive opening words—even if only slightly suggestive—are pretty much guaranteed to elicit a reader’s interest, and that is certainly true with this opener. As the narrator continued, our interest is only deepened:

“He was captivated; captivated and even disturbed: It was as if their seductive power no longer resided in their thighs, their buttocks, or their breasts, but in that small round hole located in the center of the body.”

A 2013 Booklist review hailed the novel as “classic Kundera: polyphonic, digressive, intellectual yet anti-philosophical deliberately strange, and aggressively light. And his descriptions are as beautiful as ever.”

Louis L’Amour
Hondo (1953)

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.

Louis L’Amour
Radigan (1958)

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.

Louis L’Amour
Flint (1960)

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.

Louis L’Amour
Sackett (1961)

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.

Louis L’Amour
Catlow (1963)

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.“

Louis L’Amour
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.

Louis L’Amour
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.”

Louis L’Amour
The Walking Drum (1984)

Nothing moved but the wind and only a few last, lingering drops of rain, only a blowing of water off the ruined wall. Listening, I heard no other sound. My imagination was creating foes where none existed.

In one of the few L’Amour novels that is not a western, the opening words come from narrator and protagonist Mathurin Kerbouchard. A historical novel set in the twelfth century, The Walking Drum was intended to be a trilogy, but the remaining two books were never written due to the author’s declining health, and death in 1988.

Catherine Lacey
Nobody is Ever Missing (2014)

There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists I am pretty sure my husband is one of them. I think this because of what happened the week I knew I’d be leaving soon, but he didn’t know.

This is a sad opening line, true, but it also provides a revealing glimpse into the interior world of an unhappily married woman. The narrator and protagonist, 28-year-old Elyria Marcus, continued:

“I knew I needed to tell him this but I couldn’t imagine any possible way to get my mouth to make those words, and since my husband can unintentionally read minds, he drank a great deal more than usual that week, jars of gin mostly, but tall beers from the deli, too. He’d walk in sipping a can hidden in a paper bag, smile like it was a joke.

“I would laugh.

“He would laugh.

“Inside our laughing we weren’t really laughing.“

Catherine Lacey
The Answers (2017)

I’d run out of options. That’s how these things usually happen, how a person ends up placing all her last hopes on a stranger, hoping that whatever that stranger might do to her would be the thing she needed done to her.

When readers open a book and dip into a superbly-crafted opening paragraph like this, very few appreciate how the writer got to the final result. In a 2017 Guardian article on the best “Opening Scenes” in books, Lacey took a moment to reveal the painstaking process behind this great opener:

“I worked and reworked, un-worked and reworked the first chapter of my second novel, The Answers, trying to get the tone just right. It began as 12 pages, a braid of the main character’s memories and anxieties, then whittled down to 10, then eight, then five. For a year, I thought that five-page opening was perfect. Then, in a rare late-night revision fit, I deleted it and replaced the whole thing with a single paragraph. Now it wastes no time in opening the book with the right feeling—a mix of regret and menace and mystery.”

The Answers was widely praised by critics, and one reviewer who especially appreciated her paring-down efforts was Claire Fallon, who wrote in a Huffington Post review: “Lacey’s prose radiates elegance beneath its unassuming, unflashy surface; there’s nary a maladroit word or an unrevealing detail.“

Catherine Lacey
Pew (2020)

If you ever need to—and I hope you never need to, but a person cannot be sure—if you ever need to sleep, if you are ever so tired that you feel nothing but the animal weight of your bones, and you’re walking along a dark road with no one, and you’re not sure how long you’ve been walking, and you keep looking down at your hands and not recognizing them, and you keep catching a reflection in darkened windows and not recognizing that reflection, and all you know is the desire to sleep, and all you have is no place to sleep, one thing you can do is look for a church.

It’s not easy to write a compelling opening sentence of 100-plus words (this one has 114), but Lacey demonstrates that it can be done—if you have the talent.

Gen LaGreca
Just the Truth (2019)

His teacher had told him to stop asking so many questions. They disrupted the class, she’d said. Although he asked them in earnest, and she tried her best to reply, his questions too often pushed the bounds of her knowledge. She squirmed, and the children laughed. The little schoolhouse he attended in rural Virginia eventually became like a shoe that no longer fit the growing footprint of Julius Taninger’s intellectual curiosity.

The entire first paragraph of LaGreca’s novel is very well written, but the concluding metaphor is nothing short of spectacular. To me, it perfectly captures the critical, character-forming role that an insatiable curiosity can play in a young, developing human being.

Laila Lalami
The Other Americans (2019)

My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland.

In a 2019 “Ask the Editor” post on PublishersWeekly.com, Betty Kelly Sargent, the founder and CEO of Bookworks, hailed this as one of her favorite opening lines. When asked by a reader, “Do you think it’s essential to start a novel with a dynamite first sentence?” Sargent replied:

“Absolutely. Your first sentence must entice, impress, surprise, and maybe even shock the reader. With all the competition for a reader’s attention these days, it’s important to try to hook your reader instantly, so spending the time it takes to craft a powerful opening sentence is well worth the effort…. Think of the opening sentence as an invitation to read your story—an invitation that’s hard to refuse.”

In the opening paragraph, narrator and protagonist Nora Guerraoui, a jazz composer of Moroccan descent, continued: “Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo.”

Wally Lamb
I Know This Much Is True (2008)

On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction,” writing:

“The first part of this sentence points to an average man on an average day. The second part indicates something huge is about to happen. Thomas is no average character. Who chooses a library to make a sacrifice? Reading it today, one might suspect Thomas to be a suicide bomber, but in 1998, when I first read it, that didn’t enter my mind. Even if it had, I would have been wrong. What sacrifice is about to be made? Why the library? What’s going on between Thomas and his twin brother?”

In 2020, the novel was adapted into an HBO-TV miniseries, with Mark Ruffalo playing the roles of both twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey.

Anne Lamott
Hard Laughter (1979)

My family lived for fifteen years in a castle built more than a century ago by an eccentric man who wanted his Rhine-born wife to feel at home when he brought her to live in California.

Any mention of an American castle is certain to arouse interest, but especially when the opening sentence is so crisply and cleanly written. In Lamott’s debut novel, inspired by her own father’s battle with brain cancer, the narrator is a 23-year-old writer and part-time housecleaner named Jennifer. She continued: “It was a monstrous rock construction two hundred feet above San Francisco Bay, surrounded by cypress trees, two stories of rock with a trapdoor underneath the kitchen table and two caves in the back of the house, one of which was said to have led to the beach during bootlegging days.“

Anne Lamott
Rosie (1983)

There were many things about Elizabeth Ferguson that the people of Bayview disliked. They thought her too tall, too thin, too aloof. Her neck was too long and her breasts were too big.

The narrator continued: “The men, who could have lived with the size of her breasts, found her unwilling to flirt and labeled her cold. The women were jealous of how well her clothes hung on her, and that she managed to look elegant in outfits that would have made them look like the bag ladies of late autumn.”

Anne Lamott
All New People (1989)

I am living once again in the town where I grew up, having returned here several weeks ago in a state of dull torment for which the Germans probably have a word.

I fell in love with this line when I first read it more than two decades ago—and was delighted to recently discover what writer Richard Bausch said about it in a 1989 New York Times book review: “Anne Lamott’s wonderful little novel is gripping not because it possesses any of the usual qualities of suspense or dramatic tension, but because its strong, clear, self-deprecating and witty voice takes immediate hold and refuses to let go. I find it hard to imagine that anyone’s critical faculties could withstand the unconventional charm of the very first line.”

Anne Lamott
Crooked Little Heart (1997)

Rosie and her friends were blooming like spring, budding, lithe, agile as cats. They wore tiny dresses and skirts so short that their frilly satin tennis bloomers showed.

The narrator continued about the 13-year-old girls: “Into their bloomers they tucked an extra tennis ball to extract when it was needed, as with sleight of hand, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, a quarter from behind an ear.”

Anne Lamott
Blue Shoes (2002)

The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.

The narrator continued: “Those trees were one reason she’d moved back into her parents’ old room after leaving Nicholas, those trees and the sloping grassy hillside behind the house.”

In a 2008 Writer’s Digest article (“The Big Grab”), writer James Scott Bell emphasized the importance of creating a sense of intrigue in a novel’s first lines. About these opening words, he wrote: “In this example, Lamott starts with description. But she gets a character into the mix by the third sentence. And then she drops in a line indicating something amiss—her husband isn’t where he should be. We have a feeling of unease. Mattie is in the midst of a troubling situation and is going to have to do something about it.”

Anne Lamott
Imperfect Birds (2010)

There are so many evils that pull on our children. Even in the mellow town of Landsdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses, or jail. Once a year a child from the county of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the second paragraph, the narrator grimly continued: “Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday-morning comings and goings of townspeople, and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds.“

Stieg Larsson
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna.

These are the opening words of the Prologue to the novel, which was originally published in Sweden and first published in an English translation in 2008. The man opening the package is an aging member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. On the same day every year for forty-four years, he has received a package containing a beautiful pressed flower, mounted on water-color paper, and displayed in a simple wooden frame. About the two men, the narrator continued: “They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.”

Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame. The harness was tight across her rib cage. Her hands were manacled to the sides of the bed.

The novel’s Prologue opens with this stark description of a gritty crime scene. The person handcuffed to the bed, we will soon learn, is a 13-year-old Swedish girl who was abducted forty-three days earlier. The narrator continued:

“She had long since given up trying to free herself. She was awake, but her eyes were closed. If she opened her eyes she would find herself in darkness; the only light was a faint strip that seeped in above the door. She had a bad taste in her mouth and longed to be able to brush her teeth.”

Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)

An estimated 600 women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men.

In any work of fiction or non-fiction, a tried-and-true method is to open with the revelation of a little-known historical tidbit. This one definitely got my attention, and even caused me to do a little research about the accuracy of the assertion. Turns out, it’s true, and may even be on the low side (some scholars estimate around a thousand women). In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here—or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled with women who do not respect gender distinctions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat.”

D. H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.

Lawrence’s classic novel begins with a sweeping oxymoronic generalization about the efforts of people trying to make some kind of sense out of the incomprehensible realities of WWI, then commonly referred to as “The Great War” or “The war to end all wars.“ In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued with some insights about how people were coping with the challenge:

“The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator abandoned the grand perspective of the first sentence and moved directly into the mind of the title character: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position. The war had brought the roof down over her head. And she had realized that one must live and learn.”

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.”

Jane Leavy
Squeeze Play (1990)

Opening Day April 3

You see a lot of penises in my line of work: short ones, stubby ones, hard ones, soft ones. Circumcised and uncircumcised; laid-back and athletic.

There’s only one word to describe an opener like this: a classic “hook.“ The words come from A. B. Berkowitz, a female Washington Tribune sportswriter who’s been assigned to cover the Washington Senators, the worst team in major league baseball. In the novel’s first paragraph, Berkowitz continued:

“Professionally speaking, they have a lot in common, which is to say they are all attached to guys, most of whom are naked while I am not, thus forming the odd dynamic of our relationship. They are athletes who believe in the inalienable right to scratch their balls anytime they want. I am a sportswriter. My job is to tell you the score.”

An autobiographical novel inspired by Leavy’s own sportswriting career with the Washington Post, the novel was described by Allen Barra in an Entertainment Weekly review as “the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I’ve ever read.” Barra went on to add that the novel “is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams—and that’s good enough for me.”

Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird (1961)

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The narrator is Jem’s younger sister “Scout,“ the daughter of Alabama country lawyer Atticus Finch (her mother died when she was a baby).

In the next paragraph, Scout introduced the character Dill (based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote): “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.“

The novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it went on to be regarded as a cultural treasure after the 1962 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck. In 2003, the American Film Institute hailed Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Mackenzi Lee
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017)

On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake up in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.

Dennis Lehane
Mystic River (2001)

When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.

The narrator continued: “It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.”

In a 2020 blog post on the opening pages of great novels, literary agent Janet Reid wrote that Lehane’s entire first paragraph “is pure background or grounding.” She went on to add, “The fathers don’t figure in the story after the first section. But it gives us a sense of where these boys came from, and that’s the blood of the novel.”

Dennis Lehane
Live by Night (2012)

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.

The narrator continued: “And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”

Ernest Lehman
“Sweet Smell of Success” (1950), title story of Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories (1957)

I just let her go on talking.

The narrator, a sleazy Manhattan press agent named Sidney Falco, continued in the first paragraph: “I sat there at my desk with the phone propped between my head and shoulder and allowed the insistent monotone of her voice to jab at my brain, while I mopped my forehead with my left hand and tapped a cigarette with my right.”

Lehman’s story originally appeared under the title “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” in an April, 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (the publication’s editors insisted on a title change because they didn’t want the word “smell” to appear in the pages of the magazine).

Lehman’s novelette was adapted into a first-rate 1957 film starring Tony Curtis as Falco and Burt Lancaster as the powerful and unprincipled newspaper columnist J. J. Hunseker (Lehman co-wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets). The film got off to a disappointing start, in large part because Tony Curtis fans had trouble accepting him in a role that clashed with his “nice-guy” image. By the end of the year, however, the film was on numerous “Ten-Best” lists, and is now regarded as a film noir classic.

Eva Leigh
The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes (2022)

London, England, 1818

The wedding hadn’t happened yet, and already the marriage was a disaster.

I’m a sucker for a good oxymoronic opening, and this one—suggesting that a couple could be so ill-suited to each other that their upcoming marriage could be described as a disaster even before it began—was nothing short of brilliant. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued:

“Kieran Ransome and his family stood beneath the portico of St. George’s before entering the church’s vestibule, and as his mother briefly lifted his sister’s veil to brush away a stray lock of hair, he caught a glimpse of Willa’s face. Her cheeks were ashen, her lips drawn into a thin, tight slash. The countess twittered and fussed with Willa’s gown, yet his sister barely uttered a word.”

Raven Leilani
Luster (2020)

The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.

In a 2021 World Book History blog post, English writer Jack McKeever wrote: “As far as first sentences go, Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster lands on an absolute gold mine.”

The tantalizing first sentence is made intentionally ambiguous because of the “fully clothed” and “at our desks” phrases, but once we deduce that the narrator is referring to computer sex, we’re along for the ride. The opening words come from a woman known only as Edie. A 23-year-old editorial assistant in a Manhattan publishing house, she continues in the opening paragraph:

“He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing.”

Elmore Leonard
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.

Elmore Leonard
Freaky Deaky (1988)

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

Elmore Leonard
Get Shorty (1990)

When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.

This opening line introduces Ernesto “Chili” Palmer, a Mob-connected loan shark who has his treasured leather jacket stolen by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a rival thug from another group of Miami Beach thugs (the two characters were brought to life in a memorable way by John Travolta and Dennis Farina in a 1995 film adaptation of the novel). Given his nature, Chili has only one alternative—to retrieve his jacket—and the action continues from there.

In “Analysis of Elmore Leonard’s Novels,” a 2019 post on Literariness.org, site founder Nasrullah Mambrol wrote: “Among all of his novels, Get Shorty most clearly reveals [Leonard’s] intention of making his fiction read like motion pictures. He even incorporates some pages of a screenplay that his sleazy characters are trying to peddle.”

Elmore Leonard
Pronto (1993)

One evening, it was toward the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he’d been seeing on and off the past few years, “I’ve made a decision. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life.”

Elmore Leonard
Out of Sight (1996)

Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.

In a 2019 Literariness.org post, Nasrullah Mambrol wrote: “The opening sentence of the novel…immediately locates the reader both psychologically—within Foley’s consciousness, attitudes, and experience—and physically—just inside the fence of a medium-security Florida prison.”

In the same post, Mambrol also wrote: “The novel’s opening is widely acknowledged to rank among Leonard’s best, as he takes the reader through a daring prison break, modeled on a real escape from that same prison in 1995. As is his practice, the point of view shifts among three different characters in the first three chapters, as the same scene is viewed from three different angles.”

Elmore Leonard
Pagan Babies (2000)

The church had become a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes.

The narrator is describing a scene in war-torn Rwanda a few years after the genocide of the local Tutsi population by neighboring Hutu forces. It’s a gripping opening line, made macabre by the narrator’s continued words: “The benches had been removed and the bodies reassembled: men, women and small children laid in rows of skulls and spines, femurs, fragments of cloth stuck to mummified remains, many of the adults missing feet, all missing bones that had been carried off by the scavenging dogs.”

Elmore Leonard
Tishomingo Blues (2002)

Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder.

Elmore Leonard
Mr. Paradise (2004)

Late afternoon Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe trying to get Kelly to help entertain Anthony Paradiso, an eighty-four-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his girlfriend.

Billie Letts
Where the Heart Is (1995)

Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight—and superstitious about sevens—shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.

In a 2018 post, the editors of Stylist.com included this in their compilation of “The Best 100 Opening Lines From Books.“ Yes, it’s a terrific beginning, but things only got better over the next three paragraphs:

“For most people, sevens were lucky. But not for her. She’d had a bad history with them, starting with her seventh birthday, the day Momma Nell ran away with a baseball umpire named Fred. Then, when Novalee was in the seventh grade, her only friend, Rhonda Talley, stole an ice cream truck for her boyfriend and got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls in Tullahoma.

“By then, Novalee knew there was something screwy about sevens, so she tried to stay clear of them. But sometimes, she thought, you just can’t see a thing coming at you.

“And that’s how she got stabbed. She just didn’t see it coming.“

Letts’s novel debuted to sluggish sales and lukewarm reviews (one critic called it a “lightweight story with a fair amount of charm”), but three years later it became a New York Times bestseller after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club (it was later adapted into a 2000 film starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd).

Billie Letts
Made in the U.S.A. (2009)

Lutie McFee struggled into the too tight red, sleeveless turtleneck, smoothed it across her ribs, then checked herself out in the mirror of the Wal-Mart dressing room.

Few modern writers have been better than Letts in capturing the world of adolescent females. The narrator continued in the next paragraph: “She was almost pretty but still had the not quite finished look of a teenager—unlined skin dappled with sand-colored freckles, cheeks not quite shed of baby fat, frizzy hair too wild to be tamed by gel or hair spray. Her hips were as narrow as a boy’s, and her feet looked too big for her tiny ankles and spindly legs.”

And in the third paragraph, she added: “But worst of all, she was convinced—not for the first time that day—that her breasts were never going to grow beyond the two walnut-size bumps on her chest. The best she could hope for was a Wonderbra, but she doubted even that would perform the miracle she needed.”

Ira Levin
A Kiss Before Dying (1953)

His plans had been running so beautifully, so goddamned beautifully, and now she was going to smash them all.

The narrator is describing Bud Corliss, an ambitious, and even ruthless, young man who is willing to do just about anything to rise above his working-class origins. The she is Dorothy Kingship, Bud’s girlfriend, and the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon (the two characters were played by Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward in the 1956 film adaptation).

When Dorothy tells Bud she is pregnant, he fears her ultra-conservative father will disinherit her—and ruin all of his future plans. In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Hate erupted and flooded through him, gripping his face with jaw-aching pressure. That was all right though; the lights were out.”

Levin’s debut novel, A Kiss Before Dying was an immediate success—critically and commercially—and went on to receive the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Ira Levin
Rosemary’s Baby (1967)

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.

Rosemary, especially, cannot believe the good news, but, from the very beginning, something seems off—and it ultimately turns out to be horribly off.

Levin’s bestselling novel touched off a huge boom in horror fiction in the late sixties. A year later, the novel was adapted into a Roman Polanski film, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and, in an Oscar-winning role, Ruth Gordon.

C. S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

I especially like what writer Danielle Karthauser said about this classic opening line in a 2016 post on Mugglenet.com: “This first line literally gives the reader all they need to know about his character. Author C. S. Lewis is telling his readers, ’Here is my main character. Do you think he has an ugly name? Yeah, he does. Does his personality match it? Almost.’“

In the novel—the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia series—the narrator continued with one other savory tidbit about the protagonist: “His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.“

C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair (1953)

It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.

This opening line from Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia series couldn’t be simpler, or more affecting. Close your eyes, and the scene appears almost automatically in your mind.

The narrator continued: “She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ’Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ’mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked was bullying the others.“

Echo Lewis
A Long Way from Welcome (2002)

Alert and purposeful, Maggie McGilligan approached her bike as a warrior would a respected opponent. Keeping her eyes on the overloaded front basket, she took a deep breath, gripped the chest-high handlebars of the rusted, crusted relic, and strained to drag the beast away from the school stand.

Sinclair Lewis
Free Air (1919)

When the windshield was closed it became so filmed with rain that Claire fancied she was piloting a drowned car in dim spaces under the sea.

A spectacular metaphor is always a good way to begin a novel, as Lewis demonstrates here in what has to be regarded as literary history’s first “road novel” (countless others would follow, with Kerouac’s 1957 classic On the Road arguably the most famous).

Lewis was writing in the early days of the automobile industry, when front windshields had no windshield wipers and could be moved into an “open” or “closed” position.

In a 2011 blog post, Jennifer Hubbard wrote: “This is the story of a young woman driving her father across country—around the time of World War I, when there was no interstate highway system, most roads were mud, and cars were not the button-operated, computerized machines they are now. The first line plunks us right down in the car next to Claire, and its reference to undersea piloting gives us a whiff of adventure.”

Sinclair Lewis
Elmer Gantry (1927)

Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.

Following the example of the American Book Review, which published a 2006 list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” many subsequent lists of Great Opening Lines offer only the first sentence (“Elmer Gantry was drunk”), shortsightedly omitting the beauty and the power of the novel’s full first words. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). See the Heller entry here.

In the novel, the narrator continued: “He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”

Elmer Gantry was the most controversial book of 1927, banned in Boston, of course, and in many other American cities. After the influential American evangelist Billy Sunday denounced Lewis as “Satan’s cohort,” ministers all around the country followed suit, suggesting he be “tarred and feathered,“ and even imprisoned for his heresy (not surprisingly, the author received numerous death threats and, for a time, even had police protection). The controversy greatly spurred book sales, ultimately making it the best-selling novel in the U.S. for 1927. In 1960, director Richard Brooks adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film with a riveting, Oscar-winning performance by Burt Lancaster in the title role.

A. J. Liebling
The Telephone Booth Indian (1942)

There was once a French-Canadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window in his stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellow of a doctor was able to study the man’s inner workings, and that is how we came to know all about the gastric juices, as I suppose we do.

These are the first words of the Preface to the book. Liebling continued: “The details are not too clear in my mind, as I read the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year in elementary school, but I have no doubt it is essentially correct.”

Katia Lief
Invisible Woman (2024)

The first time the thought came to her, with clarity instead of anger, it was a warm evening in June not long before the party that was supposed to launch a new phase of her husband’s brilliant career. She was standing at the kitchen sink sponging tomato sauce off a white plate. She rinsed it and set it dripping in the dish drainer, then picked up a wineglass and scrubbed at a haze of lip gloss biting the rim. She put the glass down but left the water running, as if the sound could blot out her thoughts, as if he could hear them through the linkage of empty rooms.

What if I killed him?

The novel’s opening words are a masterclass in a microcosm. Beginning with the first time the thought came to her, Lief arouses the reader’s curiosity and plants an important seed. Then, after a brief—but quite lovely—description of mundane dishwashing details, she drops the hammer.

About the book, Jennifer Hillier (Things We Do in the Dark) wrote: “From the first page to the last, Katia Lief’s Invisible Woman will seize you and never let go.” I will almost certainly be featuring the opening words of this taut literary thriller in my end-of-year compilation of “The 24 Best Opening Lines of 2024.”

In the book, the narrator—a former pioneering filmmaker who has morphed into a middle-aged wife and mother—continued:

“The thought arrived whole, like a package delivered to her door. It shocked her and she slammed the door but eventually she cracked it open to take another look.”

Laura Lippman
By a Spider’s Thread [Book 8 in the Tess Monaghan series] (2004)

They were in one of the “I” states when Zeke told Isaac he had to ride in the trunk for a little while.

This terrific opening line comes from a brief prefatory piece titled “September.” As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I’ve long loved this opener, and I was pleased to recently discover that the sentence is also a personal favorite of the author. In 2006, when Lippman was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if she had a favorite sentence, she answered this way:

“Is it possible to answer that sentence without sounding like a jerk? I’ll select the opening of By a Spider’s Thread, which was nominated for the Ross Thomas Prize for Best Opening Line, so I’m technically not the one who’s making any claim for it.”

By a Spider’s Thread is the 8th book in Lippmann’s popular series of Tess Monaghan mysteries. In the novel, Tess is hired by Mark Rubin, a wealthy Jewish man, to find his missing wife and children. Chapter One of the novel also begins beautifully:

“Tess Monaghan had been a high school senior when her father had bestowed his single life lesson, the one piece of advice that was supposed to open all doors and allow his only child to hurdle every obstacle: He showed her how to shake a man’s hand.”

By the way, I’ve been searching—without much success, I might add—for more information about the Ross Thomas Prize for Best Opening Line (it’s apparently different from the regular Ross Thomas Award for best debut novel, first presented in 1983). I did find one other winner (see the Jennifer Apodaca entry here), but nothing about the contest. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.

Clarice Lispector
The Hour of the Star (1977)

Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.

In a 2018 post on CulturaColectiva.com, Zoralis Pérez included this opener in a compilation of “15 First Sentences from Classic Books That’ll Convince You to Read Them.” About the complete list, Pérez wrote:

“When it comes to choosing a new read, you should take into account every little piece of information you can get about it (after all, it’s a pretty big commitment) and the cover is your first impression of the story, so of course, it matters. However, even more important than the cover, it’s the first sentence. A book’s first sentence is like a first kiss or the first time you lock eyes with the person you love. It’s brief and sometimes a little strange, but if you like it, it’s the start of something great.”

David Lodge
Changing Places (1975)

High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.

This is a spectacular opening line, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see it included in the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” posted by the American Book Review in 2006 (it came in at #98).

Jack London
The Call of the Wild (1903)

Buck did not read the papers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

From the phrasing of the first sentence, it becomes clear that Buck is a dog, and not a human being. The opening words also offer the intriguing suggestion that this tale will be told from a canine perspective, not a human one.

The narrator continued: “Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.“

Charlie Lovett
The Fat Lady Sings (2011)

Cynthia Pirelli’s boobs are soooo fake.

One key goal of an opening line is to establish the “voice” of the protagonist, and Lovett does that nicely in his first YA novel. The words come from Aggie Stockdale, a high school senior with dreams of starring in her high school’s production of “Hello Dolly.” It’s her favorite play, she memorized the lines at age ten, and she believes she is perfect for the role. The problem, though, is that Aggie is the fattest girl in her class, so we already know how that part of the story ends (it’s how she responds to the rejection that makes things interesting). In the opening paragraph, she continued:

“I’m not saying they’re not gorgeous—who could miss that fact when she’s wearing a top cut so low it’s a wonder her naval ring doesn’t get caught in the neckline. Whoever her plastic surgeon is does great work. But they’re still fake. How do I know? How can anybody not know. Little Miss A-cup is ‘out sick’ for a week after her eighteenth and when she comes back she’s busting out all over. What was she sick with? Boob mumps?”

Charlie Lovett
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (2014)

Fond as she was of solitary walks, Jane had been wandering rather longer than she had intended, her mind occupied not so much with the story she had lately been reading as with the one she hoped soon to be writing.

From the book’s subtitle, readers immediately recognize Jane Austen as the solitary walker, and the novel’s opening sentence neatly captures something important about all writers—they tend to be preoccupied by one of two things: what they’re currently reading and what they’re currently writing. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“She was shaken from this reverie by the sight of an unfamiliar figure, sitting on a stile, hunched over a book. Her first impression was that he was the picture of gloom—dressed in shabby clerical garb, a dark look on his crinkled face, doubtless a volume of dusty sermons clutched in his ancient hand. Even the weather seemed to agree with this assessment, for while the sun shone all around him, he sat in the shadow of the single cloud that hung in the Hampshire sky.”

Charlie Lovett
The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol Continued (2015)

Scrooge was alive, to begin with. There could be no doubt whatever about that—alive and kicking.

As most bibliophiles will quickly realize, the novel opens with a lovely tweak of the legendary first words of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843): “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” In the opening paragraph of Lovett’s sequel to the classic work, he had his narrator continue:

“Not that I know why that particular verb should exemplify life; for Scrooge’s part it might better be said that he was alive and singing, or alive and laughing, or alive and generally making a nuisance of himself.”

A Library Journal review of the book said that “Lovett has written a delightful sequel to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol,” adding: “Told in the style of Dickens with a sly wit, this is an excellent companion to the original Christmas classic.”

Charlie Lovett
The Enigma Affair (2022)

It wasn’t just the bullet passing by Patton’s left ear that concerned her.

This is a terrific in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening line, and the entire first paragraph goes from zero to sixty in a nanosecond. The dramatic nature of the line got my immediate attention, but its somewhat unusual phrasing also got me thinking, “I don’t know about anyone else, but if a bullet just whizzed past my left ear, it would be the only thing that concerned me!“ In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“After all, she had sustained gunfire before, even been hit once—if you could call a graze on the forearm that barely left a scar a hit. No, what worried Patton was the sound this bullet made, or rather the sound this bullet didn’t make. Every bullet that had ever traveled near her had brought with it the distinctive crack of an object in supersonic motion. But this bullet merely hissed quietly as it crossed the kitchen before embedding itself in her refrigerator. This bullet was subsonic.”

At this point, we don’t understand why a subsonic bullet is more concerning than a supersonic one, but we’ve already been yanked into the story, and feel confident we’ll know the answer soon. In a blurb for the book, writer Rex Pickett (Sideways and The Archivist) hailed the novel for its “breathtaking, brisk prose that vaults you into the story at a torrid pace.”

Makiia Lucier
Year of the Reaper (2021)

When it came to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them.

This is a terrific first line—straightforward, succinct, but highly evocative. The narrator continued: “This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.”

The protagonist, we will shortly learn, is 18-year-old Lord Cassia, a young nobleman recently emerged from prison and returning to his home in the middle of a devastating worldwide plague and after a long, costly war with a neighboring kingdom. About the book, Jennifer Harlan. said in a New York Times review: “This moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.”

Robert Ludlum
The Bourne Identity [Book 1 of the Jason Bourne Series] (1980)

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.

The novel opens with a dangerous storm at sea, threatening a trawler that is likened to an animal struggling for its very existence. The narrator continued: “The waves rose to Goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white spray caught in the night sky cascaded down over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were the sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying.”

Allison Lurie
Foreign Affairs (1984)

On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten A.M. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog.

To be successful, a novel with a beginning like this requires what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.“ And a novel with this premise is only going to achieve such a result if the writer has the talent to pull it off. Happily, Lurie had exactly the right stuff, as we see in librarian Nancy Pearl’s 2006 assessment of the book on National Public Radio (NPR):

“There’s a wonderful invisible dog named Fido…as the protagonist Vinnie Miner has named him [who] always appears when she’s feeling sorry for herself. In London, Vinnie will encounter love, a mysterious housekeeper, and ultimately learn that perhaps Fido just might be her truest companion. Lurie’s novel won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize and is still a wonderful reading choice for anyone looking for marvelous writing, an original take on what could be considered a hackneyed plot, and characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Especially Fido.”

Rose Macaulay
The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

“Take my camel, dear,“ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

The opening words come from Aunt Dot’s niece Laurie, who is accompanying her eccentric aunt and several other English tourists on a trip through Turkey. Robert McCrum hailed this as one of “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction” in a 2012 Guardian article.

A few years earlier, the celebrated American librarian Nancy Pearl included it in the “Lines That Linger; Sentences That Stick” chapter of More Book Lust (2005). Pearl added: “What I love about that [first sentence] is that Rose Macaulay’s favorite things were the British Episcopal Church, animals, and travel, and in that first line she got in all of those things.“

In the novel, Laurie continued: “The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon...“

John D. MacDonald
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1964)

It is one of the sorry human habits to play the game of: What was I doing when it happened?

Narrator and protagonist Travis McGee continued in the next paragraph: “After I heard that Helena Pearson had died on Thursday, the third day of October, I had no trouble reconstructing the immediate past.”

John D. MacDonald
The Deep Blue Good-by [Book 1 in the Travis McGee Series] (1964)

It was to have been a quiet evening at home.

Home is the Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.

These are the opening lines of a novel that introduced Travis McGee, a “salvage consultant” who recovers lost and stolen property for a fee—and solves crimes in the process. McGee went on to appear in 20 more MacDonald novels. All 21 books have a color-themed title, setting the stage for Sue Grafton’s “alphabet” series of Kinsey Millhone books and Janet Evanovich’s “number” series of Stephanie Plum books.

John D. MacDonald
Darker Than Amber (1966)

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

In a 2009 issue of the Harvard Business School Bulletin (titled “One Man Crime Wave”), editor Garry Emmons wrote about these opening words from narrator and protagonist Travis McGee: “And so John D. MacDonald (MBA ’39) begins another book, with an opening line so deft it makes other writers want to give up and call it a career.” Emmons added: “MacDonald tossed off lines like this over and over again (the young woman about to make a splash is, of course, beautiful, very much alive, and inconvenienced by the cement block wired to her leg).”

MacDonald became so famous as a crime/mystery writer that few people knew he originally planned a business career, or that he even went so far as to get an MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1939 (one of his classmates was Robert McNamara).

John D. MacDonald
The Lonely Silver Rain (1985)

Once upon a time, I was very lucky and located a sixty-five-foot highjacked motor sailer in a matter of days, after the authorities had been looking for months.

In this novel, the last in a series of 21 Travis McGee books, the protagonist continued: “When I heard through the grapevine that Billy Ingraham wanted to see me, it was easy to guess he hoped I could work the same miracle with his stolen Sundowner, a custom cruiser he’d had built in a Jacksonville yard. It had been missing for three months.”

Ross Macdonald
The Goodbye Look (1969)

The lawyer, whose name was John Truttwell, kept me waiting in the outer room of his offices. It gave the room a chance to work me over gently.

After a so-so first sentence, the spectacular metaphor in the second is like a rifle shot aimed directly at the imagination of the reader.

In the opening paragraph, protagonist Lew Archer continued: “The armchair I was sitting in was covered in soft green leather. Oil paintings of the region, landscapes and seascapes, hung on the walls around me like subtle advertisements.”

Norman Maclean
“A River Runs Through It,” in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.

A River Runs Through it and Other Stories was a debut work by Norman Maclean, a seventy-three-year-old retired University of Chicago English professor (it was also the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press).

The title story is an autobiographical novella that has become one of America’s most revered works of fiction (in 1992, Robert Redford brought the story to the screen in an award-winning movie). In a 2017 Foreword to a new edition of the book, Redford said he first read “A River Runs Through It” in 1981, after the writer Tom McGuane recommended it as “the real thing.“ Admitting that he typically distrusts such enthusiastic recommendations, Redford wrote: “But when I read the first sentence...I thought I might be in for something.“

In “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,” an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle, University of New Orleans professor Richard Goodman wrote that MacLean’s first sentence was “one of the most charming, engaging, irresistible beginnings I know.“ About the opening sentence, he added: “If you can resist that, then you have enormous willpower or a pathological hatred of fishing. Even then, I would venture that your curiosity is piqued enough to make you read on. You probably have to know just why and how there was no distinction between religion and fly fishing. Maclean shows you in this affecting story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister, who taught the brothers how to fish, but who couldn’t prevent one from his tragic end.“

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fisherman on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Ruth Madievsky
All-Night Pharmacy (2023)

Spending time with my sister, Debbie, was like buying acid off a guy you met on a bus.

A sizzling simile is always a good way to begin a debut novel—and this is a particularly enticing one. The words come from an unnamed narrator, who goes on to explain:

“You never knew if it would end with you, euphoric, tanning topless on a fishing boat head for Ensenada, or coming to in a gas station bathroom, the insides of your eyes feeling as though they’d been scraped out with spoons. Often, it was both.“

All in all, this is one of the best things I’ve ever seen written about a problem sister. In a Publisher’s Weekly review, Louisa Ermelino wrote: “By the end of the first paragraph of Ruth Madievsky’s debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy…there’s no question you are in for a wild read.“

I was delighted to include Madievsky’s first sentence in my end-of-year Smerconish.com post of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (see the full list here).

Norman Mailer
The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.

Michael Malone
Uncivil Seasons (1983)

Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow, and we hardly ever murder one another. Suicide is more our style.

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Justin Savile, a homicide detective who also happens to be a wayward member of the town’s founding family. He continued: “We’re a polite, college town, and our lives are sheltered by old trees. Maybe once a year a blizzard slips around a corner of the Smoky Mountains and blusters its way east, or a gale swells up from Cape Hatteras and runs across the Piedmont to break up our agreeable liaison with nature; but usually storms lose interest along the way.”

In a 2004 NPR interview, award-winning librarian Nancy Pearl identified this as one of her all-time favorite opening lines. In introducing her compilation of favorites, she said: “I think when you read a good first line it’s like falling in love with somebody, I mean, your heart starts pounding.”

Emily St. John Mandel
Last Night in Montreal (2009)

No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lila woke early, and lay still for a moment in the bed. It was the last day of October. She slept naked.

This was Mandel’s first novel, and it was hailed by critics as soon as it was published. In the Richmond Review, Shelley Civkin wrote: “What a great way to start off the new year, finding a spectacular book by a young, new writer. Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John is a stunning debut novel that casts a spell of intrigue over the reader from the very first page.”

Emily St. John Mandel
The Lola Quartet (2012)

Anna had fallen into a routine, or as much of a routine as a seventeen-year-old can reasonably fall into when she’s transient and living in hiding with an infant.

This novel would have had me with “transient and living in hiding with an infant,” but when that remarkable phrase was juxtaposed with the notion of falling into a routine, I knew I was in the hands of a skilled storyteller. A brilliant first sentence.

Emily St. John Mandel
The Glass Hotel (2020)

Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain—

The Glass Hotel was one of the most anticipated books of the year, and it didn’t disappoint. Among the scores of positive reviews, Robert J. Wiersema wrote in The Toronto Star: “Simply stunning, a boldly experimental work which hooks the reader from its first pages, wending to a powerfully emotional conclusion.” Barack Obama also included it in his “Favorite Books of 2020” list.

Hilary Mantel
A Change of Climate (1994)

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.

Mantel has a gift for describing life’s most tragic and horrific events in a no-nonsense way that is, at the same time, captivating, and even gripping. We’re drawn fully into the opening scene as the narrator continues:

“The woman Joan was sixty years old, and wore a polyester dress from a charity shop. A housewifely type, she had chosen to drip her blood into the kitchen sink. When Kit touched her on the elbow, she threw down the knife onto the draining board and attempted with her good hand to cover Kit’s eyes.

“By this stage in her life Kit was not much surprised by anything. As she ducked under the woman’s arm she thought, that’s our bread knife, if you don’t mind; but she said, ’You shouldn’t be doing that, Joan, why don’t you come away from the sink, why don’t you sit down on this chair and I’ll get the first-aid kit?’”

Hilary Mantel
The Mirror and the Light (2020)

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.

Few first sentences combine pith and drama as well as this one—making it an easy selection for my list of Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020 (to be seen here). In this third volume of Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, the queen in question is Anne Boleyn, the second wife of England’s King Henry VIII, and the man walking away is Thomas Cromwell, a prominent English jurist and chief minister to the king (a few years later, Cromwell would also be beheaded, on orders from the king he tried to serve so faithfully).

After the captivating opening sentence, the narrator continued about Cromwell: “A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us.“

Javier Marías
Tomás Nevinson (2021; first Eng. translation 2023)

I was brought up the old-fashioned way, and could never have dreamed that one day I would be ordered to kill a woman.

A 2015 Scroll.in article hailed Marías as “The best literary start-up artist today.” It went on to say of him: “If there’s one thing that needs to be singled out from Marías’s work…it is his beginnings. No reader can stop at the first sentence.”

The celebrated Spanish author—who died of COVID complications at age 70 in 2022—continued his tradition of impressive openers in his final work, Tomás Nevinson, a 2021 novel that first became available in English in 2023.

The opening words come from the title character, a Spanish man who once worked for the British Secret Service. Now retired and living in his hometown of Madrid, he is approached by his former handler for one last assignment—to go undercover in search of a female terrorist. In his opening words, Nevinson added:

“You don’t touch women, you don’t beat them, you don’t do them any physical harm and you avoid all the violence, although in that regard they themselves don’t always hold back.”

Karen Martin
The Bringer of Happiness (2022)

I should have assumed with parents known to the world as Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, I would be different.

Ilana Masad
All My Mother’s Lovers (2020)

Maggie is in the midst of a second lazy orgasm when her brother, Ariel, calls to tell her their mother has died.

Having never experienced even one lazy orgasm, I’m not sure I’m familiar with the concept, but the opening words describe Maggie Krause, a 27-year-old gay woman who is in the middle of being pleasured by her girlfriend Lucia when her brother calls. Things get even more sexually explicit as the opening scene unfolds:

“‘Don’t pick up,’ Lucia says, the lower half of her face glistening. But Maggie doesn’t listen; she lives for moments like this.

“‘Hello, Brother. I am currently being eaten out. What are you up to?’ And when Lucia pulls her face away, peeved, Maggie leans up on her elbows and says, ‘No, don’t stop.’”

In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote: “As you might surmise from the opening line, this is a novel about sexuality, falling in love, familial relationships, and loss.”

W. Somerset Maugham
The Bishop’s Apron (1906)

The world takes people very willingly at the estimate in which they hold themselves.

W. Somerset Maugham
The Moon and Sixpence (1919)

I confess that when I first made acquaintance with Charles Strickland I never for a moment discerned that there was in him anything out of the ordinary.

W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge (1944)

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.

The opening words come not from an unknown narrator, but from Maugham himself. From the outset, he asserts that the story he is about to tell is not a work of fiction, but an account of real people and actual events (as the book unfolds, Maugham also becomes a minor character in the story, periodically showing up in the lives of the major characters). He goes on to pledge that he will forego “the exercise of invention” and set down only what he knows to be true.

In the book’s second paragraph, Maugham continued: “In the present book…I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.”

The entire novel generally reflected Maugham’s longstanding interest in Eastern culture, and it specifically began to take form after a 1938 visit he made to the Sri Ramana Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. The book’s title came from an epigraph at the beginning of the book: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to ‘enlightenment’ is hard.” The passage is from the Katha Upanishad, one of the great spiritual texts of Hinduism.

Armistead Maupin
Michael Tolliver Lives [Book 7 in the Tales of the City Series] (2007)

Not long ago, down on Castro Street, a stranger in a Giants parka gave me a loaded glance as we passed each other in front of Cliff’s Hardware.

Sometimes, an opening sentence works simply because of a phrase or small snippet—and for me, the idea of a loaded glance pulled me directly into the story.

To be honest, serendipity also played a significant role in piquing my interest, for only a few weeks prior to picking up the book, I had stumbled on a remarkable new (to me) observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his “Behavior” essay in The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson wrote: “The glance is natural magic. The mysterious communication established across a house between two entire strangers, moves all the springs of wonder.”

So, with all this in the back of my mind, I returned with a heightened interest to the novel’s opening paragraph. The narrator, a middle-aged gay man named Mike Tolliver, continued: “He was close to my age, I guess, not that far past fifty—and not bad-looking either, in a beat-up Bruce Willis-y sort of way—so I waited a moment before turning to see if he would go for a second look. He knew this old do-si-do as well as I did, and hit his mark perfectly.”

James McBride
Miracle at St. Anna (2002)

On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.

The opening words immediately pique a reader’s curiosity. Does Sam Train become invisible literally, or metaphorically? We simply must read on.

James McBride
The Good Lord Bird (2013)

I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Henry Shackleford, a former slave who introduces himself in a most memorable way. As an eleven-year-old (or thereabouts) baby-faced boy in the Kansas Territory of 1856, he accidentally meets the legendary abolitionist John Brown, who mistakenly believes him to be a girl, gives him a dress to wear, and enlists him as a good luck charm in his anti-slavery crusade. As the tale unfolds, Henry—dubbed “Little Onion” by Brown—discovers it is easier to keep up the charade than to reveal his true gender. The novel won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

James McBride
Deacon King Kong (2020)

Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.

The narrator continued: “That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.” Barack Obama included the novel in his “Favorite Books of 2020” list.

In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote: “A great first line and a great book that we named one of the Best Books of 2020.“

Patrick McCabe
The Butcher Boy (1992)

When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent.

The opening words have a ominous tone, and they appear to come from a man of limited education, indeterminate age, and questionable mental status. In the opening paragraph, he continued:

“I was hiding out by the river in a hole under a tangle of briars. It was a hide me and Joe made. Death to all dogs who enter here, we said. Except us, of course.”

The novel went on to win the 1992 Irish Times Literature Prize and was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included McCabe’s opener in her list of “Top 10 First Lines in Fiction.” About it, she wrote:

“This character presents himself as ‘mad’ from the get-go. He has no idea how many decades he has lived. What on earth could he have done to a presumably older married lady that would incur the wrath of the whole town? He is open about the fact that he ‘done’ it. While his memory may be faulty, we believe him. He also wins our sympathy because he was a boy when this event occurred. Will we still be on his side when we find out what he did? This is the first book I read in one sitting, desperate to get to the shocking answer.”

Alexander McCall Smith
The Sunday Philosophy Club [Book 1 of the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries] (2004)

Isabel Dalhousie saw the young man fall from the upper circle, from the gods.

The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first of sixteen novels to feature Isabel Dalhousie, a spinsterish Scottish philosopher who is prone to literary and philosophical ramblings. The novel opens with a dramatic scene. While sitting in an Edinburgh concert hall, Dalhousie sees a young man plunge to his death from an upper balcony. As he passes her on the way down—in what almost seems like a slow-motion fall—she gets a clear view off his terror-filled face.

The narrator continued: “His flight was so sudden and short, and it was for less than a second that she saw him, hair tousled, upside down, his shirt and jacket up around his chest so that his midriff was exposed. And then, striking the edge of the grand circle, he disappeared headfirst towards the stalls below.”

Cormac McCarthy
The Road (2006)

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

GUEST COMMENTARY from Dr. Peter Olsson, a New Hampshire psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who writes: “In the opening words of a novel that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, McCarthy sets the mood in dark, cold, and starkly crafted sentences that plunge the reader directly into a post-apocalyptic America. In the opening paragraph, the narrator added”:

“His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.”

Dr. Olsson continued: “In a searing novel described by Dennis Lehane as ’the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war,’ a desperate and passionately protective father travels with his beloved young son down a perilous, decimated terrain toward a distant ocean beach that serves as a fragile symbol of hope. In their journey, they face terrifying encounters with people rendered subhuman by hunger and depraved environmental conditions. McCarthy is a master of probing, dark, penetrating language that explores the truth of authentic emotional questions through his wordcraft.“ See the opening line of Olsson’s 2019 memoir Janusian Days here.

Cormac McCarthy
The Passenger (2022)

It had snowed lightly in the night and her frozen hair was gold and crystalline and her eyes were frozen cold and hard as stones.

It’s a grisly opening scene, but with a stunning juxtaposition of antithetical elements—and, after one sentence, we’re already along for the ride. The novel’s first sentence is also proof positive that, at age eighty-nine, McCarthy is still at the top of his game. The legendary American author has written many great opening lines in his career, and this may be his best. I was delighted to honor it in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“One of her yellow boots had fallen off and stood in the snow beneath her. The shape of her coat lay dusted in the snow where she’d dropped it and she wore only a white dress and she hung among the bare gray poles of the winter trees with her head bowed and her hands turned slightly outward like those certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history be considered.”

Mary McCarthy
The Groves of Academe (1952)

When Henry Mulcahey, a middle-aged instructor of literature at Jocelyn College, Jocelyn Pennsylvania, unfolded the President’s letter and became aware of its contents, he gave a sudden sharp cry of impatience and irritation, as if such interruptions could positively be brooked no longer. This was the last straw. How was he expected to take care of forty students if other demands on his attention were continually being put in the way?

The opening paragraph continued: “On the surface of his mind, this vagrant grievance kept playing. Meanwhile, he had grown pale and his hands were trembling with anger and a strange sort of exultation. ‘Your appointment will not be continued beyond the current academic year….’ He sprang to his feet and mimed the sentence aloud, triumphantly, in inverted commas, bringing the whole force of his personality to bear on this specimen or exhibit of the incredible.”

Elizabeth McCracken
The Hero of This Book: A Novel (2022)

This was the summer before the world stopped.

The opening line has an ominous, telegraphic quality, suggesting that a world-shattering event has happened, and changed everything. Whatever else we read will be seen through that lens, making it an enormously effective first sentence. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“We thought it was pretty bad, though in retrospect there was joy to be found. Aboveground monsters were everywhere, with terrible hair and red neckties. The monsters weren’t in control of their powers—the hate crimes, mass shootings, heat waves, stupidity, certainty, flash floods, wildfires—but they had reach. Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Turns out we were supposed to.”

Even though the book is described as a novel, it’s also a memoir, a eulogy, an exploration of grieving and loss, a writing and storytelling guidebook, and more. About the book, Kirkus Reviews enthused: “Braided into McCracken’s gorgeously spiraling narrative is an expansive meditation on the act of writing and, intriguingly, the art of writing memoir...the novel assumes a hybrid quality that could be called autofiction but really is an homage to the art of great storytelling. Novel? Memoir? Who cares. It’s a great story, beautifully told.”

Robert McCrum
The Psychological Moment (1993; published in North America as Jubilee in 1994)

I’m going to jump right in at the deep end and admit that I could never have told this story while my father was still alive. What I have to say is a kind of confession and at the same time an act of revenge.

These intriguing opening words come from Sam Gilchrist, a 36-year-old speechwriter (half-English, half-American) who finds himself in the middle of an early mid-life crisis. A bit later in the novel, he declares that, after a lifetime of putting words into the mouths of other people, he “will abandon ventriloquism and speak, less grandly, for myself.”

In the novel’s opening paragraph, Gilchrist continued with this fascinating description of the complex psychological dynamics between the father and the son: “He betrayed me. Now I shall betray him. The joke is that he would probably approve. I can imagine the glint of satisfaction and the wicked note of pleasure in his voice. ‘I never knew you had the balls, Gilchrist.’”

George Barr McCutcheon
Brewster’s Millions (1902)

“The Little Sons of the Rich” were gathered about the long table in Pettingill’s studio. There were nine of them present, besides Brewster. They were all young, more or less enterprising, hopeful, and reasonably sure of better things to come. Most of them bore names that meant something in the story of New York. Indeed, one of them had remarked, “A man is known by the street that’s named after him,“ and as he was a new member, they called him “Subway.“

McCutcheon has been almost completely forgotten by modern readers, but he was very popular in the early decades of the 20th century (of his 42 novels, 25 were made into silent films). Brewster’s Millions (1902) was his most enduring work, adapted into a successful 1906 stage play, and then into a number of films over the rest of the century (including a most enjoyable 1985 version starring Richard Pryor).

George Barr McCutcheon
A Fool and His Money (1913)

I am quite sure it was my Uncle Rilas who said that I was a fool.

I was immediately engaged when I first came upon this line, thinking to myself, “I don’t know for sure, but if one of my uncles said I was a fool, I’m pretty sure I would remember which one he was.“

The narrator continued in a way that further engaged me: “If memory serves me well he relieved himself of that conviction in the presence of my mother— whose brother he was— at a time when I was least competent to acknowledge his wisdom and most arrogant in asserting my own. I was a freshman in college: a fact—or condition perhaps— which should serve as an excuse for both of us.

Ian McEwan
Nutshell (2016)

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise.

Of McEwan’s nineteen novels, perhaps the most imaginative is Nutshell, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of a fetus (yes, you heard that right).

In a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Michael W. Miller wrote: “The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. ’We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,’ he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head. In an Irish Times review, John Boyne wrote: “McEwan has long been considered a master of the opening chapter...and here he makes even more of this talent with an opening sentence that sets out his stall in nine words: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.“

The idea of a novel being narrated by a fetus sounds pretty far-fetched, but once we suspend our disbelief and place ourselves squarely in the hands of a talented storyteller, it works surprisingly well. Alarmed by the murderous plans being hatched by his mother and her brother-in-law, the narrating fetus continues:

“That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

Frieda McFadden
The Housemaid (2022)

If I leave this house, it will be in handcuffs.

These arresting opening words come from Millie Calloway, a young New York woman who has recently lost her job and is now living out of her car. When she is offered a job as a housekeeper for a wealthy Long Island couple, she quickly accepts, ignoring a few queasy feelings she has formed about the conditions of her employment—principally that of having to sleep in a small attic bedroom with a lock on the outside.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Millie continued: “I should have run for it while I had the chance. Now my shot is gone. Now that the police officers are in the house and they’ve discovered what’s upstairs, there’s no turning back.”

Frieda McFadden
The Housemaid’s Secret (2023)

Tonight, I will be murdered.

The novel opens with this captivating first sentence, and is immediately followed by equally enticing words:

“Lightning flashes around me, illuminating the living room of the small cabin where I’m spending the night, and where my life will soon reach an abrupt end.”

The provocative opening words come from protagonist Millie Calloway, a young New York woman we first met in McFadden’s 2022 bestseller The Housemaid. In this sequel, she takes yet another job as a housemaid, this time for a wealthy couple with secrets to hide. The novel won the Goodreads Choice Award for The Best Mystery/Thriller of 2023.

Thomas McGuane
The Bushwhacked Piano (1971)

Years ago, a child in a tree with a small caliber rifle bushwhacked a piano through the open summer windows of a neighbor’s living room. The child’s name was Nicholas Payne.

The narrator continued: “Dragged from the tree by the piano’s owner, his rifle smashed upon a rock and flung, he was held by the neck in the living room and obliged to view the piano point blank, to dig into its interior and see the cut strings, the splintered holes that let slender shafts of light ignite small circles of dark inside the piano.”

This was McGuane’s second novel, and it was language like this that led critic Jonathan Yardley to describe McGuane as “a talent of Faulknerian potential” in a New York Times review of the book.

Thomas McGuane
Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)

Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic

In “Nailing the Opening,” an April 20, 2017 article in Tor.com’s “That was Awesome!” series, writer Kieran Shea wrote: “Today, in our polemically-charged times, the first sentence still packs a wallop.”

Jay McInerney
Brightness Falls (1992)

The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together was the weekend of the final softball game between the addicts and the depressives.

This is a magnificent opening sentence, perfectly capturing how folks in the 1990s recovery world viewed their lives—with addicts and depressives playing baseball as natural and matter-of-fact as the Red Sox and Yankees. The opening words begin a kind of prologue to the novel, although it is not formally titled as such, and the unnamed narrator continued with an impressive display of writing talent:

“The quality of play was erratic, the recovering addicts being depressed from lack of their chosen medications and the depressives heavily dosed with exotic chemical bullets aimed at their elusive despair. Being myself among the clinically numb, I don’t remember the outcome of the game now, though I submit that taken together we were as representative a group as you could hope to field at that juncture in history. It was the fall of 1987.”

Jay McInerney
The Last of the Savages (1996)

The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families.

This is one of literary history’s most quotable opening lines, but you should know that the underlying idea is not original to McInerney. He was piggybacking on a famous remark from the English writer Hugh Kingsmill, who was quoted in 1970 as describing friends as “God’s apology for relations.”

The narrator is Patrick Keane, a 46-year-old principal partner of a New York City law firm, whose memories of his earlier years are triggered by an interview with police detectives about a former member of his firm. He continued: “At least that’s one way of explaining my unlikely fellowship with Will Savage.”

Erin McKean
The Secret Lives of Dresses (2011)

Dora had a rhythm going, or if not a rhythm, a pattern, and it went something like downshift, wipe tears away with back of hand, sob, upshift, scrub running nose with horrible crumpled fast-food napkin, stab at the buttons on the radio, and then downshift again.

The opening sentence describes Dora Winston, a college student who is clearly upset. It takes a second to sink in, but the intriguing placement of the terms upshift and downshift cleverly suggests she is crying and driving at the same time. As the first paragraph continues, the narrator also continues to meld the emotional and automotive elements:

“That had been the order of things for the past two hours. The first two hours had been pure howling, crying so hard she almost couldn’t see, but then it had slowed down, a torrent turning into a spitting rain. Still bad weather, but not impassable.”

McKean, the former editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary and founder of Wordnik.com, is one of the world’s foremost lexicographers. In The Secret Lives of Dresses, her debut novel, she proves she can also craft a great opening paragraph. The novel grew out of one of McKean’s other passions: fashion (which she has explored since 2003 in “A Dress a Day” blog, posted out of the website: Dressaday.com).

Terry McMillan
Waiting to Exhale (1992)

Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that some guy named Lionel invited me to.

Terry McMillan
The Interruption of Everything (2005)

The only reason I’m sitting on a toilet seat in the handicapped stall of the ladies’ room is because I’m hiding.

Few writers are better than McMillan at immediately establishing “the voice” of their protagonists, and this captivating opening line comes from 44-year-old Marilyn Grimes, an unhappily-married mother of three college-age children. Overweight, unsettled, and increasingly distraught over the way her life has turned out, she appears on the cusp of a major mid-life crisis. In the opening paragraph, she continued:

“My break is just fifteen minutes long and I’m trying to decide with the help of a book on the subject of “the change” if Paulette was really on to something when she suggested I get a blood test to see if my hormone levels were diminishing. And if it turns out to be true, I might want to get them replenished with something besides the Good & Plenty I’ve been eating by the handful for the last seven or eight months and I don’t even like licorice.”

Larry McMurtry
Terms of Endearment (1975)

“The success of a marriage invariably depends on the woman,” Mrs. Greenway said.

“It does not,” Emma said, not looking up. She was sitting in the middle of her living-room floor sorting a large pile of laundry.

Larry McMurtry
Lonesome Dove (1985)

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.

In a 2016 Texas Monthly article, editor-in-chief Brian D. Sweany wrote: “Here’s a sentence I wish I had been the one to write.” About the opener, Sweany added: “He packs a lot into those nineteen words: the arrival of Gus, the violence happening right outside his door, the exotic nature of the pigs, and the dismissive description of the snake, suggesting that not everything is as it seems. All of these details propel you forward into one of the greatest westerns ever written. Of course, that could just be the English major in me talking.” In his tribute, Sweany didn’t even mention the novel’s second sentence, which is every bit as good as the first:

“It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over.”

Lonesome Dove, a captivating tale of retired Texas Rangers who decide to herd cattle for a living, was originally written as a screenplay by McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich in the early 1970s (they had collaborated on the screenplay for the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, and enjoyed the experience so much they decided to give it another whirl). The screenplay was well received by studio execs, but the screenwriters were so opposed to the aging actors being considered for the starring roles (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne) that they backed out of the deal.

The screenplay languished “in development” for the next dozen years before McMurtry finally purchased the rights (for $35,000) and adapted it into a novel. Once published, the book was a critical and commercial success, almost immediately becoming a national bestseller, and eventually winning the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1989, CBS adapted it into an equally popular television miniseries, starring more age-appropriate protagonists: Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. The miniseries went on to receive 18 Emmy Award nominations, winning seven.

Larry McMurtry
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.

Herman Melville
Moby-Dick (1851)

Call me Ishmael.

From the day Moby-Dick was published, these three simple opening words have captivated readers. Because of the phrasing, it is clear that Ishmael is not the narrator’s real name. But why would he want to keep his real name secret, and choose an alias instead? And what lay behind his choice of Ishmael, the biblical name of an exiled social outcast?

In 2006, the American Book Review ranked “Call me Ishmael” Number 1 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels” (it has also been hailed by countless writers, including Margaret Atwood and Stephen King). The three opening words are so legendary, in fact, that the exceptional quality of the entire first paragraph is ignored by most readers:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

The opening sentence of Moby-Dick is so famous it has been emulated by many writers. Kurt Vonnegut began Cat’s Cradle (1963) with “Call me Jonah.” Philip Roth began The Great American Novel (1973) with “Call me Schmitty.” And humorist Peter De Vries brilliantly demonstrated how a simple punctuation mark can change the entire meaning of the passage when he opened The Vale of Laughter (1967) with: “Call me, Ishmael.”

Grace Metalious
Peyton Place (1956)

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.

These are the opening words of a novel that quickly became the publishing sensation of 1956, selling 100,000 copies within the first ten days of publication (it was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 59 consecutive weeks). It went on to sell more than 12 million copies and is one of a limited number of books to become deeply embedded in American pop culture. To illustrate, whenever people share dark and sordid secrets—especially of a sexual nature—about their family or work life, there’s a good chance they’ll conclude by saying something like, “Welcome to Peyton Place!”

In 2014, the editors of The American Scholar included the first sentence of Peyton Place in their list of “The Ten Worst Opening Lines.” They began their compilation by writing: “We’ve all noticed them: first sentences of a novel, either overwrought or just plain embarrassing, that elicit a groan or a smack of the forehead. Here are 10 opening doozies, lines that make it difficult to continue reading.”

With respect, I would disagree. The opening paragraph has a sensual, almost erotic quality that nicely foreshadows much of what is to come in the novel. In a New York Times review, Carlos Baker, a Princeton professor and noted Hemingway scholar, wasn’t wild about the book, but conceded that Metalious was “a pretty fair writer for a first novelist.”

Nicholas Meyer
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1973)

The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much skepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of more Dead Sea Scrolls than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer.

Thus begins Meyer’s novel—although it is presented as a work of non-fiction—about the discovery of a “lost” manuscript by Dr. John Watson, this one chronicling Sherlock Holmes’s trip to Germany to get Sigmund Freud’s help in overcoming his addiction to cocaine.

Stephenie Meyer
Twilight (2005)

I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months–but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Ciara Murphy wrote: “Love it or hate it, Twilight has what I consider to be one of the best opening lines in YA fiction. We’re immediately thrust into the action, with a whole backstory to catch up on and a heroine who (assuming she’s going to narrate the entire book) needs to execute an escape Houdini would be proud of. This is what I call a hook.”

The opening words come from a teenage girl named Bella Swan, who continues: “I stared across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and she looked pleasantly back at me.” And in the next paragraph, Bella added: “At least it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.”

Stephenie Meyer
New Moon [Book 2 of The Twilight Saga] (2006)

I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough.

Stephenie Meyer
Eclipse [Book 3 of The Twilight Saga] (2007)

All our attempts at subterfuge had been in vain

Stephenie Meyer
Breaking Dawn [Book 4 of The Twilight Saga] (2008)

I’d had more than my fair share of near-death experiences; it wasn’t something you ever really got used to.

Alex Michaelides
The Silent Patient (2019)

Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.

This is the entire first paragraph of Chapter One. In the second, the narrator continued: “They had been married for seven years. They were both artists—Alicia was a painter, and Gabriel a well-known fashion photographer.”

The dramatic opening sentence doesn’t come out of the blue, however. The book’s Prologue hauntingly begins with a lengthy entry Alicia has made in a book with blank pages that her husband has given her.

After titling it “Alicia Berenson’s Diary,” she begins: “I don’t know why I’m writing this. That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself. I don’t even know what to call it—this thing I’m writing. It feels a little pretentious to call it a diary. It’s not like I have anything to say.”

As Alicia continues, it is clear she is struggling with depression, a matter so concerning to her husband that he believes it will be helpful for her to record her thoughts in a diary. Her first entry has some foreboding elements, but she ends it by writing: “This is going to be a joyful record of ideas and images that inspire me artistically, things that make a creative impact on me. I’m only going to write positive, happy, normal thoughts. No crazy thoughts allowed.”

Alex Michaelides
The Maidens: A Novel (2021)

Edward Fosca was a murderer.

This was a fact. This wasn’t something Mariana knew just on an intellectual level, as an idea. Her body new it. She felt it in her bones, along her blood, and deep within every cell.

Edward Fosca was guilty.

The protagonist is Mariana Andros, an English psychotherapist—and also a recent widow—who shows up at Cambridge University to comfort her niece Zoe, a student who is grieving the recent murder of a classmate. The murdered girl belonged to a secret society of beautiful young female students known as The Maidens, all acolytes of a charismatic professor of Greek tragedy named Edward Fosca.

Mariana soon begins to suspect the smug professor, who has an alibi, and she becomes convinced of his guilt when another body is found. The narrator continued about her: “And yet—she couldn’t prove it, and might never prove it. This man, this monster, who had killed at least two people, might, in all likelihood, walk free.”

James Michener
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953)

The sea was bitter cold. From the vast empty plains of Siberia howling winds roared down to lash the mountains of Korea, where American soldiers lost on patrol froze into stiff and awkward forms.

This is a grisly, but captivating opening, and it grew out of Michener’s experience as a combat journalist. After serving as a U. S. Navy officer in WWII, in 1951 he was embedded with Task Force 77, an historic strike force of battleships and aircraft carriers brought back into action during the Korean War. Throughout the conflict, he wrote periodic dispatches for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications.

Michener’s Toko-Ri novella chronicled the experiences of U. S. Navy helicopter pilots who were tasked with destroying a series of heavily defended bridges in North Korea. An immediate bestseller, the book was quickly adapted into a highly regarded film by the same title, starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, and others.

James Michener
Hawaii (1959)

Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.

Of his many multi-generational, whopper-sized, historical sagas, Hawaii may be Michener’s most famous. In the work, the narrator continued: “It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.”

From the moment the novel was published, it was clear it was going to be a huge commercial success, despite the lukewarm reception from critics. In a New York Times review, critic Orville Prescott offered this prescient assessment of the book: “It may never make literary history, but for some time it has been making publishing history.”

James Michener
Chesapeake (1978)

For some time now they had been suspicious of him. Spies had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored.

The novel begins with a description of Pentaquod, an Indian warrior who is opposed to his chief’s decision to send a raiding party to a neighboring tribe. There is a suggestion from the outset that his principled opposition may cost him plenty. The narrator continued: “Even more predictive, the family of the girl he had chosen to replace his dead wife had refused to accept the three lengths of roanoke he had offered as her purchase price.”

For those not familiar with the word, roanoke refers to polished sea shell beads that were a form of Native American currency on Maryland’s eastern shore in the 16th and 17th centuries. A single length of roanoke was measured from the fingertip to the elbow.

James Michener
Space (1982)

On 24 October 1944 planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it has obediently done for nearly five billion years.

This would be a good opening line without the word obediently, but the inclusion of that single word transforms it into a great one. The narrator continued: “It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-five thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons. In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.”

James Michener
Legacy (1987)

My bad luck started just before Christmas 1985. But at the time, as so often happens, it seemed like good luck.

In this fictional account of the Iran-Contra affair, the opening words come from U. S. Army Major Norman Starr. A member of the National Security Council, he has received a subpoena to appear before a congressional committee investigating illegal covert activities by U.S. military personnel.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Starr continued: “I had graduated from West Point just in time to join the final fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Returning with a chest full of medals, a few earned, most routine, I married Nancy Makin, a girl from Maryland whom I’d been dating whenever I found myself with stateside duty. We had spent our first three years of married life in the Panama Canal Zone, where I had the shameful task of watching as Jimmy Carter gave away that marvel of engineering to the Panamanians.”

James Michener
Caribbean (1989)

The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world’s most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east.

The narrator continued: “Although bounded on the south and west by continental land masses, it is the islands that give the Caribbean its unique charm.”

James Michener
Mexico (1992)

I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.

Oxymoronic openings are always intriguing to readers, and this is one of the best. The opening words come from Norman Clay, an American journalist who has been assigned to cover an annual bullfighting festival in the Mexican city of Toledo. A few weeks earlier, he received a telegram from his editor, saying: “Rumor tells me two Mexican matadors are heading for a showdown in which one of them is likely to force the other to such extremes that it will be the same as murder.”

Andrew Miller
The Slowworm’s Coming (2022)

I have had the letter just over a week now and I look at it every day.

One sentence in, readers already know that the entire novel hinges on the contents of the letter in question. In the opening paragraph, the narrator and protagonist—a former British soldier and recovering alcoholic named Stephen Rose—continues: “Sometimes I look at it several times a day. I have shown it to no one. No one other than myself and the people who sent it know it exists.”

Henry Miller
Tropic of Cancer (1934)

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.

In Your First Page (2019), writer and writing teacher Peter Selgin called this an “iconoclastic” opening. He went on to add: “‘We are alone here and we are dead’ is still one heckuva way to begin a novel. Imagine how it must have struck people in 1934. Whether one admires Henry Miller’s convictions or not, he had the courage of them.”

Henry Miller
Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.

Henry Miller
Sexus (1949)

It must have been a Thursday night when I met her for the first time—at the dance hall. I reported to work in the morning, after an hour or two’s sleep, looking like a somnambulist.

In this deeply autobiographical novel, the unnamed narrator is an unhappily married man who is smitten by a dance hall girl. He continued: “The day passed like a dream. After dinner I fell asleep on the couch and awoke fully dressed about six the next morning. I felt thoroughly refreshed, pure at heart, and obsessed with one idea—to have her at any cost.”

Henry Miller
Plexus (1953)

In her tight-fitting Persian dress, with turban to match, she looked ravishing. Spring had come and she had donned a pair of long gloves and a beautiful taupe fur slung carelessly about her full columnar neck. We had chosen Brooklyn Heights in which to search for an apartment, thinking to get as far away as possible from everyone we knew….

Madeline Miller
Circe (2018)

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In a 2019 “Ask the Editor” post on PublishersWeekly.com, Betty Kelly Sargent, the founder and CEO of Bookworks, hailed this as one of her favorite opening lines. When asked by a reader, “Do you think it’s essential to start a novel with a dynamite first sentence?” Sargent replied:

“Absolutely. Your first sentence must entice, impress, surprise, and maybe even shock the reader. With all the competition for a reader’s attention these days, it’s important to try to hook your reader instantly, so spending the time it takes to craft a powerful opening sentence is well worth the effort…. Think of the opening sentence as an invitation to read your story—an invitation that’s hard to refuse.”

In Miller’s acclaimed re-telling of the myth of Circe, the protagonist continued in the opening paragraph: “They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, our powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.”

Sue Miller
The Distinguished Guest (1995)

In 1982, when she was seventy-two years old, Lily Roberts Maynard published her first book.

This is the opening sentence of a novel about a writer who achieves fame fairly late in life—and just before she begins to sense the steep decline that awaits as a result of her newly-diagnosed Parkinson’s Disease.

David Mitchell
Black Swan Green (2006)

Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it’s a matter of life or death. Don’t they?

The opening words come from 13-year-old Jason Taylor, described in a Boston Globe review as “one of the most endearing, smart, and funny young narrators ever to rise up from the pages of a novel.” The novel was widely praised—winning several Best of the Year awards—and almost everyone likened the narrator and protagonist to Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. In the first paragraph, Jason continued:

“Dad’s got an answering machine like James Garner’s in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he’s stopped leaving it on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn’t hear it up in her converted attic ’cause “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn’t hear ’cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That’s just not normal. S’pose Dad’d been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number ’cause all his other I.D.’d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.”

The entire opening paragraph is wonderful, but the first words of the second paragraph match it in quality: “So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard’s chamber after being told not to.”

In this heavily autobiographical novel, Jason is a stammerer (in America, we generally say stutterer instead), a speech disorder the author also struggled with in his early years. In a 2011 article in Prospect magazine, Mitchell bemoaned the fact that stammering is rarely discussed openly and constructively (he tweaked a famous Oscar Wilde observation by saying, “Stammering is the disability which cannot say its name”). In his article, he continued: “This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers…my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this ‘don’t mention the stammer’ policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13-year-old.”

David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks (2014)

I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.

The opening words come from 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who is wildly infatuated with a 24-year-old man named Vinny. In the opening paragraph, Holly continued: “Last night, the words just said themselves, ‘Christ, I really love you, Vin.’ and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice, ‘One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,’ and I nearly weed myself laughing.”

In a New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “Dazzling,” adding “Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language—its rhythms, sounds and inflections.”

J. Leslie Mitchell
The Thirteenth Disciple (1931)

One of his earliest memories was of how, at the age of five, he set out to commit suicide.

Suicide at age five? A perfect example of what writers describe as a “hook.“

J. Leslie Mitchell
Spartacus (1933)

When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master’s body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.

One of the most gratifying aspects of my research for this project was discovering spectacular opening paragraphs in the works of authors I’d never heard of. Mitchell, a popular Scottish author in the early decades of the twentieth century, published many novels, including Spartacus, under his own name, and many others under his pen name, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

This is not the Spartacus novel that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s popular 1960 film adaptation, though. Douglas relied on Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name. Mitchell’s opening line above demonstrates great flair and style, and I feel certain that, nearly twenty years later, Howard Fast must have devoured Mitchell’s earlier work when he was writing his version of the Spartacus legend.

Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind (1936)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.

In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers....“

Despite the problems enumerated by Whitfield, the novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also gave readers one of the most unforgettable female characters in the history of literature, brought to life in an equally unforgettable way by Vivian Leigh in David O. Selznick’s 1939 film adaptation.

In the novel, the narrator continued about Scarlett: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.“

Nancy Mitford
The Pursuit of Love (1945)

There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs. Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph, hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out.

This opening paragraph begins softly, slowly gathers momentum, and, at its conclusion, packs an enormous punch. The novel was the first in a trilogy about the Radlett’s, an upper-class English family modeled after the author’s own notoriously unconventional kin. A critical as well as a commercial success, the novel firmly established Mitford’s reputation as one of the era’s most popular novelists.

Francesca Momplaisir
My Mother’s House (2020)

The house screamed, “Fire!” from every orifice.

After seven words, we are fully engaged, and the narrator makes sure we stay that way as the opening paragraph unfolds:

Difé. Melting windowpanes rolled down the aluminum siding, dripping polyurethane tears. Orange, blue, and yellow flames hollered their frustration into the icicles along the struggling gutters. The two-story (three, if you counted the basement), one-family (two, again, if the basement was included) house had had enough. Fed up with the burden of its owner’s absurd hoarding, inexcusable slovenliness, and abuse of power, it spontaneously combusted everywhere a power source sprouted unkempt.”

Difé is a Haitian creole word that translates into a number of English words, including fire, arson, ablaze, flammable, fiery, and ignitable.

Toni Morrison
Sula (1973)

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.

The narrator continued: “It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.“

Toni Morrison
Paradise (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.

There is a clear suggestion in the opening words that the narrator—and, most likely, several others as well—are in grave danger from people who have already shot one of their number. The narrator continued hopefully: “No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.” In a 2013 blog post on “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,“ writer Colin Falconer wrote of these opening words: “Brilliant, yet simple.“

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued on a menacing note: “They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.“

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction.“ She wrote: “Probably the most startling of all, this opening belies the title, because wherever this is set, it’s far from paradise. Someone is shooting girls, and is prioritizing their executions by their color. How many girls will follow? Who is doing the shooting, and why? Is this the norm for the society the reader is about to inhabit or is this the a terrible one-off? In six words, Toni Morrison has grabbed us by the throat.“

Charlotte Moundlic
The Scar (2011)

Mom died this morning.

It wasn’t really this morning.

Dad said she died during the night, but I was sleeping during the night.

For me, she died this morning.

These are among the most powerful words to ever open a children’s book. In a Booklist review, writer and editor Daniel Kraus wrote: “This is not a book for everyone, but it could be an important one for those in need. From the opening line—“Mom died this morning”—it’s clear that this is going to be a hard book to get through, and it is, with the unnamed little boy struggling with wild fluctuations of emotion: anger at being left behind; sympathy for his grieving dad; and panic about forgetting his mother, which he tries to counteract by closing all the windows, holding his breath, and running around until his heart pounds, since he was told that she’ll always be ‘in your heart.’”

Haruki Murakami
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)

The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?

In a 2017 blog post titled “20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph,” writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Everyone tells you to seek clarity in your opening, to let the reader know where you’re going to take them.” About this particular opening, though, Fox went on to write:

“Murakami blows that advice up. I love how he’s deliberately playing with confusion, so that you know that the narrator is moving inside the elevator, but you have no idea what direction. It’s a feeling of complete lack of control and awareness. It’s a fantastic mystery to start the novel, and dovetails so nicely with the wonderland of the rest of the book.”

Haruki Murakami
After Dark (2004)

Eyes mark the shape of the city.

This is a provocative opening line—ambiguous enough to pique our attention and specific enough to suggest a far-off, bird’s-eye view of the large urban setting in which the events of the novel will unfold. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator advances the idea that a city is not unlike a biological organism:

“Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature—or more likely a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.“

Reading the opening words, I thought to myself, “This is like a wide-angle shot in a film.” Imagine, then, my pleasant surprise when, almost twenty years later, Murakami wrote in a 2023 Introduction to the work: “After Dark is a very cinematic novel, written in a cinematic style. The story progressed as I followed images I had in my mind (like chasing after colorful butterflies in a forest).”

Iris Murdoch
The Bell (1958)

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

This is a powerful beginning, and we are drawn further into the tale as the narrator continues with an exquisite explanation:

“The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence.”

Iris Murdoch
A Severed Head (1961)

“You’re sure she doesn’t know,” said Georgie.

“Antonia? About us? Certain.”

There’s an enticing quality about these first two lines of dialog, and things get even more intriguing as the narrator continues in the third paragraph:

“Georgie was silent for a moment and then said, ‘Good.’ That curt ‘Good’ was characteristic of her, typical of a toughness which had, to my mind, more to do with honesty than with ruthlessness. I liked the dry way in which she accepted our relationship. Only with a person so eminently sensible could I have deceived my wife.”

Iris Murdoch
The Nice and the Good (1968)

A head of department, working quietly in his room in Whitehall on a summer afternoon, is not accustomed to being disturbed by the nearby and indubitable sound of a revolver shot.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “At one moment a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him, his name Octavian Gray, was slowly writing a witty sentence in a neat tiny hand upon creamy official paper while he inhaled from his breath the pleasant sleepy smell of an excellent lunch-time burgundy. Then came the shot.”

Iris Murdoch
The Black Prince (1973)

It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, “Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.”

Iris Murdoch
The Good Apprentice (1985)

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

The entire novel is based around protagonist Edward Baltram’s search for absolution for a prank gone horribly wrong. After giving his best friend a sandwich laced with an hallucinogenic drug, his buddy falls—or jumps—from a window to his death.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “These were not perhaps the actual words which Edward Baltram uttered to himself on the occasion of his momentous and mysterious summons, yet their echo was not absent even then, and later he repeated them often.”

Vladimir Nabokov
Bend Sinister (1947)

An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver.

The novel begins with this impressive opening description—visual, textured, and layered with potential meaning.

Many years later, Nabokov offered this lovely thought about the entire novel: “Bend Sinister was the first novel I wrote in America, and that was half a dozen years after she and I had adopted each other.”

Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita (1955)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

These legendary opening words come from Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who, from the moment he first sees 12-year-old Dolores Haze sunbathing in a garden, goes completely gaga (he goes on to describe her as a “nymphet” and privately nicknames her Lolita).

In the novel, Humbert continued: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

When it came out, Lolita was widely regarded as a lewd or erotic novel, but apart from the unsettling pedophilic theme, there’s little lewdness, and even less eroticism, to be found in it. And, further, since the novel includes a murder, it might even be technically regarded as a crime story. I believe this is what writer Colin Falconer had in mind when he wrote about the opener in a 2021 blog post: “The best opening to a crime novel since Donald Westlake.”

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.

T. J. Newman
Falling (2021)

When the shoe dropped into her lap the foot was still in it.

This is a spectacular—indeed, an unforgettable—opening line, and I wish I’d known about it when I was compiling my list of The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).

In a 2023 post on his “First Sentence Reader” blog, retired librarian Fred Roecker wrote: “Best first sentence ever. Sure beats ‘Call me Ishmael.’” It’s hard to disagree with Roecker’s assessment, and I would add that “hooks” don’t get much better than this one. In the novel, the narrator continued:

“She flung it into the air with a shriek. The bloodied mass hung in weightless suspension before being sucked out of the massive hole in the side of the aircraft.“

Newman wrote much of her debut novel while working as a flight attendant on “red-eye” flights for Virgin Atlantic Airways. After 30 drafts, she finally had something to show agents, but 41 query letters were rejected before Shane Salerno at The Story Factory took her on and landed her a two-book, seven-figure deal with Avid Reader Press, a Simon & Schuster imprint. Even before the book was published, a heated bidding war for film rights, ensued, with Universal Pictures offering the stunned young writer yet another seven-figure deal (one concept description was “Jaws at 35,000 feet”). Falling became a publishing sensation, debuting at Number Two on The New York Times bestseller list and ultimately making a number of “Best Book of the Year” lists. Look for the film version later in 2023.

Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You (2014)

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

This is a powerful opener, immediately thrusting readers into the central theme of the novel—an unfolding tragedy in a Chinese-American family. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.“

Everything I Never Told You was Ng’s debut novel, and what a spectacular debut it had, winning numerous prizes, including the 2014 Amazon Book of the Year award.

Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere (2017)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend, and burned the house down.

New Zealand copywriter and writing teacher Mia Botha showcased this intriguing opener in a 2020 “Writers Write” blog post titled “How to Write an Epic First Line.” About the novel, she wrote:

“This story is all about keeping up appearances and the inevitable gossip one finds in such a community. The use of the word ‘everyone’ and the ambiguity of the speaker is typical of gossipy conversation. Needless to say, a teenage arsonist is just the kind of thing the gossip mill devours.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer (2015)

I am a spy, sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

The setting is the Vietnam War and the unnamed narrator is a captured North Vietnamese spy with one foot in each of two different worlds (his mother was Vietnamese and his father a French Catholic priest). As the novel opens, he is being forced to write a confession while confined to a 3-by-5-foot solitary cell. Nguyen’s debut novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.”

In 2017, Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, told the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler that he’d been struggling for months to write an opening sentence that would “grab the reader from the beginning” and “once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.” One day, after many months poring over a new 2011 translation of António Lobo Antune’s 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas (published under the title Land at the End of the World), a line popped into his mind: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen was elated. Finally, he had found his first sentence, saying to Fassler: “It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.”

In the novel, the narrator continued: “Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”

Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003)

It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.

In this hard-to-classify novel (part romance novel, part science-fiction), the opening words come from Chicago artist Clare Anne Abshire, wife of Henry DeTamble, a librarian with a rare genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel through time.

The Time Traveller’s Wife was a stunningly successful debut novel for Niffenegger, a Chicago visual artist who said she wrote the book as a metaphor for her many failed romantic relationships. An immediate New York Times bestseller, it was named the 2003 Amazon Book of the Year.

Audrey Niffennegger
Her Fearful Symmetry (2009)

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head towards the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.

Anna North
Outlawed (2021)

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.

Naomi Novick
A Deadly Education [Book I of the Scholomance trilogy] (2020)

I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

An opening line like, “I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he tried to kill me” would be an excellent way to begin a novel. But after the second time he saved my life? Now that’s an opening line that truly piques our interest.

Liz Nugent
Unraveling Oliver (2014)

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.

These are unsettling, but deeply compelling opening words, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a reader not reading on to see where the story is going. In the opening paragraph, the title character—Oliver Ryan, the philandering husband of wife Alice—continued:

“She just lay on the floor, holding her jaw. Staring at me. Silent. She didn’t even seem to be surprised.”

Shortly after the book was published, a People magazine review said about the first sentence: “From that searing opening line, the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of this unnerving psychological thriller are never in doubt…it’s the ‘why’ that fascinates as Nugent expertly peels back the layers to reveal the truth.” And in a 2023 review on GetLiterary.com, Sara Roncero-Menendez wrote: “Liz Nugent has crafted a cerebral thriller that will have readers questioning how well they really know anyone in their lives.”

Liz Nugent
Lying in Wait (2016)

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

In a 2023 Guardian article on the “Top 10 First Lines in Fiction,” Nugent wrote: “The opening may establish the tone, character, location, era or season but it can also pull a reader into the realm of the story that follows, and often into the head of the protagonist.” In the first sentence of Lying in Wait, I think you will agree that she does all that, and more. In the opening paragraph the narrator continued:

“After we had overcome the initial shock, I tried to stop him thinking of her. I did not allow it unless to confirm alibis or to discuss covering up any possible evidence. It upset him too much and I thought it best to move on as if nothing had happened.”

In a 2018 review in Brit + Co, California entrepreneur Brit Morin wrote: “Though we know Lydia and Andrew Fitzsimmons’ big secret by the end of the first sentence…the secret may be out, but the intrigue remains.”

Liz Nugent
Skin Deep (2018)

Once I had cleared the bottles away and washed the blood off the floor, I needed to get out of the flat.

This is a sizzling first sentence, and—although Nugent wasn’t thinking specifically about it five years later in a 2023 Guardian article—she perfectly characterized it herself when she wrote:

“When we open a book, we are ready to embark on a journey. The starter pistol should propel us forward. In my experience, a great opening will also raise questions that needs to be answered.”

Questions abound after Skin Deep’s first line hurtled out of the gate, and it is almost impossible to imagine a reader—including this one—not quickly reading on for the answers.

Liz Nugent
Little Cruelties (2020)

All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.

In a review on SwirlandThread.com, writer Mairéad Hearne wrote, “There is almost an expectation with a Liz Nugent book of a dramatic and game-setting opening line and in Our Little Cruelties that expectation is very much fulfilled.”

Liz Nugent
Strange Sally Diamond (2023)

“Put me out with the trash,” he said, regularly. “When I die, put me out with the trash. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know any different. You’ll be crying your eyes out,” and he would laugh and I’d laugh too because we both knew that I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out. I never cry.

No other contemporary crime novelist has excelled Nugent in the crafting of memorable opening lines, and she continues to set a high bar in her most recent novel. In a 2023 Guardian article on her own favorite first lines in fiction, Nugent might have had this opener in mind when she wrote:

“In my own work, I like to set the opening line in the aftermath of a major event. I write first-person narratives and the reaction of the protagonist to this event should give the reader a good indication of the type of character we are dealing with.”

I’ve was delighted to honor Nugent’s exceptional opening paragraph in my annual Smerconish.com post on “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023” (you can see the full compilation here).

Edna O’Brien
Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)

Not long ago Kate Brady and I were having a few gloomy gin fizzes up London, bemoaning the fact that nothing would ever improve, that we’d die the way we were—enough to eat, married, dissatisfied.

This is an okay opening line right up to the final word—and with that single addition, it is transformed into a great one.

Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan)
The Third Policeman (1967)

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Originally written in 1939-40, The Third Policeman failed to find publication until 1967, a year after O’Nolan’s death. In How to Read Literature (2013), Terry Eagleton hailed it as a great Irish novel, and said about the first paragraph: “It opens with these chilling words.”

The unnamed narrator turns out to be a dead man talking, but readers don’t learn this until the end of the novel. In a 1940 letter to William Saroyan—who was trying to help find an American publisher—O’Nolan wrote: “When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing.”

Tim O’Brien
Going After Cacciato (1978)

It was a bad time.

This brilliantly understated opening line comes from Vietnam war soldier Paul Berlin, a frustrated and disenchanted soldier who ultimately chases a deserter named Cacciato, the only problem being that the deserter may exist only in his imagination. In the opening paragraph, he continued:

“Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead.”

In a 1978 New York Times article, Richard Freeman gave O’Brien’s novel a spectacular review, writing: “To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.” The book went on to win the 1979 National Book Award for Fiction.

Tim O’Brien
July, July (2002)

The reunion dance had started only an hour ago, but already a good many of the dancers were tipsy, and most others were well along, and now the gossip was flowing and confessions were under way and old flames were being extinguished and rekindled under cardboard stars in the Darton Hall College gymnasium.

Flannery O’Connor
Wise Blood (1952)

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car.

O’Connor was a master of in media res (“In the middle of things”) opening, and the first sentence of her debut novel is a particularly good example. Readers are immediately engaged because they expect the protagonist to be female rather than male. And once this fact settles in, they’re left wondering: what is going on in Hazel’s life that has left him in such an emotionally agitated state?

Flannery O’Connor
The Violent Bear It Away (1960)

Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

This is the darkly intriguing opening sentence of O’Connor’s second and final novel, and there are many, many things to admire about it. I’ve got to admit, though, it was the part about dragging the “still sitting” dead body from the breakfast table that hooked me.

In a 2014 Whizpast.com post, writer Joel Willans included this first paragraph on his list of “The 13 Greatest Opening Lines from Novels of the 1960s.” And in “The Violent Wisdom of Flannery O’Connor,” a 2016 essay in TheImaginativeConservative.org, writer and academic Joseph Pearce wrote about the opener: “It is, in my unapologetically opinionated judgment, one of the best and most memorable opening lines in all of literature. How can one read such a sentence and not feel compelled to continue reading?”

John O’Hara
Hope of Heaven (1938)

Maybe I am not the man to tell this story, but if I don’t tell it no one else will, so here goes.

Joyce Carol Oates
Expensive People [Book 2 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1968)

I was a child murderer.

I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice.

The concept of a child being a murderer immediately raises a number of questions: Who was murdered? Why did the child do it? And how?

The opening words come from Richard Everett, an angry, obese adolescent boy growing up in an upscale Detroit suburb in the 1960s (his father is a successful business executive, his mother a glamorous novelist who describes herself as a Russian émigré, but actually grew up in a working-class family in upstate New York). Throughout the first chapter, Richard makes frequent reference to being a murderer, but provides no details. It’s clear we must read on to learn more, and we do so eagerly.

In a 2016 “Lonesome Reader” blog post, Eric Karl Anderson wrote: “The opening lines from novels and stories by Joyce Carol Oates are sometimes startling, sometimes mordantly funny, sometimes ironic, sometimes gruesome, sometimes elegantly simple and sometimes questioningly philosophical. But they all have the ability to grip you and make you want to read more.“ I hope you will enjoy the ones I’m featuring here.

Joyce Carol Oates
You Must Remember This (1987)

She had been waiting for a sign to release her into Death, now the sign was granted.

She swallowed forty-seven aspirin tablets between 1:10 A.M. and 1:35 A.M. locked in the bathroom of her parents’ rented house.

These gripping words come from the book’s Prologue. In the next three paragraphs, the narrator continued:

“She swallowed the tablets slowly and carefully drinking tepid water from the faucet.

“She knew to go slowly and carefully not wanting to get overexcited feverish not wanting to get sick to her stomach.

“Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness her father often said but she preferred the darkness.”

Joyce Carol Oates
Because It is Bitter, and Because It is My Heart (1990)

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift from the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore.

Oates has crafted many memorable openings in her career, but few are more compelling, leading a reviewer in Long Island’s Newsday newspaper to write, “Oates is a gifted storyteller, establishing from the first page a hypnotic, lyrical voice [that] bears the stamp of truth.” In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“It’s the buglelike cries of gulls that alert the fisherman—gulls with gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tail feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.”

About the opening words, Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home, and other works) wrote in a New York Times review: “The precision of this language is of a kind with the uncanny aptness of dream imagery, communicating its brilliant flood of sensory and emotional experience.”

Joyce Carol Oates
Black Water (1992)

The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.

Am I going to die—like this?

This is the entirety of the novel’s first chapter, and the haunting final thoughts of Kelly Kelleher, a fictional version of Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old political staffer who drowned in 1969 when a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy skidded off a small bridge on Chappaquidick Island in Massachusetts. The novel parallels the tragic events, but it is also a larger, almost mythical story about, in Oates’s words, “the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.“

Joyce Carol Oates
My Life as a Rat (2019)

Once I’d been Daddy’s favorite of his seven kids. Before something terrible happened between us, I am trying still to make it right.

This painful declaration comes from Violet Rue Kerrigan, a 25-year-old woman who, thirteen years earlier, was presented with a gut-wrenching choice: do the right thing by telling the truth about a violent, racist murder, or lie about it to protect members of her family.

Lauren Oliver
Delirium (2011)

It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.

The year is 2091 and the narrator is Lena Haloway, a 17-year-old girl who continues: “Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already. My older sister, Rachel, has been disease free for nine years now. She’s been safe from love for so long, she says she can’t even remember its symptoms. I’m scheduled to have my procedure in exactly ninety-five days.”

In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “From the first line of her novel, Oliver welcomes us into a world very much unlike our own, with a unique twist on the dystopian theme, and promises us a love story quite unlike any we’ve ever read before.”

Michael Ondaatje
Warlight (2018)

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

The opening words come from 26-year-old Nathaniel Williams, who is recalling a dramatic moment from a dozen years earlier, when he was fourteen and his sister Rachel was sixteen. He continued:

“We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in their absence.”

A starred review in Publisher’s Weekly said about the novel: “Mesmerizing from the first sentence, rife with poignant insights and satisfying subplots, this novel about secrets and loss may be Ondaatje’s best work yet.”

George Orwell
Animal Farm (1945)

Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.

The narrator continued: “With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.”

The drunken, careless farmer is the thinly disguised czar Nicholas II, and the unfolding tale a brilliant satire of a high-minded revolution that descends into totalitarianism. When Animal Farm was first published in England in 1945, it was subtitled A Fairy Story. A year later, when the book appeared in the United States, the subtitle was eliminated completely in some printings and replaced with A Satire or A Contemporary Satire in others.

George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

It’s common for dystopian novels to open with a disquieting or unsettling hint, and Orwell’s classic tale does that by mentioning a clock number that doesn’t exist. In How to Read Literature (2013), Terry Eagleton wrote:

“This first sentence gains its effect from carefully dropping the word ‘thirteen’ into an otherwise unremarkable piece of description, thus signaling that the scene is set either in some unfamiliar civilization or in the future. Some things haven’t changed (the month is still named April, and winds can still be bitter), but others have, and part of the effect of the sentence springs from this juxtaposition of the ordinary and the familiar.”

You might be interested in learning that Orwell was not the first writer to craft an opening line about a clock striking thirteen. Almost a half century earlier, the legendary Yiddish writer Aleichem began a short story that began “The clock struck thirteen” (see the entry here).

Richard Osman
The Thursday Murder Club [Book 1 of The Thursday Murder Club series] (2020)

Killing someone is easy. Hiding the body, now, that’s usually the hard part. That’s how you get caught.

These are the first words the reader sees, from a kind of preface or epigraph to the book. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote:

“Who would have ever thought a group of septuagenarians—amateur sleuths—in a retirement village would be the ones chasing down a murderer? Well that’s exactly what happens in The Thursday Murder Club, and let me just say, hilarity ensues.”

Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing (2018)

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog. The palmetto patches stood unusually quiet except for the low, slow flap of the heron’s wings lifting from the lagoon. And then, Kya, only six at the time, heard the screen door slap.

After this lush opening, the reader is immediately immersed in what appears to be a Southern coastal setting. The narrator continued with a subtle suggestion that this would be no ordinary day for young Catherine “Kya” Clark:

“Standing on the stool, she stopped scrubbing grits from the pot and lowered it into the basin of worn-out suds. No sounds now but her own breathing. Who had left the shack? Not Ma. She never let the door slam.”

Even the publisher of the book (Putnam) had low expectations for this debut novel of a retired and reclusive wildlife biologist, but it caught fire after Reese Witherspoon selected it for her “Hello Sunshine” book club (she said she “loved every page of it”). It went on to become the bestselling book of the year, on the New York Times fiction best-seller list for 67 weeks, 30 in the top position. By July 2022, the book had sold over 15 million copies, and that number was expected to only increase after Reese Witherspoon’s film company released a film adaptation that was a box office success despite mixed critical reviews.

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club (1996)

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

Chuck Palahniuk
Choke (2001)

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.

These are not the words you expect to find at the beginning of a novel, especially when the narrator and protagonist goes on to add: “After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece. Save yourself.”

This is not a typical protagonist, though. Victor Mancini is a quintessential antihero, a med school dropout who trolls for women at sex addiction recovery groups and has developed a fake-choking con to make money to pay his mother’s nursing home bills.

Orhan Pamuk
The New Life (1994)

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.

These simple-but-powerful opening words come from a young man named Osman, an engineering student in Istanbul whose life has been transformed by a novel titled The New Life. About the novel, he continued:

“Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity.”

Shortly after the book was released in 1994, the publisher plastered the opening sentence on billboards all around Istanbul, and the book went on to become the fastest selling book in Turkish publishing history.

Twenty-two years later, The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler was having trouble writing a Preface for his soon-to-be-published book, Light the Dark (2017). His struggles evaporated when, as he put it, “I found the way forward between the covers of another book.” That book was Pamuk’s The New Life and, in particular, its opening line.

About that first sentence, Fassler wrote: “What a way to start! Pamuk counters the expectations we bring to a story’s first pages—go ahead and dazzle me—with a fictionalized experience of ecstatic reading. The narrator’s head, as he reads, seems to float off his shoulders. The pages themselves shine with a penetrating light. And that’s when he realizes: He’ll never be the same, not after this.”

Fassler continued: “I’d picked the novel almost randomly from my shelf and read these words in disbelief—it was as if they’d been written for me. Because they’re exactly what this book is about, and as I read them I suddenly understood the approach that I needed to take here.”

Orhan Pamuk
My Name is Red (1998)

I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me.

The narrator is Elegant Effendi, a Turkish miniaturist who is clearly speaking from the afterlife. He continued: “As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.”

Gail Parent
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1972)

A few years ago, on the East Side of Manhattan, not far from Bloomingdale’s, a man set up a business where he sold diet shakes, delicious chocolate milk shakes having only seventy-seven calories. Well, I tell you, fat young girls came from near and far and lined up around the block at lunchtime. Only seventy-seven calories and such heaven! I was one of the ones that had two for lunch every day.

Gail Parent
A Little Bit Married (1984)

Marjorie should have known that there were rough times ahead when her husband announced, over ordinary power, that he felt like God.

The narrator continued: “He had, over the years, felt godlike, and like a God, but this was the closest he had ever come to being the ruler of the universe Himself. It should have alarmed Marjorie, because God had never taken a wife.”

Gail Parent
A Sign of the Eighties (1987)

When Astra Rainbow was five, two years younger than what is considered to be the age of reason, she pushed an eight-year-old boy off a cliff to his death.

Sara Paretsky
Guardian Angel (1992; Book 12 in V. I. Warshawski Series)

Hot kisses covered my face, dragging me from deep sleep to the rim of consciousness. I groaned and slid deeper under the covers, hoping to sink back into the well of dreams. My companion wasn’t in the humor for rest; she burrowed under the blankets and continued to lavish urgent affection on me.

These suggestive opening words come from private investigator V. I. Warshawski, the plain-speaking protagonist of twenty-one Paretsky novels and several dozen short stories. As she continued in the novel’s second paragraph, Warshawski took readers in an entirely new direction:

“When I covered my head with a pillow she started to mew piteously. Now thoroughly awake, I rolled over and glared at her. ‘It’s not even five-thirty. You can’t possibly want to get up.’”

Sara Paretsky
Blacklist (2003; Book 7 in V. I. Warshawski Series)

The clouds across the face of the moon made it hard for me to find my way. I’d been over the grounds yesterday morning, but in the dark everything is different.

Robert B. Parker
The Godwulf Manuscript [Book 1 in the Spenser series] (1973)

The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.

The Godwulf Manuscript was Parker’s debut novel, and the marvelous opening sentence introduced a Boston private investigator known only by the name Spenser. In the opening paragraph, Spenser continued: “It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows. There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs. The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie.“

Spenser went on to become one of history’s most famous fictional private detectives, appearing in forty additional Parker novels—and eight more penned by Ace Atkins after Parker’s death in 2010. In a 2010 obituary in London’s The Independent, mystery writer Frederick Nolan fondly recalled reading the first sentence of The Godwulf Manuscript thirty-seven years earlier. About it, he wrote, “And I was hooked.” The extent to which he was hooked becomes clear in Nolan’s next line: “One by one I found all the Spenser novels and devoured them in single-sitting heaven.”

Parker had been a great fan of detective fiction since childhood, and it was only a matter of time before he would join the genre as a writer. After military service in Korea, he attended Colby College on the G.I. Bill, getting his B.A. in 1954. An outstanding student, he went on to get an M.A. in literature from Boston University in 1957, and a Ph.D. in 1971. The title of his dissertation might be of interest to you: “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.”

Robert B. Parker
The Judas Coat [Book 5 in the Spenser series] (1978)

Hugh Dixon’s home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.

Robert B. Parker
Hugger Mugger [Book 27 in the Spenser series] (2000)

I was at my desk, in my office, with my feet up on the windowsill, and a yellow pad in my lap, thinking about baseball. It’s what I always think about when I’m not thinking about sex.

In the novel’s opening paragraph, Spenser continued with a reference to Boston therapist Susan Silverman, his longtime girlfriend: “Susan says that supreme happiness for me would probably involve having sex while watching a ball game. Since she knows this, I’ve never understood why, when we’re at Fenway Park, she remains so prudish.”

James Patterson
The Thomas Berryman Number (1976)

Claude, Texas, 1962

The year he and Ben Toy left Claude, Texas—1962—Thomas Berryman had been in the habit of wearing black cowboy boots with distinctive red stars on the ankles. He’d also been stuffing four twenty-dollar bills in each boot sole. By mid-July the money had begun to shred and smell like feet.

These are the opening words of the debut novel of a 29-year-old man who would go on to become one of history’s most prolific and successful writers. A certain flair for crafting a great opening paragraph is already apparent in this first effort and, not surprisingly, the book won the 1977 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Patterson went on to write or co-author more than 200 novels, 114 of which became New York Times bestsellers, and 67 which reached the Number One position (the most for any author).

James Patterson
Along Came a Spider [Book 1 in the Alex Cross series] (1993)

Early in the morning of Dec. 21, 1992, I was the picture of contentment on the sun porch of our house on 5th street in Washington, DC. The small, narrow room was cluttered with mildewing winter coats, work boots, and wounded children’s toys. I couldn’t have cared less. This was home.

With these words, readers were first introduced to Alex Cross, a black psychologist (Ph.D. in forensic psychology) who is working as a homicide detective with the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department. Since his wife Maria’s death in an unsolved drive-by shooting three years earlier, he has lived with his grandmother, Nana Mama, and his two children in a predominantly black section of DC.

An urbane, intelligent, and socially-conscious protagonist, Cross was played by Morgan Freeman when the novel was adapted into a 2001 film (Freeman also starred in the 1997 film Kiss the Girls, adapted from Patterson’s 1995 novel, and the second book in the Alex Cross series)

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “I was playing Gershwin on our slightly out-of-tune, formerly grand piano. It was just past 5 a.m., and cold as a meat locker on the porch. I was prepared to sacrifice a little for ‘An American in Paris.’”

James Patterson
Fear No Evil [Book 29 in the Alex Cross series] (2021)

Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him. She was handcuffed and shackled to a heavy oak chair bolted into the concrete floor beneath bright fluorescent lights.

Patterson was 74 years old when his 29th Alex Cross mystery (yes, the 29th!) was published, and he continued to demonstrate impressive novel-opening skills. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “If the woman was anxious about her predicament, she wasn’t showing it in the least. She was as chill as the yoga outfit she wore. No sweat on her pale brow. Beneath her warm-up hoodie, her chest rose and fell calmly, each breath measured. Her shoulders were relaxed. Even her eyes looked soft.”

In an appearance on CNN’s “Smerconish,” Patterson was asked by host Michael Smerconish, “How important is that first paragraph?” And then, after reading the passage aloud, Smerconish probed further: “Do you go back on that and just make sure that it’s perfect so you hook us from the get-go?” Patterson answered in the affirmative, and explained, “I pretend there’s somebody sitting across from me and I’m telling them a story and I don’t want ‘em to get up until I’m finished. And that’s my strength, and probably my weakness too. I probably could go a little deeper sometimes. But I do, I want to get the reader involved very quickly.”

Nancy Peacock
The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson (2017)

I have been to hangings before, but never my own.

The opening words come from Persimmon “Persy” Wilson, a former Louisiana slave who, in 1875, has been falsely accused of kidnapping and raping his former master’s wife.

About the opening as well as the rest of the novel, writer Lee Smith (author of Guests on Earth, The Last Girls, and more) wrote: “From this riveting beginning to the last perfect word, Nancy Peacock grabs her reader by the throat and makes him hang on for dear life as the action moves from a Louisiana sugar plantation to life among the Western Comanches, bringing to blazing life her themes of race and true love in the throes of history.”

In the novel’s opening paragraph, Persy continued:

“Still, it should be some comfort to me that except for the noose around my neck, and the drop that will take my life, I know exactly what to expect two days hence. I know there will be a crowd like there always is at a hanging: picnics, baskets lined with checkered cloths, the smell of fried chicken, and the noise of children. There will be, like there always is, a preacher, and a group of white women dressed in black, singing me to their god.”

Mary E. Pearson
The Kiss of Deception [Book 1 of The Remnant Chronicles] (2014)

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The intriguing opening words come from narrator and protagonist Princess Lia, a 17-year-old girl whose happy world has been shattered when her royal parents arranged for her to be married to a man she has never met, the prince of a neighboring kingdom. In a 2016 “Nerdy Talks” blog post, Eunice Moral included it in her “Best Opening Lines” compilation.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Lia continued: “The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.”

Richard Peck
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (2013)

Every time a human walks out of a room, something with more feet walks in.

This is a magnificent first sentence, and one could easily make the argument that it deserves to be included in any discussion of the greatest opening lines in all of children’s literature.

According to writer Lee Wind, Peck made a startling revelation at a 2013 meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). In a workshop on “Shaping Story From the Opening Line,” the legendary author told participants that the line didn’t come to him until eleven months into his work on the novel, when he was on page 124 of the fifth draft of the book. Immediately sensing that the perfect opening line had arrived, he quickly sat down to re-write the beginning of the tale. About the long wait, he happily admitted, “It was worth it.”

In that same workshop, Peck told participants that books for younger people must suggest action that has begun before the opening line. With children’s books, he said, “We start in the story, not at the beginning.”

Louise Penny
Still Life [Book 1 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2005)

Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round. Miss Neal’s was not a natural death, unless you’re of the belief everything happens as it’s supposed to.

The narrator continued: “If so, for her seventy-six years Jane Neal had been walking toward this final moment when death met her in the brilliant maple woods on the verge of the village of Three Pines. She’d fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright and brittle leaves.”

Louise Penny
A Fatal Grace [Book 2 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2007)

Had CC de Poitiers known she was going to be murdered she might have bought her husband, Richard, a Christmas gift.

This is a powerful opening line, but things only get better as the narrator continued in the first paragraph:

“She might even have gone to her daughter’s end of term pageant at Miss Edward’s school for Girls, or “girths” as CC liked to tease her expansive daughter. Had CC de Poitiers known the end was near she might have been at work instead of in the cheapest room the Ritz in Montreal had to offer. But the only end she knew was near belonged to a man named Saul.”

Louise Penny
The Cruelest Month [Book 3 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2008)

Kneeling in the fragrant moist grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper. Wiping a strand of hair from her face, she smeared bits of grass, mud and some other brown stuff that might not be mud into her tangled hair.

I think of a novel’s beginning words as a type of seduction, and this one is downright alluring. The allusion to “raising the dead” in the first sentence piques our curiosity, and the reference to “other brown stuff” in the second brings a smile to our lips. We’re eager to take this to the next level.

Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling [Book 5 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2009)

“All of them? Even the children?” The fireplace sputtered and crackled and swallowed his gasp. “Slaughtered?”


There was silence then. And in that hush lived all the things that could be worse than slaughter.

Louise Penny
Bury Your Dead [Book 6 of Chief Inspector Gamache Series] (2010)

Up the stairs they raced, taking them two at a time, trying to be as quiet as possible. Gamache struggled to keep his breathing steady, as though he was sitting at home, as though he had not a care in the world.

Walker Percy
The Moviegoer (1961)

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks.

The opening words—from 29-year-old New Orleans stockbroker Binx Bolling—suggest that there is something about his life that is deeply concerning to his aunt. It turns out, her concerns are well-founded, for her nephew is mired in a form of existential alienation that few American writers had documented at the time. As soon as it was published, Percy’s debut novel was compared to the soul-searching works of Dostoevsky and the existential novels of European writers (in Time magazine, Richard Lacayo cleverly wrote: “Percy’s book is like Sartre’s Nausea without the nausea”).

The Moviegoer went on to win the 1962 National Book Award for fiction, and is now regarded as a modern American classic. In 1998, The Modern Library ranked it No. 60 on its list of the 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th century. Later in his career, Percy described his protagonist “as a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America”

Walker Percy
Lancelot (1977)

Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I’ll sit on the cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my little view. Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see. For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their porches for years.

The narrator is a New Orleans lawyer named Lancelot Andrews Lamar. As the novel unfolds, we learn he has murdered his wife after discovering another man has fathered his youngest daughter.

Here, at the beginning, Lamar continued: “Don’t I know you? You look very familiar. I’ve been feeling rather depressed and I don’t remember things very well. I think I am here because of that or because I committed a crime. Perhaps both. Is this a prison or a hospital or a prison hospital? A Center for Aberrant Behavior? So that’s it. I have behaved aberrantly. In short, I’m in the nuthouse.”

Arturo Pérez-Reverte
The Club Dumas (2003)

The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fixture in the center of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking pictures, the flashes threw the silhouette onto a succession of paintings, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains framing great windows beyond which the rain was falling.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Take My Hand (2022)

Memphis 2016

A year never passes without me thinking of them. India. Erica. Their names are stitched inside every white coat I have ever worn.

After these few, brief words, we’ve already grasped the essence of the story to come and find ourselves in full agreement with the Bookpage reviewer who wrote: “There’s nothing better than settling down to read a novel and immediately sensing that you’re in the hands of a gifted storyteller.” I was delighted to honor this beautiful opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

As the opening paragraph continues, we don’t yet know if the narrator is a doctor or a nurse, but the words are haunting:

“I tell this story to stitch their names inside your clothes, too. A reminder to never forget. Medicine has taught me, really taught me, to accept the things I cannot change. A difficult-to-swallow serenity prayer. I’m not trying to change the past. I’m telling it in order to lay those ghosts to rest.”

Susan Elizabeth Phillips
It Had to Be You [Book One of Chicago Stars series] (2013)

Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father’s funeral.

I loved this opening line from the moment I first read it, and things got even better as the narrator continued: “She sat at the gravesite like a fifties movie queen with the small white poodle perched in her lap and a pair of rhinestone-studded cat’s-eye sunglasses shielding her eyes. It was difficult for the mourners to decide who looked more out of place—the perfectly clipped poodle sporting a pair of matching peach satin ear bows, Phoebe’s unbelievably handsome Hungarian with his long, beaded ponytail, or Phoebe herself.”

Jodi Picoult
House Rules (2010)

Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.

The first paragraph is a classic hook. As soon as readers take the bait, the next two paragraphs begin to reel them in:

“He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.

Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.”

Jodi Picoult
The Book of Two Ways (2020)

My calendar is full of dead people.

The opening words come from protagonist Dawn Edelstein, whose phone has just awakened her from a deep sleep while on an airplane flight. She continues: “When my phone alarm chimes, I fish it out from the pocket of my cargo pants. I’ve forgotten, with the time change, to turn off the reminder. I’m still groggy with sleep, but I open the date and read the names.”

Jodi Picoult
Wish You Were Here (2021)

When I was six years old, I painted a corner of the sky.

The opening words come from Diana O’Toole, a 29-year-old Manhattan woman whose life is going about as well as she could have hoped. She has a satisfying job at Sotheby’s, is engaged to a handsome surgical resident, and is planning a 30th birthday trip to the Galapagos Islands. She begins, though, by reflecting on an important childhood memory, and as she continues in the opening paragraph, she concludes with a haunting statement about her mother:

“My father was working as a conservator, one of a handful restoring the zodiac ceiling on the main hall of Grand Central Terminal—an aqua sky string with shimmering constellations. It was late, way past my bedtime, but my father took me to work because my mother—as usual—was not home.”

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
Mad Honey (2022)

From the moment I was having a baby, I wanted it to be a girl. I wandered the aisles of department stores, touching doll-size dresses and tiny sequined shoes. I pictured us with matching nail polish—me, who’d never had a manicure in my life. I imagined the day her fairy hair was long enough to capture in pigtails, her nose pressed to the glass of a school bus window; I saw her first crush, prom dress, heartbreak. Each vision was a bead on a rosary of future memories; I prayed daily.

As it turned out, I was not a zealot…only a martyr.

When I gave birth, and the doctor announced the baby’s sex, I did not believe it at first. I had done such a stellar job of convincing myself of what I wanted that I completely forgot what I needed. But when I held Asher, slippery as a minnow, I was relieved.

Better to have a boy, who would never be someone’s victim.

If some novel openers are hooks, then others, as we see here, are lures, gently teasing and tantalizing until bam! the reader takes the bait. The final words—who would never be someone’s victim—reverberate in our minds as we feel compelled to read on.

Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (1963)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

The opening words come from Esther Greenwood—a thinly disguised version of the author—a Massachusetts college student who descends into mental illness while serving as a summer intern at a prominent magazine in New York City.

In a 2012 Guardian article, writer and critic Robert McCrum called this one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,” writing: “Postwar American first lines don’t come much more angsty or zeitgeisty than this.”

Commonly described as a roman à clef, The Bell Jar was American poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and it was originally published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lewis. Plath died by suicide a month after the book was published, and her own name would not appear on any editions of the book until 1967.

Charles Portis
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.”

Charles Portis
The Dog of the South (1979)

My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October.

These words introduce us to Raymond E. Midge, a Little Rock, Arkansas ex-newspaper reporter who has now returned to college to work on a degree. He continued: “They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles.”

A 1979 Kirkus Review said of the novel: “Portis holds our attention in a headlock by being so relaxed and unfazed and good-natured—in a funky, off-center book that never guns its motor and yet is always arriving at some place that’s green and fresh and funny.“

Beatrix Potter
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)

Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.

Richard Powers
The Echo Maker (2006)

Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk.

It’s always nice to see a novel begin with a beautiful description, but this one also contains the interesting tidbit that a flock of cranes may also be correctly called a kettle (technically, a kettle is a gathering of any group of soaring birds—including cranes and vultures—that utilize circular updrafts of warm air to gain elevation).

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.”

Terry Pratchett
The Light Fantastic [Book 2 in Discworld Series] (1986)

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

I’ve always been a great fan of Pratchett’s ability to blend evocative imagery with wry humor, and of all his opening lines, this is my personal favorite. As an experiment, I asked ChatGPT to do an analysis of the first sentence. I think you’ll be interested in the exceptionally high quality of the response:

“Fans of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels often appreciate his ability to infuse profound observations and thought-provoking ideas into his humorous and fantastical narratives. This line, in particular, captures a sense of the world’s weary beauty and the subtle doubts that can emerge even in the face of everyday miracles like the rising sun.“

Terry Pratchett
Wyrd Sisters [Book 6 in Discworld Series] (1988)

The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin.

In all of his writings—and especially in his first sentences—Pratchett has demonstrated himself to be a grandmaster of metaphorical language. In this one, after teasing us with the more plebeian images of howling wind and stabbing lightning, he offers a simile (‘“like an inefficient assassin”) that is so ingenious the author almost seems to be bragging. It’s almost as if he’s sending a subliminal message that might go something like this: “Yes, dear reader, I know that’s a good one, and if you keep reading, you’ll find similar inspired creations awaiting you within.”

Terry Pratchett
Night Watch [Book 29 in Discworld Series] (2002)

Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but finished shaving before doing anything about it.

This is an absolutely delightful first sentence, almost daring readers to wonder if such a thing could actually happen in real life. In a 2015 blog post, Dean Koontz hailed it as a “quick-punch” opening line, adding that it “should intrigue with its mix of the hard-boiled and the comic.”

Nita Prose
The Maid: A Novel (2022)

I am your maid. I’m the one who cleans your hotel room, who enters like a phantom when you’re out gallivanting for the day, no care at all about what you’ve left behind, the mess, or what I might see when you’re gone.

These powerful, perspective-altering words come from the Prologue to the book, and I was delighted to honor them in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).

In a 2022 “Editors’ Picks” post in the Amazon Book Review, Seira Wilson included Prose’s acclaimed novel in an article on “Books with Unputdownable First Lines.” About the protagonist, Wilson wrote:

“Molly is a maid at a nice New York hotel who finds the body of a murder victim who is a very wealthy and frequent guest. Unfortunately, Molly’s quirky mannerisms and affect make her a prime suspect.”

Prose also opened Chapter 1 of the book memorably: “I am well aware that my name is ridiculous. It was not ridiculous before I took this job four years ago. I’m a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, and my name is Molly. Molly Maid. A joke.”

Prose is a longtime book editor and publishing executive, and The Maid is her debut novel. It quickly became an international bestseller, and nobody was surprised to learn that a film adaptation was already in the works, with the talented British actress Florence Pugh set to appear in the starring role.

Marcel Proust
Swann’s Way, Volume I of In Search Of Lost Time (1913-27)

For a long time, I went to bed early.

In a 2018 post on CulturaColectiva.com, Zoralis Pérez included this legendary opening line in a compilation of “15 First Sentences from Classic Books That’ll Convince You to Read Them.” About the complete list, Pérez wrote:

“A book’s first sentence is like a first kiss or the first time you lock eyes with the person you love. It’s brief and sometimes a little strange, but if you like it, it’s the start of something great.”

When the first volume of Proust’s classic work was translated into English in 1922, it was titled Remembrance of Things Past (after a passage from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets). It was known by that title until 1992, when the work of a single British scholar (the writer and poet D. J. Enright) convinced the literary world that In Search of Lost Time was a more appropriate rendering of the original French title: À la recherche du temps perdu.

Thomas Pynchon
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

A screaming comes across the sky.

In 2006, The American Book Review ranked this Number 3 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.” Younger readers may be forgiven for not recognizing this classic opening line as an unparalleled description of a WWII V-2 rocket propelling toward its target. Many modern readers also fail to appreciate how the book’s metaphorical title perfectly captures the parabolic trajectory of such a rocket from launch to final impact.

After the book was named co-winner (with Isaac Bashevis Singers’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories) of the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction, the notoriously reclusive Pynchon declined the award. Sensing a rare publicity opportunity, the president of Viking Press suggested that Professor Irwin Corey, an up-and-coming comedian, accept the award on Pynchon’s behalf. During Corey’s mock acceptance speech, a streaker famously ran across the stage and throughout the auditorium.

Ann Quin
Berg (1964)

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

In “Who Cares About Ann Quin?” a 2007 article in The Guardian, editor and writer Lee Rourke wrote:

“For me this is the greatest opening first line of any novel I have ever read. It is from…a debut novel so staggeringly superior to most you’ll never forget it—and by one of our greatest ever novelists too. The thing is, though, no one ever seems to have heard of her. It is something that has rankled within me for a long time now: why, I demand to know, does nobody care about Ann Quin?”

Ayn Rand
Anthem (1937)

It’s a sin to write this.

First sentences don’t get much better, and we quickly deduce that this one is coming from the dystopian future. The narrator and protagonist—named Equality 7-2521—is an acutely intelligent young man the government has assigned to work as a street sweeper.

As Equality 7-2521 continues, notice how the first-person pronoun I has been completely eliminated from his vocabulary: “It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!”

Ayn Rand
The Fountainhead (1943)

Howard Roark laughed.

A name and a verb is about as simple as an opening line can get. In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote about the line: “Stark as the architecture it exalts, The Fountainhead’s first sentence is a declarative, aggressively simple statement. We are told the hero’s name and a single verb. Three words stand alone on the page; Rand ends not only her first sentence, but her first paragraph there. The effect is that of freeze-frame. We hear a name, poised in the action of laughing: the isolation of the words makes it clear that to see him laughing is, by itself, enough to understand him—or at least, to understand something important about him.“

Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged (1957)

Who is John Galt?

It’s rare for a novel’s opening line to become a cultural meme, but that is exactly what has happened with this one—a question-turned-statement that has appeared on coffee mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters at political gatherings.

About the saying, Rand aficionado Don Hauptman said in a personal communication: “The ’Who is’ device is not only the lead but an ingenious thread that carries through the entire long novel—puzzling characters who wonder if he exists or is a myth. It’s a cry of despair and resignation in a world that’s collapsing. It became a catchphrase among Rand enthusiasts decades ago, but transitioned into popular culture when leaders of the Tea Party Movement, some of whom were Objectivists, talked about ’Going Galt,’ or dropping out of society.“

Alice Randall
Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel (2012)

Ada departed the island of fat as she arrived: with little fanfare and for her own reasons. Edited, she was still luscious. Thin again is not simply thin.

The narrator is describing Ada Howard, a hefty (five-feet-two, 220 pounds), middle-aged Nashville woman married to Lucius Howard, the pastor of a church in one of the city’s black neighborhoods. The narrator continued: “The journey had begun in the usual way. She was approaching a twenty-fifth college reunion, where she would see the man who got away, a man Ada hadn’t seen in twenty years.”

Reading the book, I couldn’t decide if this was a diet book disguised as a novel, or vice versa. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “It is impossible not to fall in love with the plucky plus-size heroine,” adding, “A heartwarming and engaging read, Ada’s story is more than that―readers following Randall’s rules will drop the pounds along with Ada, and perhaps discover something about themselves.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Sojourner (1953)

Three crows flew low over the fresh mound in the Linden burying-ground, dark as the thoughts of the three unmourning mourners.

This oxymoronic notion of unmourning mourners has piqued the attention of readers for many years. And, as they read one, they quickly discover that this is a writer with both style and skill. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:

“These were the widow Amelia Linden, and the two tall sons, Benjamin and Asahel. The funeral assembly had gone. The clomp of horses’ feet and the rattle of wheels were faint down the frozen lane. There was a pure instant of silence. Then a wind keened far off in the west, nosed across the hills and leaped into the clearing, snapping its fangs at the limbs of the oak trees. The last leaves shivered to earth and scurried like thin brown rats across the grave.”

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Secret River (1955)

There is a dark forest far away in Florida. The trees are so tall the sky is like a blue veil over their leafy hair.

There is a path through the forest. It leads to the home of Calpurnia and Buggy-horse.

After Rawlings’ unexpected death from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 57 in 1953, the completed manuscript for The Secret River was found among her papers. Her only children’s book, it was published posthumously in 1955. In the book, the narrator continued:

“Calpurnia is a little girl and Buggy-horse is her dog. Her name is Calpurnia because she was born to be a poet. Buggy-horse is a peculiar name, but even when he was a puppy, his back dipped in the middle and he had an enormously fat stomach, just like a little old buggy horse. He could not possibly have been called Rex or Rover or any ordinary name for a dog. Calpurnia wrote her first poem about him:

My dog’s name is Buggy-horse. Of course.

Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Grave [Book 1 in the Lady Julia Grey series] (2007)

To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

These are the gruesome-but-deliciously unforgettable opening words of a debut novel featuring Lady Julia Grey, wife of the wealthy English aristocrat, Sir Edward Grey.

In the middle of dinner with a roomful of guests, Sir Edward collapses on the floor, and soon dies from what appears to be the heart disease that has taken so many of his relatives. Lady Julia soon learns that one of the dinner guests that evening is Nicholas Brisbane, a private detective who reveals that her husband had retained him to find the author of some threatening letters. The novel went on to win the Agatha Award for the best new mystery novel of 2007.

Joyce Rebeta-Burditt
The Cracker Factory (1977)

I woke up, rolled over carefully to prevent the pin cushion in my head from doing major damage, opened the eye with the astigmatism and focused on the window with its mesh screen and bars.

“Oh no,” I groaned, “I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole again.” I curled up in a ball, or more appropriately, since I was in a psychiatric ward, the fetal position.

These are the dramatic opening words of a best-selling autobiographical novel about a smart-talking Cleveland woman with a major drinking problem. The novel was adapted into a 1979 ABC-TV “Movie of the Week,” with Natalie Wood in the starring role.

Rebeta-Burditt was a writer and television network executive best known for creating the TV series Diagnosis: Murder. Her Cracker Factory book contains what I regard as the single best observation ever offered on the subject of alcoholism: “Alcoholism isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play.“

Nigel Rees
The Newsmakers (1987)

It was when Jo threw the television at him that David briefly realized all was not well with their marriage.

A legendary figure in the world of quotations, Rees was the longtime host of BBC Radio 4’s popular quiz show “Quote…Unquote.” He has authored scores of acclaimed reference books on quotations, phrases, and sayings, many regarded as classics. He also wrote a few novels, and in The Newsmakers, he proved he could also craft a superb opening line.

Nigel Rees
Talent (1989)

It was an indication of how far he had travelled that he now thought of the city as “Liverpool, England” and not simply as “the Pool.” But he had come back, an exile who had never quite been able to escape the grip of the place.

Rees’s opening paragraph touches a universal human chord—no matter how far removed we are from the place we once called home, the place never quite leaves us.

Kathy Reichs
Fatal Voyage [Book 4 of the Temperance Brennan series] (2001)

I stared at the woman flying through the trees.

This intriguing opening line comes from Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist and medical examiner who has rushed to the scene of a major commercial airline crash in the mountains of North Carolina (we will later learn that eighty-eight passengers and the entire flight crew perished in the accident). Brennan continued:

“Her head was forward, chin raised, arms flung backward like the tiny chrome goddess on the hood of a Rolls-Royce. But the tree lady was naked, and her body ended at the waist. Blood-coated leaves and branches imprisoned her lifeless torso.”

Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

These are the first words one reads after opening the book—and they are among the most powerful I have ever seen at the beginning of a novel.

The opening paragraph is clearly an Author’s Note, a Prologue, or a Preface, but it has no formal heading. It simply appears as you see it above—naked, stark, and honest—and the impact is very real. For me, the opening words kept reverberating in my mind as I began to read Chapter I, which formally began: “We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace.”

Remarque was a German veteran of WWI, and the original German title of his book was Im Westen nichts Neues, which translates to “Nothing New in the West,” with West referring to the Western Front of the war. When the book appeared in an English edition in 1929, it was given the now-classic title All Quiet on the Western Front. An international bestseller, it was quickly adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1930 film by the same title. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked the film Number 7 in its list of “Top Ten Epic Films.”

I recently began to see Remarque’s opening paragraph in a new way when I learned that, fresh out of school, he was drafted at age eighteen and sent directly to the front lines of WWI. Wounded five separate times, he lost all of his friends in combat and was haunted by wartime memories for the rest of his life.

Mary Renault
The Last of the Wine (1956)

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

The dramatic opening words come from Alexias, a young Athenian aristocrat who became famous for his beauty and athleticism. The Last of the Wine was Renault’s seventh novel, the first one to be set in ancient Greece (ultimately her favorite historical period), and the second to explore the dynamics of male homosexuality.

Ruth Rendell
A Judgement in Stone (1977)

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

This is one of the most famous opening lines in the history of crime fiction, and it comes from one of Rendell’s most highly regarded novels. In “Ruth Rendell: An Appreciation,” a 2017 article in the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing, English novelist, biographer, and journalist Andrew Wilson wrote: “Rendell was a master of the killer first sentence. There are not many writers who, in their opening lines, can combine intrigue and suspense with dark psychology and a flourish of metafictional awareness.”

In a 2019 “Novel Readings” blog post, Dalhousie University professor Rohan Maitzen described this as a “chilling first line,” and she wrote about the novel: “I’m not sure ‘thriller’ is the right word, but ‘mystery’ seems wrong, as obviously it is not a whodunit—and if you take that opening sentence at face value, it is not a ‘whydunit’ either, as Rendell immediately gives away both the name and the motive of her murderer. The only suspense in A Judgement in Stone comes from wondering exactly how the massacre will happen, and it is a testament to Rendell’s skill as a storyteller that the novel is in fact gripping in spite of our already knowing who, what, when, and why.”

In 1996, the novel was adapted into the French film La Cérémonie, directed by Claude Chabrol. When Janet Maslin reviewed the film in The New York Times, she hailed it as an “instant suspense classic.” About the author of the original novel on which the film was based, Maslin wrote that Rendell’s “view of human nature is every bit as big-hearted as Alfred Hitchcock’s, and almost as fascinatingly macabre.“ And about the novel’s opening line, she added: “This story has a chilling, lethal inevitability from the very start.”

ERROR ALERT: On a number of websites, the opening line of A Judgement in Stone is mistakenly presented as if “Eunice Parchment” killed the Cloverdale family, not Eunice Parchman. The error originated with Richard Critchfield’s An American Looks at Britain (1990), and it continues to be repeated more than three decades later.

Ruth Rendell
The Killing Doll (1984)

The winter before he was sixteen, Pup sold his soul to the devil.

In a 2015 post on the website DeadGoodBooks.com, Chris Simmons, Editor of CrimeSquad.com, said he was only fourteen when he first got his hands on a copy of The Killing Doll, and his immediate reaction after reading this opening line was, “How could anyone not want to read the rest with such a first line?” He went on to write: “Here was a writer who wanted to show me the dark corridors of people’s minds, those suffering from delusions and obsessions that were totally destructive. This was unchartered territory for me, an unrecognizable country—and I loved it.”

Ruth Rendell
Live Flesh (1986)

The gun was a replica. Spenser told Fleetwood he was ninety-nine per cent sure of that. Fleetwood knew what that meant, that he was really forty-nine per cent sure, but he didn’t attach much weight to what Spenser said anyway. For his own part he didn’t believe the gun was real. Rapists don’t have real guns. A replica does just as well as a means of frightening.

Ruth Rendell
Asta’s Book [written under the pen name Barbara Vine and published in the U.S. under the title Anna’s Book] (1993)

My grandmother was a novelist without knowing it.

The opening line of the novel is the first entry made in a diary begun in 1905 by 25-year-old Asta, a Danish woman living in East London with her husband and two sons. Asta, who is pregnant and hoping for a daughter this time, has no idea as she is writing these words that her diary will one day become famous all over England.

Ruth Rendell
The Blood Doctor [written under the pen name Barbara Vine] (2002)

Blood is going to be its theme. I’ve made that decision long before I shall even begin writing the book.

The opening words come from Martin Nanther, an English biographer who is embarking on a biography about his great-grandfather, an English physician whose specialty was treating patients with hemophilia (hence, “the blood doctor”).

Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.

These powerful-but-enigmatic opening words come from Bertha Mason, a mixed-race Jamaican woman who became the first wife of Mr. Rochester, of Jane Eyre fame. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “The negroes hated us, too. ’You ain’t nothing but white cockroach niggers,’ the young Tia said, stealing my dress as I bathed alone in the lush sensuality of the biblical garden pond.”

Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic Jane Eyre. In the Brontë novel, Mr. Rochester describes Bertha as a raving lunatic, and she ends up becoming the madwoman in his attic. In Rhys’s novel, Bertha Mason is described as a false name for Antoinette Cosway, who, not surprisingly, provides a very different version of her life story.

In a 2009 review on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” writer Sara Paretsky wrote about Bertha/Antoinette: “Rhys makes you understand that the Madwoman in the Attic isn’t Brontë’s swollen, drunken avatar of passion. She’s a Creole, a woman of mixed European and African descent, like Rhys herself. The author understands how Europeans imagined West Indians—as sensual, almost animal in their passions. After reading this novel, we come to know Jane Eyre’s Madwoman as a woman who’s made mad by the bewildering white and male world in which she loses everything: her home, her beauty and, above all, her identity.”

John Ridley
A Conversation with the Mann: A Novel (2002)

I don’t think you can imagine the loneliness of a child born different. Not physically different, not handicapped, not deformed or marked. A child born different in a way you can’t describe or recognize, but that’s just as real as the kid with a bad leg or mangled hand—always the outcast, always the one standing in a corner, ghostlike, watching the rest of the world pass by.

These powerful opening words come from Jackie Mann, an aspiring comic who came of age in Harlem in the 1950s. In describing himself, of course, Mann captures the early experiences of countless others—including many readers of the book, who are almost certainly paying a return visit to their growing up years and resonating to the idea of feeling different.

In the opening paragraph, Jackie continued with a gripping passage that, though contained in a novel, would feel equally at home in an adolescent psychology textbook:

“It’s as if there’s something about him, some odd and un-normal thing inside him, invisible but clearly advertising he’s not the same as everyone else. The response from everyone else being laughs and ridicule because they don’t know what to do with a kid born different except to mock it. And that feeling of not belonging, of lonely isolation in a world of people and the knowing that you will never ever be like them and will never ever be accepted by anyone…It’s a feeling that lasts a lifetime. It’s a scar that never fades.” [ellipsis in original]

Tom Robbins
Another Roadside Attraction (1971)

The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.

The suitcase and its contents, we later learn, belong to John Paul Ziller, an oddball character who, along with his wife Amanda, operated “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve” in the Puget Sound region of Washington. The narrator continued: “However significant that discovery may be—and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us—it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”

Tom Robbins
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.”

Tom Robbins
Still Life With Woodpecker (1980)

If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.

This is the attention-grabbing first sentence of the Prologue to the book. A Prologue or Preface is generally a kind of Author’s Note to the reader, and, for the most part, is not generally regarded as a novel’s “opening line.” It’s rare for a Prologue to open so strikingly, but this one is a refreshing exception to the rule.

The official opening words of the novel—at the beginning of Chapter One—are also pretty special: “In the last quarter of the twentieth century, at a time when Western civilization was declining too rapidly for comfort and yet too slowly to be very exciting, much of the world sat on the edge of an increasingly expensive theater seat, waiting—with various combinations of dread, hope, and ennui—for something momentous to occur.”

A few years back, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a classic Dan Fogelberg song was inspired by this novel. Here’s how the singer-songwriter expressed the thought in an interview: “Make Love Stay was based on a book written by Tom Robbins called Still Life With Woodpecker. It was wonderful. It presumed the most difficult concept a man in the late twentieth century has to really wrestle with is how to make love stay. I loved the idea. I thought that was a great philosophical moment, so I just wrote some music, basically to his ideas.”

Tom Robbins
Jitterbug Perfume (1984)

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

This metaphorical masterpiece is from “Today’s Special” which appears to be a kind of preface or prologue to the work. The narrator continued in a figurative frenzy:

“Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

“The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip… [ellipsis in original]

“The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized.”

Nora Roberts
Three Fates (2002)

Happily unaware he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes, Henry W. Wyley imagined pinching the nicely rounded rump of the young blonde who was directly in his line of sight.

When I came upon this opener many years ago, my first thought was, “This is not only a spectacular opening line, it’s coming from a female author who really gets the way men think. Wyley, readers will shortly learn, is a passenger on the RMS Lusitania, and the narrator continued about him:

“It was a perfectly harmless fantasy that did nothing to distress the blonde, or Henry’s wife, and put Henry himself in the best of moods.”

Marilynne Robinson
Home: A Novel (2008)

“Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” her father said, and her heart sank.

Great literature is filled with sad lines, but the opening sentence of Home is one of the saddest I recall from all my years of reading. Does Glory’s emotional state reflect what the 38-year-old woman is expecting to find upon returning to her childhood home? Or does it capture recent life events that have necessitated this move? The dismal tone doesn’t make us eager to read on, but we have to.

The narrator continued about the scene at the front door: “He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. ‘To stay for a while this time!’ he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven.”

Philip Roth
Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it.

The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Neil Klugman, a young Jewish underachiever who is currently working at a low-level job in a public library. He is immediately smitten by a beautiful—and also Jewish—Radcliffe student who clearly seems out of his league. He continued:

“She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. The rose glided dry to the edge and then it was beside me. ’Thank you,’ she said, her eyes watery though not from the water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. I watched her move off. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.”

Originally written as a novella, Goodbye, Columbus won the 1960 National Book Award for Fiction and was ultimately adapted into a popular 1969 film starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the unlikely couple.

Philip Roth
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.

So begins one of the 20th century’s most controversial novels, with protagonist Alexander Portnoy sharing a thought about his mother with his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. The entire rest of the novel is a continuous monologue of Portnoy talking to his shrink in the most candid and explicit ways (including, of course, his infamous description of masturbation using a product sold in any neighborhood meat market). That scene from the book, by the way, led writer Jacqueline Susann (of Valley of the Dolls fame) to quip: “He’s a fine writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.“

In the novel’s first paragraph, patient Portnoy continued: “As soon as the last bell had sounded, I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she had succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out my milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers.“

In its 1998 ranking of The 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, The Modern Library ranked Portnoy’s Complaint at Number 52.

Philip Roth
The Great American Novel (1973)

Call me Schmitty.

Roths satirical look at America’s national pastime—which begins with a tip of the hat to the opening line of Moby Dick—is one of his least-known works, but he once said that no other novel was more fun to write. Much of what made it fun, in all likelihood, was coming up with the names of the characters. The narrator is a sportswriter named Word Smith (he is the Schmitty of the opening line) and other characters include Spit Baal and his father Base Baal.

Philip Roth
The Anatomy Lesson (1983)

When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women.

Few writers were better than Roth at crafting the opening words of a novel, and this is one of his best. In the first paragraph, he continued:

“He’s never had so many women at one time, or so many doctors, or drunk so much vodka, or done so little work, or known despair of such wild proportions. Yet he didn’t seem to have a disease that anybody could take seriously. Only the pain—in his neck, arms, and shoulders, pain that made it difficult to walk for more than a few city blocks or even to stand very long in one place. Just having a neck, arms, and shoulders was like carrying another person around. Ten minutes out getting the groceries and he had to hurry home and lie down.”

Philip Roth
Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

This is the troubling dilemma facing sixty-four-year-old Mickey Sabbath, a former puppeteer and aging sexual libertine. He’s been thrust into this situation by his lover of many years, Drenka Balich. It’s a delicious tale, and it went on to win the 1995 National Book Award for Fiction.

In the novel, the narrator continued about Mickey’s unfortunate situation: “This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out.”

Philip Roth
American Pastoral (1997)

The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.

In the novel, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the narrator continued: “The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.”

Philip Roth
The Human Stain (2000)

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.

These intriguing opening words come from Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of this as well as several previous Roth novels. The book became an immediate bestseller, won the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and in 2003 was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. In 2013, Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine hailed The Human Stain as one of the best books of the 21st century.

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [Book 1 in the Harry Potter Series] (1997)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

This was the opening line of the very first Harry Potter novel, and by adding “thank you very much” at the end, Rowling subtly but skillfully adds a “thou doth protest too much” quality to the Dursleys’ assertion that they are a perfectly normal family.

The Harry Potter series went on to become one of the most successful in literary history, but it had an inauspicious beginning. Rowling, an unknown writer at the time, received a modest advance (1,500 pounds) and the initial print run was a puny 500 copies, almost all expected to be purchased by school libraries.

In a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s novels, Ciara Murphy wrote: “If ever we needed confirmation that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley were, in fact, not normal at all, this line is it! But by emphasizing so strongly the Dursleys’ pride in their supposed normality, Rowling also hints at the existence of other, perhaps more ‘abnormal’ dimensions to reality, setting us up perfectly for a book filled with witches, wizards and dark forces….”

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

In an October 17, 2019 article in the Independent, Ellie Harrison included Rowling’s opening line on her list of “The 27 Best Opening Lines in Books, from Rebecca to The Great Gatsby.”

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [Book 2 in the Harry Potter Series] (1998)

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr. Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Book 3 in the Harry Potter Series] (1999)

Harry Potter was a very unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of the night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [Book 4 in the Harry Potter Series] (2000)

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.”

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [Book 5 in the Harry Potter Series] (2003)

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald green lay parched and yellowing; the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown wide in the hope of tempting in a nonexistent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flower bed outside number four.”

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Book 6 in the Harry Potter Series] (2005)

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

The narrator continued: “He was waiting for a call from the President of a far distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a very long, tiring, and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents.”

J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows [Book 7 in the Harry Potter Series] (2007)

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Shadow of the Wind (2001)

I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.

In a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote: “My socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip [and] I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafón definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.”

Rafael Sabatini
Scaramouche (1921)

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

This is one of literary history’s truly great opening lines, ranked Number 92 in the American Book Review’s 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.“ In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol described the first sentence as a “romantic” opener, not in the traditional meaning of the word romance, but rather “in sense of lust for life.“ Nichols went on to add: “This author of swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood (and, of course, Scaramouche) lets you know right away that you are about to meet someone larger than life.“

The novel’s first sentence went on to become so famous—and so indelibly associated with the author—that, after Sabatini’s death in 1950, it was inscribed on his gravestone in Adelboden, Switzerland.

Rafael Sabatini
Captain Blood (1922)

Peter Blood, bachelor of medicine and several other things besides, smoked a pipe and tended the geraniums boxed on the sill of his window above Water Lane in the town of Bridgewater.

Sternly disapproving eyes considered him from a window opposite, but went disregarded. Mr. Blood’s attention was divided between his task and the stream of humanity in the narrow street below.

Following the success of Scaramouche, few expected Sabatini to produce an even more popular action novel the following year. A dozen years later, when Warner Brothers decided to update their 1924 silent film adaptation, the lead role was offered to Robert Donat, star of the 1934 film The Count of Monte Cristo. Concerned that the strenuous action scenes would be too much for his severe asthmatic condition, Donat turned down the role. Studio execs then rolled the dice by pairing two virtually unknown actors—Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland—in the leading roles. The decision paid off handsomely. The 1935 film remake launched two spectacular acting careers and received a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Award ceremonies the following year.

Rafael Sabatini
The Stalking Horse (1933)

In this twentieth century the Earl of Lochmore would probably be described as a permanent adolescent. In his own more direct and less sophisticated age he was quite simply called a fool, and so dismissed by men of sense and sensibility.

Rafael Sabatini
The Gamester (1949)

Mr. Law applied his uncanny gifts of calculation to a stocktaking of the events. The great king by whose orders he had once been turned out of France lay dead.

Vita Sackville-West
The Edwardians (1930)

Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.

The book begins with a device that has been used many times over the years, the narrator musing about how to start a novel. The narrator continues: “It is necessary, it is indeed unavoidable, that he should intersect the lives of his dramatis personae at a given hour; all that remains is to decide which hour it shall be, and in which situation they shall be discovered.”

Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent (1931)

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earle of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal.

Carl Sagan
Contact (1985)

When they pulled her out, she was not crying at all. Her tiny brow was wrinkled, and then her eyes grew wide. She looked at the bright lights, the white-and green-clad figures, the woman lying on the table below her. Somehow familiar sounds washed over her. On her face was an odd expression for a newborn—puzzlement perhaps.

In this acclaimed debut novel—which won the 1986 Locus Award for Best First Novel—the narrator portentously describes the birth of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway. As the story unfolds, Ellie goes on to become a child prodigy and, as an adult, a leading figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The first work on Contact began in the late 1970s as a screenplay by Sagan, already a world-famous astronomer, and his future wife Ann Druyan. In 1981, when development of the film stalled, Simon and Schuster stepped forward with a staggering two million dollar advance to turn the screenplay into a novel. It was the largest book advance ever offered at the time, and the investment paid off handsomely. It went on to become one of the Top Ten bestselling novels of 1985, selling nearly two million copies.

Predictably, the success of the book revived interest in a film, and the novel was adapted into a 1997 film—also a critical and commercial success—with Jody Foster playing the role of Arroway.

Françoise Sagan
Bonjour Tristesse (1954)

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow.

Sagan was only eighteen when her debut novel was published to international acclaim in 1954 (she borrowed the phrase bonjour tristesse—literally hello sadness—from a poem by Paul Éluard). A teenage rebel who had been expelled from a convent school in 1953, Sagan wrote the novel in less than three months, working on it only two or three hours a day.

The narrator and protagonist, a wealthy, disillusioned 17-year-old French girl named Cécile, continued: “The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.”

Françoise Sagan
That Mad Ache (1965)

She opened her eyes. A brisk little breeze had impudently slipped into the bedroom. Already it had turned the curtain into a sail and bent the flowers in their tall vase on the floor, and now it had set its sights on her sleep.

Françoise Sagan
A Fleeting Sorrow (1994)

“I take it you’ve been smoking for a long time.”

“I’m a smoker,” Paul corrected, refusing to disown by a miserable change of tense a habit that was as ingrained in him as it was pleasurable –even if it were to cost him his life. That this detestable little doctor had just had the gall to inform him that he had only a short time to live was already bad enough.

J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

The opening words come from one of literary history’s most famous fictional characters, 13-year-old Holden Caulfield, and they demonstrate how important it is to immediately establish the voice of the narrator. He went on to add: “In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.”

In a 2012 article in The Guardian, Robert McCrum suggested that, in crafting Holden’s introductory words, Salinger might have been influenced by the opening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (see the Twain entry here).

Caulfield’s opening monologue has become such an integral part of pop culture that tweaks of it are instantly recognizable. Woody Allen fully realized this when he began his 2020 memoir Apropos of Nothing this way: “Like Holden, I don’t feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap, although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me.“

Felix Salten
Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1928)

He came into the world in the middle of the thicket, in one of those little, hidden forest glades which seem to be entirely open, but are really screened in on all sides. There was very little room in it, scarcely enough for him and his mother.

With these words, the English-speaking world was introduced to a baby deer named Bambi (the book was originally published in Germany in 1923). In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “He stood there, swaying unsteadily on his thin legs and staring vaguely in front of him, with clouded eyes, which saw nothing. He hung his head, trembled a great deal, and was still completely stunned.”

Salten, an Austrian Jew, originally wrote the novel as an allegory about the persecution of the Jews in Europe, and it was no surprise when the book was banned in Nazi Germany in 1936. In 1942, the novel was adapted into the second feature-length animated film by Walt Disney productions (the first was Fantasia in 1940). The Disney film, which introduced the new characters Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk, was far lighter than the original novel, but it still retained some of the darkness of the original.

In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, when Stephen King was asked by Andy Greene what drew him to the horror elements that are featured so prominently in his novels, he replied: “It’s built in. That’s all. The first movie I ever saw was a horror movie. It was Bambi. When that little deer gets caught in a forest fire, I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated. I can’t explain it.”

Sapphire (pen name of Ramona Lofton)
Push (1996)

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ’n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

These words of introduction come from Claireece Precious Jones, an obese and functionally illiterate 16-year-old student in a Harlem junior high school. In the novel, she continued: “I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’.”

More than a dozen years elapsed before the novel was adapted to the Big Screen, but almost immediately after the film Precious was released in 2009, it became a critical and commercial success. The film was nominated for six Oscars, winning two: Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay. In her first screen role, Gabourey Sidibe received a Best Actress nomination for her moving portrayal of Precious Jones.

José Saramago
Cain (2009)

When the lord, also known as god, realized that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.

In a 2011 review in The London Review of Books, critic Robert Alter wrote: “These opening lines establish the perception of God as a bit of a blunderer, inclined to petulance, given to correcting divine mistakes in ill-considered ways. That image has at least some grounding in biblical representation, especially in Genesis, where God is imagined in emphatically anthropomorphic terms. The notion, on the other hand, that the first man and woman were initially without language is Saramago’s invention for satiric ends.”

May Sarton
The Fur Person (1957)

When he was about two years old, and had been a Cat About Town for some time, glorious in conquests, but rather too thin for comfort, the Fur Person decided that it was time he settled down.

These are the opening words of a charming novel inspired by Sarton’s own cat, Tom Jones. In a 2015 “Conscious Cat” blog post, writer and cat lover Ingrid King hailed the The Fur Person as “one of the most endearing cat stories I’ve ever read.” About the book, King added: “This little book captures the essence of what a cat is all about in the beautiful prose of this gifted and sensitive writer and poet.”

And, speaking of beautiful prose, Sarton’s novel contains one of my favorite examples of the literary device known as chiasmus:

“A Fur Person is a cat who had decided to stay with people as long as he lives. This can only happen if a human being has imagined a part of himself into a cat just as the cat has imagined part of himself into a human being.“

For more information on chiasmus, go here.

May Sarton
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)

Hilary Stevens half opened her eyes, then closed them again. There was some reason to dread this day, although she had taken in that the sun was shining.

The opening words of this heavily autobiographical novel introduce a seventy-year-old American feminist/lesbian poet who was once famous but is now sliding into obscurity. As she prepares for a meeting with two local journalists, she at first dreads the prospect of sitting down with them, but the upcoming interview stimulates a flood of memories about her past.

Shortly after the book was published, Sarton formally came out of the closet, a risky career move at the time. The book is now considered a landmark in feminist and lesbian literature.

May Sarton
As We Are Now (1973)

I am not mad, only old.

This simple but powerful opening line comes from Caroline “Caro” Spencer, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher who, after a recent heart attack, has been dumped into a private retirement home by her 80-year-old brother. Although she is physically frail, she is mentally strong, and she decides to keep a journal to document her experiences. From the very first sentence, it is clear that she has a gift for articulating her despairing situation in the most compelling—and often the most eloquent—ways.

In the opening paragraph, Spencer continued: “I make this statement to give me courage. To give you an idea what I mean by courage, suffice it to say that it has taken two weeks for me to obtain this notebook and a pen. I am in a concentration camp for the old, a place where people dump their parents or relatives exactly as though it were an ash can.”

In a Boston Globe review, Margaret Manning wrote: “May Sarton has never been better than she is in this beautiful, harrowing novel about being old, unwanted, yet refusing to give up.” A moment later, Manning added: “The problems of old age have been detailed by sociologists but only a novel as searching and deeply felt as this one can bring them so close to the bone.“

George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now, I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the young—

But that is false.

That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.

The opening words come from Hans Vollman, a former printer who, after his unexpected death, exists in the Bardo, a space between death and the afterlife. Vollman and some of his ghostlike compatriots go on to figure prominently in the period just after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.

Sam Savage
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006)

I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: something lyric like Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”; or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” People remember those words even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I’ve read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.

It’s rare to find opening lines about the subject of literary opening lines, and this one has to be regarded as the best. If you’re reading it for the first time, the words do not come from a person who loves books, but from an animal—a rat named Firmin. When he was born in the basement of a Boston bookstore in 1960, Firmin was the 13th baby born to an alcoholic mother rat who had twelve nipples.

As the runt of the litter, Firmin had to do something to survive, so he began nibbling on the pages of his bedding, an old, discarded copy of Finnegan’s Wake. Firmin’s unusual diet had a transformative effect, allowing him to read and think symbolically. As he grew older, his literary tastes grew more and more refined, and his sense of alienation from his fellow creatures increased—leading him to make dismissive, but brilliant, remarks about them. My favorite was this one: “Thanks to their dwarfish imaginations and short memories they did not ask for a lot, mostly just food and fornication, and they got enough of both to take them through life.”

The first paragraph of Firmin is spectacular, and the second may be even better, capturing the almost universal experience of anyone who has chosen to write for a living: “In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully—yes, that’s the word, manfully—as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion! Exactly the opposite was true.”

Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase (1932)

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.

I have a weakness for novels that begin with an authoritative pronouncement or grand declaration—and especially when those first words are flavored with a dash of wit. In this case, the narrator continued: “After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriett Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.”

Carcase, by the way, is an archaic spelling of carcass. The book’s title is from a phrase in William Cowper’s translation of Homer’s Iliad: “The vulture’s maw/Shall have his carcase, and the dog his bones.”

John Scalzi
Old Man’s War (2005)

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

This unusual statement comes from narrator and protagonist John Perry, a retired advertising writer who—at some unspecified time in the future—joins the Colonial Defense Forces, undergoes a process in which his mind is genetically reassigned to a new body, and ultimately engages in heroic exploits. This was Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a series of six “Old Man’s War” novels. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006.

John Scalzi
Redshirts (2012)

From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder and thought, Well, this sucks.

Erica Lorraine Scheit
Uses for Boys (2013)

In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.

Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.

“Tell me again,” I say and she tells me again how she wanted me more than anything.

“More than anything in the world,” she says, “I wanted a little girl.”

In “7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader,” a 2014 article in the Hunger Mountain Review, Miciah Bay Gault wrote that these opening words are going to “set us up for the heartbreak that surely follows.”

Gault also viewed this as an opening worthy of emulation by aspiring writers, writing: “The tender relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully sketched, and the future trouble, the coming heartbreak, is foreshadowed by mention of later stepbrothers and stepfathers. As in life, we prefer hearing about a heartbreak to having one. Let your reader know there’s trouble ahead and she’ll hang around to hear about it.”

Sarah Schulman
The Sophie Horowitz Story (1984)

I wanted to feed Lillian something delicious because I knew that’s what she was going to feed me.

The narrator and protagonist, Sophie Horowitz, opens with this deliciously ambiguous line, and then continues: “Glancing over the meat and poultry case at Key Food, nothing spoke to the sweetness of that woman. Maybe fresh pears stewed in brandy with orange chocolate sauce. ’Mmmm,’ I sighed out loud. ’You too baby,’ winked the stock boy over by the Campbell’s soup. Every other weekend for ten months now, she’s been coming down on the Friday night express from Boston to wrap her legs around me.”

In 2005, Time magazine included The Sophie Horowitz Story on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

Sarah Schulman
After Delores (1988)

I walked out in the snow trying to get away from Delores’s ghost. It was sitting back in the apartment waiting for me.

This enigmatic opening immediately suggests a range of possibilities. Is Delores someone from the distant past? Someone who recently died? Or maybe an ex-lover? The opening words also establish the “voice” of the narrator—who was nicely described by Kinky Friedman in a glowing New York Times review:

“The heroine in After Delores is not a professional sleuth. Nor is she the typical lighthearted cocky amateur. She’s a tortured, trouble soul who mesmerizes and repels us, sometimes managing to do both at the same time.”

In his review, Friedman also opined memorably about the novel’s title character: “As for Delores, everyone knows her. She is someone unworthy of your love who breaks your heart. Ms. Schulman’s portrayal of her is painfully and indelibly drawn.”

Sarah Schulman
Shimmer (1998)

Ordinarily, I have a proclivity for bitterness.

The narrator continued: “But it still hurts me that another dear old friend is dead. They’ll have to sweep away twice her weight in leaves to open up that tiny plot. No car doors will slam for this funeral. Her frail mourners are barely strong enough to shift the gears.“

Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones (2002)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

The narrator and protagonist is Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who, after having been raped and murdered by a man in her own neighborhood, watches from heaven as life unfolds for her family, friends, and the murderer. The book went on to win the 2003 American Booksellers Association Adult Fiction Book of the Year.

In a 2016 Bustle.com post, actor and writer Charlotte Ahlin included this on her list of “The 10 Most Terrifying Opening Lines from Books.” About it, she wrote: “If gruesome murder terrifies you, then here’s a killer first line. Granted, the rest of The Lovely Bones is more sad than thrilling and terrifying. But there’s something so matter-of-fact about the opening line and the introduction to Susie’s murder. You’re not sure exactly what you’re in for, but you know that something disturbing is coming your way.”

Alice Sebold
The Almost Moon (2007)

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

These startling opening words come from Helen Knightly, an adult woman who has for many years lived in a complicated, codependent relationship with a mentally ill mother who now also suffers from dementia. In a New York Times book review (chillingly titled “Mom’s in the Freezer”), critic Lee Siegel wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the novel, but he wrote, “You have to be in awe of that first sentence, though.”

Siegel went on to write: “Dostoyevsky had to write hundreds of pages before getting to the act of patricide in The Brothers Karamazov. It took Oedipus two whole plays to realize he had killed his father and to ‘work his way through it,’ as we would say, so he could find terrible redemption at Colonus. But in The Almost Moon, right there at the get-go, at the beginning of the long journey that will take her from the motivations for committing her unspeakable crime to some sense of ‘closure,’ Helen is, you know, cool with murdering her mother.”

Erich Segal
Love Story (1970)

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

The novel opens on a dramatic note with a powerful rhetorical question posed by Oliver Barrett IV, a Harvard graduate and heir to a huge family fortune. Against his family’s wishes, Barrett has decided to marry Jennifer Cavilleri, the daughter of a Rhode Island baker. In the second paragraph Oliver answers the question:

“That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me. Once, when she specifically lumped me with those musical types, I asked her what the order was, and she replied, smiling, ’Alphabetical.’”

Originally written as a screenplay before he decided to also turn it into a novel, Love Story went on to become the top-selling novel of 1970. It also became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with an Oscar-winning performance by Ali McGraw, and an Oscar-nominated one by Ryan O’Neal.

Erich Segal
The Class (1985)

They glanced at one another like tigers taking measure of a menacing new rival. But in this kind of jungle you could never be sure where the real danger lurked.

The jungle here is Harvard University, and they refers to the 1,162 new students lined up outside Memorial Hall to register as members of the class of 1958.

Erich Segal
Acts of Faith (1992)

I was baptized in blood. My own blood. This is not a Jewish custom. It is merely a fact of history.

The opening words come from Daniel Luria, the youngest male descendant—and current heir apparent—of a dynasty of European rabbis who ultimately fled to Brooklyn in the 1930s. Daniel is not referring to some kind of arcane Jewish ritual, but to the twice-daily verbal assaults (“Kike!” “Sheenie!” “Christ-killer!”) hurled by Catholic schoolchildren as he walked back and forth each day from his home to his yeshiva. In the novel’s second paragraph, he continued:

“The covenant my people made with God requires that we affirm out allegiance to Him twice each day. And lest any of us forget we are unique, God created gentiles everywhere who constantly remind us.”

The novel’s second chapter, which introduces a second major character, also begins masterfully:

“Tim Hogan was born angry. And with good reason. He was an orphan with two living parents.”

Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

In a 2023 Telegraph article (“The Art of a Brilliant (or Awful) Opening Line”), art critic Tristram Fane Saunders reported that Oxford Professor of Poetry A. E. Stallings regarded this as “the most perfect opening sentence in children’s fiction.”

Anna Sewell
Black Beauty (1877)

The first place that I can well remember was a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside. At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook, overhung by a steep bank.

The opening paragraph reads like the beginning of almost any autobiography you’ve ever read. As readers begin the second paragraph, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the autobiography of a human being:

“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot, we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold, we had a warm shed near the grove.”

Laurence Shames
Florida Straits [Book 1 of Key West Capers series] (1992)

People go to Key West for lots of different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.

Laurence Shames
Tropical Depression [Book 4 of the Key West Capers series] (1996)

When Murray Zemelman, a.k.a. the Bra King, started up his car that morning, he had no clear idea whether he would go to work as usual, or sit there with the engine idling and the garage door tightly shut until he died.

Laurence Shames
Shot on Location [Book 9 of the Key West Capers series] (2013)

When the call came in, Jake Benson, ghostwriter extraordinaire, was pinching dead leaves from the last remaining basil plant on a windowsill of his Upper West Side apartment.

Laurence Shames
One Big Joke [Book 13 of the Key West Capers series] (2018)

“What is it with you lately?” said Marsha Gluck on what might or might not have turned out to be the last evening of her nine-year marriage to the then-unemployed comedy writer Lenny Sullivan.

Laurence Shames
Nacho Unleashed [Book 14 of the Key West Capers series] (2019)

So it was just another gorgeous day in Key West, sunny, mostly quiet though with a steady background hum of people doing stuff, having fun. Popping beer cans, revving scooter engines, singing along with the radio, that sort of thing. Harmless, goofy, peaceful stuff. No hint whatsoever that, before this day was over, it would turn into a life and death adventure of which I would be the unlikely hero. But we’ll get to that.

The narrator is Nacho, an aging Chihuahua and the pet dog of retired Mafioso, Bert the Shirt. Both have been staples in Shame’s Key West Capers series, but this is the first in which Nacho plays the prominent narrator role. He continued: “In the meantime, the weather, which is after all a big attraction: The humidity was pretty low for Florida, which is to say cars didn’t get wet just sitting there. As for the temperature, it was warm enough for the tourists to go practically naked at Smathers Beach, though it was actually a little cool for my taste; but then, I’m of Mexican descent, bred to hot places.”

At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.

Laurence Shames
The Paradise Gig [Book 15 of Key West Capers series] (2020)

Well, the whole thing started with a woman standing on her head.

She was doing this yoga-style, on Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida, just a few short weeks ago. It was a beautifully ordinary day, sunny with a salty breeze. She was minding her own business, upside down, when two men suddenly approached her towel. They might have pushed her over but it’s hard to say for sure. Anyway, she came down off her head, left the beach with them, and wasn’t seen for several days. After that, a bunch of crazy stuff happened, and seemed to happen very fast.

The opening scene is set up by Nacho, an even older Chihuahua this year, in his second narrator role in a series of novels that were described by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as “Funny, elegantly written, and hip.” Nacho continued:

“That’s one way of looking at it. But you could also say the story really started way back in 1964, long before I was even born, and that things had been sort of simmering very slowly ever since.”

Laurence Shames
Key West Normal [Book 16 of Key West Capers series] (2021)

Some folks say you can’t make this stuff up.

When I wrote to tell Shames how much I appreciated the opening line of his latest book, he wrote back: “Speaking as a sort of poor man’s postmodernist, the ambiguity pleases me. So, can you make it up, or can’t you? It’s a novel, so of course it’s made up. So why does the narrator pretend it isn’t? Why would anyone believe him? And who is the narrator anyway? In my mind, at least, so many possibilities come out of those ten syllables.”

In the novel, the narrator—a homeless man named Pineapple—continued: “Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried to make stuff up. I’ve never had to. Why would I? I live in Key West, Florida.”

Laurence Shames
Relative Humidity (to be published Jan. 26, 2023)

Now and then, not often, life offers up a perfect moment, a moment when everything just fits together, almost as if there was a plan, as if the world had been designed to be at least an occasional Paradise for those who took the trouble to notice its ingenious construction, as if life would be a calm and peaceful pleasure if that moment just went on and on.

But of course it never does.

I’m a big fan of Laurence Shames and a great admirer of his opening lines. The opener of Relative Humidity, his most recent work, is like a combination punch in boxing—first the set-up, then the sting. When I asked Shames if there was a backstory behind the opener, he replied:

“I’ve always enjoyed playing around with the conventions of the mystery novel, turning them upside-down or inside-out whenever possible. In this opening, I wanted to do the complete opposite of the grab-the-reader-by-the-throat first beat. I wanted it to be as quiet as possible—though, of course, if the narrative stayed ‘calm and peaceful’ there would be no book, as every reader of commercial fiction already knows. So the zinger, while inevitable, is meant as a payoff for the reader’s patience and as reassurance that the mayhem will soon begin.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

This is the first sentence of a letter from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Saville. While on a scientific expedition to the North Pole, Captain Walton’s crew see a man of enormous size driving a dog sled. A few hours later, they discover a half-frozen, emaciated man—Victor Frankenstein—who has been in pursuit of the gigantic figure. The rest of the story slowly unfolds in this epistolary novel that went on to become a classic in world literature.

The story behind the creation of the tale is also quite interesting. On a dark, rainy evening in June of 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and new husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, five years her senior, were guests of Lord Byron, then twenty-eight, at his villa in Geneva, Switzerland. Also present that evening was John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician.

After discussing some German horror stories that had recently appeared in a French translation, Byron offered a whimsical challenge: “We will each write a ghost story.” Mary Shelley struggled at first, but an idea eventually popped into her mind. Here’s how she put it in an 1831 Introduction to a revised version of the story: “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endured with vital warmth.” Galvanism, you should know, was a recent coinage inspired by the work of Italian physician Italo Galvani (1737-98), who discovered that legs of dead frogs twitched when a current of electricity was applied to them.

Later that evening, Shelley was lying in bed, half-asleep, when an image formed in her mind. A man was “kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she wrote in that 1831 Introduction. As her imagination took in “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” she opened her eyes in a state of fright—and an idea for a novel was born. The first edition of the tale was published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818, when Shelley was only twenty years old. Her name first appeared in a second edition, published in 1821.

Max Shulman
Sleep Till Noon (1950)

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life…

But first let me tell you a little about myself.

Opening lines that start off one way, and then quickly dart in another, completely unexpected direction are a staple of writers who want to snare the attention of readers—and this one is perfectly executed.

Alan Sillitoe
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)

The rowdy gang of singers who sat at the scattered tables saw Arthur walk unsteadily to the head of the stairs, and though they must all have known that he was dead drunk, and seen the danger he would soon be in, no one attempted to talk to him and lead him back to his seat.

The narrator continued: “With eleven pints of beer and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach, he fell from the top-most stair to the bottom.”

Georges Simenon
Pietr the Latvian (1930; 2013 translation by David Bellos)

Detective Chief Inspector Maigret of the Flying Squad raised his eyes. It seemed to him that the cast-iron stove in the middle of his office with its chimney tube rising to the ceiling wasn’t roaring properly. He pushed the telegram away, rose ponderously to his feet, adjusted the flue and thrust three shovels of coal into the firebox.

With this opening paragraph, Simenon introduced Jules Maigret, a French police inspector who would ultimately achieve iconic status, right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, Mike Hammer, and others (over the next four decades, Maigret would appear in 75 novels and 28 short stories).

The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Then he stood with his back to the stove, filled his pipe and adjusted his stud collar, which was irritating his neck even though it wasn’t set very high.”

Many years later, Simenon recalled the exact moment Maigret was born. Sitting in a Paris café on a sunny morning in September 1928, he wrote: “I’d had one, two, maybe three small schnapps laced with a dash of bitters. In any case, an hour later, slightly sleepy, I began to imagine a large powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a passable inspector. As the day wore on, I added various accessories: a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar. And since it was cold and damp on my abandoned barge, I put a cast-iron stove in his office.”

Nina Simon
Mother-Daughter Murder Night (2023)

Beth knew she couldn’t leave for work until she dealt with the dead body on the beach.

The body, we will shortly learn, is a dead walrus, but the opening line has done its job—it gets our attention and makes it impossible not to read on.

Curtis Sittenfeld
Eligible (2016)

Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife.

Eligible was the fourth volume in “The Austen Project,” a bold literary initiative in which executives at HarperCollins asked a number of contemporary authors to write “a modern retelling” of classic Jane Austen novels.

As soon as Austen fans learned that Sittenfeld was writing a modern version of Pride and Prejudice, they began wondering how she would update the story—and, more specifically, how she would tweak the classic opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Sittenfeld’s novel was published to mixed reviews, with Michiko Kakutani writing in a New York Times review: “Eligible swiftly devolves into the glibbest sort of chick lit.” People magazine, by contrast, selected it as their “Book of the Week” and gushingly proclaimed: “Sittenfeld modernizes the classic in such a stylish, witty way you’d guess even Jane Austen would be pleased.”

In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Two years earlier, Chip—graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, scion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys, who in the twentieth century had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures—had, ostensibly with some reluctance, appeared on the juggernaut reality-television show Eligible.”

Brendan Slocumb
The Violin Conspiracy (2022)

On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillan’s life, he ordered room service: scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him).

Unexpected juxtapositions are a staple of great opening lines, and the co-mingling of an earth-shattering day with a routine room service order is clearly designed to get our attention. The subsequent details about the food preferences of the couple we’re about to meet also pique our curiosity.

In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with an insight about a predictable thought process that occurs when people try to make sense out of an event that has shaken their world: “Later, he would try to second-guess those choices and a thousand others that, in hindsight, vibrated in his memory: What if he’d ordered French toast instead of eggs? What if grapefruit juice instead of orange? What if no juice at all?”

Ray McMillan, we will shortly learn, is a black classical violinist who has risen to the world stage after growing up on the edge of poverty in rural North Carolina. As a young child, after taking an interest in fiddle-playing, his grandmother gave him a decrepit and dilapidated old violin that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather, a former enslaved person (the violin, buried in an upstairs attic for decades, was given to “PopPop” as a gift by his former “owner” when he achieved freedom). The violin turns out to be a Stradivarius—but that’s only the beginning of what is essentially a literary trifecta: an exceptional mystery/thriller, a frank exploration of the powerful role still played by systematic racism, and an in-depth portrayal of the world of classical music that brings to mind what The Queen’s Gambit did for the world of championship chess (see the Walter Tevis entry entry for the opening words of that fine novel).

The Violin Conspiracy is the spectacular debut novel for Slocumb, who clearly built upon his own experiences as a young, black musical prodigy growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In a New York Times review, Joshua Barone described the novel as “a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller.”

Michael Smerconish
Talk: A Novel (2014)

“Fire, tits, and sharks are TV gold. But on radio you need to make ’em hot the harder way. Through the ears.”

If you’re going to write a novel about the inner workings of conservative talk-radio, what better way to begin than to craft an opening line that captures the essence of the medium? In his debut novel, Smerconish proves he has writing skills to go along with the talent that has made him one of America’s most popular and influential talk-show hosts.

Andrew Smith
Winger (2013)

I said a silent prayer. Actually, silent is the only type of prayer a guy should attempt when his head’s in a toilet.

The opening words come from the novel’s 14-year-old narrator and protagonist, Ryan Dean West, who’s head is being shoved into a toilet by two bullies at his private boarding school. He continued: “And, in my prayer, I made sure to include specific thanks for the fact that the school year hadn’t started yet, so the porcelain was impeccably white—as soothing to the eye as freshly fallen snow—and the water smelled like lemons and a heated swimming pool in summertime, all rolled into one. Except it was a fucking toilet. And my head was in it.”

Andrew Smith
100 Sideways Miles (2014)

Look: I do not know where I actually came from. I wonder, I suspect, but I do not know.

I am not the only one who sometimes thinks I came from the pages of a book my father wrote. Maybe it’s like that for all boys of a certain—or uncertain—age: We feel as though there are no choices we’d made through all those miles and miles behind us that hadn’t been scripted by our fathers, and that our futures are only a matter of flipping the next page that was written ahead of us.

I am not the only one who’s ever been trapped inside a book.

The narrator is Finn Easton, a sixteen-year-old epileptic with heterochromatic eyes (one blue, the other brown), a quirky philosophic perspective, and an ability to express himself in highly original and remarkably quotable ways. His mom died in a freak—and freaky—accident when he was seven, and his dad is a writer who wrote a sci-fi cult classic that featured an alien protagonist also named Finn.

100 Sideway Miles was nominated for a National Book Award, and was also selected as one of the best books of the year by National Public Radio, the American Library Association, and The New York Times Book Review).

Andrew Smith
Grasshopper Jungle (2014)

I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

This is my history.

The opening reflections come from 16-year-old Austin Szerba, an Iowa high school student who, along with his best friend Robby Brees, is about to do some really dumb—and really dangerous things—when they accidentally unleash an invasion of six-feet tall praying mantises into the world.

In a New York Times review, Clive Thompson wrote: “Grasshopper Jungle is a rollicking tale that is simultaneously creepy and hilarious. Its propulsive plot would be delightful enough on its own, but Smith’s ability to blend teenage drama into the bug invasion is a literary joy to behold.”

Dodie Smith
I Capture The Castle (1949)

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

In 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum called this one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,” writing about it: “A brilliant beginning to a much-loved English classic.” Around the same time, British Journalist Liz Jones also wrote admiringly about the line, saying in a Stylist.com article: “The opening sentence of this book is so unexpected: intimate, awkward, throwaway, as heroine Cassandra Mortmain, aged 17, begins her diary of her impoverished if glamorous life in a ruined castle.”

Dodie Smith
The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956)

Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.

The novel gets off to a great start with these opening lines, but it begins to soar when the narrator continues:

“They understood quite a number of barks: the barks for ‘Out, please!’ ‘In, please!’ ‘Hurry up with my dinner’ and ‘What about a walk?’ And even when they could not understand, they could often guess—if looked at soulfully or scratched by an eager paw. Like many other much-loved humans, they believed that they owned their dogs, instead of realizing that their dogs owned them. Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.”

At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.

Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Reptile Room [Book 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)

The stretch of road that leads out of the city, past Hazy Harbor and into the town of Tedia, is perhaps the most unpleasant in the world. It is called Lousy Lane.

The narrator continued: “Lousy Lane runs through fields that are a sickly gray color, in which a handful of scraggly trees produce apples so sour that one only has to look at them to feel ill. Lousy Lane traverses the Grim River, a body of water that is nine-tenths mud and that contains extremely unnerving fish, and it encircles a horseradish factory, so the entire area smells bitter and strong.”

Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Bad Beginning, or, Orphans [Book 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.

The narrator continued: “This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.”

In a 2022 Collider.com post, Hazel Khatter included this intriguing opener in her list of “10 Great Books That Hooked Readers From the Very First Line.” She wrote: “While this may seem like a risky choice for the first line of a book, it hasn’t stopped millions of people from enjoying it. The first book in A Series Of Unfortunate Events series, The Bad Beginning...is a young adult mystery book that tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. True to its word, the series is sad, not funny or cute sad, but pure, unfiltered sadness seeping through the pages and attacking your heart.“

Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Austere Academy [Book 5 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (2000)

If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.

The narrator continued: “Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.”

In a New York Times review when the novel was published, Gregory Maguire wrote: “Had the gloom-haunted Edward Gorey found a way to have a love child with Dorothy Parker, their issue might well have been Lemony Snicket, the pseudonymous author of a multivolume family chronicle brought out under the genteel appellation A Series of Unfortunate Events. The scribe of the Baudelaire family misfortunes speaks morosely to his readers, promising that however cheery things may appear, in the end nothing will go well. Rewardingly, so far in five volumes, nothing has.“

Donald J. Sobol
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective [Book 1 in the Encyclopedia Brown Series] (1963)

Mr. and Mrs. Brown had one child. They called him Leroy, and so did his teachers.

Everyone else in Idaville called him Encyclopedia

These are the words that introduced the world to ten-year-old Encyclopedia Brown, one of the most popular characters in the history of children’s literature (ultimately, 29 books appeared, the last published posthumously in 2012). In the third paragraph, the narrator went on to write about the young super-sleuth:

“Leroy Brown’s head was like an encyclopedia. It was filled with facts he had learned from books. He was like a complete library walking around in sneakers.”

In 1976, after twelve of the novels had been published, Sobol was awarded a special Edgar Award by The Mystery Writers of America. In 1978, the series was adapted into a popular comic strip. And in 1980, HBO launched an eight-episode television series, with actor Scott Bremner in the title role.

Each book in the series was completely self-contained, meaning that a reader did not need to read any of the earlier ones to understand what was going on. In the opening words of each book, the protagonist was re-introduced again and again—and in a way that never got tiresome. Here’s a sampling:

“Idaville looked like any other town of its size—from the outside. On the inside, however, it was different. Ten-year-old Encyclopedia Brown, America’s Sherlock Holmes in sneakers, lived there.“
Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch (1965; Book 2)

“Although there are thousands of private detectives in the United States, the town of Idaville had but one. Idaville did not need more. Its one detective was Encyclopedia Brown, and he had never lost a case.“ Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (1968; Book 5)

“Why did the police always catch anyone who broke the law in Idaville? Only three persons knew the secret—Mr. and Mrs. Brown, and their only child Encyclopedia.“ Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day (1970; Book 7)

“To a person passing through, Idaville looked like many seaside towns. It had lovely white beaches, four banks, three movie theaters, and two delicatessens. It was a wonderful place to live and work. Unless you were a crook.“ Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret UFOs (2010; Book 27)

Dalia Sofer
The Septembers of Shiraz (2007)

When Isaac Amin sees two men with rifles walk into his office at half past noon on a warm autumn day in Tehran, his first thought is that he won’t be able to join his wife and daughter for lunch, as promised.

Dalia Sofer
Man of My Time (2020)

Around me was an ant colony of black motorcars. In my jacket pocket, hidden inside a mint candy box, were the ashes of my father—Sadegh Mozaffarian—dead for two weeks and estranged from me for thirty-eight years.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

The narrator continued: “The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket.”

Few books in history have had a greater impact than this one. In a 2012 BBC broadcast, Steve Rosenberg described it as “The book that shook the USSR,” and he quoted Soviet writer Vitaly Korotich as saying, “The Soviet Union was destroyed by information—and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Cancer Ward (1968)

On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13.

The narrator continued: “Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov had never been and could never be a superstitious person, but his heart sank when they wrote ’Wing 13’ on his admission card.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, Vol. I (1973)

How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it—but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination.

The narrator continued: “And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of any one of its innumerable islands.”

Susan Sontag
The Benefactor (1963)

If only I could explain to you how changed I am since those days! Changed yet still the same, but now I can view my old preoccupations with a calm eye.

The opening lines of Sontag’s debut novel pique our curiosity. What is the nature of the preoccupation? How has it changed? For those of us who’ve experienced a youthful preoccupation calmed by the years, there’s an immediate identification with the narrator, an aging French writer known only as Hippolyte.

As the narrator continues, our curiosity is further heightened: “In the thirty years which have passed, the preoccupation has changed its form, become inverted so to speak. When it began, it grew in me and emptied me out. I ignored it at first, then admitted it to myself, then sought consolation from friends, then resigned myself to it, and finally learned to exploit it for my own wisdom. Now, instead of being inside me, my preoccupation is a house in which I live; in which I live, more or less comfortably, roaming from room to room.”

Gilbert Sorrentino
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)

What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?

Great opening lines often create a sense of heightened expectation, and there are few that rival this one—which prompted Colin Falconer to write in a 2013 blog post (“The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History”): “Yes, yes, yes! What if?”

Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
Candy (1958)

“I’ve read many books,” said Professor Mephesto, with an odd finality, wearily flattening his hands on the podium, addressing the seventy-six sophomores who sat in easy reverence, immortalizing his every phrase with their pads and pens, and now, as always, giving him the confidence to slowly, artfully dramatize his words, to pause, shrug, frown, gaze abstractly at the ceiling, allow a wan wistful smile to play at his lips, and repeat quietly, “many books . . .” [ellipsis in original]

In an unusual writing arrangement, Southern and Hoffenberg wrote the book in tandem, mailing the chapters back and forth to each other as they finished them. The end result was a delightful parody of both Pascal’s Candide and smutty American novels. The book was originally published in France in 1958 by Olympia Press, a popular publisher of smutty books. It was released to great acclaim in America in 1964, with William Styron calling it “a droll little sugarplum of a tale” in The New York Review of Books. Sixty years later, in a 2018 New York Times piece, Dwight Garner wrote that the book hadn’t become dated, even in the “Me, Too” era. He also offered this delightful assessment of the novel’s soaring quality: “Every sentence in Candy seems to have a little propeller on it.”

In the opening paragraph above, the authors captured the profound effect a rapt audience can have on a lecturing professor—or any kind of speaker, for that matter. The narrator went on: “A grave nod of his magnificent head, and he continued: ‘Yes, and in my time I’ve traveled widely. They say travel broadens one—and I’ve…no doubt that it does.’ Here he pretended to drop some of his lecture notes and, in retrieving them, showed his backside to the class, which laughed appreciatively.”

Nicholas Sparks
Dear John (2006)

What does it mean to truly love another?

The novel immediately draws us in by posing what has to be one of the most important questions of all time. The first sentence is also the entire first paragraph, and just as we begin formulating our own answers to the question, the narrator begins the second paragrough with a thought of his own:

“There was a time in my life when I thought I knew the answer.“

On their own, the two sentences tell a sad, even heartbreaking, story about two people who once loved each other dearly, but are no longer together. And we deduce from the book’s title that, somewhere along the line, the woman ended it with a “Dear John” letter. We’re only two sentences in, and I’m already along for the ride.

Mickey Spillane
I, The Jury (1947)

I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me.

With these words, the world was introduced to Mike Hammer, a hardboiled private detective who would go on to become one of literary history’s most famous sleuths. In the opening paragraph, Hammer continued: “Pat Chambers was standing by the door to the bedroom trying to steady Myrna. The girl’s body was racking with dry sobs. I walked over and put my arms around her.”

A 2006 obituary in the Washington Times provided this interesting backstory on Spillane and his first novel: “When he came home after World War II, he needed $1,000 to buy some land and thought novels the best way to go. Within three weeks, he had completed I, the Jury. The editors at Dutton doubted the writing, but not the market for it; a literary franchise began.”

Mickey Spillane
Vengeance is Mine! (1950)

The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun in his hand.

In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included Spillane’s opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, including this one, Levin wrote: “I want to shine a light on that elusive literary gem: the phenomenal opening line to a phenomenal novel.”

Mickey Spillane
One Lonely Night (1951)

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

In a 2013 Atlantic article (titled “This Did Something Powerful to Me”), Joe Fassler asked a number of authors to identify their “Favorite First Lines” from novels. This was the choice of writer Max Allan Collins, who hastened to remind Fassler that, in the 1950s, Spillane was “much derided” by establishment magazines like The Atlantic.

Mickey Spillane
The Big Kill (1951)

It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world. The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Close your eyes for a moment, and you’re right there, in the middle of the scene. In the second paragraph, Hammer filled out the picture: “Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.”

And in the third paragraph, Spillane proved himself to be a master of metaphor when he has Hammer continue: “She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Harvey Stanbrough (aka Eric Stringer)
Confessions of a Professional Psychopath (2015)

Of the three wingback chairs in my library, only one is upholstered in human skin. There’s a reason for that.

It’s a grisly opening line, true, but it’s hard to think of a better hook. The words come from narrator and protagonist Charles Claymore Task, a 32-year-old Hannibal Lector-like psychopath who is preparing for a filmed interview about his life as a remorseless killer of human beings (an activity he calls “Blight Removal”). In the book, he continued:

“I don’t mean there’s a reason it’s upholstered that way—obviously, it’s upholstered that way because it’s unique—but there’s a reason only one is upholstered that way. The damn stuff is expensive, especially for the donor.”

Harvey Stanbrough
Body Language (2016)

The dark Louisiana night draped heavily over the swamp, absorbing sounds and collecting scents. It smelled of ancient things and evil things and people and purposes long forgotten.

A novel’s opening paragraph is often about establishing an atmosphere, and this one does that very effectively.

Richard Stark (pen name of Donald E. Westlake) [see also DONALD E. WESTLAKE]
The Mourner (1963)

When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.

Of the 100-plus novels published by Donald E. Westlake in his long literary career, 24 of them were published under the pen name Richard Stark (with a man known only as Parker, a professional thief, serving as the protagonist). In 16 of the Parker novels, the opening line began with the word When. The opening line of The Mourner is the best of these, in my opinion, but five of the additional fifteen also have superior opening lines. Here they are:

“When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.“
The Man with the Getaway Face (1963)

“When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”
The Outfit (1963)

“When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”
The Seventh (1966)

“When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”
Backflash (1998)

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Firebreak (2001)

Wallace Stegner
Crossing to Safety (1987)

Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.

Writer Terry Tempest Williams described Crossing to Safety as “a quiet novel,” and I would describe the opening words as quietly seductive. I especially admired the simile about regaining vision after eye surgery as akin to a trout thrashing upward and breaking through a water’s surface. The narrator continued with an eloquent observation that will surely resonate with patients recovering from this most delicate surgical procedure:

“Cataract sufferers must see like this when the bandages are removed after the operation; every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in a stereoscope.”

Garth Stein
Raven Stole the Moon (1998)

She closed her eyes and held herself under the water. She exhaled, sending little bubbles to the surface. It felt good to expel the used air, but then came the pain of empty lungs.

The narrator is describing Jenna Rosen, a Seattle woman who has been distraught since the mysterious disappearance of her 5-year-old son Bobby two years ago. The narrator continued: “She opened her eyes and looked up. She thought about opening her mouth and taking a big breath of water. That would do it. Fill those lungs with something other than oxygen. But she didn’t. She lifted her head out of the water and took a breath of air instead.”

Garth Stein
The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008)

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question.

This candid declaration comes from Enzo, an aging Golden Retriever who from early life has felt like a human trapped in a dog’s body (he was masterfully “voiced” by Kevin Costner in a 2019 film adaptation). As Enzo approaches the end of life, he is heartened by a belief that, after death, he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo went on to complete his opening thought this way: “I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.”

At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (1883)

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

In a 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert MCCrum described this introductory paragraph as “Among the most brilliant and enthralling opening lines in the English language.”

Amy Stewart
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit [Book 4 of the Kopps Sisters series] (2018)

On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.

This terrific opening sentence from narrator and protagonist Constance Kopp—a fictionalized version of a real-life woman by the same name who became New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff in 1914—pulls us directly into the book. There’s also something especially attractive about the inclusion of that word obliged.

Sensing our interest in the word, Miss Kopp—one of literary history’s most recent, and most interesting, female detectives—continued: “I say ‘obliged’ as if it were a hardship, but in fact I enjoy a good chase. A man fleeing a crime scene presents any sworn officer with the rare gift of an easy win. Nothing is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion, particularly when the thief is caught in the act and there are no bothersome questions later about a lack of evidence or an unreliable witness.”

Nina Stibbe
Man at the Helm (2014)

My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel—a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.

This is an intriguing beginning to Stibbe’s debut novel, and the highly suggestive element at the end keeps us reading. As we move into the second paragraph, things quickly shift into a higher gear as the narrator—an engagingly precocious nine-year-old named Lizzie Vogel—says: “The following morning she took a pan of eggs from the lit stove and flung it over our father as he sat behind his paper at the breakfast table.”

After that, we’re off to the races in a highly acclaimed novel that was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. In a New York Times review, John Williams wrote: “Ms. Stibbe’s writerly charms and her sneakily deep observations about romantic connection are on display throughout.” He went on to add that the novel “is densely peppered with funny lines, but even more striking is the sustained energy of the writing. In almost all the space between jokes, there remains a witty atmosphere, a playful effect sentence by sentence.”

Irving Stone
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)

He sat before the mirror of the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy-lidded.

The opening paragraph describes a young Michelangelo, who doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror. The second attempts to capture his thoughts:

“’I’m not well designed,’ thought the thirteen-year-old with serious concentration. ’My head is out of rule, with the forehead overweighing my mouth and chin. Someone should have used a plumb line.’”

Stone was one of literary history’s most successful biographers and biographical novelists. Noted for his exhaustive research, he not only lived in Italy while writing The Agony and the Ecstasy, but worked in a marble quarry and apprenticed with a marble sculptor. He also translated and carefully analyzed 495 Michelangelo letters that had previously been available only in the original Italian. A critical and commercial success, the novel was adapted into a popular 1965 film starring Charlton Heston.

Rex Stout
How Like a God (1929)

He had closed the door carefully, silently, behind him, and was in the dim hall with his foot on the first step of the familiar stairs.

These are the opening words of Stout’s debut novel—published five years before he introduced his famous fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, in the 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance—but they already demonstrate his ability to create an initial feeling of suspense after only a few words.

From 1934 to 1975, Stout went on to write 33 novels and 41 novellas featuring the portly Wolfe, making him one of history’s most famous fictional crime-solvers, right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlow, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.

Rex Stout
Too Many Cooks (1938)

Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a bit I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands, in a swimming suit; after what I had just gone through.

From these introductory words, one might think narrator Archie Goodwin—the live-in assistant to detective Nero Wolfe—had just weathered a horrific ordeal, but he is merely feeling an enormous sense of relief after, with great difficulty, he finally managed to get his obese, finicky, and often recalcitrant boss to the train station and into a Pullman car.

Rex Stout
Too Many Women (1947)

It was the same old rigamarole. Sometimes I found it amusing; sometimes it only bored me; sometimes it gave me a pronounced pain, especially when I had more of Wolfe than was good for either of us.

In most crime/mystery novels, the narrating sidekick plays something of a hero-worshipping role, but in his opening words to Too Many Women, Archie Goodwin begins by reflecting on the frustrations and challenges of working for Nero Wolfe.

Rex Stout
The Mother Hunt (1963)

When the doorbell rang a little after eleven that Tuesday morning in early June and I went to the hall and took a look through the one-way glass panel in the front door, I saw what, or whom, I expected to see; a face a little too narrow, gray eyes a little too big, and a figure a little too thin for the best curves.

Archie Goodwin opened many Nero Wolfe novels with memorable words, but this is a special favorite because of that unforgettable phrase: a figure a little too thin for the best curves.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P____, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Pearl of Orr’s Island: A Story of the Coast of Maine (1861)

On the road to the Kennebec, below the town of Bath, in the State of Maine, might be seen, on a certain autumnal afternoon, a one-horse wagon, in which two persons are sitting. One is an old man, with the peculiarly hard but expressive physiognomy which characterizes the seafaring population of the New England shores.

Cheryl Strayed
The Torch (2005)

She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones.

Putting medical symptoms into words can be difficult, but the narrator finds an ingenious metaphorical way to describe the pain being experienced by Teresa Rae Wood, the 38-year-old host of a local talk-radio show.

The narrator continued: “Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor—the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off.”

In a San Francisco Chronicle review, Reyhan Harmanci wrote about Strayed’s debut novel: “The book opens with [a] diagnosis of rapidly metastasizing spinal cancer. Told at the age of 38 that she will go from healthy to dead in less than a year, Teresa does the best she can…. But this isn’t Teresa’s story. Strayed is more interested in the effects of death on the living.”

Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge (2008)

For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

If one of the central purposes of an opening paragraph is to set the tone of a novel, this one does the job nicely, taking readers on a sensory journey as retired pharmacist Henry Kitteredge recalls the sights, sounds, and even the smells of his daily commute to his store in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009, and was adapted into a popular HBO mini-series in 2014.

William Styron
Sophie’s Choice (1979)

In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if for nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb.

The protagonist, a WWII veteran and struggling young writer with the unusual name of Stingo, opens the novel nicely, but it’s about to get a whole lot better. As he continues, he advances the story with what I regard as literary history’s best-ever description of that dreaded condition known as Writer’s Block:

“At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided. It was not that I no longer wanted to write, I still yearned passionately to produce the novel which had been for so long captive in my brain. It was only that, having written down the first few fine paragraphs, I could not produce any others, or—to approximate Gertrude Stein’s remark about a lesser writer of the Lost Generation—I had the syrup but it wouldn’t pour.“

The novel went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Fiction, but the story didn’t become a part of popular culture until the 1982 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep.

Faith Sullivan
Repent, Lanny Merkel (1981)

Like innumerable other mid-life women who suffer from insecurity, paranoia, grave misgivings, vague longings, and obvious shortcomings, I’m basically a happy person.

I love a great oxymoronic opening line, and this one has been in my personal collection for more than two decades. The words come from Laura Pomfret, a middle-aged Minnesota mother and housewife whose life is upended when she receives an invitation to her 25th high school reunion (she’d never attended a previous one).

The invitation immediately triggers painful adolescent memories of boyfriend Lanny Merkel asking her “to return his letter sweater, class ring, identification bracelet, framed photograph, National Honor Society pin, and copy of From Here to Eternity with all the good parts underlined.” As Laura frets over whether or not to attend, she worries that many will still remember the fourteen “Repent, Lanny Merkel” signs she posted all around town on the night of her high school graduation.

Patrick Süskind
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.

The narrator continued: “His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouché’s, Bonaparte’s, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of these more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction.“ She wrote: “France in this era...gave us female nudes, silk-clothed nobility in powdered wigs and pastoral images of the peasantry. The most notable books of the century were Les Liaisons Dangereuses, depicting a time of decadence when France loosened her stays for a moment and Candide, bitterly satirical, blasphemous and seditious. And into this time comes a man, at once gifted and abominable. Here we have two questions: What is his great gift and more thrillingly, what is his abomination? The answers do involve female nudes but not in a way you could possibly predict.“

Perfume is one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century, selling more than twenty million copies in more than twenty different languages.

Glendon Swarthout
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.”

Gabriel Tallent
My Absolute Darling (2017)

The old house hunkers on its hill, all peeling white paint, bay windows, and spindled wooden railings overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.

In a 2023 Guardian article, Irish writer Liz Nugent included this opener in her list of “The Top Ten First Lines in Fiction,” writing:

“Decay, neglect, toxicity and menace. All of these qualities delivered in the opening line tell us that this is not going to be a cheerful tale. And indeed it is a harrowing story, but hidden in that line are roses, fragile and climbing, perhaps looking to escape but trapped by poison? What kind of people live in such a house?”

In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Rose runners have prized off clapboards that now hang snarled in the canes. The gravel drive is littered with spent casings caked in verdigris. Martin Alveston gets out of the truck and does not look back at Turtle sitting in the cab but walks up the porch, his jungle boots sounding hollowly on the boards, a big man in flannel and Levi’s opening the sliding glass doors. Turtle waits, listening to the engine’s ticking, and then she follows him.”

Tallent’s debut novel became an immediate bestseller and was ultimately named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, and Amazon.com. About the book, Stephen King wrote : “The word ’masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.”

Amy Tan
The Joy Luck Club (1989)

My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts.

Amy Tan
The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)

Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument.

Amy Tan
The Hundred Secret Senses (1995)

My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes.

What exactly are yin eyes? Why are they important? And what role will they play in the story about to unfold. The narrator is Olivia Laguni, an American-born, half-Chinese girl who has long struggled with a half-sister who was born in China and has long been a source of embarrassment and consternation. Olivia continues about her sister: “She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin, ghosts who leave the mists just to visit her kitchen on Balboa Street in San Francisco.”

Amy Tan
The Valley of Amazement (2013)

When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.

The opening words of a novel are so important to Tan that she said in a 2017 Daily Beast interview that they are “the last thing that gets written.” She explained: “Only when I finish the book can I go back to the beginning and write in the voice of all that happened. For books I want to keep reading, it’s definitely the voice. It must be a voice I’ve never heard before, and it must have its own particular intelligence. By ’voice,’ I don’t mean vernacular. It has to have its own particular history and world that it inhabits. I mean an understanding of how events happen in the world, whether it was the result of simply growing up, or accidents, or bad choices, good choices. That becomes evident in the beginning.”

Booth Tarkington
The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.

Donna Tartt
The Secret History (1992)

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

In a 2012 Guardian article, writer and critic Robert McCrum selected this as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction.” He went on to explain: “In this spooky opening, Tartt plunges the reader into the middle of a crime whose consequences will reverberate throughout the ensuing pages. Like all the best beginnings, the sentence also tells us something about the narrator, Richard Papen. He’s the outsider in a group of worldly students at Hampden College in rural Vermont. He was expecting a break from his bland suburban Californian life, but he doesn’t quite understand what he’s got himself into.”

Donna Tartt
The Little Friend (2002)

For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have the Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.

This is the first sentence of the Prologue, and they clearly meet the oft-stated goal of “setting a tone” for the remainder of the story.

The opening words of the first chapter are equally impressive: “Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened. People in the town still discussed the death. Usually they referred to it as ‘the accident,’ though the facts (as discussed at bridge luncheons, at the barber’s, in bait shacks and doctors’ waiting rooms and in the main dining room of the Country Club) tended to suggest otherwise. Certainly it was difficult to imagine a nine-year-old managing to hang himself through mischance or bad luck.”

Joe Taylor
Highway 28 West (2023)

PREACHER: (Scrambling onto a picnic table to stare at a gathering crowd until reluctantly speaking.)

I think I should warn all of you before I begin: at the end of my tale, no one is left standing, all have fallen, all are dead.

(A tidal wave of laughter slaps PREACHER’s face. It continues for an uncomfortable time....)

GUEST COMMENTARY from veteran poet, playwright, and author Louis Phillips, who writes:

“I was drawn to this opener because the structure resembles the script of a play, not the usual prose paragraphs we expect from a novel. Clearly, we are in the presence of unconventional story telling. The novel opens with the Preacher announcing that the story he is about to tell ends tragically. But, curiously, this tragic spoiler alert is met by a wave of sustained laughter? Who are these people and what is so funny about a tale in which everyone dies at the end? We feel compelled to read on.”

See some of Phillips’ great opening lines on the Short Stories page, beginning here).

Walter Tevis
The Hustler (1959)

Henry, black and stooped, unlocked the door with a key on a large metal ring. He had just come up in the elevator. It was nine o’clock in the morning. The door was a massive thing, a great ornate slab of oak, stained once to look like mahogany, ebony now from sixty years of smoke and dirt. He pushed the door open, shoved the door stop in place with his lame foot, and limped in.

There was no need to turn the lights on, for in the morning the three huge windows along the side wall faced the rising sun. Outside of them was much daylight, much of downtown Chicago. Henry pulled the cord that parted the heavy draperies and these gathered in grimy elegance to the edges of the windows. Outside was a panorama of gray buildings; between them, patches of a virginal blue sky. Then he opened the windows, a few inches from the bottom. Air puffed abruptly and small eddies of dust and the aftermaths of four-hour-old cigarette smoke whirled and then began to dissipate. Always by afternoon the draperies would be drawn tight, the windows shut; only in the morning was the tobaccoed air exchanged for fresh.

A poolroom in the morning is a strange place.

A writer can “hook” a reader with a few words, but it often takes a few paragraphs to effectively establish an atmosphere, as Tevis does in this magnificent description of the room where “Fast Eddie” Felson and Minnesota Fats—played so magnificently by Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in the 1961 film adaptation—will shortly be making an appearance.

Walter Tevis
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

After two miles of walking he came to a town. At the town’s edge was a sign that read Haneyville: Pop. 1400. That was good, a good size. It was still early in the morning—he had chosen morning for the two-mile walk, because it was cooler then—and there was no one yet in the streets. He walked for several blocks in the weak light, confused at the strangeness—tense and somewhat frightened. He tried not to think of what he was going to do. He had thought about it enough already.

In the small business district he found what he wanted, a tiny store called The Jewel Box. On the street corner nearby was a green wooden bench, and he went to it and seated himself, his body aching from the labor of the long walk.

It was a few minutes later that he saw a human being.

So begins the story of a human-looking extraterrestrial being who lands on earth in hopes of finding an eventual destination for the desperate citizens on his dying planet Anthea. After his arrival, he takes the name Thomas Jerome Newton, insinuates himself into the human population, and begins to implement his plan.

When the novel was adapted into a 1976 film starring David Bowie, it was only moderately successful, despite stunning visuals and an inspired performance by Bowie. The film has since become a cult classic, and it continues to hold an almost religious significance for Bowie fans. When the film was restored and re-released on its 40th anniversary in 2016, cinematographer Tony Richmond said about the casting of Bowie: “I can’t imagine any other actor in that role. It wasn’t just his defining role, but it was the role for him. He kind of glided through it like an alien, and with his face with that white, pasty skin, he was just absolutely perfect.”

About the novel, crime writer James Sallis hailed it as “Among the finest science fiction novels” in a July 2020 review in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He went on to add: “Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.”

Walter Tevis
The Queen’s Gambit (1983)

Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard.

These opening words introduce Elizabeth Harmon, a precocious 8-year-old girl whose life has been shattered at an early age. About her, the narrator continued: “The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: ’Orphaned by yesterday’s pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.’“

Beth’s incredible story—from heavily tranquilized resident of a school for orphan girls to World Chess Champion—was in danger of being completely forgotten when, in 2019, Netflix decided to produce a seven-episode series based on the novel. In the month after its 2020 launch, it became a smash hit, attracting well over sixty million viewers. It put Tevis’s 1983 book on the 2020 bestseller lists—and also reminded readers of some of his other classic works.

Josephine Tey
To Love and Be Wise (1951)

Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.

Josephine Tey
The Daughter of Time (1951)

Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface.

The book begins with Scotland Yard Inspector Allan Grant confined to a London hospital bed as he recovers from a broken leg. The narrator continued: “He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and rediscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.”

In 1990, The Daughter of Time came in first on the British Crime Writers’ Association survey of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time (beating out Chandler’s The Big Sleep and le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). In a 1995 Mystery Writers of America survey, it came in at number four.

William Makepeace Thackeray
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)

Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it.

William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848)

As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place.

One of the great satires in literary history, Vanity Fair is framed as a puppet show in which the Manager of the Performance—think Thackeray—is able to look down on the performers and their actions. The opening line above comes from the Preface to the novel, where the narrator continued:

“There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy.”

Angie Thomas
Concrete Rose (2021)

When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.

They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.

Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

This is the opening line of one of the most epic beginnings in contemporary fiction. In the opening paragraph, the narrator—a Gonzo journalist named Raoul Duke—continued:

“I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’”

The writing is so crisp and clear that the scene is easy to imagine: a guy, totally high on drugs, is racing his open convertible at a super-high rate of speed down a long, straight Nevada highway when the hallucinogenic effects of the drug begin to really kick in. Just as we imagine the worst is about to happen, the narrator continues in the second paragraph:

“Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ’It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.“

It’s hard to imagine a more exciting opening to a novel. After two paragraphs, we are completely “in” for the rest of the ride. In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox hailed “The energy of this opening!“ After adding that “The prose is blasting off into space,“ Fox went on to write:

“Despite all the craziness of this opening, it really has a simple strategy: character building. This is the type of character who loves taking drugs, who drives a hundred miles an hour toward Vegas while on drugs, and who doesn’t even realize that he is the one shouting at the imaginary animals (the ‘voice’ is his own).“

Ernest Tidyman
Shaft (1970)

Shaft felt warm, loose, in step as he turned east at Thirty-ninth Street for the truncated block between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.

The opening line introduces John Shaft, a black New York City private detective who went on to become one of the most prominent African-American heroes of the era. Tidyman created such a convincing character that most people simply assumed he was a black writer. He was not, and he is one of only a handful of white people to receive a NAACP Image Award. In the novel, the narrator continued:

“It had been a long wa