Genre: Race, Gender, & Ethnicity
Henry Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler
I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (1991)
The day I left Mobile, Alabama, to play ball with the Indianapolis Clowns, Mama was so upset she couldn’t come to the train station to see me off. She just made me a couple of sandwiches, stuffed two dollars in my pocket and stood in the yard crying....
It was 1951 and the first time the 18-year-old Aaron had ever been outside of the black section of his home town. Despite his youth, he had already made quite a splash with the Mobile Black Bears, a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team composed entirely of black ballplayers. In high school when he first joined the team, he was paid $3 a game, but only permitted to play home games, and only on Sundays.
Aaron went on to write: “My knees were banging together when I got on that train. I’d never ridden in anything bigger than a bus or faster than my daddy’s old pickup truck. As we pulled out of the station...I never felt so alone in my life. I just sat there clutching my sandwiches, speaking to nobody, staring out the window at towns I’d never heard of. It was the first time in my life that I had been around white people. After a while, I got up the courage to walk up and down the aisle a few times. I wanted to see what a dining car looked like, and I needed somebody to tell me where I wasn’t allowed to go.“
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.“
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.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court (2017)
I didn’t realize I was black until third grade.
Memoirs from sports figures rarely begin with memorable openings, but this first sentence from one of the sports world’s most interesting and articulate figures is a refreshing exception. It begins the book’s first chapter, “How I Discovered I was Black.“
Abdul-Jabaar continued: “Although I was born in the predominantly black community of Harlem in 1947, I was raised in a multiethnic housing project in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Our project consisted of seven buildings, each fourteen stories tall, with twelve apartments on each floor. That totaled 1,176 apartments. Basically, a small, crowded city.“
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?“
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.
Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003)
I didn’t want it to end.
In this simple but compelling opening sentence, Albright was referring to her term as U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, which was cut short after George H. W. Bush defeated Vice-President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Hoping to freeze time, I thought back to the phone ringing one December morning and the words, ‘I want you to be my Secretary of State,’ and to the swearing-in ceremony where my eagle pin came unstuck.”
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012; with Bill Woodward)
I was fifty-nine when I began serving as U.S. secretary of state. I thought by then that I knew all there was to know about my past, who “my people” were, and the history of my native land. I was sure enough that I did not feel a need to ask questions. Others might be insecure about their identities; I was not and never had been. I knew.
Only I didn’t.
A common gambit in the world of great opening lines is to begin by confidently walking down a path of certitude, and then abruptly changing course with a frank admission that you were wrong. Albright does that very nicely here, introducing the greatest surprise of her life. She continued in the second paragraph:
“I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make—choices that were still shaping my life and also that of the world.”
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.
The Soul of a Woman: On Impatient Love, Long Life, and Good Witches (2021)
When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating.
This opening line—from Allende’s fifth memoir—is a nice reminder that many of our most important guiding beliefs were formed well before we developed a capacity for critical thinking. Allende continued: “I was born in 1942, so we are talking remote antiquity. I believe that the situation of my mother, Panchita, triggered my rebellion against male authority. Her husband abandoned her in Peru with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. Panchita was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile, where I spent the first years of my childhood.“
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.” [In his review, Gray’s unusual use of the word picara was a reference to the lovable rogues featured in picaresque novels]
Stephen E. Ambrose
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (2014)
This is the story of two men who died as they lived—violently.
Books about the parallel lives of famous figures have been around since the Greeks (the first was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the 1st c. A.D.), but few have begun with a better opening sentence. Ambrose continued in the first paragraph:
“They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat.”
Letter to My Daughter (2008)
This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them.
This is only a so-so beginning, but it clearly telegraphs what is to follow. It is what is contained in the second paragraph that makes Angelou’s opening words memorable. There, she continued with an observation that encapsulated what went on to become one of her most popular quotations (I’ve presented it in italics to make it more obvious): “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.”
Prior to the book’s publication, many Angelou fans were puzzled by the title, for it was well known that her only child was a boy that she had given birth to at age seventeen. Angelou quickly cleared the matter up by dedicating the book to the daughter she never had. She also brought her introductory words to a close by writing:
“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all. Here is my offering to you.”
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. I did find one other mention of the contest (see the Laura Lippman entry below), but nothing else. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.
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 a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
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.“
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.
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."
The Testaments (2019)
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
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.
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.
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.”
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.“
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.
“Autobiographical Notes,“ in Notes of a Native Son (1955)
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.
Baldwin had published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, two years earlier, but he was still working hard to establish a reputation as an important American thinker. The remainder of the book consisted of ten essays he had written for such publications as Harper’s Magazine, Partisan Review, and The New Leader.
Baldwin continued: “The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.“
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.“
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.”
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.”
W. Kamau Bell
“On Being a Black Male, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014,” in Vanity Fair (Nov. 26, 2014)
I am afraid of the cops. Absolutely petrified of the cops. Now understand, I’ve never been arrested or held for questioning. I’ve never been told that I “fit the description.” But that doesn’t change a thing. I am afraid of cops the way that spiders are afraid of boots. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and SQUISH! You are dead.
This is an arresting—no pun intended—opening paragraph, and it’s hard to imagine readers not feeling a desire to read on. And when they do, Bell’s compelling narrative will most certainly keep them reading:
“Simply put, I am afraid of the cops because I am black. To raise the stakes even further, I am male. And to go all in on this pot of fear, I am six foot four, and weigh 250 pounds. Michael Brown, the unarmed Missouri 18-year-old shot dead by police this summer, was also six foot four. Depending on your perspective, I could be described as a ‘gentle giant,’ the way that teachers described Brown. Or I could be described as a ‘demon,’ the way that Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his grand-jury testimony.
The entire article is as relevant today as when it was first written in 2014, and I’m fairly certain Bell would describe himself the same way today as he did back then: “I’ve been endowed with the triple crown of being killed for no good reason: big, black, and male.”
The Other Einstein (2016)
October 20, 1896
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.”
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.
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.
I’ll Be Seeing You: A Memoir (2020)
I am seventy years old. I am astonished to be writing this, as doubtful of the truth of it as if I had written, “I am a peacock.“
Berg’s opening words capture the experience of so many people—a sense of disbelief that such a large number as seventy (or more) could be applied to themselves. She continued: “I remind myself of the two old ladies (as I thought of them) I saw in the grocery store one day, their carts angled companionably next to each other. They were enjoying a nice chat, and as I passed them, I heard one say to the other, ’I still feel like a girl inside.’“
Girl Gone Mad: A Novel (2020)
The girl cut herself.
With a knife, most likely—with a paring knife or steak knife pilfered from the kitchen when her parents weren’t around—or maybe she used a pair of scissors already in her bedroom, opening them up and then pressing the tip of one of the blades against her skin.
The opening words come from Emily Bennett, a 28-year-old Pennsylvania therapist who works with troubled teen and pre-teen girls—and herself a former troubled middle school girl whose past is about to be resurrected.
In her opening words, Bennett continued: “It was one of the things I would eventually get to, but not today. Today was the girl’s first appointment. An intake, really. All I had was the referral that she had been sent from the psychiatric inpatient facility where she’d been for eight days.”
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.
Out of Africa (1937)
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
I’ve long loved this opening line, but if you had asked me why a few years ago, I would’ve struggled to articulate an answer. Part of the appeal, though, is that much can be deduced about the author from the first thirteen words, especially the word had. Clearly, the author no longer has the farm, and the entire first sentence contains a strong hint of wistfulness. There is also the clear suggestion that the author is not a native of Africa, but someone who moved there from someplace else—and then grew to love the place.
In a 2017 “The Art of the Tale” blog post, the discerning eye of writer and editor Mary Dalton helped me see something in the opening line I had not seen before. Picking up on Blixen’s famous self-description that “I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller,” Dalton viewed the opening line as more befitting a story, not a memoir. She wrote:
“Out of Africa doesn’t read like your average memoir. Rather, it’s life spun into a fantastic tale, where supernatural forces coexist with the everyday. The opening line…has the invoking nature of a prayer or chant, all round vowels and whispering consonants.”
Blixen, a beloved Danish writer who wrote fictional tales under the pen name Isak Dinesen, continued in the opening paragraph: “The equator runs across these highlands. A hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
In 1985, Out of Africa was loosely adapted into a Sydney Pollack film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. One of the year’s most acclaimed films, it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (2015)
Whom to marry, and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
Bolick continued with a one-sentence second paragraph: “Men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.“
Charles M. Blow
Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir (2014)
Tears flowed out of me from a walled-off place, from another time, from a little boy who couldn’t cry.
I had held on to the hurt and shame and doubt for so long, balling it up in the pit of me, that I never thought it would come out, or that it could. I certainly didn’t think it would come out like this. Not in a flash. But there it was.
Some of my tears streamed over the arc of my cheeks and off the rim of my jaw. Others rounded the corners of my nose and puddled in the crease of my lips. I didn’t wipe them. I wore them.
I looked over at the rusting pistol on the passenger seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip.
These are powerful opening words, and the intensity increases as Blow continued: “It was the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, ‘just in case.’ I had grabbed it from beneath my seat when I jumped into the car. I cast glances at it is I drove. I had to convince myself that I was indeed about to use it.“
“The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, just twenty-five miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of North Louisiana road from college to home a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.“
“I began to scream as a fresh round of tears erupted. ‘Motherfucker!’ I slammed my fists down on the steering wheel over and over. ’No! No!…Ah! Ah!’ In part I was letting it out. In part I was pumping myself up. I had never thought myself capable of killing. I was a twenty-year-old college student. But I was about to kill a man. My own cousin. Chester.”
What stimulated this volcano of emotion and anguish and deadly rage? In a phone call with his mother only a few minutes earlier, she said a family visitor wanted to say hello. When his older cousin Chester got on the line and said “What’s going on, boy?” Blow was immediately transported back in time to age seven, and overcome with a torrent of long-repressed memories of Chester—a teenager at the time—sexually abusing him. It’s a longer-than-typical opening to a memoir, but few can rival it in drama and power. About the book, writer Michaela Angela Davis said it was “A modern memoir that reads like a great classic novel.”
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.”
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.“
A Window Over the Sink: A Mainly Affectionate Memoir (1981)
You may have noticed, as I have, that if you ever find yourself declaring unequivocally that you will never do some one particular thing, chances are good that this is precisely what you will one day find yourself doing.
The I Hate to Cook Book (1960)
Some women, it is said, like to cook.
This book is not for them.
I always enjoy a book—especially a non-fiction book—in which the author gets straight to the point. Bracken, one of her era’s most respected humorous writers, went on to explain:
“This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”
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.“
Jayne 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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
Rita Mae Brown
Six of One (1978)
I bought mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise.
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.“
Rita Mae Brown
Rita Will: Memoirs of a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1997)
My mother was mucking stalls at Hanover Shoe Farm outside of Hanover, Pennsylvania, within a shout of the Mason-Dixon line, when her water broke. Had the hospital not been nearby, I would have been born in a manger.
In her career, Brown has been so adept at crafting opening lines, I was almost certain she’d come up with a winner when she decided to pen a memoir. I wasn’t disappointed. In the opening paragraph, she continued in fine form:
“Perhaps I came into the world knowing Jesus had already done that, and since he suffered for all of us I saw no reason to be redundant.”
Helen Gurley Brown
Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men (1962)
I married for the first time at thirty-seven. I got the man I wanted. It could be construed as something of a miracle considering how old I was and how eligible he was.
These are the opening words of a book that exploded on the publishing scene, selling well over two million books in the month after it was published. The book remained on all the major bestseller lists for over a year, and in 1964 was loosely adapted into a popular film, starring Natalie Wood. Published a year before The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, Sex and the Single Girl is now regarded as a ground-breaking work in women’s literature.
In the book, after describing the couple’s glamorous, upscale life, Brown sent an important If-I-can-do-it-so-can-you message to her female readers: “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor and I have always helped support them. I’m an introvert and I am sometimes mean and cranky. But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband. I think I deserved him!”
After graduating from secretarial school in 1941, Brown worked as a secretary for well over a decade before finally landing a job as a copywriter for a Los Angeles advertising agency. Within a few years, she became the highest paid female copywriter on the West Coast, and in 1959 married the successful Hollywood film producer David Brown. It was Brown’s idea for her to write Sex and the Single Girl, but, as Dwight Garner put it in a New York Times article, “It was her bright, no-nonsense voice that brought the book to life.”
In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999)
I was not there at the beginning. Few people were. And although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with stubborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions, and antecedents to the antecedents.
These opening words beautifully capture the early history of the women’s movement, and the author’s role in it. Brownmiller, who helped propel the movement forward with her pioneering 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, continued in the opening paragraph:
“This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously, an unexpected flutter that is not without precedence, a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a societal transformation. So it was with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
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."
Octavia E. Butler
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.”
A. S. Byatt
“The Thing in the Forest,” in The New Yorker (June 3, 2002)
There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Mary Dalton, a Chicago-area writer, editor, and blogger (“Art of the Tale”). “So begins (and ends) A.S. Byatt’s darkly brilliant WWII tale about Penny and Primrose, two English girls who meet on a train as they are evacuated from London to a country estate and ultimately encounter a grotesque creature known in folklore as the Loathly Worm.”
In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “The two little girls were evacuees, who had been sent away from the city by train, with a large number of other children. They all had their names attached to their coats with safety pins, and carried little bags or satchels, and the regulation gas mask. . .they were like a disorderly dwarf regiment, stomping along the platform.”
About the opening words, Dalton writes: “I love how the author juxtaposes benign details like safety pins and bags with things like gas masks. There’s a lot of black humor in this story, along with traditional fairy tale elements, such as children facing danger alone. But she also poses a serious question: ‘What can better help us make sense of terror: modern psychology or storytelling?’”
About the author, Dalton concluded: “Byatt often explores the intersection of history and narrative in her work, and ‘The Thing in the Forest’ underscores the impact of both. Her choice to end the tale with her opening line brings to mind the words of Isak Dinesen: ‘I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them.’ ‘The Thing in the Forest’ seems to suggest that our ability to cope—or even survive—may depend on which path we choose.”
My Time To Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race (2020)
All my attention was focused on his face. It’s what I remember most clearly more than two years after our encounter. That face that had raged red as soon as he saw me, and continued angry, indignant. His nostrils flared with his agitated breathing, which he unsuccessfully attempted to control. He responded quickly, hot, like a lit fuse, not letting anyone else talk. And then, suddenly, I heard it from his own lips, “We’re going to burn you out.”
Calderón, an Emmy Award–winning journalist and popular host at Univision, began her memoir with this raw—or perhaps more accurately, gut-wrenching—description of her first encounter with Chris Barker, the newly elected Imperial Wizard of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. In July of 2017, after weeks of negotiation, Calderón’s Unvision bosses arranged a sit-down interview with Barker at an isolated setting on his Yanceyville, North Carolina property.
A Latina woman of color, Calderón did everything she could to prepare for the interview, but when he used the N-word to describe her (as well as the word mongrel), she was chilled by such a pure display of racial hatred. In a Smerconish.com post, I selected her opening paragraph as one of the Twenty Best Opening Lines of 2020.
The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to 45472 (1974)
RUBIN, my Christian name, comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 29, verse 32 of the Holy Scriptures. Other than both of us being black, that’s about the only thing the Bible and I ever had in common.
This is a wonderful opening paragraph, and things only got better as Carter continued in the next three paragraphs:
“HURRICANE is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. It provides an accurate description of the destructive forces that rage within my soul.
“CARTER is the slave name that was given to my forefathers who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia, and was passed on to me. The name is like any other—worthless—but it’s the one that appears on my birth certificate.
“The kindest thing that I can say about my childhood is that I survived it.”
Carter was an outstanding middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1967. These are the opening words of his autobiography, written while he was in prison and published in 1974. The story inspired Bob Dylan to write the song “Hurricane” in 1975, and that song, in turn, helped mobilize a “Free Rubin” movement all around the country.
After serving eighteen years in prison, Carter’s sentence was overturned by a federal judge in 1985. Carter’s story was brought to the big screen in the 1999 film Hurricane, with Denzel Washington playing Carter. The opening words above are so exceptional that, in the film, Washington repeated them exactly as you see them here.
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.”
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.“
The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable German Family (1993)
The German Jews were a people shipwrecked by history.
This is a compelling opening line in its own right, and the beginning of an equally compelling first paragraph. Describing German Jews just prior to the Nazis, Chernow continued: “Arguably the most productive group of Jews in history, they were also, in many ways, the least typical. Few groups have been so admired for their achievements or so maligned for their attitudes. Persecuted by other Germans as too Jewish, they were often scorned by other Jews as too German. Their existence rested on a tenuous illusion of acceptance until the Nazis came along and tore the dream to tatters. People still puzzle over why these bright, industrious people were so blind to a mortal threat to their existence. In frustration, some Jews deny them the dignity of their tragedy.”
About this oft-mentioned blindness to an existential threat, Chernow wrote that a major purpose of the book was his attempt to “clarify the mystery” through an examination of one of history’s most illustrious Jewish families, the Warburgs.
Unbought and Unbossed (1970)
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 417 are white males. Ten of the others are women and nine are black. I belong to both of these minorities, which makes it add up right.
Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, represented New York’s 12th congressional district from 1969 to 1983. She continued: “That makes me a celebrity, a kind of side show attraction. I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin.”
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.
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.“
“The Story of an Hour,“ in Vogue magazine (Dec. 6, 1894)
Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death.
When Chopin’s story—arguably her most popular—first appeared, it was titled “The Dream of an Hour.“ It was retitled when republished a year later, and is now remembered by the revised title. When it was first published, the story was considered quite shocking for its portrayal of Louise Mallard’s feeling of liberated happiness when she begins to think of a future without her husband in it.
“A Personal Tribute to Mothers and Role Models,” in OpEdNews.com (May 7, 2022)
It was a house of love and a safe haven where laughter was frequent, anxiety had no place, affection reigned. It was a Cape Cod bungalow with a white picket fence that made me feel warm and happy. In short, it was 1950s perfect and I wished it were mine.
In this beautiful—and bittersweet—opener, Clift leads readers down an idyllic path until, at the end, she ingeniously departs from it. Later this year, when I compile my annual list of “Twenty-Two of the Best Opening Lines of 2022,” this one will certainly be in contention.
Clift’s essay explored a painful theme in human life—many mothers are painfully deficient in meeting the needs of their children, and when our own falls short, we look for great mother-figures in other families. In the article, Clift, a New England journalist, writer, and political activist, continued:
“I lived across the street in a house that became a place of illness, loneliness, and ‘quiet despair.’ My mother’s chronic depression began there as my father’s tense nature worsened when business failures mounted. So I began to virtually reside in the perfect Cape Cod cottage and to make of myself a part of that Dick-and-Jane family, to internalize their traditions, to survive my childhood pain.”
The Stars at Noon (1954)
I am a refugee from Sawdust Road, which is located in the South close by Tobacco Road of theater and movie fame.
Cochran—the first female pilot to break the sound barrier—was one of the most celebrated women in aviation history. By placing her real North Florida birthplace near one of history’s most famous—or infamous—literary locations, she found an extremely creative way to set the stage for her incredible life story.
In her memoir’s second paragraph, Cochran continued: “Until I was eight years old, I had no shoes. My bed was usually a pallet on the floor and sometimes just the floor. Food at best consisted of the barest essentials—sometimes nothing except what I foraged for myself in the woods or in the waters of the nearby bayou....“
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.”
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.”
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.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Yes I Can (1965; with Jane and Burt Boyar)
They liked me.
The audience was leaning in to me, nodding, approving, catching every move I was making, and as I finished with “Birth of the Blues” their applause was like a kiss on the lips.
The Prologue to Davis’s autobiography opens with a fond memory—and he found an unforgettable way to capture the experience. It was at Las Vegas’s Frontier Hotel in 1954, and Davis was the 29-year-old “kid in the middle” of The Will Mastin Trio. Davis had been performing with the singing-dancing troupe since he was three years old (the other members were his father and Will Mastin).
Davis was harkening back to an era when black entertainers were not allowed to lodge in the hotels that booked them, and he sensed something important about his future in that special moment. When he acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic response, he said he was thanking them not so much for the applause as “For making it possible for me to walk through the world through the front door.” Yes I Can starts off at a high level and doesn’t let up. A review in The New York Times called it “One of the most candid, engrossing, and important autobiographies of our time.”
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.
Simone de Beauvoir
The Autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir: Hard Times: Force of Circumstance (1963)
Young women have an acute sense of what should and should not be done when one is no longer young. “I don’t understand,” they say, “how a woman over forty can bleach her hair; how she can make an exhibition of herself in a bikini; how she can flirt with men. The day I’m her age…” [ellipsis in original]
When those same young women arrive at forty, de Beauvoir went on to explain, they end up doing what they said they’d never do—bleaching their hair, wearing bikinis, and flirting with men. She ended her first paragraph by confessing that she was no exception to the rule, writing about her older self: “When the opportunity arose of coming back to life, I seized it gladly.”
Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex, Vol. 2 (1949)
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Epigrammatic opening lines have always been popular with readers, and this one has become de Beauvoir’s most famous observation (one could almost argue that it is her signature line). In nine simple words, she encapsulated her groundbreaking thesis that being female is a cultural rather than a biological construct. It’s a perfect opening line, in my opinion, and I only wish she had used it to begin the first volume of her classic work, not the second. Volume I opened memorably, but I think you will agree that it isn’t in the same league:
“Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her. In the mouth of a man the epithet female has the sound of an insult….”
Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (1997)
He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren’t sure—but what we do know is that she was not his first victim.
These opening words look a lot like the beginning of a suspense thriller, but they actually opened a non-fiction book that has become a classic in the literature on violence against women.
In his book, de Becker went well beyond the cliche of learning to trust one’s “gut instincts” by pinpointing a number of key warning signs—he called them pre-incident indicators, or PINS—that were precursors to violence.
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.”
Belle de Jour
The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl (2006)
“What I want, what I really want…this probably sounds silly…is to please you.“
The client was fiftyish, dressed office-casual. Oh great, I thought, another half-hour of earnest licking from a man whose wife no doubt thinks her body stops at the waist.
“That’s a gorgeous idea,” I purred.
Belle de Jour
Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men (2009)
You might be wondering what, exactly, a prostitute might have to say about men and relationships… [ellipsis in original]
Let’s put it this way: I have met men. Loads of men. Men of every conceivable shape, size, and type. In my work as a call girl, I have seen them at their most cocksure and at their most vulnerable. And if this experience has taught me anything at all, it is that this odd and inscrutable species we call Man is often libelously misrepresented in the female press.
With the “teaser” comment at the end, we wonder where, exactly, de Jour is going—but we’re damn sure going to continue reading to find out.
Belle de Jour
The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005)
The first thing you should know is that I’m a whore.
In early 2003, Dr. Brooke Magnanti, an American-born British medical professional (Ph.D. in forensic pathology) began writing a blog detailing her secret life as a sex worker. Writing under the name Belle de Jour, she won the Guardian’s Best Blog Award at the end of the year.
In choosing her nom de plume (which translates into “Beauty of the Day”), Magnanti was inspired by the title of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film starring Catherine Deneuve as a French housewife who secretly worked in a high-class brothel while her husband was at work (Buñuel’s film, in turn, was an adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel by the same title).
The Guardian award dramatically increased interest in the blog and soon resulted in this 2005 book—with the jarring, but almost perfect, opening sentence you see above. An immediate bestseller in England, the book was soon adapted by ITV into the British television series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” starring Billie Piper. After an enormously successful airing in England, the series was picked up by Showtime for an American audience. Not surprisingly, de Jour went on to write a number of sequels, some of which also had memorable openings (you’ll see them below).
Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Darwin’s Sacred Cause Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins (2009)
Global brands don’t come much bigger than Charles Darwin.
In their biography, Desmond and Moore continued: “He is the grizzled grandfather peering from book jackets and billboards, from textbooks and TV—the sage on greeting cards, postage stamps, and commemorative coins. Darwin’s head on ₤10 notes radiates imperturbability, mocking those who would doubt his science. Hallow him or hoot at him, Darwin cannot be ignored.”
The Year of Magical Thinking (2006)
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened.
The “it” here was the 2003 death of Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunn—from a sudden heart attack while the couple were seated at the dinner table in their home. The remainder of the book chronicled Didion’s attempts over the next year to live and function without a man she’d been married to for nearly forty years. The book went on to win the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Didion’s coping efforts were severely affected by the illness of her adult daughter, who was lying unconscious—from a serious case of pneumonia—in a New York hospital at the time of her father’s death (she died of pancreatitis in 2005). Didion wrote about the loss of her daughter in yet another book of mourning and grieving, Blue Nights, published in 2011.
“The Women’s Movement,” in The New York Times (July 30, 1972)
To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to break them.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.
This is a soft beginning, but it’s about to take a dramatic turn. Douglas continued: “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”
As I began to think about the immense psychological significance of not knowing one’s own birth date, I was eager to learn more, and Douglass didn’t disappoint. He continued: “They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.”
In mid-February of 1817, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Tuckahoe (near Easton) Maryland. As indicated in the dramatic opening line above, the exact date of his birth was not known, and he later chose February 14th as the day to celebrate his birthday. He escaped from his servitude in 1838, quickly changing his name to avoid capture as a “fugitive slave,“ and ultimately settled in Massachusetts. He went on to become a popular spokesman for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, traveling throughout the U. S. and the British Isles. He also became a successful businessman (the first Black man to own a publishing house), a diplomat (ambassador to Haiti), and the author of three autobiographies (considered among the best “slave narratives” ever written).
You might also find it interesting that Booker T. Washington was almost certainly inspired by Douglass’s opening words when he wrote Up From Slavery (1901).
Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide (2005)
I don’t understand men.
I don’t even understand what I don’t understand about men.
They’re a most inscrutable bunch, really.
Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, is best known for her political commentary, but she also wrote extensively about gender dynamics. She previewed her views on the subject when she continued: “I had a moment of dazzling clarity when I was twenty-seven, a rush of confidence that I had cracked the code. But it was, alas, an illusion. I think I overcomplicated their simplicity. Or oversimplified their simplicity. Are they as complicated as a pile of wood? Or as simple as a squid?”
W. E. B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
Du Bois offered these words in the book’s “Forethought,“ and the final portion (“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”) went on to become one of the most important quotations of the twentieth century. He continued: “I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.“
Du Bois was one of the most influential figures in black history. A co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, he was the first African-American person to be awarded a Ph.D. (from Harvard, in 1895). In Living Black History (2011), historian Manning Marable wrote: “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position.“
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.
Daphne du Maurier
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 murder 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.”
George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
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.”
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.
“Reunion,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
A boy and a girl are taking a shower together in the bathroom.
Ephron continued: “How to explain the significance of it? It is a Friday night in June, the first night of the tenth reunion of the Class of 1962 of Wellesley College, and a member of my class has just returned from the bathroom with the news. A boy and girl are taking a shower together. No one can believe it.”
“On Never Having Been a Prom Queen,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
The other night a friend of mine sat down at the table and informed me that If I was going to write a column about women, I ought to deal straight off with the subject most important to women in all the world. “What is that?” I asked. “Beauty,” she said.
“Funny, But I Do Look Jewish,” in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 15, 2003)
Funny, but I do look Jewish, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by.
Epstein continued: “I’m fairly sure I didn’t always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent.”
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 a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
“Scales” (1980), in The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-2008 (2009)
I was sitting before my third or fourth Jellybean—which is anisette, grain alcohol, a lit match, and a small, wet explosion in the brain.
This is not simply a great opening line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic (one day, I’m hoping to do a book titled The Single Best Thing Ever Said on Just About Any Topic You Can Think Of, and this is my Number One choice for observations about jellybeans).
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.”
My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.
I was completely unfamiliar with Ernaux’s work when it was announced in 2022 that, at age 82, she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. You can imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when the first of her books that I read contained this powerful opening line.
Arnaux was twelve when she witnessed the event in question, and the memoir was her attempt to chronicle and examine the circumstances of her life at the time. In a New Yorker profile on the author, staff writer Alexandra Schwartz described the first words as “unforgettable.” And in an Amazon.com review, writer Wendy Smith wrote:
“You’d expect a book that begins with these words to be a raw, anguished account of childhood trauma, but prize-winning French author Ernaux disdains such American-style obviousness.” She later added: “This is a memoir in the classic Gallic tradition: lucid, spare, impeccably reasoned and written, completely devoid of self-pity. There’s not an excess word or a facile emotion anywhere in her elegant text, which compels readers’ sympathy all the more forcefully by never asking for it.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992)
Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.
This is the entire first paragraph of a book that is now regarded as a classic in feminist thought. The book, written by a Jungian psychoanalyst, drew heavily from folk tales, fairy tales, and worldwide mythology. It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years—145 weeks in all (Estés was the first Latina to make the coveted list).
In the second paragraph, Estés continued: “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (1999)
Philosophers ponder it and pornographers proffer it.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to open a book on the nature and importance of beauty in human life, and Etcoff—a professor at Harvard Medical School and psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital—finished off her first paragraph in an equally impressive way:
“Asked why people desire physical beauty, Aristotle said, ‘No one that is not blind could ask that question.’ Beauty ensnares hearts, captures minds, and stirs up emotional wildfires. From Plato to pinups, images of human beauty have catered to a limitless desire to see and imagine an ideal human form.”
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.
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?
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 opening 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 is a thinly-disguised version of the author, and the novel colorfully recounts numerous elements of her reckless life. In her 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”
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 Edge 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.
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.”
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.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1947; originally titled The Annex)
June 12, 1942
I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.
This was the very first entry written by Anne Frank in a diary she’d been given on her 13th birthday. Bound with red-and-white checkered cloth, the book had a small lock on the front, giving the newly minted teenager a secure feeling that no one but her would be able to read the contents. An exceptional student in a local Montessori school, Anne was already dreaming of a literary career—and the diary’s opening words reveal a sophistication beyond her years.
In February of 1934, Frank was four-and-a-half-years-old and living temporarily with her grandmother when she joined her parents and older sister Margot in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A year earlier, after the Nazi Party won the federal elections and Hitler became Chancellor, thousands of Jewish families began fleeing their native Germany and settling in neighboring European countries. The Franks lived a comfortable (if slightly uneasy) life until May of 1940, when Germany formally occupied the Netherlands and began to identify and deport the country’s Jews.
In the summer of 1942, just after Margot received a letter ordering her to report to a work camp, the family began hiding in a secret room in a building where her father worked. The “secret annex,” as they sometimes called it, was hidden behind a bookcase, and it kept them and a number of other Amsterdam Jews safe until they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Anne and Margot were first sent to Auschwitz, and then the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they died—most likely of typhus—several months later.
After the war, Anne’s father Otto—the only surviving member of the Frank family—returned to Amsterdam to discover that his secretary had saved Anne’s diary. To honor his daughter’s dream of becoming a writer, he published a Dutch version in 1947.
First published in English as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in 1952, the book failed to find an audience and was out of print the following year. In 1955, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, debuted on Broadway. A critical success, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956 and greatly fueled interest in Anne’s story. In 1959, the play was adapted into the “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a film starring Millie Perkins (it was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three.) Now regarded as a cinematic classic, the film re-ignited interest in Anne’s diary, which went on to become one of the world’s most popular books, translated into more than 70 languages and selling more than 35 million copies.
Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and time again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.
These are the opening lines of one of the most influential books of the 20th century. In 1942, Frankl was a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist when he, his wife, and his parents were transported to a Czechoslovakian concentration camp. Two years later, they were all sent to Auschwitz, where his wife and parents perished.
In 1945, after Allied forces liberated many of the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl put the finishing touches on a memoir he began while reflecting on his experiences as a prisoner. The original title of his book, first published in 1946, was Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. After the book was published in English in 1956 (under the title Man’s Search for Meaning), it became an international best-seller and Frankl was hailed as one of modern psychology’s most influential figures.
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?
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (2022)
7 April 1944
After days of delay, weeks of obsessive preparation, months of watching the failed attempts of others and two years of seeing the depth to which human beings could sink, the moment had finally come. It was time to escape.
The opening paragraph reads like the first words of a suspense thriller, but they are, in fact, based on the true story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jew to successfully escape from Auschwitz (one of only four in history). In the book’s second paragraph, Freedland continued:
“The two other prisoners were already there, at the designated spot. Wordlessly, they gave the nod: do it now. Walter and Fred did not hesitate. They climbed on top of the timbers, found the opening and, one after the other, they dropped inside. A second later, their comrades moved the planks into place above their heads. One of them whispered, ‘Bon voyage.’ And then all was dark and silent.”
The Escape Artist: A Memoir (2020)
Sisters are a setup. Shot from the same cannon, you’re sent on a blind date for the rest of your lives.
This is not only a spectacular opening line, it’s one of the most quotable observations I’ve seen on the subject (I’ve also happily added it to the sisters section of “Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations”).
I only recently happened upon Fremont’s book (her second memoir, following up the bestselling After Long Silence in 2011). If I’d come across it when it was published, her first sentence would have made my end-of-year list of “The Twenty Best Opening Lines of 2020.”
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.”
The Feminine Mystique (1963)
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?“
This is the opening paragraph of the first chapter (titled “The Problem That Has No Name“ ) of one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. In 1957, as her 15th Smith College reunion approached, Friedan—a married woman with three growing children—was asked to do a survey of her classmates, almost all of whom were leading what looked like idyllic lives as suburban mothers and homemakers. Just below the comfortable-looking surface, though, Friedan discovered a deep strain of frustration, discontent, and lack of fulfillment. Nobody had written about this phenomenon, and she began to think about it as a problem without a name. A few years later, she gave it an unforgettable name—The Feminine Mystique—and explored it in detail in a book that launched the modern women’s movement.
In a 50th anniversary edition of the book in 2013, writer Gail Collins described the three-word concluding question (Is this all?) as “an earthshaking query.“ Three years after publication of the book, in 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded, and Friedan was one of the cofounders.
“Mrs. O’Grady,” in A Thousand Friends (1974)
How many silent, uneventful tragedies are played out in thousands of marriages?
A well-crafted rhetorical question can occasionally be a perfect way to open an article or essay, as Fuldheim demonstrates here. She continued:
“How many women stay married though they experience a dull nagging unhappiness; stay because after years of marriage they have developed no skill to qualify for a job and if they are over forty, their age is an additional hindrance. If ever there are lives led in “quiet desperation,” they are marriages without friendship, dignity, love, and passion.“
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.”
John W. Gardner
Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961)
If we accept the common usage of words, nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, “You can’t keep a good man down.“
Gardner continued: “Most human societies have been beautifully organized to keep good men down. Of course there are irrepressible spirits who burst all barriers; but on the whole, human societies have severely and successfully limited the realization of human promise. They did not set out consciously to achieve that goal. It is just that full realization of individual promise is not possible on a wide scale in societies of hereditary privilege—and most human societies have had precisely that characteristic.”
In his 1984 revised edition of the book, Gardner retained the exact wording of the first sentence, but changed the second paragraph in this way: “Most human societies of which we have any historical record have been beautifully organized to keep good men and women down. The reasons are many, but the most obvious is that throughout most of recorded history societies of hereditary privilege have predominated.”
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.
Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Gilbert continued: “Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and—like most Italian guys in their twenties—he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn’t inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni.”
“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” in Esquire magazine (March 1997)
I was not the prettiest bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. In my opinion, that would have been Caroline. I was partial to Caroline, though, because she had been so nice to me when I began working here. She was very pretty and also very funny. When I asked Caroline how she’d gotten her first bartender job, she cupped her breasts and said simply, “These.”
These are the opening words of the original Esquire article that turned an East Village bar into a New York City cultural landmark. Early in Gilbert’s career, while attempting to make a living as a working journalist, she supplemented her income with waitressing and bartending jobs, including a stint at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. Her article inspired the 2000 film “Coyote Ugly.“
By the way, if you don’t know the meaning of the slang term “coyote ugly,“ a Wikipedia entry says it “refers to the feeling of waking up after a one-night stand, and discovering that one’s arm is underneath someone who is so physically repulsive that one would gladly chew it off without waking the person just so one can get away without being discovered. Coyotes are known to gnaw off limbs if they are stuck in a trap, to facilitate escape.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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?’”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.“
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.“
Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1995)
I think in pictures.
Grandin is one of the truly great heroes in the autism community (her life and work was memorably portrayed by Clair Danes in the 2010 HBO movie “Temple Grandin”). In the book’s opening paragraph, Dr. Grandin continued:
“Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”
Rachel E. Gross
“Half the World Has a Clitoris. Why Don’t Doctors Study It?” in The New York Times (October 17, 2022)
If there was one thing Gillian knew, it was that she did not want a hole punch anywhere near her genitals.
In the world of journalism, a great opening line is commonly called a lede, and they don’t get much better than this first sentence of Gross’s story about a registered nurse’s medical misadventures after her gynecologist recommended a vulval biopsy.
“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!“
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.
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (2010)
Allow me to warn you right from the start: I am not known for making lives any easier. So if you are looking here for truths you think you already know, and for proofs you believe you already have; if you are longing to be comforted in your Orientalist views, or reassured in your anti-Arab prejudices; if you are expecting to hear the lullaby of the clash of civilizations, you better not go any further.
From the outset, it’s clear who the author is addressing—and the confident, modern, “voice” she will be using to communicate her message. Haddad, an influential Lebanese writer, reporter, and human rights activist, continued: “For in this book, I will try to do everything that I can to ‘disappoint’ you. I will attempt to disenchant you, and deprive you of your chimera and ready-to-wear opinions.”
The Last Black Unicorn (2017)
School was hard for me, for lots of reasons. One was I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade. Also I was a foster kid for most of high school, and when my mom went nuts, I had to live with my grandma. That all sucked.
In a blog post, writer and Scribe Media co-founder Tucker Max wrote: “From the first line of her book, Tiffany reveals that you’re going to learn things about her that you don’t know—personal things. I mean, really personal. The book’s opening story concludes with her trying to cut a wart off her face because she was teased so much about it (that’s where the “unicorn” nickname came from).“
Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
A Woman of Independent Means (1978)
Dec. 10, 1899 Honey Grove, Texas
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
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.”
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.”
The Book of Lost Names (2020)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“How to Find Someone to Fall in Love With,” in Sex Tips for Girls (1983)
There are certain magazines which should be avoided. They call themselves “women’s” magazines, which is absurd, since their complete raison d’étre is the care and feeding of the male.
When I first read these wry and witty opening words many decades ago, it forever changed the way I looked at so-called women’s magazines.
To drive her point home, Heimel continued: “How to make him happy in bed, how to choose his socks, how to tell if he’s screwing his secretary, and how to prepare his income tax returns are, according to these magazines, topics deemed monumental in importance.”
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.”
“Home: Survival and the Land,” in Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home (2011)
In August 1973, three weeks past my seventeenth birthday, I packed my clothes in three hand-me-down Samsonite suitcases and left the only place I had ever called home. Even at that age, I wanted a “better place,” just as my grandparents had more than a hundred years earlier. College was my first stop on the road to that better place—wherever it was.
These words open the first chapter of the closest thing to an autobiography that Hill has written. She continued: “Situated in Stillwater, Oklahoma State University was only three hours by car from the farming community of Lone Tree, where I’d grown up, but it was a world away from what I was leaving.”
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.”
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.”
The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study on Female Sexuality (1976)
Women have never been asked how they feel about sex.
This is the frank and unequivocal first sentence of a book that exploded on the national scene in 1976. Building on the work of Kinsey and, after him, Masters & Johnson, Hite was a previously unknown sex researcher who brought a feminist perspective to human sexuality—and who famously concluded that women didn’t need sexual intercourse, or even men, to experience sexual gratification. A 2020 New York Times obituary wrote about her: “However obvious her conclusions might seem today, they were seismic at the time.” An international bestseller, her book went on to sell nearly 50 million copies. In her opening paragraph, she continued:
“Researchers, looking for statistical ‘norms,’ have asked all the wrong questions for all the wrong reasons—and all too often would up telling women how they should feel rather than asking them how they do feel.”
As the years passed and more controversial books followed, questions about the quality of Hite’s research—and her life—fueled a conservative backlash that made her life in America so miserable that she ultimately renounced her U.S. citizenship in 1995 to formally became a German citizen.
Bettyville: A Memoir (2015)
Missouri is a state of stolen names, bestowed to bring the world a little closer: Versailles, Rome, Cairo, New London, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria, Lebanon, Cuba, Japan, Santa Fe, Cleveland, Canton, California, Caledonia, New Caledonia, Mexico, Louisiana. Paris, our home.
The opening paragraph has little to do with the central thrust of the book—a gay, New York man returning to his childhood home to take care of his ailing mother—but they set an inviting tone for a book that writer Jeannette Walls (of The Glass Castle and other works) described as “An exquisitely written memoir.“ The book went on to with the 2015 Nautilus Book Gold Award.
Hodgman continued in the same vein in the book’s second paragraph, this time adding an urban-rural tease he’s clearly used before with cosmopolitan friends: “Then there are the funny-named places. Licking is a favorite, along with Fair Play, Strain, Elmo, Peculiar, Shook, Lone Jack, Butts, Lupus, Moody, Clover, Polo, Shake Rag, and the T towns that always end my list—Turtle, Tightwad, Tulip, and Tea.“
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.”
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.”
Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.
This is one of the truly classic opening lines in publishing history. Not long after the book came out, the editors of London’s New Statesman magazine were so taken with the intriguing first sentence that they announced a competition in which readers were invited to submit “similarly explosive first or last sentences from a real or imagined biography.“ None of the hundred-plus entries came close to the quality of Holiday’s original words, though, and they were all awarded only consolation prizes—along with an admission on the part of the editors that they had greatly underestimated the difficulty of the challenge.
The editors of the magazine went on to provide Holiday with a most memorable compliment: “In 23 superbly chosen words, she has established her background, recorded at least five relevant facts, illustrated (by her method of doing so) one facet of her own character and made firm friends with the reader by a breathtaking and naughty dénouement.“ And about the submissions they received from contestants, they wrote: “Too many of her imitators felt that vulgarity or sheer improbability were satisfactory substitutes for the artfully conjured impudence and shock which characterized the original.“
Despite the legendary status of the book’s opening words, they are not factually true. In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015), biographer John Szwed described the book as “a form of autobiographical fiction.“ He went on to write: “When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married and had never lived together in a little house with a picket fence on Durham Street in Baltimore. She was not born in Baltimore but in Philadelphia.“
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“Conversation on the Corner,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
It was the summer the young men in Harlem stopped wearing their hair straightened, oiled, or conked, and started having it cut short, leaving it natural, standing up about an inch or two in front in a kind of brush.
It’s rare for a literary opening line to herald a major cultural shift within an entire segment of the American population, but Hughes was able to do that very nicely in this 1950 short story.
“Blue Evening,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
When I walked into the bar and saw him on the corner stool alone, I could tell something was wrong.
The words come from Simple’s friend and foil, Ananias Boyd, who encounters his pal in a neighborhood bar. The following dialogue unfolds:
“Another hang-over?” “Nothing that simple. This is something I thought never would happen to me.” “What?” I asked “That a woman could put me down….”
“An Auto-Obituary,” in Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)
“I will now obituarize myself,” said Simple at the bar. “I will cast flowers on my own grave before I am dead.”
Simple had a clever way with words, and I’m a little surprised that this creative coinage didn’t catch on in the broader culture.
“Guns, Not Shovels,” in the Chicago Defender (Feb. 13, 1943)
The cat was taking his first physical, standing in line in front of me at the hospital where our draft board had sent us. He was talking and he didn’t care who heard him.
These words mark the first appearance of Hughes’s most popular fictional character, a Harlem resident formally named Jesse B. Semple, but known to all of his friends as “Simple.”
“A Toast to Harlem,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
Quiet can seem unduly loud at times.
I have a soft spot for oxymoronic openings, and this one is a beauty.
“From Harlem to Paris,” in The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1956)
I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person.
This is the first sentence of Hughes’s review of James Baldwin’s book of essays—Notes of a Native Son—published several months earlier. Hughes continued: “There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt, or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand.”
While acknowledging that the 31-year-old Baldwin was not yet “a great artist,” Hughes certainly recognized his great potential, writing: “Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.”
“Sympathy,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“Some people do not have no scars of their faces,” said Simple, “but they has scars on their hearts.”
A deeply profound thought from an ostensibly simple man.
“Cousin Minnie Wins,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“It is better to be wore out from living than to be wore out from worry,” said Simple.
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.’”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“Say So,” in Rosie magazine (2001, Vol. 128)
I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults.
“Texas Woman: True Grit and All the Rest,” in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 212, 1992)
They used to say that Texas was hell on women and horses—I don’t know why they stopped.
“Who Needs Breasts, Anyway,“ in Time magazine (Feb. 18, 2002)
Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.
Ivins retained her irreverent sense of humor even while struggling with the cancer that would take her life—at age 62—in 2007. She continued: “One of the first things you notice is that people treat you differently when they know you have it. The hushed tone in which they inquire, ‘How are you?’ is unnerving. If I had answered honestly during 90% of the nine months I spent in treatment, I would have said, ’If it weren’t for being constipated, I’d be fine.’ In fact, even chemotherapy is not nearly as hard as it once was, although it still made all my hair fall out.”
“My Father’s Shoes,” in The Boston Globe (April 15, 1999)
They were nice to my father the second time he went to Auschwitz.
The best way to describe this dramatic opener is “arresting.” As soon as its read, it not only gets the reader’s attention, it holds it for some time after.
Jacoby went on to write: “It was in September 1997, during a trip he’d always insisted he wouldn’t take. He never wanted to go back to his native Czechoslovakia, he’d said; never wanted to revisit Auschwitz, where his parents, his brothers, and his two younger sisters were murdered by the Germans in 1944.”
“Four Meetings” (1877); reprinted in Clifton Fadiman, The Short Stories of Henry James (1945)
I saw her but four times, though I remember them vividly; she made her impression on me. I thought her very pretty and very interesting—a touching specimen of a type with which I had other and perhaps less charming associations. I’m sorry to hear of her death, and yet when I think of it why should I be?
The unnamed narrator—an educated, well-travelled, cultured, and slightly verbose American who clearly appears patterned after James himself—is describing Caroline Spencer, a New England beauty who is enthralled by the idea of her upcoming trip to Europe (the story takes a dramatic turn when she is swindled out of her money by her own cousin). Many consider “Four Meetings” to be one of James’s best short stories, and Ford Madox Ford even hailed it as “a masterpiece.”
Negroland: A Memoir (2015)
I was taught to avoid showing off.
I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.
But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?
It was my mum who introduced me to Elvis Presley.
Opening lines in every literary genre have long fascinated me, but I’ve been especially intrigued by the choices people make when they write the first sentence of their memoirs. John went on to explain his choice by writing:
“Every Friday, after work, she would pick up her wages, stop off on the way home at Siever’s, an electrical store that also sold records, and buy a new 78. It was my favorite time of the week, waiting at home to see what she would bring back. She loved going out dancing, so she liked big band music—Billy May and His Orchestra, Ted Heath—and she loved American vocalists: Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell singing “She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt.” But one Friday she came home with something else. She told me she’d never heard anything like it before, but it was so fantastic she had to buy it.”
The song she played for her son that day was Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,“ and his life would never be the same. About the recording, he wrote: “You could barely understand a word he was saying [but] you could literally feel this strange energy he was giving off, like it was contagious, like it was coming out of the radiogram speaker straight into your body.“
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.“
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.“
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.
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.
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.“
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.“
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.
Up the Down Staircase (1964)
Looka her! She’s a teacher?
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.
Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Federal Prison (2010)
International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.
From the outset, it’s clear that this is not going to be your typical prison memoir.
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.”
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.
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.
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.“
The English Teacher (2005)
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.”
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.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength to Love (1963)
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.
These are the opening words of the book’s first chapter, titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” The French philosopher in question is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and the observation comes from his 1669 defense of Christian thought, Pensées (literally, “Thoughts”).
In the book, Dr. King continued: “Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”
Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation (2014)
Men have fascinated me, maybe too much. They’ve troubled me. They’re large and take up a lot of space—space in the imagination, I mean. They force you to think about them.
Kipnis continued: “A daddy’s girl who grew into a wayward woman, I wasn’t that surprised to find, when I started rummaging around in the essays and criticism I’d written over the last fifteen or so years, that it wasn’t the random, unsystematic tangle I’d recalled; instead a lot of it seemed to cluster around the subject of…men.” [ellipsis in original]
An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris (2012)
I was always strange.
Of all the ways a writer could choose to describe herself at the beginning of a memoir, this is an unusual, but extremely effective choice—and it only gets better as the opening paragraph unfolds:
“Born with red hair to parents without it, I always thought I was a changeling—swapped at birth because some perfect couple knew they didn’t want me, even before I could talk, before I could tell them they were right.”
Immediately, we form the impression of someone who, from her earliest days, felt like an outsider looking at an alien and unwelcoming world. In a 2013 review in Black Warrior Review, Ethel Rohan singled out LaCava’s first sentence for comment, and wrote: “What follows in this brief but gripping memoir is the chronicling of her desire, separateness, depression, loneliness, and her inability to feel settled in the world and within herself.”
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.“
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (2012)
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing.
These are the opening words of the Introduction to the book. In the first chapter, titled “I Was a Three-Year-Old Arsonist,” Lawson also began memorably:
“Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name, but it’s much more agreeable than most of the things I’ve been called. Call me ‘that-weird-chick-who-says-fuck-a lot’ is probably more accurate. But ‘Ishmael’ seems classier, and it makes a way more respectable beginning than the sentence I’d originally written, which was about how I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina.”
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.
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.
The Good Girls Guide to Rakes (2022)
The wedding hadn’t happened yet, and already the marriage was a disaster.
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.”
This is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism (2021)
May 25, 2020
Today I heard a dying man call out to his mama, and I wept for the world that will soon belong to you. I know what comes next as surely as I know the Mississippi rolls down to the sea.
The weeping passes, and rage takes hold.
The rage burns out, and blame begins.
The blame bounces back and forth, and promises are made.
The promises wither, and complacency returns.
And the complacency stays. It stagnates like a lullaby on autoplay, until another man dies facedown on another street in another city, and the weeping begins again.
These are the opening words to the book’s Prologue, titled “A Letter to My Nephew.” After the unmistakable allusion to the George Floyd killing, Lemon offered a bleak-but-beautifully-phrased assessment of the likely aftermath.
Astute readers will quickly surmise that, in approaching his book, Lemon was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). Both books have fire in the title, and Baldwin also began his classic work with a letter to his nephew. Both books also contain a similar tone of deep frustration and controlled rage at America’s failure to learn from its own painful history.
These Truths: A History of the United States (2018)
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.
It takes a touch of audacity to attempt a one-volume history of the United States, and Lepore—a Harvard University history professor as well as a New Yorker staff writer—opens with a bang. Bruce Watson, a noted writer/historian in his own right, alerted me to Lepore’s opening words, writing: “It’s not easy to sum up history in a sentence, nor is it easy to do a full U.S. history in a single book, but Lepore rises to both tasks. Introducing her monumental single-volume history, she makes many profound statements about history as an inexact science and America as a work in progress. She had me from the start.”
Lepore’s book was widely hailed, but my favorite critical comment came from Casey Cep, also a New Yorker staff writer, in a Harvard Magazine review. After describing the work as “Astounding,” Cep went on to write that Lepore “has assembled evidence of an America that was better than some thought, worse than almost anyone imagined, and weirder than most serious history books ever convey.”
The title of Lepore’s book, of course, comes from the second line of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….“
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.”
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 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).
If This Is a Man (1947)
It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz...
These are the first ten words of the “Author’s Preface.“ Levi quickly provides a fuller explanation of what he means, but it’s hard to imagine a more arresting opening. It also seems clear that he wanted to begin in the most dramatic way possible.
Here’s the complete first paragraph: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.“
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.”
Robert Hill Long
“The Restraints,” in James Thomas, et. al., Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories (1992)
Even when she was very little her hunger was worth something: hunger taught her to dance, and her father noticed.
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 in particular, he wrote:
“Wow. Who wouldn’t want to read further to learn more about such a character and to find out what her relationship with her father was? Her hunger wasn’t important to him; her dancing was. I’d like to know about a character like this. Wouldn’t you?”
M. G. Lord
The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice (2012)
You could say it began in 1944 with National Velvet, when Elizabeth Taylor, age twelve, dressed as a boy and stole America’s collective heart. By “it,” I mean the subversive drumbeats of feminism, which swelled in the star’s important movies over decades from a delicate pitty-pat to a resounding roar.
Few people would regard Elizabeth Taylor as an influential figure in the early history of feminism, but Lord’s mission is to set the record straight. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor. But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
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?”
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.”
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.”
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1994)
Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “trouble maker.”
Mandela, whose full name was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, deftly opened his autobiography with a preview of events to come. He continued: “I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.”
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.”
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.”
The Miracle at St Anna (2002)
On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.
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.
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.“
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.”
“The Vassar Girl,” in Holiday magazine (May, 1951)
Like Athena, goddess of wisdom, Vassar College sprang in full battle dress from the head of a man.
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.”
Tori Murden McClure
A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (2009)
In the end, I know I rowed across the Atlantic to find my heart, but in the beginning, I wasn’t aware that it was missing.
When a memoir—especially one centered around a personal or athletic achievement—begins with an opening line that rivals those of the great novelists, it’s yet another accomplishment, and I’m delighted to be honoring it here.
In 1999, McClure became the first woman in history to row across the Atlantic ocean, and the first person to do it solo. She had attempted the crossing a year earlier, but was thwarted by a hurricane. In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl wrote “I love the first line,” and offered the fascinating tidbit that Muhammad Ali was instrumental in getting McClure to make a second attempt. According to Pearl, Ali told her that she probably didn’t want to go down in history as the first woman who “almost rowed across the Atlantic.”
For her incredible feat, McClure received numerous awards, including the Ocean Rowing Society International’s Peter Bird Trophy for Tenacity and Perseverance, and the Victor Award, given annually by the National Academy of Sports Editors to outstanding athletes. The Atlantic crossing, as it turns out, was only one of McClure’s outstanding personal efforts. She is also the first woman to ski to the South Pole and the first woman to climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Thiel Mountains of Antarctica. As I write this in early 2022, she has graduated to new feats of daring, serving as president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
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.”
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).
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.“
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.“
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 description of the couple’s relationship dynamics:
“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.”
“I Want U.S. History to Make My Kids Uncomfortable,” in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC; Nov. 17, 2021)
I signed up to serve on the media review committee for my middle daughter’s public school library. Meetings are at 7:45 a.m. I am not a morning person and I do not know how I am going to manage one more thing, but as the white Christian mother of three public school students it is very important to me to have influence on what materials my daughters are exposed to in school.
Op-Ed articles aren’t usually admired for their impressive openings, but this one by the pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, is an exception to the rule. In her opening paragraph, Murphy gives the impression of going in a certain direction—and then dramatically heads in the opposite way, writing: “It’s critical to me that the things my children read about American history make them uncomfortable. I want them to be troubled, deeply troubled.”
After arguing that it is our patriotic duty to recognize and confront the darker aspects of American history, Rev. Murphy concluded: “I want my girls to struggle with American history. But it’s not because I want them to hate America or themselves. I want them to struggle with the past so that they can fall in love with all that America could be. I want them to be uncomfortable with the past so they can join us to change the future.”
Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard (2010)
The first time Daddy found out about me, it was from behind glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her pregnant belly for emphasis.
Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy (2020)
I am fifty years old and have just moved to a seaside town in Portugal. I’m reading in a quiet bar when a man asks why a beautiful woman like me is alone.
What he means is, What is happening between your legs?
What he means is, You are breaking the rules of the story, but I can set you straight.
What he means is, I can fill that terrible gap between your legs.
This was one of my choices for The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2021. I had expected Myers’s memoir to be a relatively straightforward tale of self-discovery, but her opening words quickly set me straight. In addition to being a moving tale about her personal journey from young, devout Mormon girl to strong, independent woman, it is also a stirring polemic about life for women in a male-dominated world.
Myer continued: “In the story, a woman who is—according to an occult and capricious geometry of features and culture and a man’s particular taste—’beautiful’ must be attached to a man. To be unattached at my age is a violation of the story. This man wants an explanation. If my answer isn’t plausible, if there is no man waiting around the corner or recently dead or banging a college student, I should be grateful he is offering me a happy ending.
“His desire lands on my shoulders like a bird of prey.
“What he means is, I need you to fill the gap in me.“
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.
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.
Everything I Never Told You (2014)
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
This was Ng’s debut novel, and what a spectacular debut it had, winning numerous prizes, including the 2014 Amazon Book of the Year award.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.“
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016)
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
These are the very first words of the book, coming from what is essentially an untitled Preface. When Noah, the popular host of The Daily Show, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1984, his father had Swiss-German heritage and his mother was of Xhosa descent (a people native to the region). At the time, South Africa was governed by a strict policy of apartheid, which made interracial marriage—and, in fact, all intimate interracial relationships—illegal. A year after Noah’s birth, interracial relationships were decriminalized, but the very notion that he was born a crime went on to become a defining feature of his life, and it was no surprise when he chose the phrase as the title of his memoir.
In the opening paragraph above, Noah succinctly summarized the political strategy behind apartheid rule. In the second, he continued: “At the time, black South Africans outnumbered white south Africans nearly five to one, yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages…. Long before apartheid existed these tribal factions clashed and warred with one another. Then white rule used that animosity to divide and conquer. All nonwhites were systematically classified into various groups and subgroups. Then these groups were given differing levels of rights and privileges in order to keep them at odds.”
In the formal first Chapter of his memoir, titled “Run,” Noah began with what are usually described as the opening words of the book: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
And then, in the next paragraph, he added: “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.” This unusual and, quite frankly, intriguing revelation pretty much ensured that readers would want to find out more about the incident—and why he would choose to begin his memoir with it
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 “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
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.“
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.
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.
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?
“Revelation,” in The Sewanee Review (Spring 1964); reprinted in Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.
When I first read this opening sentence, I was struck by the idea that a woman could be so large she could make a small room seem even smaller. It was a neat hook, and I was eager to read on.
In “A Catholic Thinker” blog post in 2013 (“The Mean Grace of Flannery O’Conner”), physician Tod Worner offered what I regard as one of the best assessments ever made about the author: “Flannery O’Connor’s writing could be downright vicious and raw. Her characters are often crude, unkempt, and ill-educated. Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to be repelled by them and the path their lives are taking. And yet, with writing that is so vivid, so animated, so…real, it is difficult to release yourself from its grip.”
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?”
“The Geranium,” in Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature (Summer 1946); reprinted in The Geranium: A Collection of short Stories (1947)
Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty.
In a 2020 WritingCooperative.com article (titled “11 Proven Ways of Inviting Readers In”), writer Jim Latham wrote: “O’Connor engages our interest by making us wonder just how long Old Dudley has been sitting in his chair if he is molding the wood to the shape of his body. It must have been a long time, indeed, if waiting to see a potted plant is the focal point of his day. Wondering this, we are not only curious about Old Dudley, but we also begin to feel sympathy for him. O’Connor also gives us the interesting image of looking out one window and into another. What happened to blacken the brick around the second window?”
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2017)
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.
We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.
I realize several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.
I see all this, in an instant
Suspenseful beginnings are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this one is extraordinary. After the first four paragraphs, I was eager—and even a little anxious, I must admit—to read on. I suspect any reader with a pulse would feel similarly.
In her memoir, O’Farrell, one of England’s most popular contemporary novelists, went on to describe the first of seventeen “brushes with death” that she has experienced at different stages of her relatively young life (she was in her early forties when the book was published).
A book about so many near-death experiences might seem a little gloomy, but Ann Patchett described the memoir as “a gripping and glorious investigation of death that leaves the reader feeling breathless, grateful and fully alive.” London’s The Sunday Times called it “a mesmerizing read,” adding that “O’Farrell writes so convincingly about peril that each episode just serves as another detailed, technicolor reminder that we and, more terrifyingly, our loved ones are only ever one bad decision, faulty choice, or sliver or ill-fortune away from catastrophe.”
Joyce Carol Oates
them [Book 3 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1969)
One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business (1994)
Once upon a time and far, far away, back in the hollers at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee there lived a little girl with yellow hair, blue-green eyes, fair skin, and freckles. She loved to read almost as much as she loved to dream.
Parton continued: “She read everything she could get her little hands on, the Bible, The Farmer’s Almanac, The Funeral Home Directory, the directions and descriptions on the garden and flower seed packets, all medicine bottles, catalogues, any and all kinds of mail, school books…but mostly she loved fairy tales. So I grew up to be a fairy princess of a sort, more of a Cinderella story, the rags-to-riches kind.” [ellipsis in original]
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.’”
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.”
The Greatest Gambling Story Every Told (2020)
A girl with long red hair, perhaps eight years old, was sitting high atop her father’s shoulders, watching the horses load into the gate for the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. They were standing in the packed grandstand at the stretch near the starting gate; nearly a quarter mile separated them and the finish line. She was holding a sign that read, “Beat the Boys! Althea!”
The narrator continued: “She wanted to see a female horse win the prestigious race, something that a filly had accomplished only twice since 1875.”
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.”
Take My Hand (2022)
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.”
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (1970)
They were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks. They were professional baseball players, some of them the equals of the greatest major-leaguers, with one other common tie: they were all Negroes.
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.”
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.
The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000)
Many years ago I wrote a book about my life, which was, necessarily, in large part a book about my life in Hollywood. More recently I decided that I wanted to write a book about life. Just life itself. What I’ve learned by living more than seventy years of it.
Unprotected: A Memoir (2021)
This is not a coming-out-story. It’s not a down-low story either. I never could have passed for straight, even if I’d wanted to, and so I never had the dubious luxury of living a lie.
Porter, one of Broadway’s most gifted performers, continued in his memoir’s second paragraph: “By the time I was five, it was all too clear that something was wrong with me. Everyone knew it, and I knew it too. It was why grown-ups shook their heads and spoke in lowered tones whenever I was in the room. It was why I had to talk to a Nice White Man once a week, in his office in the big building up the street. The man and I played games, and he asked me a lot of questions. Sometimes I knew the answers and sometimes I was confused.”
As a young boy, Porter said, “I was drawn to all the wrong pastimes,” and he ticked off a host of examples: Double Dutch jump rope, Easy-Bake Ovens, taffeta and lace fabrics, the hats worn by church ladies, and his Aunt Sharon’s shoes, especially her “candy-apple red pumps,” which ultimately got him banished from her bedroom.
Reflecting back on those weekly office visits, Porter wrote: “I wasn’t confused about why I was there. The Nice White Man was a doctor. He was working to help fix me. I didn’t know the name of the mysterious affliction, but I did know that it had already manifested itself in many unacceptable ways.”
Porter’s memoir opened so impressively that I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
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.”
“The Roe Baby,” in The Atlantic (Sep. 9, 2021)
Nearly half a century ago, Roe v. Wade secured a woman’s legal right to obtain an abortion. The ruling has been contested with ever-increasing intensity, dividing and reshaping American politics. And yet for all its prominence, the person most profoundly connected to it has remained unknown: the child whose conception occasioned the lawsuit.
Like almost everybody, I assumed that Jane Roe—the pseudonymous plaintiff on the winning side of the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973—went on to have an abortion. The law works far too slowly for such a thing to happen, though, and the plaintiff (a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey) had given up the child for adoption two and one-half years before the case was settled.
Prager first learned about the existence of “The Roe Baby,” as she was called by Pro-Life activists, while doing research for his book The Family Roe: An American Story (also published in September, 2021). In the Atlantic article, Prager revealed for the first time the name—and the emotionally-riveting story—of the child at the heart of the case: fifty-one-year-old Shelley Lynn Thornton. Prager’s gripping article began with a remarkable opening paragraph that easily made my list of the 20 Best Opening Lines of 2021.
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.
“Tits-Up in a Ditch,” in The New Yorker (June 2, 2008)
Her mother had been knockout beautiful and no good, and Dakotah had heard this from the time she could recognize words.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “People said that Shaina Lister, with aquamarine eyes and curls the shining maroon of water-birch bark, had won all the kiddie beauty contests and then had become the high-school slut, knocked up when she was fifteen and cutting out the day after Dakotah was born, slinking and wincing, still in her hospital johnny, down the back stairs of Mercy Maternity to the street, where one of her greasy pals picked her up and headed west for Los Angeles.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, we might have seen an opening paragraph that went something like this: “The day after she was born, Dakotah Lister was abandoned, left all alone in the hospital as her fifteen-year-old mother drove away with her boyfriend.” But Proulx, as her many fans will tell you, is no average writer. And, in case you’re wondering, the intriguing title of the short story is a colloquial expression commonly used by farmers in the Great Plains and American west to refer to a dead cow found in a field or ditch.
Butts: A Backstory (2022)
The first butt I remember isn’t my own. It’s my mother’s.
To be honest, I’m not sure which I liked best, the opening words, the book’s title, or the engaging cover. All three captivated me from the very beginning, and Butts went on to become my favorite non-fiction book of the year. I was also pleased to include the whimsical opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In a Washington Post review, Karen Heller might have been speaking for me when she wrote: “What appears initially as a folly with a look-at-this cover and title becomes, thanks to Radke’s intelligence and curiosity, something much meatier, entertaining, and wise.”
I became immediately engaged after reading the opening words, thinking to myself: “Nobody remembers their own butt, because they can’t see it; you can only remember what you see.” Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, when Radke went on to write a bit later: “In some ways, the butt belongs to the viewer more than the viewed. It can be observed secretly, ogled in private, creepily scrutinized.”
Playing with Myself (2022)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….
Fine, I didn’t write that. But it’s how I really wanted the opening chapter of this book to begin. No phrase could more perfectly epitomize the last six years of my life, full of unimaginable highs and lows, for me personally and on the world stage.
Rainbow does here what many memoirists have done over the years: if you can’t come up with a great opening line of your own, borrow one of history’s most famous—and describe how perfectly it applies to you.
In the second paragraph, Rainbow continued: “Unfortunately, my buzzkill editor has advised against direct plagiarism. Apparently Mr. Dickens would be none too thrilled.”
“Through Your Most Grievous Fault” in The Los Angeles Times (August 19, 1962); reprinted in Rand’s The Voice of Reason (1990)
The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”
Rand was writing two weeks after Monroe’s death. She continued in the next paragraph: “They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher—and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved. They were right to feel it.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 vist 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 (ellipsis in original):
“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.”
I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson (1995; with Alfred Duckett)
My grandfather was born into slavery, and although my mother and father, Mallie and Jerry Robinson, lived during an era when physical slavery had been abolished, they also lived in a newer, more sophisticated kind of slavery than the kind Mr. Lincoln struck down.
On Violence and On Violence Against Women (2021)
It is a truism to say that everyone knows violence when they see it, but if one thing has become clear over the past decade it is that the most prevalent, insidious forms of violence are those that cannot be seen.
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.
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.”
Sapphire (pen name of Ramona Lofton)
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.
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.“
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Coming (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.
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.”
The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem (2015)
In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.
A simple tweak can transform an unspectacular opener into an unforgettable one, and that’s exactly what happened when Schiff had the acumen to add “and two dogs” to her book’s first sentence.
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.“
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? (It turns out she is the latter).
The opening words 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.”
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.
“Letter to the Editor,” in the Los Angeles Times (April 8, 1968)
There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life.
When most people think about the subject of great opening lines, one of the last things to come to mind would probably be “Letters to the Editor.” However, as Serling so ably demonstrates here, even in this highly specialized sub-genre of writing, superlative openings are possible. He maintained the ironic tone by continuing in his opening paragraph: “In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.”
Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1976)
Without warning, in the middle of my thirties, I had a breakdown of nerve.
Sheehy’s opening line refers to an event that is known in the history of Northern Ireland as “Bloody Sunday.” As a reporter for New York magazine, she was covering a civil rights march by Catholic citizens of Derry when a rifle shot from a British soldier struck a young Irish boy directly in the face. As he fell, no longer recognizable, he fell on top of Sheehy. Over the next harrowing minutes, as other Derry citizens were felled around her, she crawled to safety as bullets reigned all around.
In her opening paragraph, Sheehy continued: “It never occurred to me that while winging along in my happiest and most productive stage, all of a sudden simply staying afloat would require a massive exertion of will. Or of some power greater than will.”
Passages went on to become one of the most popular books of the era, on The New York Times Best-Seller list for three years and selling more than ten million copies. Sheehy’s groundbreaking exploration of the “predictable passages of life” had such an impact on contemporary thinking that The Library of Congress hailed it as one of the ten most influential books of modern times.
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.”
Somebody to Love? A Rock-and-Roll Memoir (1998)
It’s Chicago, 1973. Jefferson Airplane is tuning up and I’m standing onstage getting ready to sing. Some guy in the audience stands up and shouts, “Hey, Gracie—take off your chastity belt.”
Slick, one of the most audacious stage performers in Rock-and-Roll history, continued in her memoir’s second paragraph: “I look directly at him and say, ‘Hey—I don’t even wear underpants.’ I pull my skirt up over my head for a beaver shot, and the audience explodes with laughter. I can hear the guys in the band behind me muttering, ‘Oh, Jesus.’”
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 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.”
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.
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.
“#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the net called Isolated Event.
Over the years, analogies have often opened books and essays, but rarely as effectively as this one. Solnit continued: “To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted ‘mental illness’ again and again. That ‘ball,’ of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.”
“Postscript,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while.
So begins a brief article explaining the origins of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a 2008 essay originally published in TomDispatch.com. The original essay immediately struck a nerve in female readers, and when on to become enormously popular. Even though Solnit did not coin the term “mansplaining,” her essay inspired the term.
In her opening paragraph, Solnit continued: “My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Nicholas L. Syrett
An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton (2021)
On March 4, 1960, Robert Allerton became a father. He was 86-years-old at the time and his newly adopted son, John Gregg, was 60. The pair had already been living together and calling themselves father and son for almost four decades.
In a Chicago Tribune book review (June 18, 2021), Darcel Rockett wrote: “The first lines of Nicholas Syrett’s third book…had me hooked.” In the book, Syrett chronicled a fascinating story in gay and lesbian history—how a man who was once described as the “richest bachelor in Chicago” adopted his longtime lover, a man 26 years his junior (it was the first such adoption in Illinois history). The two men had been closeted lovers for nearly forty years, and the adoption—occurring during a time of rampant homophobia—gave Allerton a socially acceptable way to leave his fortune to his lover after his death. With a legal “son” as heir, the chances of any challenges to the will were greatly reduced.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 walk from her place in the far West Twenties. Long and good. The city was still fresh that early. Even the exhaust fans of the coffee shops along the way were blowing fresh smells, bacon, egg, and toasted bagel smells, into the fact of the gray spring morning. He had been digging it all the way. Digging it, walking fast, and thinking mostly about the girl.”
In 1971, Gordon Parks directed a film adaptation of the novel, with Richard Roundtree making a spectacular debut as Shaft. People of my generation can still vividly recall the opening scene, with Roundtree climbing up the stairs of a subway station and jauntily striding down the street, all perfectly synchronized to the “Theme from Shaft,” an Isaac Hayes instrumental song that went on to win both an Oscar and a Grammy award. The film and the film’s soundtrack are now regarded as American classics.
Self-Portrait (1979; with Mickey Herskowitz)
It is a terrible thing to feel no fear, no alarm, when you are standing on a window ledge fourteen stories above the street. I felt tired, lost, and numb—but unafraid.
Tierney, one of the most beautiful Leading Ladies in Hollywood history, opens her memoir with a compelling description of perhaps the worst day of her life—standing on a window ledge and feeling no fear as she considers leaping to her death fourteen floors below. In the following paragraph, she continued:
“I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to take my own life. I cat-walked a few steps away from the open window and steadied myself, to think about it. The fact that I could no longer make decisions was why I had gone to the ledge in the first place. What to wear, when to get out of bed, which can of soup to buy, how to go on living, the most automatic task confused and depressed me.”
Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.
This is one of the darkest and most disturbing opening lines ever written, and it doesn’t ease up in any way as the narrator continued:
“Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.”
Toomer is not especially well remembered by modern readers, but he was one of the leading figures in that great explosion of creativity known as the Harlem Renaissance. Not long after Toomer’s debut novel was published, the American sociologist Charles S. Johnson described it as “the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation.” Cane was Toomer’s first novel—and his last. For the remainder of his life, until his death at age 72 in 1967, he continued to write poetry, short stories, and essays, but no more novels.
Linda Tressel (1868)
The troubles and sorrows of Linda Tressel, who is the heroine of the little story now about to be told, arose from the too rigid virtue of her nearest and most loving friend—as troubles will sometimes come from rigid virtue when rigid virtue is not accompanied by sound sense, and especially when it knows little or nothing of the softness of mercy.
The idea of virtue without common sense and mercy makes for an intriguing opening—and in this case it immediately makes us wonder what specific virtue has been responsible for all the trouble.
Nina Balatka (1867)
Nina Balatka was a maiden of Prague, born of Christian parents, and herself a Christian — but she loved a Jew; and this is her story.
In a 2016 Electric Literature essay on the “secret history” of first sentences, Andrew Heisel reported that the opening line of Nina Balatka was hailed by critics as soon as the book was published. One reviewer from the Aberdeen Journal said no reader could read the sentence “without being captivated with the beauty of its style and led unresistingly on to read the whole of it.”
Heisel, the editor of the Yale Review at the time, also wrote enthusiastically about the line: “The sentence doesn’t just plunk you into the middle of something; it presents a problem, a paradox, a mystery. The reader…has no choice but to follow the narrator and answer the question of just how Nina found herself in this curious situation.”
The Eustace Diamonds (1873)
It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies—who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two—that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.
This is a most interesting way of introducing the novel’s protagonist and describing her success in life. In a 2016 post on NovelSpaces.com, mystery author Susan Oleksiw featured this first sentence and said about it: “We surmise that Lizzie has risen above her station, and not everyone approves of her or how she’s achieved this.”
As the first paragraph of the novel continues, it becomes clear that the narrator is in the disapproval camp: “We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length as we might do if we loved her.”
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
This is the year 1492. I am eighty-two years of age. The things I am going to tell you about are things which I saw myself as a child and as a youth.
When the first installment of the novel was published in Harper’s Magazine in April of 1895, Twain feared that his reputation as a humorous writer might negatively influence readers, so he presented the work as a translation (by a Frenchman named Jean Francois Alden) of the memoirs of Louis de Conte, a fictionalized version of Joan of Arc’s real page, Louis de Contes.
Twain’s authorship became quickly known, however, and he was formally identified as the author when Harper and Brothers published the book in 1896. In the novel, the narrator continued:
“In all the songs and histories of Joan of Arc which you and the rest of the world read and sing and study in the books wrought in the late invented art of printing, mention is made of me, the Sieur Louis de Conte. I was her page and secretary. I was with her from the beginning until the end.”
The Clock Winder (1972)
The house had outlived its usefulness. It sat hooded and silent, a brown shingleboard monstrosity close to the road but backed by woods, far enough from downtown Baltimore to escape the ashy smell of the factories. The uppermost windows were shuttered: the wrap-around veranda, with its shiny gray floorboards and sky-blue ceiling, remained empty even when neighbors’ porches filled up with children and dogs and drop-in visitors. Yet clearly someone still lived there. A loaded bird-feeder hung in the dogwood tree. And in the side yard, Richard the handyman stood peeing against a rosebush with his profile to the house and his long black face dreamy and distant.
My first thought after reading this opening paragraph was, “How nice to immediately sense that one is in the hands of a talented writer.” That satisfying feeling was reinforced as I continued reading:
“Now out popped Mrs. Emerson, skin and bones in a shimmery gray dress that matched the floorboards. Her face was carefully made up, although it was not yet ten in the morning. Whatever she planned to say was already stirring her pink, pursed lips. She crossed the veranda rapidly on clicking heels. She descended the steps gingerly, sideways, holding tight to the railing. ‘Richard?’ she said. ‘What is that I see you doing?’”
In a Washington Post review, Jonathan Yardley pointed out a few of the novel’s shortcomings, but acknowledged that Tyler had written “page after page of utterly convincing dialogue, quiet humor, and keen observation.” That description certainly applies to the opening paragraphs.
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
John Updike, a great admirer of Tyler’s work, once said that she wasn’t merely good, but “wickedly good,” and that’s the way I’d describe this first sentence. In her impressive opener, Tyler neatly pairs history’s most famous opening words—once upon a time—with modern notions of identity and authenticity. It’s clear from the outset that this will be no simple fairy tale.
In a 2019 Considerable.com article, Ruthie Darling included Tyler’s opener in her article of “150 of the Most Compelling Opening Lines in Literature.” “Whatever you’re reading,” Darling wrote, “Sometimes you need to be grabbed right out of the gate, and drawn into the world of the novel.”
Earthly Possessions (1977)
The marriage wasn’t going well and I decided to leave my husband. I went to the bank to get cash for the trip.
These simple-but-powerful opening words come from thirty-five-year old Charlotte Emory, a Maryland wife and mother who is stuck in an unsatisfying marriage to her husband, a local preacher. She continued: “This was on a Wednesday, a rainy afternoon in March. The streets were nearly empty and the bank had just a few customers, none of them familiar to me.”
Based on these opening words, we’re already “into” the tale, but what we don’t know at the moment is that the story is about to abruptly change direction. While waiting in line to make a withdrawal, a recent prison escapee puts his arm around her neck and hollers out, “Anybody move and I’ll kill her.“ As the bank robbery ends, Charlotte is dragged out of the bank by the ex-con and the highly unusual hostage drama unfolds.
In 1999, the film was adapted into an HBO movie starring Susan Sarandon, Stephen Dorff, and Elisabeth Moss.
Beautiful Lies (Book 1 of the Ridley Jones series] (2006)
It’s dark in that awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them. My breathing comes ragged from exertion and fear. The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me.
This is an exceptional in media res opening (Latin for “into the middle of things”) that thrusts readers immediately into the action. It is also the first appearance of narrator and protagonist Ridley Jones, who continued in the opening paragraph: “The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me. I lean into him and hear that he’s still breathing but it’s shallow and hard won. He’s hurt, I know. But I can’t see how badly. I whisper his name in his ear but he doesn’t respond. I feel his body but there’s no blood that I can tell. The sound of his body hitting the floor minutes before was the worst thing I ever heard.”
After writing four previous novels under her birth name (Lisa Miscione), Beautiful Lies was the first published under the pen name of Lisa Unger. An immediate bestseller, writer Lisa Gardner wrote about it: “Lisa Unger’s taut prose grabs the reader from word one and never lets go.”
Confessions on the 7:45 (2020)
Selena loved the liminal spaces. Those precious slivers of time between the roles she played in her life.
Some opening lines succeed because they introduce a new or unfamiliar concept—like liminal spaces—and then fully exploit it to launch a story. The narrator continued about Selena Murphy, a Manhattan literary agent: “She missed the 5:40 train because her client meeting ran long, knowing before she even left the conference room table that there was no way she would be home in time for dinner with her husband Graham and their two maniac boys, Stephen and Oliver.”
With the next train scheduled to leave at 7:45, Selena returned to her office, opened her computer, and began to examine the video feed of a nanny cam she had recently installed in her children’s playroom. Normally, as the novel’s opening line suggests, Selena loved the liminal spaces in her life, but not this one.
Last Girl Ghosted (2021)
Modern dating. Let’s be honest. It sucks.
The opening words of the first chapter come from narrator and protagonist Wren Greenwood, a Manhattan advice columnist who is in a crowded East Village bar waiting to meet a man she has recently communicated with on a dating app. In the novel’s second paragraph, she reflects: “Is there anything more awkward, more nervous-making than waiting for a person you’ve only seen online to show up in the flesh.”
As soon as she sees hunky Adam Harper walk in the front door, she experiences an unexpected sensation (“Something that has been dormant within me awakens,” she writes). And then, after quickly falling for a man she hardly knows, she is ghosted, and so begins what New York Times reviewer Sarah Lyall described as “A five-alarm fire of a situation.”
“Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” in The Censors (1992)
It’s true, he put his hand on my ass and I was about to scream bloody murder when the bus passed by a church and he crossed himself.
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 in particular, he wrote:
“We see a scene in which a man has taken an obviously crude, if not criminal, action; and then, immediately, we see he has another side to him that we didn’t expect. We know we’re in the company of a couple of pretty unusual, interesting, and complex characters, and that something we haven’t seen before is about to happen. Actually, it’s in the middle of happening. An arresting image like Valenzuela has provided here is guaranteed to spark reader interest.”
Necessary Losses (1986)
We begin life with a loss. We are cast from the womb without an apartment, a charge plate, a job or a car.
Truman Held drove slowly into the small town of Chicokema as the two black men who worked at the station where he stopped for gas were breaking for lunch. They looked at him as he got out of the car and lifted their Coca-Colas in a slight salute.
The Color Purple (1982)
I am fourteen years old.
I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
The letter writer is fourteen-year-old Celie, a poor, uneducated black girl who is living a miserable existence in rural Georgia in the early 1900s. Beaten and sexually abused by her father, she has already given birth to two children, both of whom have been taken away by her father. As the novel opens, her deep sense of hopelessness is assuaged slightly by letters she writes to God. A key to the letter’s significance in her life and her attempt to speak the complete truth is reflected in her striking out I am and changing it to I have always been a good girl.
Hailed by critics from the outset, The Color Purple went on to win the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1985, Steven Spielberg adapted the novel into a critically acclaimed film, with Whoopi Goldberg playing the role of Celie (and also starring Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery). The film received eleven Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg, and Best Supporting Actress for both Winfrey and Avery, but ended up winning none (Goldberg did, however, win the Golden Globe Best Actress Award).
Many internet sites suggest that the opening line of the novel is, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” Technically, however, that is the epigraph to the opening chapter, and the novel truly opens with Celie’s letter. Indeed, Walker herself considered the letter to be the book’s opening lines, once writing: “I would have thought that a book that begins ’Dear God’ would immediately have been identified as a book about the desire to encounter, to hear from, the Ultimate Ancestor.”
Now is the Time To Open Your Heart (2004)
Kate Talkingtree sat meditating in a large hall that was surrounded by redwood trees. Although the deep shade of the trees usually kept the room quite cool, today was unseasonably warm and Kate, with everybody else, was beginning to perspire.
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
In the old country in South America, Carlotta’s grandmother, Zedé, had been a seamstress, but really more of a sewing magician.
Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
I did not realize for a long time that I was dead.
These dramatic opening words come from Tashi “Evelyn” Johnson, an African immigrant to America who is haunted by the memories of her past, especially the practice of female circumcision (or, as it is more accurately described, female genital mutilation).
In a New York Times book review, Mel Watkins wrote: “From her opening remark...through the childhood experience of watching her sister bleed to death during an initiation, her own ritual ordeal, and the inevitable confrontation with M’Lissa, the tribal circumciser, Tashi provides the novel’s most poetic and powerful moments. Her crucible is vindicated when she finally discovers that resistance is the secret of joy.”
The Glass Castle (2005)
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
This is an extraordinary opening line, all the more impressive because it is coming from a work of non-fiction. Walls, a successful journalist and gossip columnist, continued: “It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.”
The book went on to win the 2006 American Library Association’s Alex Award, an honor for books written for adults but which have special appeal to young adults.
The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.
I loved this opening line from the moment I first read it, but the truth is I had trouble articulating exactly why it was so special. And then I read Jamie Fisher’s review of the book in The Washington Post. It begins: “Weike Wang’s Chemistry is the most assured novel about indecisiveness you’ll ever read.” This was Wang’s first novel, and it went on to win the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.
Salvage the Bones (2011)
China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws.
The words come from a young black girl named Esch, who is living in southern Mississippi with her father and three brothers as Hurricane Katrina approaches. As Esch continues, there is a slight hint that the dog may sense something the humans do not: “I would think that she was crazy. Which she is, in a way. Won’t let nobody touch her but Skeet.” The novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction.
Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery (1901)
I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I began reading this classic American autobiography, but one of the last would’ve been a wry display of humor. By beginning with a touch of levity, Washington sent a clear message to readers that, despite the many sordid details of his early life, he was going to do everything he could to make his autobiography an enjoyable read.
During his lifetime, Washington never knew anything about the circumstances of his birth. He did not know the day, month, or year of his birth; and nor did he know that has mother had been impregnated by a white man from a neighboring plantation. After his death in 1915, evidence emerged that he was born on April 5, 1856.
You might also find it interesting that, in composing his opening words, Washington was almost certainly inspired by the opening of another famous autobiography by a black man: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).
Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (2010)
In the fall of 1963, America was suffused with an unbearable whiteness of being.
It’s rare for a serious work of history to begin with a dash of wordplay, but Watson’s opening sentence does exactly that—cleverly playing off the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If I read the meaning of the opening line correctly, I believe Watson was making a subtle, but extremely important point: when a racially diverse society gives overwhelming power and authority to only its white members, the result can be summarized in a single word: unbearable.
In his opening paragraph, Watson went on to describe America in the fall of 1963: its unprecedented prosperity, its handsome young president, its Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, its massive cars with flamboyant fins and taillights, and the fact that ninety-nine percent of homes had TVs, almost all of them black and white. About the offerings of the seven channels then available for viewing, Watson wrote: “Not a single program showed a dark face in any but the most subservient role.” He then ended the opening paragraph this way: “In the halls of Congress and in city halls across the nation, all but a few politicians were as white as the ballots that elected them. Yet, from this ivory tower, the future could be spotted.”
In a recent personal communication, Watson wrote to me: “My editor didn’t like the opening line, thinking people wouldn’t get the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ reference, but I stuck to it.” And I’m glad he did.
Trust No One (2020)
“Just tell me where she is, and we can take this down a notch.” Kerri took a breath, let it out slowly. “I’ll lower my weapon. You have my word. All I want is your cooperation.”
The narrator continued about Detective Kerri Devlin: “Her palms were sweating. Arms shaking from maintaining the firing stance for so long. She didn’t trust this bastard, but she damned sure hadn’t followed him here to do this. Now she had a situation.”
Auto da Fay: A Memoir (2002)
I long for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear. We take to fiction, I suppose, because no such thing is going to happen….
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)
Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.
Words of Advice (1977)
We all have friends who are richer than ourselves, and they, you may be sure, have richer friends of their own. We are most of us within spitting distance of millionaires.
Spit away—if that’s what you feel like.
Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996)
Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what the Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi.
The novel opens with Siddalee “Sidda” Walker, a 40-year-old Manhattan theater director seeing her mother, Vivi Walker, described in a horrific way by a prominent critic. The narrator continued: “The pages of the week-old Leisure Arts section lay scattered on the floor next to Sidda as she curled up in the bed, covers pulled tightly around her, portable phone on the pillow next to her head.“
Ya-Yas in Bloom (2005)
My name is Viviane Abbot Walker. Age sixty-eight, but I can pass for forty-nine. And I do.
Walker continued: “I altered my driver’s license and kept that gorgeous picture of me when my hair was still thick and I looked like Jessica Lange, and glued it into every new license I’ve had since 1975. And not one officer has said a word to me about it.“
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
He came up with the names.
The opening line describes an unnamed African-American “nomenclature consultant” who has been experiencing great success in the naming and branding of consumer products (his most recent triumph was creating “Apex hides the hurt” for a bandage company whose product came in multiple colors to match an array of skin tones).
About the protagonist, the narrator continued: “They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they’d break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?”
Apex Hides the Hurt was a critical as well as a commercial success, with The New York Times hailing it as one of “The 100 Most Notable Books of the Year.”
The Intuitionist (1999)
It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.
In this sparkling work of speculative fiction—Whitehead’s debut novel—the opening reflection come from Lila Mae Watson, a black female elevator inspector who belongs to the “Intuitionist” school of elevator inspection. In contrast to the competing “empiricist” school, which relies on scientific instruments to determine the condition of elevators, Lila Mae assesses the condition and overall safety of an elevator by using her intuitive abilities to tune into its psychic vibrations. It’s an audacious premise, but Whitehead managed to pull it off, leading Esquire, USA Today, GQ, and more publications to honor it as the Best First Novel of the Year. In a Time magazine review, Walter Kirn hailed The Intuitionist as “the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.“
In the novel, the narrator continues by immediately hinting at a spectacular elevator failure, writing about Lila Mae: “She doesn’t know what to do with her eyes. The front door of the building is too scarred and gouged to look at, and the street behind her is improbably empty, as if the city had been evacuated and she’s the only one who didn’t hear about it.”
The Underground Railroad (2016)
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
We know from the first sentence that Cora will eventually say yes, and that this will be a tale about a man and woman fleeing slavery. As we continue reading, however, we have no clue at this point that this is an “alternate history” tale—or, more significantly, that the legendary underground railroad isn’t a metaphor, but a literal underground railroad
One of the most acclaimed books of the year, The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature. In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel at Number 30 on its list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.”
In a New York Times review, book critic Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “potent, almost hallucinatory,” adding that “It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.”
Jazz (1926, with M. M. McBride)
Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains.
If I were to put together a list of “The 20 Best Metaphorical Opening Lines in Literary History,” this one would most certainly be included, and it would be very close to the top spot. When I first came upon the line many decades ago, I was stunned by its brilliance.
In “The Roaring Twenties” and early 1930s, Whiteman was the leader of one of America’s most popular bands. About him, Duke Ellington wrote: “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”
Even though Whiteman was of Anglo-Saxon heritage, he was fully aware of the new musical genre’s African origins. He continued in the book’s first paragraph:
“The psalm-singing Dutch traders, sailing in a man-of-war across the ocean in 1619, described their cargo as ‘fourteen black African slaves for sale in his Majesty’s colonies.’ But priceless freight destined three centuries later to set a whole nation dancing went unnoted and unbilled by the stolid, revenue-hungry Dutchmen.”
Caroline Randall Williams
“You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” an Op-Ed article in The New York Times (June 26, 2020)
I have rape-colored skin.
Over the years, it’s been common to describe some opening lines as “arresting,” and this one clearly deserves that designation. It was my choice for The Best Opening Line of 2020, heading my Smerconish.com post on the twenty best openers of the year.
In her piece, Williams continued: “My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
A poet, author, and Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, Williams was directly addressing those who were calling for the preservation of Confederate statues in public places. Few people in America were more qualified to write on the subject. Williams’s great-grandfather was Arna Bontemps, one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance; her grandmother was Avon Williams, an influential civil-rights lawyer in the 1960s; and her mother is Alice Randall, a popular songwriter and author of The Wind Done Gone (2001), a brilliant parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
That is only part of the story, though. Williams’s great-great-grandfather was Edmund Pettus—yes, the man the Selma, Alabama bridge was named after—a Confederate Army officer, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, and, in his later years, a U.S. Senator from Alabama. About her family legacy, Williams wrote: “The black people I came from were owned and raped by the white people I came from.”
Seven Days in June (2021)
In the year of our Lord 2019, thirty-two-year-old Eva Mercy nearly choked to death on a piece of gum. She’d been attempting to masturbate when the gum lodged in her throat, cutting off her air supply.
I knew nothing about this book—or the author—when I first picked it up, but after these two sentences, I immediately thought to myself, “I believe I’ve just read the best opening lines of the year.” Even though I was eager to continue reading, I decided to read the opening words to myself a few more times, just to savor their delicacy.
After a spectacular hook like this one, many first paragraphs loose a bit of steam, and even loose some readers in the process. Not so here. Things only got better as I continued reading: “As she slowly blacked out, she kept imagining her daughter, Audre, finding her flailing about in Christmas jammies while clutching a tube of strawberry lube and a dildo called the Quarterback (which vibrated at a much higher frequency than advertised—gum-choking frequency). The obituary headline would be ‘Death by Dildo.’ Hell of a legacy to leave her orphaned twelve-year-old.”
Williams’s entire opening paragraph was so sensational that I included it in a list of “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021” (an end-of-year post on Smerconish.com)
The Watergate Girl (2020)
I didn’t think I was nervous, but I could hardly breathe.
This candid opening sentence captures an important truth about the human experience—sometimes we don’t really know how we feel until we’re thrust into the middle of a high-stakes situation. In this case, the event in question was the moment Wine-Banks approached the bench to interrogate the personal secretary of the President of the United States. It was 1973, and the 30-year-old lawyer was the only female on the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s team of attorneys. The first sentence of her memoir was one of my selections for The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020.
A stylish and attractive figure, Wine-Banks quickly became an object of media sensationalism, dubbed “The Watergate Girl” and “The Mini-Skirted Lawyer” by the press. About the moment described in her memoir’s opening line, Wine-Banks continued: “President Richard Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods was on the stand in US District Court demonstrating how she accidentally erased eighteen and a half minutes from a key White House tape in the Watergate case—wiping out a conversation between the embattled president and one of his top aides held just three days after the suspicious break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011)
When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
Winterson begins her memoir by recalling one of the most disturbing things a mother can say to a child. As Winterson continues, though, it is clear that she has worked through the pain, and even achieved a perspective that allowed her to find some wry humor in it all:
“The image of Satan taking time off from The Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960—purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson—has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth—matt for everyday, and a pearlized set for ‘best’.”
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle: it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
The opening paragraph of this heavily autobiographical novel comes from an adolescent girl who also happens to be named Jeannette. Adopted as a child by evangelical parents, she begins with a piercing glimpse into the nature of the woman who became her mother. She continued:
“She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.
“She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.”
Winterson’s debut novel, it went on to win the 1985 Whitbread Prize for Best First Fiction
My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.
This is an inspired first sentence, with the author finding a way to trace the narrator’s nickname to its precious metal roots as well as to Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic fictional character, Long John Silver. In the second paragraph, Silver continued with a nifty metaphorical flourish:
“I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that—even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harbored with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass. His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.”
The Beauty Myth (1990)
At last, after a long silence, women took to the streets.
After an opening that nods in the direction of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Wolf continued: “In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?”
In the second paragraph, Wolf provided a partial answer to the question (they “do not feel as free as they want to”) and hinted at the thesis of her book (it “has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty”).
Vagina: A New Biography (2012)
Why write a book about the vagina?
This is an opening question readers that would’ve never seen a few generations ago, but we are now clearly living in a new era. Wolf gives a direct answer in the second paragraph: “I have always been interested in female sexuality, and in the history of female sexuality. The way in which any given culture treats the vagina—whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly—is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.”
Show Way (2005)
When Soonie’s great-grandma was seven, she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation in South Carolina without her ma or pa but with some muslin her ma had given her.
Few children’s books have approached the topic of slavery, and none in a more touching, meaningful, or sophisticated way. Based on the true experiences of Woodson’s ancestors, Soonie’s great-grandma is raised by a slave woman named Big Mama, who teaches her how to read, tells her stories about slaves “growing up and getting themselves free,” and teaches her how to sew quilts. These are not ordinary quilts, however, but rather secret maps—called show ways—that can be used by escaped slaves seeking freedom.
The Day You Begin (2018)
There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.
On its own, this is a wonderful message to send to children, and it becomes even more special as the opening line for a children’s book. In Woodson’s case, it was also a way to preserve one of her most treasured childhood memories.
Growing up, Woodson loved hearing stories about her ancestors, traced by her family back to Thomas Woodson, believed to be the first son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jacqueline Woodson’s great-great-grandfather, William Woodson, was born in 1832 to the wife of a free black man from Ohio, and went on to fight and die while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. After his death, his only son—Woodson’s great-grandfather—was sent to Nelsonville, Ohio to live with an aunt, who enrolled him in a local all-white school. From her earliest days, Woodson had heard her mother describe his experiences as the only black child in the school, and the story so affected her that she ultimately transformed it into a poem, “It’ll be Scary Sometimes.” A portion of the poem goes this way (italics in original):
You’ll face this in your life someday, My mother will tell us Over and over again. A moment when you walk into a room and No one there is like you.
While writing the poem, which was first published in the 1992 book Maizon at Blue Hill, Woodson believed the story about her grandfather would one day figure in another one of her future works. It couldn’t have found a better place to be reprised than in the opening line of The Day You Begin.
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
A memorable opening line often has a deeper meaning that eludes the casual or superficial reader. By simply describing protagonist Clarissa Dalloway as Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf defines her by her marital status and makes an intriguing suggestion about the impact of marriage on a woman’s identity.
In How to Interpret Literature (2008), Robert Dale Parker offers these additional thoughts on the line: “That sentence raises a variety of expectations from readers. We expect that, as we read on, we will find more about who Mrs. Dalloway is, whom she says this to, why she might or—perhaps still more—might not have bought them herself, and why she or someone else wants flowers in the first place. Something is up, we expect, and we expect to find out what.“
“The Man Who Lived Underground,” in The Man Who Was Almost a Man (1940)
I’ve got to hide, he told himself. His chest heaved as he waited, crouching in a dark corner of the vestibule.
With these words, the reader is thrust immediately into a scene in which the unnamed protagonist senses a great deal of danger. The opening paragraph continues: “He was tired of running and dodging. Either he had to find a place to hide, or he had to surrender. A police car swished by through the rain. Its siren rising sharply. They’re looking for me all over.”
“Big Boy Leaves Home,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)
Yo mama can wear no drawers.
Clearly, the voice rose out of the woods, and died away. Like an echo another voice caught it up.
Ah seena when she pulled em off.
So begins the first of the four novellas that comprised the book, and they feature a voice that the overwhelming majority of American readers—think white people—had never before heard.
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)
One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside.
Wright continued: “All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey.”
Native Son (1940)
An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman’s voice sang out impatiently:
“Bigger, shut that thing off!”
A surly grunt sounded above the tinny ring of metal. Naked feet swished dryly across the planks in the wooden floor and the clang ceased abruptly.
In these four brief paragraphs, the literary world was introduced to Bigger Thomas, a 19-year-old black man living in a ghetto neighborhood of Chicago in the 1930s (many believe the protagonist’s first name was Wright’s deliberate play off the infamous N-word). About the protagonist, Vincent Canby wrote in a 1986 New York Times article that Bigger Thomas “is not easy to take either as a character or as a man, but he’s a figure of mythic proportions. He’s a mountain in the flat literary landscape that surrounds him.”
Canby went on to write: “At the time of the novel’s publication, Wright understood that he was taking a terrible chance with Bigger Thomas, a character that would confirm the worst nightmares of white racists—who saw every black man as a rapist—and outrage all upwardly striving, middle-class blacks, who were doing their best to prove their worth. Wright’s intention, he said at the time, was a novel that ‘would be so hard and deep’ that it would have to be faced ‘without the consolation of tears.’“
The Coyotes of Carthage (2020)
Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet.
In his debut novel, Wright, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, gets off to an intriguing in media res beginning. From the outset, there is a clear suggestion that the narrator, a black political operative named Andre Ross, has more than just a passing familiarity with the art of pickpocketing.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning—two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills.”
The Coyotes of Carthage was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The novel was described as “riveting” by the Washington Post, and John Grisham welcomed Wright as “a major new voice in the world of political thrillers.”
“The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)
My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small.
These are the understated—yet highly dramatic—first words of “An Autobiographical Sketch” that appeared at the beginning of Wright’s debut book, a collection of four short novellas. From our modern-day perspective, the “Jim Crow education” story he went on to tell is powerful and sickening—and definitely worth your while to read if you get the chance (I’d recommend using the Internet Archive, my favorite resource for out-of-print books). The title of the book was inspired by Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1852 classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The publication of Wright’s first book represented the emergence of an important new voice in African-American literature. About it, the critic Alain Locke wrote: “With this, our Negro fiction of social interpretation comes of age.”
Famous in Cedarville (2019)
Samson got the call because he skipped church most Sundays, not because he had any experience with removing a body.
It’s Sunday morning, and a guy gets a call to help remove—not move, remove—a body. I’m already curious. In the opening paragraph, the narrator adds further tantalizing hints about the situation and the man who’s being asked to perform the grisly duty:
“Still, when the Meeker brothers asked for a favor, you found your coat. He let his own pickup warm for ten minutes before putting it into gear, so he was the last to arrive on the hill. The other men watched him approach, their expressions hard to read. The town had gotten used to him over the years, but he was nobody’s first choice.”
We will soon learn that Samson Delaware is a local antiques restorer who, after two local women are murdered, becomes an unlikely crime sleuth. A 2019 New York Times review by Marilyn Stasio described the novel as “a clever little whodunit.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964; with Alex Haley)
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it.
These are the dramatic opening words of a creative collaboration in which the noted journalist Alex Haley conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Malcolm and then later put them into an autobiographical narrative. The book was published posthumously, eight months after the 39-year-old civil rights leader was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers on February 21, 1965. Now regarded as an American classic, the book’s significance was recognized by many from the outset. In a New York Times review, Eliot Fremont-Smith described it as a “brilliant, painful, important book,“ adding, “as a document for our time, its insights may be crucial; its relevance cannot be doubted.“
In the book’s opening paragraph, Malcolm continued: “Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ’spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
White Ivy: A Novel (2020)
Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected—and that made her reckless.
In a 2020 CrimeReads.com post, Molly Odintz described White Ivy as a “peculiar, haunting, and vicious thriller that owes much to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair.”
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Her features were so average and nondescript that the brain only needed a split second to develop a complete understanding of her: skinny Asian girl, quiet, overly docile around adults in uniforms. She had a way of walking, shoulders forward, chin tucked under, arms barely swinging, that rendered her invisible in the way of pigeons and janitors.”
Bread Givers (1925)
I had just begun to peel the potatoes for dinner when my oldest sister Bessie came in, her eyes far away and tired. She dropped on the bench by the sink and turned her head to the wall.
The narrator is 10-year-old Sara Smolinsky, who, along with the other members of her Jewish immigrant family, is hanging on by a thread on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1920s. Sara continues: “One look at her, and I knew she had not yet found work. I went on peeling the potatoes, but I no more knew what my hands were doing. I felt only the dark hurt of her weary eyes.”
Nightbitch: A Novel (2021)
When she had referred to herself as Nightbitch, she meant it as a good-natured self-deprecating joke—because that’s the sort of lady she was, a good sport, able to poke fun at herself, definitely not uptight, not wound really tight, not so freakishly tight that she couldn’t see the humor in a light-hearted not-meant-as-an-insult situation—but in the days following this new naming, she found the patch of coarse black hair sprouting from the base of her neck and was, like, What the fuck.
The narrator—an unnamed 37-year-old artist who has become a frustrated stay-at-home mother of a toddler—continued in the second paragraph: “I think I’m turning into a dog, she said to her husband when he arrived home after a week away for work. He laughed and she didn’t.”
After two paragraphs, we sense we’re in for a wild ride—and after a few more, we’ve not only suspended our disbelief, we’re thinking, “If Kafka were alive today, he’d be tweeting enthusiastically about Yoder’s debut novel.“ I was pleased to include the spectacular first paragraph in my list of “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Nightbitch went on to become one of the most acclaimed novels of the year, appearing on many “Best of the Year” lists. In an Esquire article on the fifty best books of 2021, Adrienne Westenfeld wrote: “Yoder touches on a kaleidoscope of themes, from the towering inferno of female rage to grieving the loss of self that accompanies motherhood, all of it undergirded by feral, ferocious scenes of our heroine feasting on rabbits and pissing on the lawn. Nightbitch will grab you by the scruff and refuse to let go.“
The success of the novel even surprised the author. Yoder tweeted in the summer of 2021: “I wrote NIGHTBITCH because I felt so alone, so angry, & so hopeless in early motherhood. Never did I imagine what it would become.“ As it turns out, the novel is still in the process of becoming, with a film adaptation, starring Amy Adams, expected to be released sometime in 2023.
Looking Beyond (1955)
Eurydice felt a floating sensation. Without fever of any sort, she felt like being in a dream, which she knew she was not.
She was supposed to fuck a god high up on his mountaintop, but she refused. She wouldn’t listen to Apollo’s reasoning. So he cursed her, a life sentence.
Reading these opening words for the first time, the reader in me immediately thinks, “This is a new kind of woman’s voice, at least one I haven’t heard before. Who is she? Who are her heroines? What can I—a man many years her senior—learn from her?“ Zambreno pulls me further into her world as she continues in the first paragraph: “He said, Sure, you can live forever, as many grains of sand in your hand, but that young lovely body will be gone, you will wrinkle up into nothingness. Who will love you now? Who will listen?“
To Write As If Already Dead (2021)
There comes a moment when you are finally given some space and quiet, maybe an hour, possibly two, the occasional birdsong by an open window, and you must go to that other room and return to the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel.
In this genre-bending work (part-biography, part memoir, part novel), Zambreno begins by describing an experience all people—especially writers—are familiar with. I was so impressed I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
For me, that final phrase—the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel—has a haunting, unforgettable quality, causing me to reflect, “Yes, I’m familiar with that kind of problem.”