Genre: Sex, Love, Marriage, & Family
Eight White Nights (2010)
Halfway through dinner, I knew I’d play the whole evening in reverse—the bus, the snow, the walk up the tiny incline, the cathedral looming straight before me, the stranger in the elevator, the crowded large living room where candlelit faces beamed with laughter and premonition, the piano music, the singer with the throaty voice, the scent of pinewood everywhere as I wandered from room to room, thinking that perhaps I should have arrived much earlier tonight, or a bit later, or that I shouldn’t have come at all, the classic sepia etchings on the wall by the bathroom where a swinging door opened to a long corridor to private areas not intended for guests but took another turn toward the hallway and then, by miracle, led back into the same living room, where more people had gathered, and where, turning to me by the window where I thought I’d found a quiet spot behind the large Christmas tree, someone suddenly put out a hand and said, “I am Clara.“
This is a tour de force of an opening sentence, all 170 words of it. Opening sentences of 100-plus words are rare because they’re so exceptionally difficult to pull off. But when they’re crafted at a high artistic level, as we see here, they are to be treasured. When I first came across this gem from Aciman, one of our greatest contemporary writers, my thoughts immediately went to John Barth, who famously observed: “In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.“
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?“
Great Circle (1933)
Why be in such a hurry, old fool? What good is hurry going to do you? Wrap yourself in a thick gauze of delay and confusion, like the spider; hang there, like the spider, aware of time only as the rock is aware of time; let your days be as leisurely and profound as months, serene as the blue spaces of sky between clouds; your flies will come to you in due season.
These are the cautionary inner reflections of the protagonist, Andrew Cather, who is on a train from New York City to Boston. He will be returning home three days early, and is not sure what he will find when he arrives (one possibility—both feared and, in some ways, desired—is that his wife will be in the arms of a lover).
Aiken was deeply interested in psychoanalysis, and this early psychological suspense novel was believed to be one of Sigmund Freud’s favorite novels.
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.”
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (1868)
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,“ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!“ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,“ added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother, and each other,“ said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The first four lines of Alcott’s debut novel introduce us to all four March sisters—and provide a glimpse of what we are to learn about each of them as the story unfolds.
Louisa May Alcott
Eight Cousins: or The Aunt-Hill (1875)
Rose sat all alone in the big best parlor, with her little handkerchief laid ready to catch the first tear, for she was thinking of her troubles, and a shower was expected.
This has long been one of my favorite opening lines—mainly because it is such a fabulous metaphor. Over the years, whenever the subject of someone’s potential crying comes up, I’ve been inclined to say, “To piggyback on a line from Louisa May Alcott, ‘A shower is expected.’”
Paula: A Memoir (1994)
Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.
Allende began the book as a letter to her 28-year-old daughter Paula. In 1991, she was suffering from a serious liver disorder when a medication error put her into a drug-induced coma. Expecting an eventual recovery, Allende's plan was to write her daughter a long letter describing everything she missed during her coma. When Paula died in 1992, Allende turned the book into a memoir.
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]
The Rachel Papers (1973)
My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me.
Readers who take the bait in the opening sentence are quickly reeled in as the narrator continues: “It’s such a rangy, well-traveled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. I wear glasses for a start, have done since I was nine. And my medium-length, arseless waistless figure, corrugated rib-cage and bandy legs gang up to dispel any hint of aplomb.“
Moving From Me to We (2012)
Writing of her secret life as a prostitute, a blogger with the pseudonym Belle de Jour had a backstory worthy of a movie script.
This is an unusual—and intriguing—way to begin a self-help book, and it turns out to be 100% true. Anderson continued: “In fact what she did was turned into a Showtime TV series. She wanted to step into a dramatically different adventure for the next chapter of her life story. She was moved to express another side of herself, and then write about it. You see, in her other life, she’s ‘a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology.’”
The woman’s real name was Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a highly trained English medical professional. In 2003, under the nom de plume Belle de Jour, she began writing a blog about her secret life as a sex worker. After receiving the Guardian’s Best Blog Award, de Jour’s profile increased dramatically, and she went on to write a number of bestselling books, some with terrific opening lines (see them here).
V. C. Andrews
Flowers in the Attic (1979)
It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator is 12-year-old Cathy Dollanganger, who was only twelve years old when her mother forced her and her three siblings to live secretly in the attic of their grandparents’ home.
In the opening paragraph, Cathy continued: “And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic.“
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.”
"Men, Women, Sex and Darwin," in The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 21, 1999)
Life is short but jingles are forever: none more so, it seems, than the familiar ditty, variously attributed to William James, Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker: "Hoggamus, higgamus,/Men are polygamous,/Higgamus, hoggamus,/Women monogamous."
“Old Love”, in A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980)
Some people, it is said, fall in love at first sight, but that was not what happened to William Hatchard and Philippa Jameson. They hated each other from the moment they met.
“The Luncheon”, in A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980)
She waved to me across a crowded room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. I waved back, realizing I knew the face, but I was unable to place it. She squeezed past waiters and guests and had reached me before I had a chance to ask anyone who she was.
Some opening lines are memorable not because they’re so beautifully written, but because they perfectly capture a common human experience. The narrator, an unnamed English author, continued: “I racked that section of my brain which is meant to store people, but it transmitted no reply. I realized I would have to resort to the old party trick of carefully worded questions until her answers jogged my memory.”
Kane & Abel (1979)
She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.
Kane & Abel was Archer’s second novel and, of the scores of books he went on to write, it was his most successful, selling nearly forty million copies (Wikipedia lists it as one of the 100 best-selling books of all time). In a 2017 article in Dubai’s Khaleej Times, Archer said: “If you’re going to open a book and you want to make people say, ‘I’m not going to put this down,’ you’re going to have to have a sensational opening sentence.” He went on to add that many people had written to him over the years saying Kane & Abel’s opening line “made it impossible not to go on reading.”
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it was the woman’s last cry or the child’s first that alerted his youthful ears. He turned suddenly, sensing the possible danger, his eyes searching for an animal that was so obviously in pain. He had never known any animal to scream in quite that way before.”
W. H. Auden
"A Marriage of True Minds" (1961)," in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
The mating of minds is, surely, quite as fascinating a relationship as the mating of the sexes, yet how little attention novelists have paid to it.
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Described by English writer and editor Robert McCrum as “The archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale,“ these opening words have achieved legendary status, appearing near the top of almost every Top Ten list ever compiled.
In How to Read Literature (2013), British scholar Terry Eagleton described this line as “One of the most renowned opening sentences in English literature” and “a small masterpiece of irony.“ Eagleton went on to add: “The irony does not exactly leap off the page. It lies in the difference between what is said—that everyone agrees that rich men need wives—and what is plainly meant, which is that this assumption is mostly to be found among unmarried women in search of a well-heeled husband.“
In the novel, the narrator continued: “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.“
A House of Sticks: Memoirs of a Bigamist’s Daughter (2016)
I never danced with my father but in his shed, I danced with his sawdust swirling around my bone-thin ankles. At the old age of 11, I sound morbid but Daddy is not dead, he has abandoned us as he did his other four kids. Joe never divorced his legal wife, making my siblings and me bastards, and our mother a fool. Daddy is a bigamist and my parent’s marriage is a misdemeanor—but the only crime Joe ever committed was leaving me.
“Slow Days, Fast Company,“ the title story of Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977)
This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent. But I want it clearly understood from the start that I don’t expect it to turn out well.
My Animals and Other Family (2013)
The first face I can remember seeing was Candy’s. She was my protector and my companion, my nanny and my friend. A strong, snuffling, steady presence.
Describing that first meeting with her mother’s pet boxer a few days after her own birth, Balding continued: “I looked into her big brown eyes, pushed my pudgy fingers into her cavernous wrinkles and smelled her stale breath. It was an all-in sensory experience. I was home.” Balding’s heartwarming memoir went on to win the 2012 British Book Awards Autobiography of the Year.
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.“
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 especially 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.“
Ancient Light (2012)
Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.
The narrator is Alexander Cleave, an aging actor who begins his twilight meditations on life with memories of an adolescent affair with a woman more than twice his age. He continued: “Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.“
James M. Barrie
Peter and Wendy (1911)
All children, except one, grow up.
The son of a weaver, Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh before moving to London in 1885 to pursue a writing career. In 1897, he befriended Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a London couple with three young sons, George, John, and Peter (they ultimately added two more boys to the mix). Barrie loved playing with the boys, and regaled them with many fanciful stories, including one in which Peter was a bird before he was born and, after his birth, retained the ability to fly.
In 1902, Barrie introduced the character of Peter Pan in his novel The Little White Bird, but it was only a minor role, and Peter never advanced beyond infancy. Two years later, he developed Peter into the character we all know today for the 1904 London stage production, “Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.“ The play was a spectacular success, and catapulted Barrie into worldwide celebrity.
In 1911, Peter Pan was already one of the world’s most famous fictional characters when Barrie extended the stage play into a full-blown novel titled Peter and Wendy. The novel’s opening line is now regarded as a classic in world literature. What is less well known, though, is how Barrie continued the first paragraph:
“They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.”
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
Whenever I hear writers opining that a novel’s opening words should be pithy and punchy, I think about the many brilliant opening sentences that stretch out to more than 100 words—as in this gem from one of the modern era’s most acclaimed writers.
Barth’s 119-word opening sentence dazzled the critics of his day, and continues to impress modern readers. In a 2010 Time magazine feature on “The 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005,” critic Richard Lacayo wrote:
“A feast. Dense, funny, endlessly inventive (and, OK, yes, long-winded) this satire of the 18th-century picaresque novel—think Fielding’s Tom Jones or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—is…impossibly rich, a wickedly funny take on old English rhetoric and American self-appraisals.”
The Hazmat Diary (1992)
March 1, 2050
I repulse her. Entertain her. Enlighten her. Lead her. Teach her. Carry her. Ignore her. Lecture her. Embarrass her. Sadden her. Help her. Help her. Hinder her. Watch her. Psychoanalyze her. Probe her. Question her. Answer for her. Fuck her. Forgive her. Wrong her. Confuse her. Understand her. Hold her. Cry with her. Lie to her. Laugh with her. Feed her. Drive her. Support her. Culture her. Contour her. Sodomize her. Plagiarize her. (I’m plagiarizing her now.) Vitalize her. Victimize her. Intrigue her. Haunt her. Stalk her. Catch her. Skin her alive. But mostly I love her.
Yes, I love her.
And I know the feelings are mutual.
All of them.
This is the first entry in a diary found by a character named Anatole Laferriere III in 2099, over four decades after an apocalyptic American Revolution in 2058 resulted in the former superpower descending into Third World status. The diary, written by a 37-year-old bartender named Doc was one of a number of diaries found in a region of the country once known as New England. Originally planned as a follow-up to Bechard’s debut novel (The Second Greatest Story Ever Told), it became a groundbreaking, but little-read multi-media web-novel in the early days of broadband. It was reissued in print and electronic versions in 2010.
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.”
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020)
On November 4, 2008, when many world leaders waited to hear the results of the American presidential election, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was in his Roman residence preparing to have sex.
This is a highly unusual way for a serious scholar to begin a serious book about modern autocratic leaders, but I think you will agree that it is also highly effective in achieving two of the goals of all Great Opening Lines: (1) to “frame” the story about to be told, and (2) to get the reader to continue reading.
The book continues with a brief discussion between Berlusconi and one of his many mistresses, Patrizia D’Addario, about which bed they will be using that night. He replies that it will be a bed he received as a gift from his strongman pal, Vladimir Putin. Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, went on to explain: “Berlusconi’s ‘Putin bed’ symbolized the intimacy of a friendship sustained by the leaders’ common drive to exercise as much personal power as their political systems allowed and to appear to the world—and each other—as virile.”
Talk Before Sleep (1994)
This morning, before I came to Ruth’s house, I made yet another casserole for my husband and daughter. Meggie likes casseroles while Joe only endures them, but they are all I can manage right now. I put the dish in the refrigerator, with a note taped on it telling how long to cook it, and at what temperature, and that they should have a salad, too.
Great opening lines don’t necessarily bowl readers over, they simply provide subtle hints about what’s been happening and where the story is going. Another casserole? All I can manage? Her own family taking second priority to time at Ruth’s? Talk Before Sleep turns out to be a moving story about a friendship between protagonist Ann Stanley and her cancer-stricken friend Ruth Thomas.
Say When (2003)
Of course he knew she was seeing someone. He knew who it was, too.
The narrator, a happily (or so he thought) married man named Griffin, continued: “Six months ago, saying she needed a new direction in her life, saying she was tired of feeling helpless around anything mechanical, that she had no idea how to even change a tire. Ellen had taken a course in basic auto mechanics—’Know Your Car,’ it was called.“
The Story of Arthur Truluv (2017)
In the six months since the November day that his wife, Nola, was buried, Arthur Moses has been having lunch with her every day.
The narrator continued: “He rides the bus to the cemetery and when he gets there, he takes his sweet time walking over to her plot: she will be there no matter when he arrives. She will be there and be there and be there.“
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.
This is a powerful opening, 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.”
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.“
Nurse Matilda (1964)
Once upon a time there was a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.
So begins the story of Nurse Matilda, a hideously ugly witch who mysteriously arrives at the household of the Brown family, which is beset by some of the naughtiest children in England. The book was very popular in Great Britain, and resulted in two sequels: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town (1967) and Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital (1974). The opening paragraphs of the two sequels are worded slightly differently from the original novel, but they both end the same way: “...and all the children were terribly, terribly naughty.”
In 2005, the novels were loosely adapted into the film Nanny McPhee, starring Colin Firth and Emma Thompson (she also wrote the screenplay). In addition to a new name for the title character, there were some other changes as well, but the essential story remained the same—a nanny with magical powers arrives at an out-of-control home and transforms the life of a family being disrupted by some very naughty children. One other important thing from the novel also made it into the film, and I was delighted to see it retained. Let me explain.
I’m a longtime fan of the literary device known as chiasmus (pronounced ky-AZ-muss), and in 1999, I introduced it to popular culture in my book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. Brand’s 1964 novel contains a wonderful example. Describing her approach to caring for children, Nurse Matilda says: “When my children don’t want me, but do need me: then I must stay. When they no longer need me, but they do want me: then I have to go.”
When I heard about the film coming out, I eagerly awaited its appearance, wondering if this very special observation would be included. Happily, with a slight change in wording, it did. In an early scene, when Nanny McPhee first meets the seven children, she says to them: “When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. If you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go.” A hearty thanks to the literate Emma Thompson for including the chiastic sentiment in her screenplay.
“The Real Life of a Sugar Daddy,” in Gentleman’s Quarterly (August 27, 2015)
Thurston Von Moneybags (not his real name) was scammed once by a girl in Houston.
When Jacob Feldman, editor of The Sunday Long Read, was asked by editors of The Electric Typewriter to select “10 of his all-time favorite articles,” he included this one, adding about the piece: “To put it simply, this was the best written story of 2015, starting with the first line.”
In the opening paragraph of her article, Brodesser-Akner continued: “He had arranged to meet her so that he might size her up and determine whether he wanted to give her a monthly stipend in exchange for regular sex and sometimes maybe dinner. In other words: Was there chemistry? Was she blonde and blue-eyed, the way he liked them? Was she thin “but not anorexic, a shapely body, you know?” Could he talk to her? That was very important. It was a little important. It wasn’t that important. Anyway, she asked for money up front, and he sent her $800. She didn’t show to the meet, and that’s the last time Thurston Von Moneybags ever got hustled again. Now he meets the girls for lunch before he offers them an ahem arrangement, and he is very clear. He doesn’t give them money until their second date, when they’re in the bedroom.”
Feldman went on to add about the article: “It only gets better from [the first line]. In investigating the love-for-money economy budding on sites like SeekingArrangement, Taffy Brodesser-Akner not only entertained us, she made us think about what it means to ‘get what you want in this world.’”
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
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
Loose Lips (1999)
Life will turn you inside out. No matter where you start you’ll end up someplace else even if you stay home. The one thing you can count on is that you’ll be surprised.
No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)
Babette Van Anka had made love to the President of the United States on eleven previous occasions, but she still couldn’t resist inserting “Mr. President” in “Oh, baby, baby, baby.”
In the novel—an absolutely hilarious “take” on presidential sex scandals—the narrator continued: “He had told her on the previous occasions that he did not like being called this while, as he put it, congress was in session. But she couldn’t stop thinking to herself, I’m screwing the President of the United States! In the White House! Unavoidably, the ‘Mr. President’ just kept slipping out.” The novel, one of my all-time favorites, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Earthly Powers (1980)
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Few opening lines in literary history exceed this one in what might be called in-your-face daring. A 2012 article on “Arresting Openings” in London’s The Telegraph described this opener as “outrageously provocative.“
Also in 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum hailed Burgess’s opening sentence as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,“ writing: “This is one of the supreme show-off first-person openings. Burgess challenges the reader (and himself) to step on to the roller coaster of a very tall tale (loosely based on the life of Somerset Maugham).“
A boy and girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.
With these simple—but highly evocative—words, we are introduced to Gemma Brogan and David “Tar” Lawson, both fourteen years old and on the verge of escaping their highly dysfunctional home environments. Little do they know at this point of their journey that an even more dismal future awaits.
Burgess’s dark and gritty tale about teenage drug addiction went on to win the 1996 Carnegie Medal, awarded annually by England’s Library Association for the outstanding children’s book by a British writer. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, Junk was named one of the Top Ten winners of the award. In 1997, the book was published in America under the title Smack, yet another slang term for heroin.
When the novel came out in a 25th Anniversary edition in 2021, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare wrote about it: “Melvin Burgess’s ground-breaking Junk remains the best book about teenagers and drugs to this day.”
Kat, Incorrigible (2011; pub. in England in 2010 as A Most Improper Magick)
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I made it almost to the end of my front garden.
The setting is Regency, England in 1803, and these delightful opening words come from Kat Stephenson, a young girl who discovers she has inherited magical powers from her mother, who died ten days after she was born. The novel went on to win the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Debut Children’s Novel by a British writer.
In a 2014 SFSignal.com “Mind Meld” post, writer Paul Weimer asked a number of writers to identify their favorite opening lines. Writer Beth Bernobich wrote about this opener:
“Imagine a cup of frothy hot chocolate, served in an elegant cup, with a dollop of cream—sweet, but with an edge of that dark chocolate bitterness—a perfect antidote to cold November days. The opening paragraph to Kat, Incorrigible…is that first sip that tells right away what a treat you’re in for.”
An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (2021)
Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard “connubial bliss” as an oxymoron.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burlingame—described by Time magazine as “a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship”—continued with this revealing anecdote: “During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart, who reportedly had been flirting with another swain in his absence. As the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant’s life, he said: ‘I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In his book, Burlingame attempted to set the historical record straight by telling the unvarnished truth about Lincoln’s notoriously unhappy marriage. On top of the countless monumental problems the 16th U.S. President wrestled with, Burlingame wrote that “he had to cohabit the White House with a psychologically unbalanced woman whose indiscrete and abusive behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit.”
Repose is not more welcome to the worn and to the aged, to the sick and to the unhappy, than danger, difficulty, and toil to the young and adventurous.
The narrator continued: "Danger they encounter, but as the forerunner of success; difficulty, as the spur of ingenuity; and toil, as the herald of honor."
Gracie: A Love Story (1988)
For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.
Few memoirs in history have opened more poignantly. Burns continued: “Her real name was Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen. Gracie Allen. But for those forty years audiences in small-time and big-time vaudeville houses and movie theaters and at home listening to their radios or watching television knew her, and loved her, simply as Gracie. Just Gracie. She was on a first-name basis with America.
William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch (1959)
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.
This is the opening line of one of history’s most influential novels, first published in France as The Naked Lunch in 1959 by Olympia Press, but not in America until 1962 (from Grove Press) because of a protracted legal struggle against obscenity charges. The book continued to be “banned in Boston” until 1966, however, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned a 1965 ruling that came in the last major obscenity trial in American literary history.
In addition to its free-wheeling, non-linear, experimental composition, the book helped bring the argot of the gritty underworld into popular usage. During the nine years it took to write the novel, the virtually unknown Burroughs had composing and editing help from some famous friends, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs credited Kerouac with the title, saying it meant seeing things very clearly (he explained: “It means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”). Kerouac, however, offered a different explanation, saying the title resulted from a mis-reading of “Naked Lust,” a title he had suggested to Ginsberg.
In 2015, Alan Bisbort, editor of the punk-inspired website PleaseKillMe.com included Burrough’s opener on his personal “10 Best Opening Lines” list. In 2010, Time included Naked Lunch on its list of the “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” And, finally, in a fascinating footnote, musicians Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their band “Steely Dan” after a revolutionary steam-powered dildo mentioned in the book.
James M. Cain
The Institute (1976)
I first met Hortense Garrett at her home in Wilmington, Delaware on a spring morning last year. I wasn’t calling on her but on her husband, Richard Garrett, the financier, to make a pitch for money—a lot of money, twenty million or so. It was for a project I had in mind, an institute of biography which I hoped he would endow—and, incidentally, name me as director.
The opening words come from Lloyd Palmer, an English literature professor in search of money for an Institute he hopes to head. What he ends up with, however, is a boatload of trouble when he falls for the wealthy benefactor’s young, beautiful, and unhappy wife. The Institute was Cain’s last novel, written when he was eighty-five. The work may not have been up to his usual standard, but it had a first-class opening and provided much enjoyment to Cain’s many fans.
James M. Cain
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
Readers bring themselves in very different ways to a book’s opening words, and a less perceptive reader might easily overlook the significance of this first sentence. The words come from narrator and protagonist Frank Chambers, a handsome young drifter who has been tossed out of a hay truck in front of a California diner operated by a middle-aged Greek man and his beautiful young wife. The book was an immediate hit, and the story so sizzling that it ultimately resulted in seven film adaptations (the best being the 1946 adaptation starring John Garfield and a voluptuous Lana Turner).
In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, Stephen King described Cain’s opening line as a “hook” that immediately engaged the reader’s interest. King then used the nine-word opening as a springboard for a 200-word analysis—and a mini-masterclass on writing:
“Suddenly, you’re right inside the story—the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting—and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
“This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,“ we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing—fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.“
“Pitch Memory,” in Emperor of the Air: Stories (1989)
The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J. C. Penny’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk. I thought jail might be good for her.
To my mind, this is a superb opening paragraph: economical (at 40 words), but long enough to provide grounding and texture, and with a lovely little twist at the end.
A Doubter’s Almanac (2016)
From the kitchen window, Milo Andret watched the bridge over the creek, and when he saw Earl Biettermann’s white Citroën race across the span he hurried out the front door and picked up a short hoe. Biettermann was driving too fast. Reckless was the word for it—but that’s the way he’d always been. Arrogant. Heedless. Lucky to stumble onto the right roads, the right career, the right woman. Lucky even to be alive. For any other driver, the route from the bridge to the cabin would take five minutes: Andret figured it would take Biettermann three.
Even though we know nothing specifically about the two men, it is abundantly clear that one feels a strong animosity toward the other—an animosity almost certainly fueled by envy or jealousy. The opening paragraph also contains some provocative hints about where the novel might be headed—most notably the phrase the right woman.
O Pioneers! (1913)
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.
The narrator and protagonist of this coming-of age novel is 21-year-old Art Bechstein, the son of a mob money launderer who wants his son to pursue a legitimate career. Bechstein continued: “We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill-will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”
In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Talk about using a character to entice the reader. You just mention ‘gangster’ and everyone is all ears. And the emotional landscape of the son, and of his relationship to his father, is exceptionally clear. Consider how much information is packed into this single paragraph.”
Chabon was twenty-one and in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh when he began writing the novel. He continued work on it when he was accepted into the two-year Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine. Chabon used the novel as his thesis for an M.A. degree, awarded in 1987. One of his thesis advisors was UC-I professor Donald Heiney, who had written more than a dozen novels under the pen name of MacDonald Harris. Chabon’s professor was so impressed with the novel that he immediately passed it on to his agent. A year later, the book was published by William Morrow, became a surprise bestseller, and launched an extraordinary literary career for Chabon.
Charles Chaplin, Jr.
My Father, Charlie Chaplin (1960; with N. And M. Rau)
There was always the scream I heard, the scream that seemed to be coming from someone else, the scream at something whose face I could never see but whose malignant presence I could feel—scream after scream in the dark, the utter loneliness.
This powerful opening line reads more like an autobiography of a son than a biography of the father—and that simple fact makes us want to read on. The author continued: “And then suddenly there was the light. There were people caressing me, putting cold compresses on my head, for I was almost rigid in my terror.”
Chaplain goes on to list the people who were around to comfort him during his night terrors: “My grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mother, and sometimes even my great-grandfather.” Notably missing from the list—it is quite apparent—is his father.
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.
Unfinished Portrait (1934; written under pen name Mary Westmacott)
Do you know the feeling you have when you know something quite well and yet for the life of you can’t recollect it?
“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 marvelous opening paragraph, 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 tribute to 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.”
Six Years (2013)
I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man.
In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote: “This first line in Harlan Coben’s Six Years jumpstarts his ‘domestic thriller.’ The book sees a man’s love torn apart in a seemingly impossible manner. This is everyone’s worst nightmare—set down in a single, deceptively smooth sentence. You cannot help but want to read on to figure out how in the world such a thing could have happened.”
J. M. Coetzee
My Disgrace (1999)
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
Solved the problem of sex? Rather well? At age fifty-two? I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to learn more. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. ‘Have you missed me?’ she asks. ‘I miss you all the time,’ he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.”
In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote about this opening paragraph: “This starts with sex, but remember that sex is primarily a way not to excite a reader sexually, but to communicate about the character. And this tells us an enormous amount about the character: divorced, thinks about sex as a problem to be solved, morally kosher with visiting prostitutes, and accepts that fake affection (affection that is paid for) is satisfactory. I keep reading not for the sex but for the character.”
With the terrific beginning above—and a writer of consummate skill—it’s no surprise that My Disgrace went on to win the 1999 Booker Prize.
The Man in the Window (1992; republished 2013)
Atlas Malone saw the angel again, this time down by the horse chestnut tree.
Cohen’s 1992 novel was one of Nancy Pearl’s “Book Lust Rediscoveries,” an imprint of out-of-print books personally selected for republication by a woman who is often described as “America’s Favorite Librarian.” In her Introduction to the book, Pearl wrote: “When I read the entrancing first line of The Man in the Window, I knew I’d made no mistake [in picking it up]. Here was a novel to love.”
In her introduction, Pearl continued: “That first line…made it impossible for me to put the book down. I loved the interplay of the fantastic—an angel!—with the utterly prosaic—a horse chestnut tree. And the specificity: not just any old chestnut tree, but a horse chestnut.” Simply on the basis of Cohen’s opening line, Pearl concluded: “Clearly, this was a book that was written with a reader like me in mind.”
The Prince of Tides (1986)
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
The narrator, Tom Wingo, is a South Carolina teacher and football coach who has spent a lifetime struggling to overcome a dysfunctional childhood (the character was memorably portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Nick Nolte in a 1991 film adaptation).
Wingo continued: "I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders."
Beach Music (1995)
In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me.
This dramatic opening line comes from narrator and protagonist Jack McCall, a cookbook and travel writer who bears more than a passing resemblance to Conroy himself—a Southern writer with complicated family entanglements.
In the first paragraph, McCall continued: “Our sweet Leah was not quite two when my wife, Shyla, stopped her car on the highest point of the bridge and looked over, for the last time, the city she loved so well.”
The Great Santini (1976)
In the Cordova Hotel, near the docks of Barcelona, fourteen Marine Corps fighter pilots from the aircraft carrier Forrestal were throwing an obstreperously spirited going away party for Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, the executive officer of their carrier based squadron. The pilots had been drinking most of the day and the party was taking a swift descent toward mayhem.
The opening paragraph provides no information about where the novel is going, but it nicely captures the environment the protagonist is coming from. The narrator continued: “It was a sign to Bull Meecham that he was about to have a fine and memorable turbulent time. The commanding officer of the squadron, Ty Mullinax, had passed out in the early part of the afternoon and was resting in a beatific position on the table in the center of the room, his hands folded across his chest and a bouquet of lilies carefully placed in his zipper, rising out of his groin.”
The novel’s protagonist was based on Conroy’s actual larger-than-life father, U. S. Marine Colonel Don Conroy—a highly decorated fighter pilot and, in his private life, a highly abusive father. For a sense of exactly how abusive he was, see the entry by Wright Thompson in the “Non-Fiction” and “Essays, Articles, & Columns” pages, and be prepared for a heart-wrenching description.
Conroy’s father was still living when The Great Santini was published and, not surprisingly, he predicted the novel would be read only by “psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals, and women.” When the book—and subsequent film—became hugely successful, though, Colonel Conroy reflected deeply on his son’s portrayal of him, became a changed man, and went on to earn his son’s deep respect and affection. About his father’s profound personal transformation, Conroy went on to write: “He had the best second act I ever saw.”
In 1979, the novel was adapted in a critically acclaimed film, with Robert Duvall giving an Oscar-nominated performance as Bull Meecham. Michael O’Keefe, in the role of Meecham’s son Ben—a thinly disguised Pat Conroy—received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
“Barbara Warley Was Loved by Everyone,” in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016)
March 26, 2014
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading.
Conroy was sixty-eight when he wrote these words, the opening sentence of a eulogy he was delivering for the wife of one of his best friends from college. When I first read the opening sentence, I was immediately reminded of something May Sarton wrote in her 1984 memoir At Seventy: “I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward.“
Over the years, I’ve noticed that eulogies penned by writers are often as much about the people writing the eulogy as those they are eulogizing—and that is certainly the case here. In reflecting back to when he first met Warley, for example, Conroy wrote: “Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of the unhappy tribe who come from troubled and deeply flawed families.”
Two years after Warley’s death, Conroy himself died, at age 70, of a fast-spreading pancreatic cancer.
The Middle Place (2008)
The thing you need to know about me is that I am George Corrigan’s daughter, his only daughter. You may have met him, in which case just skip this part. If you haven’t, I’ll do what I can to describe him, but really, you should try to meet him.
Glitter and Glue: A Memoir (2013)
When I was growing up, my mom was guided by the strong belief that to befriend me was to deny me the one thing a kid really needed to survive childhood: a mother.
Corrigan continued: “Consequently, we were never one of those Mommy & Me pairs who sat close or giggled. She didn’t wink at me or gush about how pretty I looked or rub my back to help me fall asleep. She was not a big fan of deep conversation, and she still doesn’t go for a lot of physical contact. She looked at motherhood as less a joy to be relished than as a job to be done, serious work with serious repercussions, and I left childhood assuming our way of being with each other, adversarial but functional, was as it would be.”
A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978; re-isssued 2022)
My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.
These are the intriguing opening words of a memoir that was described by The New Yorker’s Casey Cep as “One of the finest memoirs ever written.” About the meaning that the opening line had for Crews, Cep wrote: “He knew that history, even our own personal history, can take the form of myth if we let it, and he hints at this in the memoir’s opening…. What he then recounts is something he was once told.” Cep then helpfully added:
“Much of what we know about the world is secondhand, as is everything we know about the past, and we demonize or mythologize it at our peril. Find a way to cherish it, sure, but Crews knew better than to reject the world that made him or to romanticize what he barely survived.”
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.
Murther and Walking Spirits (1991)
I was never so amazed in my life as when the Sniffer drew his concealed weapon from his case and struck me to the ground, stone dead.
The narrator and protagonist, Canadian film critic Connor “Gil” Gilmartin, unexpectedly arrives home to find his attractive wife in flagrante with a fellow film critic that he dismissively calls the Sniffer. After his wife’s lover strikes him on the temple with a walking stick and killing him, Gilmartin continues: “How did I know that I was dead? As it seemed to me, I recovered consciousness in an instant after the blow, and heard the Sniffer saying, in a quavering voice: ’He’s dead! My God! I’ve killed him!’ My wife was kneeling by my side, feeling my pulse, her ear to my heart; she said, with what I thought was remarkable self-possession in the circumstances, ’Yes, you’ve killed him.’“
Louis de Bernières
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)
Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.
The narrator continued: “He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.“
In 2001, the novel was adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz.
Louis de Bernières
A Partisan’s Daughter (2008)
I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes.
Well, I suppose that every man would say that. People would disbelieve it just because you had to say it. It’s a self-defeating statement. If I had any sense I’d delete it and start again, but I’m thinking, “My wife’s dead, my daughter’s in New Zealand, I’m in bad health, and I’m past caring, and who’s paying any attention? And in any case, it’s true.“
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).
Dombey And Son (1848)
Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.
The narrator continued: “Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome, well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect as yet.”
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.
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?”
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.”
Meghan, Duchess of Sessex (formerly Meghan Markle)
“The Losses We Share,” in The New York Times (Nov. 25, 2020)
It was a July morning that began as ordinarily as any other day: Make breakfast. Feed the dogs. Take vitamins. Find that missing sock. Pick up the rogue crayon that rolled under the table. Throw my hair in a ponytail before getting my son from his crib.
After changing his diaper, I felt a sharp cramp. I dropped to the floor with him in my arms, humming a lullaby to keep us both calm, the cheerful tune a stark contrast to my sense that something was not right.
I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.
This is a deeply personal—and a remarkably effective—way to begin an Op-Ed column. The opening was so impressive, in fact, that I selected it as one of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a Smerconish.com post at the end of the year.
Gulliver Quick (1992)
When news of Gulliver Quick’s death first reached the newspapers, there were curious rumors of five women attempting to take equal responsibility.
Five women? This guy must’ve been quite The Ladies’ Man. The story then takes a mysterious tone as the narrator continued: “Although these tales were intriguing, they made little sense. Then, abruptly, the case was dismissed. Secrecy shrouded the affair, and the five women, released from further investigation by the Italian police, refused to discuss his death. Reporters, foiled by the women’s silence, eventually abandoned the story.“
George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Daniel Deronda (1876)
Was she beautiful or not beautiful?
These are the first thoughts that spring to the mind of the title character as he finds himself strongly responding to a brief glance from a woman who is experiencing a run of bad luck at a roulette table in a German gambling resort. As the opening paragraph unfolds, his thought process continues: “And what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?“
Move On: Adventures in the Real World (1991)
I packed up his comic books, sold off the bunk beds, gave away the last Star Wars sheet and threw out the beanbag chair that had bled to death in 1975. I tore down the six MASH posters super-glued to the wall between his room and mine.
Ellerbee continued: “Next I tore down the wall. After that, I ripped up the floor, raised high the roof beam, put up a skylight big enough to bring the moon home, put down a Jacuzzi big enough to do the backstroke across, planted flowers so fragile they faint if you frown twice, painted everything else a lovely shade of Childless White and watched my son go nuts.“
“Vaginal Politics,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is “knowing what your uterus looks like.”
“Moving On,” in I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006)
In February 1980, two months after the birth of my second child and the simultaneous end of my marriage, I fell in love.
“The D Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
The most important thing about me, for quite a long chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. Even after I was no longer divorced but remarried, this was true.
Ephron continued: “I have now been married to my third husband for more than twenty years. But when you’ve had children with someone you’re divorced from, divorce defines everything; it’s the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.”
The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,“ I said, “is that I can’t even date.“
The narrator is Rachel Samstat, a New York City food writer who is married to a journalist with a reputation for womanizing. In her opening words, she chooses a most interesting way to disclose her reaction to the news that her husband has begun an extra-marital affair (Heartburn is a novel, but it reflects many of the details of Ephron’s four-year marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein).
In the first paragraph, Samstat continued: “Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word ’date,’ which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant.“
“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.”
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.”
Buried Mistakes: A Cry for Justice From Beyond the Grave (2014)
That night I dreamed.
Someone’s at the door. I don’t want to open it. But I must.
A young soldier stands before me, trembling. I nod and he follows me into the tiny room. I light the lamp so I can see him better. Then I sit on the small wooden crate that contains my belongings and wait.
He kneels on the floor before me, his body tense as the strings on the shamisen I used to play.
“The fighting was close today,” I say to him.
The soldier looks frightened—they all do. He nods and bows his head. But I have already looked into his eyes—eyes that have seen too much.
He reaches for me and I flinch. It’s a mistake.
His eyes flash as the wounded beast within him roars.
He hits me, striking at me with all of his pent up rage.
Then he rapes me
We normally think of a “hook” as a short, pithy sentence that opens a novel in a compelling, intriguing, or powerful way, but Ezpeleta’s novel—inspired by the stories of the “comfort women” the Japanese military provided their soldiers during WWII—proves that a hook can be much longer; in this case, the ten short paragraphs that make up the entire Prologue of the book.
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.”
Silk Road (2011)
Toulouse, France 1293
They found him in the cloister, lying on his back with ice in his beard. He was half conscious, muttering about a Templar knight, a secret commission from the Pope, and a beautiful woman on a white pony.
Falconer, a widely acknowledged master of the historical novel, is also a master of the opening paragraph. Few writers are as skilled at laying the foundation, setting the stage, and introducing an air of mystery or intrigue—all in a sentence or two.
The narrator continued: “His fellow monks carried him back to his cell and laid him on the hard cot that had been his bed for the last twenty years. He was an old man now and there was nothing to be done. His eyes had the cold sheen of death. A brother went to fetch the abbot so that the old fellow might make his last confession.”
Toulouse, France: 1205
God chose Fabricia Bérenger during a lightning storm. With one thunderous touch of his finger, he sent her reeling.
The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “The day had been mild, unseasonably so. The storm appeared suddenly, ink-black clouds broiling up the sky in the north, as the bells of Saint-Étienne were ringing for vespers. A blast of icy wind hit her like a slap as she ran across the marketplace, a blow so violent and unexpected that it almost knocked her off her feet.”
“The sex instinct,” repeated Mr. Talliaferro in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, “is quite strong in me.”
Some opening lines are impressive at multiple levels. The sex instinct is quite strong in me, on its own, is a memorable line, but it takes on a special significance when it is embedded in a beautifully phrased observation about how human beings reveal themselves to one another.
Mr. Talliaferro is not some upper-class Englishman, but an American lingerie salesman who has attempted to construct a sophisticated persona. He continued with words that draw the reader in more deeply: “Frankness, without which there can be no friendship, without which two people cannot really ever ‘get’ each other, as you artists say.”
The Mansion (1959)
The jury said “Guilty” and the Judge said “Life” but he didn’t hear them. He wasn’t listening.
The man in question is Mink Snopes, who’s been on trial for murder. The idea of a defendant not listening to a jury’s verdict or a judge’s sentencing is so unexpected it compels our attention and makes us wonder: what on earth could have been so monumentally distracting to him?
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
The opening words immediately suggest someone surreptitiously witnessing a fight, and that is almost certainly what Faulkner intended. Reading on, though, we discover that narrator Benjamin “Benjy” Compson, a 33-year-old intellectually disabled man, is peeking through a fence at a group of golfers. It turns out that eavesdropping on golfers is a frequent and pleasurable pastime for Benjy. His sister is named “Caddy,” and he dearly loves to hear golfer’s use her name as they call out “caddie!“ to those carrying their golf bags.
The novel’s title is taken from a famous soliloquy by the title character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more; it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”
Because the novel opens with Benjy’s narration, many early readers believed he was the idiot telling the tale, but other Compson family members—Quentin and Jason—narrated later sections of the novel, and critics have pointed out that their stream-of-consciousness narratives also displayed ample illustrations of idiocy.
When the book was published, noted critic Clifton Fadiman dismissed the novel as “trivial,” but it is now regarded as an American classic (in 1998, the Modern Library ranked it Number 6 on its list of “The 100 Best English-Language novels of the 20th Century”).
This March day the vast and brassy sky, always spangled with the silver glint of airplanes, roared and glittered with celestial traffic. Gigantic though they loomed against the white-hot heavens, there was nothing martial about these winged mammoths.
Looking up from a terminal in Texas’s brand-new Jett Rink Airport, the narrator is witnessing a sky filled with airplanes. Instead of being filled with bombs or munitions, though, these many private jets contain luxurious items and luxurious people, all invited to the Grand Opening of the airport.
The first paragraph continues: “They were merely private vehicles bearing nice little alligator jewel cases and fabulous gowns and overbred furs. No sordid freight sullied these four-engined family jobs whose occupants were Dallas or Houston or Vientecito or Waco women in Paris gowns from Neiman-Marcus; and men from Amarillo or Corpus Christi or San Angelo or Benedict in boots and Stetsons and shirt sleeves.”
In 1956, the novel was adapted into one of the biggest movies of the year (it received nine Oscar nominations, winning one for George Stevens as Best Director). Now regarded as a Hollywood classic, the film had an all-star cast headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean (in his last screen role).
So Big (1924)
Until he was almost ten the name stuck to him. He had literally to fight his way free from it.
The opening line suggests a child who’s 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 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.”
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.”
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 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.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (1925)
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Nick Carraway, and they now enjoy an almost legendary status among literature lovers. Here’s what Maureen Corrigan, the longtime book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” had to say about them in So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures (2014):
“That little speech should clue us in on how much breeding is going to count in this novel—as well as on just how slippery the meaning of The Great Gatsby is going to be. Indeed, the thick ambiguity of Gatsby’s language is one of the reasons why, despite its scant number of pages, it reads like a much longer story. Are we supposed to think that Nick is a prig for introducing his pedigree to us? Are we supposed to give him points for being aware of his own class privileges and acknowledging his social empathy? Whatever impression Nick wants to make, the novel has opened by trumpeting its obsessive subject: class. We might as well be in the turn-of-the-century New York City of Edith Wharton.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise (1920)
Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.
This was Fitzgerald’s debut novel—a heavily autobiographical tale written in large part to impress a beautiful young woman named Zelda Sayre—and it begins in an intriguing and strangely graceful way. From the outset, we get impression that we’re in the hands of a confident writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.
The narrator continued: “His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron and a habit of drowsing over the Encyclopedia Britannica, grew wealthy at thirty through the death of two elder brothers, successful Chicago brokers, and in the first flush of feeling that the world was his, went to Bar Harbor and met Beatrice O’Hara. In consequence, Stephen Blaine handed down to posterity his height of just under six feet and his tendency to waver at crucial moments, these two abstractions appearing in his son Amory.”
By the way, Fitzgerald’s romantic ploy worked. A year earlier, southern debutante Zelda had rejected him because of his questionable financial prospects. When the book became an immediate sensation—indeed, almost a cultural event—she quickly accepted his proposal of marriage.
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.
The Grownup (2014)
I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.
These are among the most arresting opening lines I’ve ever read, but I don’t expect to see them appearing in too many Top Ten lists anytime soon. Originally published as a short story under the title “What Do You do?” it first appeared in Rogues, a 2014 anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. After winning the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, it was retitled and published as a stand-alone book in 2016.
The unnamed narrator, a sex worker in a massage parlor, has given so many hand jobs over the past three years that she has been forced to retire because of a somewhat predictable medical condition: carpal tunnel syndrome. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is not to overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over. Basically, it’s like a golf swing.”
“Abyss,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
Two weeks before the Phoenix sales conference, Frances Bilandic and Howard Cameron drove from home—in Willamantic and Pawcatuck—met at the Olive Garden in Mystic and talked things over one more time, touching fingertips nervously across the Formica tabletop.
The narrator continued in the story’s second sentence: “Then each went to the restroom and made a private, lying cell phone call to account for their whereabouts during the next few hours.”
“Under the Radar,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
On the drive over to the Nicholsons’ for dinner—their first in some time—Marjorie Reeves told her husband Steven Reeves, that she had had an affair with George Nicholson (their host) a year ago, but that it was all over with now and she hoped he—Steven—would not be mad about it and could go on with life.
“Privacy,” in A Multitude of Sins (2002)
This was at a time when my marriage was still happy.
The narrator, an unnamed writer—or, perhaps, a former writer—continued in the short story’s second paragraph: “We were living in a large city in the northeast. It was winter. February. The coldest month. I was, of course, still trying to write, and my wife was working as a translator for a small publishing company that specialized in Czech scientific papers. We had been married for ten years and were still enjoying that strange, exhilarating illusion that we had survived the worst of life’s hardships.”
In the fall of 1960, when I was 16 and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.
In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III wrote about this opening sentence: “This is an engaging voice: earnest without being morose; honest without being exhibitionistic; understated, humble and wise from years of trusting in questions more than in answers.”
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III provided some of the most complimentary words every written about a novel’s opening paragraph:
“On a purely plot-hungry basis, turning the page seems the only thing to do, but—as is so often the case with the fiction of Richard Ford—what actually happens in the story feels secondary, or at best equal, to the language itself. In the hands of a lesser writer, this can create problems: the prose begins to feel self-indulgent, written not to illuminate any truths but to please the writer, and in the process, story itself is lost and the reader is left behind. But Canada is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure—a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”
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.
Agony is socially unacceptable. One is not supposed to weep. Particularly is one not supposed to weep when one is moderately presentable and thirty-two. When one’s wife has been dead six months and everyone else has done grieving.
The words come from Tony Beach, a young wine merchant whose wife died six months earlier. He continued: “Ah well, they say, he’ll get over it. There’s always another pretty lady. Time’s a great healer, they say. No doubt they’re right. But oh dear God…the emptiness in my house.”
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.
The Art of Loving (1956)
Is love an art?
Opening a book with a rhetorical question is a time-honored way to immediately engage the reader, and Fromm—one of the great popularizers of psychological concepts to a lay audience—does that very nicely here.
In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one ‘falls into’ if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe in the latter.”
Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone [Book 9 of the Outlander Series] (2021)
You know that something is coming. Something—a specific, dire, and awful something—will happen. You envision it, you push it away. It rolls slowly, inexorably, back into your mind.
You make what preparation you can. Or you think you do, though your bones know the truth—there isn’t any way to sidestep, accommodate, lessen the impact. It will come, and you will be helpless before it.
You know these things.
And yet, somehow, you never think it will be today.
It’s been seven years since the last novel in the series—a period of time called a droughtlander by Gabaldon fans—and the Prologue of her most recent installment contains this eloquent description of an experience that will resonate with almost all readers. It was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Outlander [Book 1 of Outlander Series] (1991)
People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.
Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.
Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Voyager [Book 3 of Outlander Series] (1993)
He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd, in the circumstances.
I have a soft spot in my heart for oxymoronic opening lines, and this intriguing reflection describes the slightly disoriented James Fraser, whose eyelids are sealed shut from dry blood as he comes to consciousness in the middle of a casualty-filled battlefield. After removing a dead body that has been heavily draped over one of his legs, he sees hovering crows above and hears sounds of wailing from injured soldiers lying nearby.
The narrator says of him: “Memory flooded back, and he groaned aloud. He had been mistaken. This was hell. But James Fraser was unfortunately not dead, after all.”
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.”
In Chancery [Volume 2 of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)
The possessive instinct never stands still.
The narrator continued: “Through fluorescence and feud, frosts and fires, it followed the laws of progression even in the Forsyte family which had believed it fixed forever.”
Maid in Waiting (1931)
The Bishop of Porthminster was sinking fast; they had sent for his four nephews, his two nieces and their one husband. It was not thought that he would last the night.
Two nieces and their one husband? I’m sure Galsworthy must’ve enjoyed crafting that phrase.
The Man of Property [Volume I of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)
Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.
An upper middle-class family in full plumage is a magnificent metaphor in its own right, but when encased in a beautifully-crafted observation about a well-to-do English family, it makes for an unforgettable opening line.
Gabriel García Márquez
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)
The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.
In a 2005 review in The Oxonian Review (titled “The Nonagenarian and the Nymphette”), Glen Goodman wrote: “For most readers, this opening line may smack more of Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov than of the perfumed, sensual prose of Gabriel García Márquez; but, like the Nobel Prize winner’s previous novels, the first sentence of Memoria de mis putas tristes (literally “memoir of my sad whores”) engages the reader while encapsulating the central motivation of the narrative. The book—García Márquez’s first work of fiction in a decade—details the nonagenarian narrator’s first encounter with actual love, revealing the late-blooming romantic hidden deep within himself.“
Inside the O’Briens: A Novel (2015)
Damn woman is always moving his things. He can’t kick off his boots in the living room or set his sunglasses down on the coffee table without her relocating them to “Where they belong.” Who made her God in this house? If he wants to leave a stinking pile of his own shit in the middle of the kitchen table, then that’s where it should stay until he moves it.
Where the fuck is my gun?
“Rosie!” Joe hollers from the bedroom.
Inside the O’Briens is a dramatic fictional portrayal of the onset and development of Huntington’s Disease in a Massachusetts police officer named Joe O’Brien. In a beginning note to the reader, Genova briefly described the disease and concluded about it: “It has been called the cruelest disease known to man.”
“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.”
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.”
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 Princess Bride (1973)
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
This is a spectacular first sentence, and it’s easy to understand why it has piqued the curiosity of readers for nearly a half century. When readers encounter this oxymoronic opening for the first time, most quite naturally wonder, “How can a book become a favorite if one never reads it?” There is a satisfactory answer to that question, of course, and it has to do with reading a book oneself versus having someone else read the book to you.
As the novel unfolds, the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred from the outset, with Goldman suggesting he is writing an abridgement of a classic European tale by a writer named S. Morganstern (the full title and subtitle is The Princess Bride: S. Morganstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the “Good Parts” Version). There is no such author, of course, and no classic book; it’s simply a literary conceit employed by Goldman in order to create a number of different ways the story could be interpreted and understood.
In 1987, Rob Reiner came out with a film adaptation that was only a modest success at the time, but is now regarded as a Hollywood classic (in 2016, it was added to the National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films”).
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
I was ever of [the] opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single and only talked of population.
Dr. Charles Primrose, the novel’s narrator and title character, continued with what have become legendary words on how to choose a wife: “From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year, before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife, as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.”
Perfect Tunes (2020)
When Laura was sixteen she wrote a perfect song.
The narrator continued: “It was the first song she’d ever written, so she didn’t understand how hard it was to write even an okay song, or how hard it was to make anything new, in general. She still thought, then, that making something was primarily a way to have fun.”
Stephen Jay Gould
“A Most Ingenious Paradox,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Abstinence has its virtuous side, but enough is enough.
Looking for Alaska (2005)
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.
In his debut novel, Green spun a captivating coming-of-age tale featuring Miles Halter, a young man with a peculiar fascination with the last words of famous people (as in “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” from Rabelais).
In the opening paragraph, Miles continued: “Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years.”
The Fault is in Our Stars (2012)
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
The opening words come from 16-year-old Hazel Lancaster, who continued: “Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.
A review in The Manila Bulletin said about the author’s opening: “Just two paragraphs into the work, and he immediately wallops the readers with such an insightful observation delivered in such an unsentimental way that it’s hard not to shake your head in admiration.“
We soon learn that Hazel uses sarcasm and dark humor as a way of coping with her own diagnosis of terminal cancer (about which, she says, “thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs”). While attending the support group, she meets a fellow patient named Gus, and their unfolding story becomes totally engrossing. In a Time magazine review, Lev Grossman recalled Hazel’s observation that “Cancer books suck” to write that this particular cancer book “does not suck. In fact, it is damn near genius.”
The End of the Affair (1951)
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.
In this acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix, an up-and-coming English writer who is having an affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman. In the opening paragraph, Bendrix continued on the subject of how—and especially when—to begin a novel:
“I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’”
Havelock Ellis: A Biography (1980)
Havelock Ellis was a revolutionary, one of the seminal figures responsible for the creation of a modern sensibility, although, like most revolutionaries, he would not have been happy with the world he helped to create.
Water for Elephants (2007)
I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
The narrator, ninety-something nursing home resident Jacob Jankowski, is about to embark on a remarkable reminiscence. Before jumping in, he continues: “When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder is this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it is decades before you admit it.”
Ordinary People (1976)
To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.
This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines—a grand philosophical declaration with a dash of wit.
After all these years, I’m still not sure how it directly relates to the rest of the novel, but, given the wisdom as well as the beauty of the saying, that’s a small criticism. I’ve written a query letter to Ms. Guest, and I’m hoping she’ll be able to shed some light on the connection. Stay tuned.
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.
“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!“
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 Afterlife,” in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006)
When my mother died, my father’s early widowhood gave him social cachet he would not have had if they had divorced. He was a bigger catch for the sorrow attached.
These fascinating opening words describe a social reality I’ve since confirmed as true, but had never really thought about before reading Hempel’s wonderful short story. The narrator is the unnamed daughter of the widower in question, and, while her age is not mentioned, she comes across as someone in her late teens.
Inspired by Hempel’s own experiences after the death of her mother, the story captured the many different—and often hilarious—strategies that single women employed to win her father’s affection. In the end, they all failed, and there was only one conclusion for the daughter to reach: “My father’s life had ended with my mother’s death, and…what he inhabited now was a kind of afterlife—not dead, but not alive to possibility, to what else one might still choose.”
“The Gift of the Magi” (1905), in The Four Million (1906)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
When the story was first published in The New York Sunday World on Dec. 10, 1905, it was titled “Gifts of the Magi.” The title was changed, but nothing else, when it was reprinted a year later in The Four Million anthology.
In the second paragraph, the narrator continued by describing Della’s emotional state, and he concluded with an observation that went on to become one of O. Henry’s most famous quotations (I’ve placed the key portion in italics to make it more obvious): “There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.”
Of the hundreds of short stories Henry penned in his career, this sentimental Christmastime tale became his most popular. It’s been adapted to film four separate time, the first in 1917, and the best—starring Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger—in O. Henry’s Full House, a 1952 film anthology of five of the author’s most memorable short stories.
Parenthetically, many naysayers have asserted that, once the pennies were taken away, it would have been impossible for Della to get to $1.27 with the remaining coins. Ignore them, for they haven’t done their homework. in 1905, two-cent and three-cent coins were still in circulation, and that would have certainly done the trick.
The day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. Three times the mail had come with undesired letters and circulars to look through. I had done my breathing exercises, but found it convenient today to omit the thought exercises. I had been for an hour’s walk and seen the loveliest feathery cloud patterns penciled against the sky. That was very delightful. So was the reading of old books. So was the lying in the warm bath.
Impatient readers might be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking these are simply the meanderings of an aging, but contented man. But that would be a mistake. The protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, continued:
“But, taken all in all, it had not been exactly a day of rapture. No, it had not even been a day brightened with happiness and joy. Rather, it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn’t time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.”
Strangers on a Train (1950)
The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again.
Highsmith is, of course, best known for her novels and short stories, but she also wrote a well regarded non-fiction book on the writing of fiction: Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). On the subject of how to begin a book, she wrote in that work: “I prefer a first sentence in which something moves and gives action, rather than a sentence like, ‘The moonlight lay still and liquid on the pale beach.’” In her Strangers on a Train opener, she does that very nicely, setting the scene and also subtly suggesting that this is no ordinary train.
In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the novel into a film by the same title (Raymond Chandler was one of the film’s screenwriters). It received mixed reviews when it came out, but is now regarded as a film noir classic. The novel also inspired the 1987 black comedy Throw Momma from the Train, starring Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal.
Joanna Hines [now writing as Joanna Hodgkin]
The Murder Bird (2006)
Five weeks before Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.
This is such a powerful opening paragraph that it’s almost impossible for me to envision someone reading it and setting the book down. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine you’re a hard-to-entice type. If so, perhaps the remainder of the first paragraph will win you over:
“Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering quietly on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband’s chest.”
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.“
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.
Juliet, Naked (2009)
They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.
The narrator is describing an American trip taken by Annie and Duncan, a British couple on what can only be described as an unusual shopping trip to America.
The first paragraph continued: “The simple truth of this only struck Annie when they were actually inside it: apart from the graffiti on the walls, some of which made some kind of reference to the toilet’s importance in musical history, it was dank, dark, smelly and entirely unremarkable. Americans were very good at making the most of their heritage, but there wasn’t much even they could do here.”
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.”
High Fidelity (1995)
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
- Alison Ashworth
- Penny Hardwick
- Jackie Allen
- Charlie Nicholson
- Sarah Kendrew
One wouldn’t expect a list of anything to be a good way to begin a book, but when the list is preceded by the phrase “most memorable split-ups,” it immediately gets readers to reflect on their own romantic histories—and thereby becomes particularly enticing.
The opening words come from a 35-year-old London music junkie and record-store owner who is known only by his first name, Rob. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura. As soon as Rob “hooks” readers with his opening words, he reels them in as he continues in the second paragraph:
“These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.”
All in all, this is a brilliant opening. If you haven’t yet read Hornby’s spectacular debut novel, please try to rectify the error soon. In a New York Times review, Mark Jolly described the protagonist as “a fictional figure of Prufrockian pathos” and wrote the following about the novel: “Mr. Hornby captures the loneliness and childishness of adult life with such precision and wit that you’ll find yourself nodding and smiling. High Fidelity fills you with the same sensation that you get from hearing a debut record album that has more charm and verve and depth than anything you can recall.”
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….”
Les Misérables (1862; Norman Denny translation)
In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806.
The first paragraph of Hugo’s classic novel isn’t exactly a bell-ringer, but the second paragraph clearly reflected Hugo’s belief that readers always perked up when they were provided with rumor and gossip. The narrator continued:
“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell, we must nevertheless give some account of the rumors and gossip concerning him which were in circulation when he came to occupy the diocese.”
William Bradford Huie
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1951)
A six-foot-tall, yellow-haired whore from Mississippi was the most successful revolutionary of the Second War. Her name was Mamie Stover.
Few protagonists in literary history have been introduced as effectively, or as memorably. The narrator continued: “She made a fortune. The war wasn’t a disaster for her; it was an opportunity. It multiplied the demand for her merchandise. It brought her long lines of eager new customers.”
Huie’s novel was a blockbuster, selling over three million copies in paperback alone When 20th Century Fox acquired film rights in 1955, they intended it as a vehicle for Monroe, but they were never able to finalize a deal. Jane Russell ultimately starred in the 1956 film adaptation, and her performance was widely praised, even by critics who panned the film as a highly sanitized version of the original novel.
Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this legendary first sentence: “Every once in a while there comes an opening line that seems to have an entire story folded up inside it. But it’s just the label on the envelope. And I challenge you to withstand the urge to open it up and read the message.“
In 2005, Time magazine included Their Eyes Were Watching God on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. The opening line served as a springboard to two paragraphs that capture a familiar theme in gender dynamics—men and women pursue their dreams in very different ways:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
In a 2020 ThoughtCo.com article, writer Julia Pearson nicely summarized the meaning of the opening paragraphs: “The metaphor of ‘ships at a distance’ describes how reality is shaped differently for men and women. Men view their dreams far away, and few are able to fulfill them (only ‘some’ who are lucky to have them ‘come in with the tide’). Women, on the other hand, don’t think of dreams as far-away vessels they will never set foot on. For women, ‘the dream is the truth.’”
The Quiet Game [Book 1 of the Penn Cage series] (1999)
I am standing in line for Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World ride, holding my four-year-old daughter in my arms, trying to entertain her as the serpentine line of parents and children moves slowly toward the flat-bottomed boats emerging from the grotto to the music of an endless audio loop. Suddenly Annie jerks taut in my arms and points into the crowd.
“Daddy! I saw Mama! Hurry!”
I do not look. I don’t ask where. I don’t because Annie’s mother died seven months ago. I stand motionless in the line, looking just like everyone else except for the hot tears that have begun to sting my eyes.
This is a heart-tugging beginning, and every reader who’s ever lost a loved one will likely feel an immediate connection with the narrator, a former Houston prosecutor and bestselling writer named Penn Cage. Cage went on to be featured in six additional Iles mystery stories. A seventh is in-the-works.
Francis Iles (pen name of Anthony Berkeley Cox)
Malice Aforethought (1931)
It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.
In The Life of a Provincial Lady (1988), a biography of the English mystery writer E. M. Delafield, Violet Powell hailed this opener as an “immortal sentence.” I concur.
Iles is not especially well remembered by modern readers, but he was very popular in the 1920s and 30s (he also wrote under the pen names Anthony Berkeley and A. Monmouth Platts). Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an “inverted detective story,“ a mystery novel in which the crime and the perpetrator of the crime are revealed at the beginning of the tale—and the rest of the story is centered around the solution.
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.”
“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.”
“Louisa Pallant,” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1888)
Never say you know the last word about any human heart!
This is one of James’s very best opening lines, and one of his least well-known. In an observation that brilliantly captures an eternal truth about the human experience, the line opens a story about how the beautiful Louisa has rejected the unnamed narrator for a richer man. The marriage turns out to be a disaster, however, and after her husband’s death, Louisa has been left with only a pittance. She goes on to raise a child who is also quite beautiful, and who embodies many of her own flaws, only more so (if the story sounds familiar, it contains hints of Dicken’s 1860 classic, Great Expectations).
The unnamed narrator continued: “I was once treated to a revelation which startled and touched me in the nature of a person with whom I had been acquainted—well, as I supposed, for years, whose character I had had good reasons, heaven knows, to appreciate and in regard to whom I flattered myself I had nothing more to learn.”
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots (2020)
I was seven years old when I learned that I wasn’t my father’s only daughter.
Jerkins continued: “He pulled me to his side and said he had something to show me. I assumed that is was a gift. He would regularly visit me at my mother’s home, bringing niceties along with his charisma and swagger. Instead, he pulled out his wallet and showed me photos of three girls before saying, ‘These are your sisters.’”
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
In a 1999 New York Times book review (titled “The Eighteen-Year Itch”), Francine Prose wrote: “Waiting has the sort of first sentence...that commands us to read the second, which makes us read the third, and so on until we’re too caught up in the novel to marvel that its plot--the story of a couple waiting chastely and more or less patiently for 18 years until they can get married--should seem so suspenseful.“ The novel went on to win the 1999 National Book Award for Fiction.
In a 2013 blog post, writer Colin Falconer ranked Ha Jin’s first sentence Number 9 on his list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History.“ About it, he quipped: “Every year?“
Gareth P. Jones
Constable & Toop (2013)
In her last few moments of life, as the blood gushed from the knife wound in her neck, Emily Wilkins found her thoughts drifting to her mother’s death.
Gareth P. Jones
The Thornthwaite Inheritance (2010)
Lorelli and Ovid Thorhthwaite had been trying to kill each other for so long that neither twin could remember which act of attempted murder came first.
Only in the opening lines of children’s literature do we find murder portrayed so matter-of-factly, or discussed in such a diabolically delicious manner. In the opening paragraph, the narrator went on to add: “Was it Lorelli’s cunning scheme to put on a play about the French Revolution, casting Ovid in the role of an aristocrat to be executed using a working guillotine? Or could it have been that long hot summer when Ovid managed to produce an ice lolly containing a small but deadly explosive, triggered by the surrounding ice reaching melting point.”
About the opening sentence, Jones said in response to a query from me that he considered it “one of my stronger opening lines.“ He went on to add, “I often describe the line as a key that unlocks the story and advise young readers to re-read it once they know what happens and see how the essence of the story is contained in that one sentence.“
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 Vegetarian (2007 in Korean; 2016 in English)
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.
Originally published in South Korea as three linked novellas, The Vegetarian came out in English nine years later as a standalone novel. The opening observation from the protagonist's husband hints at some kind of major personal transformation, but we're left wondering: what does it have to do with vegetarianism? The novel was hailed from the first days of publication, and went on to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Cherry: A Memoir (2000)
No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars--bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for. In fact, to disembark from your origins, you’ve done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy.
Lit: A Memoir (2009)
Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.
Karr begins Book Three of her memoirs with a Prologue titled “Open Letter to My Son.“ She continued: “It’s true that—at fifty to your twenty—my brain is dimmer. Your engine of recall is way superior, as you’ve often pointed out.
The Liar’s Club: A Memoir (1995)
Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it. He sat back on his knees and held the tile up so the sun through aged yellow curtains seemed to pierce the hole like a laser. He winked at my sister Lecia and me before turning to my gray-haired mother, now bent over her copy of Marcus Aurelius and a bowl of sinus-opening chili, and he quipped, “Now Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.“
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?“
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blas?, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry.“ She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.“
These three paragraphs open the Introduction to Karr’s memoir, and they should be required reading for anyone who believes a short, pithy hook is the best way to begin a book. Karr went on to add in the next paragraph: “Which tells you first off why I chose to write The Liar’s Club as memoir instead of fiction: when fortune hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up?“
In some cases, it’s difficult to determine what actually constitutes a book’s “opening words.“ After the several-page Introduction, the actual first sentence of Chapter One (“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark”) is followed by a memory from age seven when Karr was being examined by a doctor who “had a long needle hidden behind his back.“ It’s an interesting and well-written beginning, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the opening paragraphs of the Introduction.
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.
Love, etc. (1979)
And they lived happily ever after. Well, not exactly. Actually, not at all. As a matter of fact, miserably. To tell the truth, their life together was sheer hell, and their struggles to free themselves from each other were disastrous.
After this nifty oxymoronic opening—with the captivating idea of a happily miserable couple whose marriage is not unlike a Chinese finger puzzle—only the nearly comatose would fail to read on.
She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman (2004)
The premise of this book is simple: when it comes to pleasuring women and conversing in the language of love, cunnilingus should be every man’s native tongue.
It’s hard to imagine a better—or more clever—way to begin a sex manual. This opening sentence may shock the sensibilities of some, but those who are offended are almost certainly not members of the target audience.
In the book, Kerner continued in the first paragraph: “As bestselling author Lou Paget has written, ‘Ask most women, and if they’re being honest, they will admit that what makes them hottest and come hardest is when a man can use his tongue well.’”
I also admired the lovely metaphorical way Kerner began the book’s second paragraph: “But as with any language, in order to express yourself fluently, in order to make your subject sing and soar, you must be thoroughly acquainted with the rules of grammar and style.”
More Myself: A Journey (2020; with Michelle Burford)
I am seven. My mom and I are side by side in the back seat of a yellow taxi, making our way up Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan on a dead-cold day in December. We hardly ever take cabs. They’re a luxury for a single parent and part-time actress. But on this afternoon, maybe because Mom has just finished an audition near my school, PS 116 on East Thirty-third Street, or maybe because it’s so freezing we can see our breath, she picks me up.
This is a lovely, but soft beginning to a high-impact introduction. As the cab drives mother and daughter through the then-seedy 42nd Street neighborhood, seven-year-old Alicia is confused by the sight of scantily-clad women in tight dresses and fishnet stockings standing in the cold, rubbing their hands together to stay warm.
When Alicia asks why these women are standing out in the cold, her mother replies, “When people go through hard times, they often have to do things they don’t want to. Those women are just trying to survive.“ If her mother’s answer had involved information about sex, or pimps, or drugs, it would’ve been too much for a young girl’s mind to grasp—and, it turns out, such words were not necessary.
Keyes concluded her introductory words by writing: “What she does somehow convey is a truth I still carry with me: the women I’ve spotted aren’t on that corner by choice, but by circumstance. Without another word, I slide down into the cracked leather seat and make a silent agreement with myself. I will never be in a situation like that. Vulnerable. Powerless. Exposed.“
Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of Longings (2020)
I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.
This was one of my selections for The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020. The idea that Jesus had a wife, and that she is telling the story of their life together, is compelling. It also raises a question few have ever asked: What kind of husband would Jesus have been?
In the novel, Ana continued: “He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan. I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.”
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.“
I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually.
After a so-so start, the opening words of the novel begin to soar when narrator Devin Jones—a college student with a summer job at a North Carolina amusement park—continues: “By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?”
In a 2013 New York Times review, Walter Kim wrote about the protagonist: “Devin, who dreamed of being a novelist but ended up as a writer for magazines, comes across as a version of King himself, which lends his narration a winking, intimate quality.” And Kim went on to write about the book: “King’s ambition this time around isn’t to snatch us and hold us in his grasp but to loft us up high, then briskly set us down the way a Ferris wheel does. Or a first love.”
Lisey’s Story (2006)
To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.
The opening line introduces readers to the widow of the famous actor Scott Landon. After two years of struggling with the loss of her husband, she is finally getting around to cleaning out his office. In the process, all kinds of memories come flooding back to her—and, in typical Stephen King fashion, other strange and unusual events also begin to unfold.
In an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2013, King was asked which of his novels was his favorite. While he answered that it was Lisey’s Story, you should know he has answered this question differently over the years. The novel was a favorite of many other people as well, winning the 2006 Bram Stoker Award.
I don’t like to start with an apology—there’s probably even a rule against it—but after reading over the first thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to.
The words come from Jamie Conklin, a young boy who is living in Manhattan with single mom Tia, a literary agent. Even though the opening words have a Holden Caulfield feel to them, Jamie is not an ordinary boy. Since birth, he has possessed a special ability to communicate with dead people.
In the opening paragraph, Jamie continued: “It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will soon find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in “Later on” and “Later I found out” and “It was only later that I realized.”
The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)
The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.
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.”
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]
Nobody is Ever Missing (2014)
There might be people in this world who can read minds against their will and if that kind of person exists I am pretty sure my husband is one of them. I think this because of what happened the week I knew I’d be leaving soon, but he didn’t know.
This is a sad opening line, true, but it also provides a revealing glimpse into the interior world of an unhappily married woman. The narrator and protagonist, 28-year-old Elyria Marcus, continued:
“I knew I needed to tell him this but I couldn’t imagine any possible way to get my mouth to make those words, and since my husband can unintentionally read minds, he drank a great deal more than usual that week, jars of gin mostly, but tall beers from the deli, too. He’d walk in sipping a can hidden in a paper bag, smile like it was a joke.
“I would laugh.
“He would laugh.
“Inside our laughing we weren’t really laughing.“
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.“
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.”
Hard Laughter (1979)
My family lived for fifteen years in a castle built more than a century ago by an eccentric man who wanted his Rhine-born wife to feel at home when he brought her to live in California.
Any mention of an American castle is certain to arouse interest, but especially when the opening sentence is so crisply and cleanly written. In Lamott’s debut novel, inspired by her own father’s battle with brain cancer, the narrator is a 23-year-old writer and part-time housecleaner named Jennifer. She continued: “It was a monstrous rock construction two hundred feet above San Francisco Bay, surrounded by cypress trees, two stories of rock with a trapdoor underneath the kitchen table and two caves in the back of the house, one of which was said to have led to the beach during bootlegging days.“
Blue Shoes (2002)
The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.
The narrator continued: “Those trees were one reason she’d moved back into her parents’ old room after leaving Nicholas, those trees and the sloping grassy hillside behind the house.”
In a 2008 Writer’s Digest article (“The Big Grab”), writer James Scott Bell emphasized the importance of creating a sense of intrigue in a novel’s first lines. About these opening words, he wrote: “In this example, Lamott starts with description. But she gets a character into the mix by the third sentence. And then she drops in a line indicating something amiss—her husband isn’t where he should be. We have a feeling of unease. Mattie is in the midst of a troubling situation and is going to have to do something about it.”
Imperfect Birds (2010)
There are so many evils that pull on our children. Even in the mellow town of Landsdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses, or jail. Once a year a child from the county of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the second paragraph, the narrator grimly continued: “Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday-morning comings and goings of townspeople, and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds.“
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.
The Cunning Linguist Ribald Riddles, Lascivious Limericks, Carnal Corn, and Other Good, Clean Dirty Fun (2003)
In a junior high-school biology class the teacher asks a student, “Mary please name the part of the human body that expands to six times its normal size and explain under what conditions.”
Blushing bright red, Mary simpers, “Teacher that is not a proper question to ask me, and I can’t answer it in front of the class.”
The teacher turns to another student and asks, “All right, Johnny, do you have the answer”
“The pupil of the eye, and in dim light.”
Lederer continued by having the teacher say: “Correct. Now Mary, I want to tell you three things. First, you didn’t do your homework last night. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, when you grow up, you’re going to be dreadfully disappointed.”
If we were to apply the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system to Lederer’s more than fifty books, all but this one would probably be G-Rated. The Cunning Linguist probably deserves a PG Rating—not just for the occasionally raunchy content, but also for the punning title (if you can’t figure it out on your own, ask a more worldly friend).
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.
“Until Gwen,” in The Atlantic (June 2004)
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
In a 2005 Boston Globe article, Bella English revealed that Lehane “had this opening sentence kicking around in his head for eight years, but no place to put it.” She continued: “He couldn’t for the life of him find the right vehicle for it; it just didn’t fit into anything he was working on. Then he was asked to write a short story for an anthology, with one requirement: It had to have something to do with fathers and sons.”
In a 2014 article in the Hunger Mountain Review (“7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader”), writer and editor Miciah Bay Gault hailed this as an “all-time favorite” and cleverly described it as “a speed-date of a first line.” She added: “In one sentence we learn about the narrator’s crappy childhood, crappy present life, criminal background, and criminal father. We get a sense of the characters’ relative ages and a bit of the setting. In this line we understand that daddy is perfectly willing to put his son in jeopardy. Because the narrator has chosen to let us in on that fact, we sympathize with a potentially unsympathetic protagonist and we believe he wants to go straight. Wow. That’s a lot to pack into one line, a powerful first sentence that seduced me into reading more.”
“The Tonto Woman,” in Roundup: An Anthology of Great Stories by the Western Writers of America (1982)
A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession.”
Vega continued in the opening paragraph: “Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only.” And the priest would say, “Do you mean bad women or good women?” And Ruben Vega would say, “They are all good, Father.”
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).
“Game of Crones,” in Longreads.com (May 2019)
My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.
Lippmann, fifty years old when she and her husband adopted a baby girl, found an intriguing way to introduce her essay on the topic of older mothers. She was invited to write the piece for the Longreads.com “Fine Lines” series.
Priestdaddy: A Memoir (2017)
“Before they allowed your father to be a priest,” my mother tells me, “they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace.”
Priestdaddy was one of the most acclaimed memoirs of 2017, an extraordinary recounting of Lockwood’s experiences as the daughter of a Lutheran minister who became a highly unconventional Catholic priest. It also had what I regard as the best opening line of the year in the world of non-fiction—a perfect signal to readers that this would be a memoir with both wit and edge.
In a New York Times review, Dwight Garner was clearly thinking about Lockwood’s opening salvo when he wrote that the book “roars from the start.” Priestdaddy went on to win the 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor. And in 2019, The New York Times included it on its list of “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.“
“Willy,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
My mother was seeing another man. His name was Willy.
We’re used to seeing the phrase, “My wife was seeing another man,” but to see it applied to mothers is fresh and unexpected. It’s also a helpful reminder than an affair does not merely involve a husband and a wife, but sometimes an entire family.
In the opening paragraph, Lopate continued: “It may have been childish confusion—I was eight years old at the time—or a trick memory plays on us, but I seem to remember the Jeep he drove was also a Willys. This car has disappeared from modern life. I am unable even to picture it. But at the time it colored all my thinking about the affair.”
“Samson and Delilah and the Kids,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
I grew up in the era of the great Jewish Lovers.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to this opening line is probably something along the lines of: “The era of the great Jewish lovers? When was that?”
Lopate clearly anticipated that reaction, and continued: “Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba were burning up screens across the land. I never managed to see David and Bathsheba (though I know the coming attractions by heart), because the movie industry in its wisdom decreed that I was too young for this adulterous tale. Inconsistently, they let me into Samson and Delilah when I was seven.”
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.”
Love and Will (1989)
The striking thing about love and will in our day is that, whereas in the past they were always held up to us as the answer to life’s predicaments, they have now themselves become the problem.
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir (1996)
My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
In his memoir, McCourt continued: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
McCourt’s memoir was one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography.
George Barr McCutcheon
Brewster’s Millions (1902)
“The Little Sons of the Rich” were gathered about the long table in Pettingill’s studio. There were nine of them present, besides Brewster. They were all young, more or less enterprising, hopeful, and reasonably sure of better things to come. Most of them bore names that meant something in the story of New York. Indeed, one of them had remarked, “A man is known by the street that’s named after him,“ and as he was a new member, they called him “Subway.“
McCutcheon has been almost completely forgotten by modern readers, but he was very popular in the early decades of the 20th century (of his 42 novels, 25 were made into silent films). Brewster’s Millions (1902) was his most enduring work, adapted into a successful 1906 stage play, and then into a number of films over the rest of the century (including a most enjoyable 1985 version starring Richard Pryor).
George Barr McCutcheon
A Fool and His Money (1913)
I am quite sure it was my Uncle Rilas who said that I was a fool.
I was immediately engaged when I first came upon this line, thinking to myself, “I don’t know for sure, but if one of my uncles said I was a fool, I’m pretty sure I would remember which one he was.“
The narrator continued in a way that further engaged me: “If memory serves me well he relieved himself of that conviction in the presence of my mother— whose brother he was— at a time when I was least competent to acknowledge his wisdom and most arrogant in asserting my own. I was a freshman in college: a fact—or condition perhaps— which should serve as an excuse for both of us.
“An Old Man Who Liked to Fish,” in Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories (2018)
The Smiths were a very old couple, whose lifelong habits of exercise and outdoor living and careful diet had resulted in their seeming tiny—tiny, pale and almost totemic—as they spread a picnic tablecloth on my front lawn and arranged their luncheon.
The narrator continued: “Since I live with reckless inattention to what I eat, I watched with fascination as they set out apples, cheese, red wine and the kind of artisanal bread that looks like something found in the road. The Smiths were the last friends of my parents still alive. And to the degree we spend our lives trying to understand our parents, I always looked to Edward and Diana’s visits as a pleasant forensic exercise.”
In a New York Times review, Justin Taylor wrote: “There’s so much to praise and parse here that I hardly know where to begin. How about the way that the light visual comedy of the bread is juxtaposed with the cerebral, astringent humor of the phrase “pleasant forensic exercise”? How about the shift, over four sinuous sentences, from detachment to intimacy, as the narrator reveals his relationship to the Smiths?”
“Balloons,” in The New Yorker (May 10, 2021)
Ten years before Joan Krebs left her husband, Roger, and moved back to Cincinnati, I spotted the two of them dining alone by the bricked-up fireplace in the Old Eagle Grill. She was a devoted daughter, her father a sportsman with well-bred dogs, who arrived once a year to peer at Roger and inspect the marriage
Opening paragraphs don’t get much better, and the concluding portion about a yearly inspection of the marriage is one of the best things ever written on the subject. McGuane was eighty-one when the short story was published, and I was delighted to see an old master still functioning at the top of his game.
The narrator, we shortly discover, is a local physician who is having an affair with Joan. He continued: “Roger always saluted his father-in-law’s departure with the words ‘Good riddance.’ In those days, Joan stirred up our town with her air of dangerous glamour and the sense that her marriage to Roger couldn’t possibly last.”
Brightness Falls (1992)
The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together was the weekend of the final softball game between the addicts and the depressives.
This is a magnificent opening sentence, perfectly capturing how folks in the 1990s recovery world viewed their lives—with addicts and depressives playing baseball as natural and matter-of-fact as the Red Sox and Yankees. The opening words begin a kind of prologue to the novel, although it is not formally titled as such, and the unnamed narrator continued with an impressive display of writing talent:
“The quality of play was erratic, the recovering addicts being depressed from lack of their chosen medications and the depressives heavily dosed with exotic chemical bullets aimed at their elusive despair. Being myself among the clinically numb, I don’t remember the outcome of the game now, though I submit that taken together we were as representative a group as you could hope to field at that juncture in history. It was the fall of 1987.”
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).
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.
Sin Killer [Book 1 of the Berrybender Narratives] (2002)
In the darkness beyond the great Missouri’s shore at last lay the West, toward which Tasmin and her family, the numerous Berrybenders, had so long been tending.
New Moon [Book 2 of The Twilight Saga] (2006)
I felt like I was trapped in one of those terrifying nightmares, the one where you have to run, run till your lungs burst, but you can’t make your body move fast enough.
Eclipse [Book 3 of The Twilight Saga] (2007)
All our attempts at subterfuge had been in vain
I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months–but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
In a 2016 article in The Guardian, Ciara Murphy wrote: “Love it or hate it, Twilight has what I consider to be one of the best opening lines in YA fiction. We’re immediately thrust into the action, with a whole backstory to catch up on and a heroine who (assuming she’s going to narrate the entire book) needs to execute an escape Houdini would be proud of. This is what I call a hook.”
The opening words come from a teenage girl named Bella Swan, who continues: “I stared across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and she looked pleasantly back at me.” And in the next paragraph, Bella added: “At least it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.”
The Silent Patient (2019)
Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband.
This is the entire first paragraph of Chapter One. In the second, the narrator continued: “They had been married for seven years. They were both artists—Alicia was a painter, and Gabriel a well-known fashion photographer.”
The dramatic opening sentence doesn’t come out of the blue, however. The book’s Prologue hauntingly begins with a lengthy entry Alicia has made in a book with blank pages that her husband has given her.
After titling it “Alicia Berenson’s Diary,” she begins: “I don’t know why I’m writing this. That’s not true. Maybe I do know and just don’t want to admit it to myself. I don’t even know what to call it—this thing I’m writing. It feels a little pretentious to call it a diary. It’s not like I have anything to say.”
As Alicia continues, it is clear she is struggling with depression, a matter so concerning to her husband that he believes it will be helpful for her to record her thoughts in a diary. Her first entry has some foreboding elements, but she ends it by writing: “This is going to be a joyful record of ideas and images that inspire me artistically, things that make a creative impact on me. I’m only going to write positive, happy, normal thoughts. No crazy thoughts allowed.”
Tropic of Capricorn (1939)
Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.
It must have been a Thursday night when I met her for the first time—at the dance hall. I reported to work in the morning, after an hour or two’s sleep, looking like a somnambulist.
In this deeply autobiographical novel, the unnamed narrator is an unhappily married man who is smitten by a dance hall girl. He continued: “The day passed like a dream. After dinner I fell asleep on the couch and awoke fully dressed about six the next morning. I felt thoroughly refreshed, pure at heart, and obsessed with one idea—to have her at any cost.”
In her tight-fitting Persian dress, with turban to match, she looked ravishing, Spring had come and she had donned a pair of long gloves and a beautiful taupe fur slung carelessly about her full columnar neck. We had chosen Brooklyn Heights in which to search for an apartment, thinking to get as far away as possible from everyone we knew….
Tropic of Cancer (1934)
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
In Your First Page (2019), writer and writing teacher Peter Selgin called this an “iconoclastic” opening. He went on to add: “‘We are alone here and we are dead’ is still one heckuva way to begin a novel. Imagine how it must have struck people in 1934. Whether one admires Henry Miller’s convictions or not, he had the courage of them.”
Gone With the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.
In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers far, far nicer than the book would have them be.“
Despite the problems enumerated by Whitfield, the novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also gave readers one of the most unforgettable female characters in the history of literature, brought to life in an equally unforgettable way by Vivian Leigh in David O. Selznick’s 1939 film adaptation.
In the novel, the narrator continued about Scarlett: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.“
The Bone Clocks (2014)
I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.
The opening words come from 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who is wildly infatuated with a 24-year-old man named Vinnie. In the opening paragraph, Holly continued: “Last night, the words just said themselves, ‘Christ, I really love you, Vin.” and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice, ‘One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,’ and I nearly weed myself laughing.”
In a New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “Dazzling,” adding “Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language—its rhythms, sounds and inflections.”
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967)
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
Morris, a zoologist and former curator of mammals at the London Zoo, said his purpose in writing the book was to examine human beings in the same way that members of his profession had previously studied animals. In his opening words, he continued: “This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.”
Shortly after publication, the book became an international bestseller, translated into more than two dozen languages. Part of the book’s popularity came from Morris’s clear and often captivating prose—as seen in his opening words. But it is also clear that many readers were attracted by the book’s titillating details, including Morris’s assertion that, compared to other mammals, male human beings had the highest ratio of penis size to body mass (it was for this and a few other reasons that Morris described human beings as “the sexiest primate alive”).
The Nice and the Good (1968)
A head of department, working quietly in his room in Whitehall on a summer afternoon, is not accustomed to being disturbed by the nearby and indubitable sound of a revolver shot.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “At one moment a lazy fat man, a perfect sphere his loving wife called him, his name Octavian Gray, was slowly writing a witty sentence in a neat tiny hand upon creamy official paper while he inhaled from his breath the pleasant sleepy smell of an excellent lunch-time burgundy. Then came the shot.”
The Black Prince (1973)
It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, “Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.”
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.”
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.“
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
These legendary opening words come from Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who, from the moment he first sees 12-year-old Dolores Haze sunbathing in a garden, goes completely gaga (he goes on to describe her as a “nymphet” and privately nicknames her Lolita).
In the novel, Humbert continued: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
When it came out, Lolita was widely regarded as a lewd or erotic novel, but apart from the unsettling pedophilic theme, there’s little lewdness, and even less eroticism, to be found in it. And, further, since the novel includes a murder, it might even be technically regarded as a crime story. I believe this is what writer Colin Falconer had in mind when he wrote about the opener in a recent blog post: “The best opening to a crime novel since Donald Westlake.” See Falconer’s post here.
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.
The Time Traveller’s Wife (2003)
It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
In this hard-to-classify novel (part romance novel, part science-fiction), the opening words come from Chicago artist Clare Anne Abshire, wife of Henry DeTamble, a librarian with a rare genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel through time.
The Time Traveller’s Wife was a stunningly successful debut novel for Niffenegger, a Chicago visual artist who said she wrote the book as a metaphor for her many failed romantic relationships. An immediate New York Times bestseller, it was named the 2003 Amazon Book of the Year.
Her Fearful Symmetry (2009)
Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup. Later he would remember walking down the hospital corridor with the cup of horrible tea in his hand, alone under the fluorescent lights, retracing his steps to the room where Elspeth lay surrounded by machines. She had turned her head towards the door and her eyes were open; at first Robert thought she was conscious.
The Moon’s a Balloon (1971)
Nessie, when I first saw her, was seventeen years old, honey-blond, pretty rather than beautiful, the owner of a voluptuous but somehow innocent body and a pair of legs that went on for ever. She was a Picadilly whore. I was a fourteen-year-old heterosexual schoolboy and I met her thanks to my stepfather. (If you would like to skip on and meet Nessie more fully, she reappears on page 41.)
When the English publisher Hamish Hamilton published Niven’s memoir in Great Britain in 1971, this was the spectacular opening. However, if you went on to read Dell Publishing’s American version of the book, published a year later, you saw a different opening. Clearly, American publishers felt great discomfort about broaching the idea of sex with a minor girl, so they persuaded Niven to modify his opening paragraph. He made a few other tweaks as well, as you will see below:
“Nessie, when I first saw her, was nineteen, honey-blond, pretty rather than beautiful, a figure like a two-armed Venus de Milo who had been on a sensible diet, had a pair of legs that went on forever, and a glorious sense of the ridiculous. She was a Picadilly whore. I was a fourteen-year-old heterosexual schoolboy, and I met her thanks to my stepfather. (If you would like to skip on and meet Nessie more fully, she reappears on page 42.)”
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
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.
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.”
It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.
The year is 2091 and the narrator is Lena Haloway, a 17-year-old girl who continues: “Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already. My older sister, Rachel, has been disease free for nine years now. She’s been safe from love for so long, she says she can’t even remember its symptoms. I’m scheduled to have my procedure in exactly ninety-five days.”
In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “From the first line of her novel, Oliver welcomes us into a world very much unlike our own, with a unique twist on the dystopian theme, and promises us a love story quite unlike any we’ve ever read before.”
A Little Bit Married (1984)
Marjorie should have known that there were rough times ahead when her husband announced, over ordinary power, that he felt like God.
The narrator continued: “He had, over the years, felt godlike, and like a God, but this was the closest he had ever come to being the ruler of the universe Himself. It should have alarmed Marjorie, because God had never taken a wife.”
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1972)
A few years ago, on the East Side of Manhattan, not far from Bloomingdale’s, a man set up a business where he sold diet shakes, delicious chocolate milk shakes having only seventy-seven calories. Well, I tell you, fat young girls came from near and far and lined up around the block at lunchtime. Only seventy-seven calories and such heaven! I was one of the ones that had two for lunch every day.
Robert B. Parker
Hugger Mugger [Book 27 in the Spenser series] (2000)
I was at my desk, in my office, with my feet up on the windowsill, and a yellow pad in my lap, thinking about baseball. It’s what I always think about when I’m not thinking about sex.
In the novel’s opening paragraph, Spenser continued with a reference to Boston therapist Susan Silverman, his longtime girlfriend: “Susan says that supreme happiness for me would probably involve having sex while watching a ball game. Since she knows this, I’ve never understood why, when we’re at Fenway Park, she remains so prudish.”
“Easter Sunday,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
My mother and I had moved, right in the height or depths of the Depression, over to New Mexico, in a town near Carlsbad, where her friend Milly Stamps lived. I was eleven years old, Mom was in her forties, and Dad was dead.
The narrator, a boy named Peter, continued: “I had taken to dreaming about him, but the dreams were always about him, never with him if you know what I mean.”
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.”
The Book of Two Ways (2020)
My calendar is full of dead people.
The opening words come from protagonist Dawn Edelstein, whose phone has just awakened her from a deep sleep while on an airplane flight. She continues: “When my phone alarm chimes, I fish it out from the pocket of my cargo pants. I’ve forgotten, with the time change, to turn off the reminder. I’m still groggy with sleep, but I open the date and read the names.”
House Rules (2010)
Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.
The first paragraph is a classic hook. As soon as readers take the bait, the next two paragraphs begin to reel them in:
“He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.
Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.”
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 Dog of the South (1979)
My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October.
These words introduce us to Raymond E. Midge, a Little Rock, Arkansas ex-newspaper reporter who has now returned to college to work on a degree. He continued: “They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles.”
A 1979 Kirkus Review said of the novel: “Portis holds our attention in a headlock by being so relaxed and unfazed and good-natured—in a funky, off-center book that never guns its motor and yet is always arriving at some place that’s green and fresh and funny.“
The Disappearance of Childhood (1982)
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
This is not simply a Great Opening Line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic of children (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 children).
The Echo Maker (2006)
Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk.
It’s always nice to see a novel begin with a beautiful description, but this one also contains the interesting tidbit that a flock of cranes may also be correctly called a kettle (technically, a kettle is a gathering of any group of soaring birds—including cranes and vultures—that utilize circular updrafts of warm air to gain elevation).
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.”
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.”
The Newsmakers (1987)
It was when Jo threw the television at him that David briefly realized all was not well with their marriage.
A legendary figure in the world of quotations, Rees was the longtime host of BBC Radio 4’s popular quiz show “Quote…Unquote.” He has authored scores of acclaimed reference books on quotations, phrases, and sayings, many regarded as classics. He also wrote a few novels, and in The Newsmakers, he proved he could also craft a superb opening line.
Asta’s Book [written under the pen name Barbara Vine and published in the U.S. under the title Anna’s Book] (1993)
My grandmother was a novelist without knowing it.
The opening line of the novel is the first entry made in a diary begun in 1905 by 25-year-old Asta, a Danish woman living in East London with her husband and two sons. Asta, who is pregnant and hoping for a daughter this time, has no idea as she is writing these words that her diary will one day become famous all over England.
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.”
“The Big Nap,” in The New Yorker (July 6, 2021); and ultimately in the anthology New Teeth: Stories (2021)
The detective woke up just after dawn. It was a typical morning. His knees were scraped and bruised, his clothes were damp and soiled, and his teeth felt like someone had socked him in the jaw. He reached for the bottle he kept under his pillow and took a sloppy swig. The taste was foul, but it did the trick.
In a New York Times review, Sarah Lyall wrote about this opening paragraph: “Alert readers will recognize the cadence, vocabulary and world-weary tone of Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. But this detective is even more clueless than Philip Marlowe: He’s a toddler looking for a lost stuffed unicorn who can’t even figure out how the client, his own baby sister, got into the house.”
By the time we finish the story’s second paragraph, it’s abundantly clear that we’re in for an entertaining ride—or should I say entertaining read. The detective continued: “Her past was murky. The detective had heard that she came from the hospital. But there was also a rumor she’d once lived inside Mommy’s tummy. It didn’t add up. Still, a job was a job. ‘So, what brings you here?’ asked the detective”
In her review, Lyall continued about the story: “A triumph of sustained humor that works equally well as a parody of hard-boiled noir detective fiction and as a moving account of siblings banding together against a world that makes no sense, “The Big Nap” is the best thing in an uneven but mostly delightful book by the extravagantly talented Rich. Really, I wish I could just keep quoting from it.”
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps. It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resume for a minute more. Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.
Manipulating his kneecaps? Where on earth could this be going? It all becomes clear—and delightfully so—as Roach continues in her opening paragraph: “The study concerns human sexual response. Kneecap manipulation elicits no sexual response, on this planet anyway, and that is why the man is doing it: It’s the control activity. (Earlier, the man was told to manipulate the more usual suspect while the researchers measured whatever it was they were measuring.)”
About Bonk, writer A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) said: “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That’s a godsend!” As we saw earlier with Roach’s Stiff book, many of the opening lines of other chapters in Bonk are also inspired. Let me cite a few examples. In Ch. 2 (“Dating the Penis-Camera”), Roach began: “Let me state it simply. Women came into Masters and Johnson’s laboratory and had sex with a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—their physical responses to it.”
Ch. 6 (“The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring”), opened this way: “A man having penis surgery is the opposite of a man in a fig leaf. He is concealed face-to-feet in surgical sheets, with only his penis on view. It appears in a small, square cutout in the fabric, spotlit by surgical lamps.”
And in Ch. 12 (“Mind Over Vagina”), Roach’s opening paragraph began: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the ‘vaginal vestibule.’ Take off your coat and stay awhile.”
“The Kiss,” in Playboy (Feb., 1990); reprinted under the title “Kissing” in Wild Ducks Flying Backward (2005)
Kissing is our greatest invention. On the list of great inventions, it ranks higher than the Thermos bottle and the Airstream trailer; higher, even, than room service, possibly because the main reason room service was created was so people could stay in bed and kiss without going hungry.
These are the opening lines of arguably the most entertaining essay ever written on the subject of kissing. Robbins went on to write: “Kissing . . . didn’t imitate nature so much as it restructured it. Kissing molded the face into a brand-new shape, the pucker shape, and then, like some renegade scientist grafting plops of sea urchin onto halves of ripe pink plums, it found a way to fuse the puckers, to meld them and animate them, so that one pucker rubbing against another generates heat, moisture, and a luminous neuro-muscular friction. Thomas Edison, switch off your dim bulb and slink away.” Robbins continued in this vein for three more pages, in a veritable tour de force on one of history’s most fascinating subjects.
Still Life With Woodpecker (1980)
If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.
This is the attention-grabbing first sentence of the Prologue to the book. A Prologue or Preface is generally a kind of Author’s Note to the reader, and, for the most part, is not generally regarded as a novel’s “opening line.” It’s rare for a Prologue to open so strikingly, but this one is a refreshing exception to the rule.
The official opening words of the novel—at the beginning of Chapter One—are also pretty special: “In the last quarter of the twentieth century, at a time when Western civilization was declining too rapidly for comfort and yet too slowly to be very exciting, much of the world sat on the edge of an increasingly expensive theater seat, waiting—with various combinations of dread, hope, and ennui—for something momentous to occur.”
A few years back, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a classic Dan Fogelberg song was inspired by this novel. Here’s how the singer-songwriter expressed the thought in an interview: “Make Love Stay was based on a book written by Tom Robbins called Still Life With Woodpecker. It was wonderful. His precept was the most difficult concept that man in the late twentieth century has to really wrestle with is to make love stay. I love that idea. I thought that was a great philosophical moment, so I just wrote some music, basically to his ideas.”
Three Fates (2002)
Happily unaware he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes, Henry W. Wyley imagined pinching the nicely rounded rump of the young blonde who was directly in his line of sight.
When I came upon this great opening line many years ago, my first thought was, “This is not only a spectacular opening line, it’s coming from a female author who really gets the way men think.
Wyley, we will shortly learn, is a passenger on the RMS Lusitania, and the narrator continued about him in the first paragraph: “It was a perfectly harmless fantasy that did nothing to distress the blonde, or Henry’s wife, and put Henry himself in the best of moods.”
Home: A Novel (2008)
“Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” her father said, and her heart sank.
Great literature is filled with sad lines, but the opening sentence of Home is the saddest I recall from all my years of reading. Does Glory’s emotional state reflect what the 38-year-old woman is expecting to find upon returning to her childhood home? Or does it capture recent life events that have necessitated this move? The dismal tone doesn’t make us eager to read on, but we have to.
The narrator continued about the scene at the front door: “He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. ‘To stay for a while this time!’ he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven.”
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.
Sabbath’s Theater (1995)
Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.
This is the troubling dilemma facing sixty-four-year-old Mickey Sabbath, a former puppeteer and aging sexual libertine. He’s been thrust into this situation by his lover of many years, Drenka Balich. It’s a delicious tale, and it went on to win the 1995 National Book Award for Fiction.
In the novel, the narrator continued about Mickey’s unfortunate situation: “This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out.”
Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it.
The opening words come from narrator and protagonist Neil Klugman, a young Jewish underachiever who is currently working at a low-level job in a public library. He is immediately smitten by a beautiful—and also Jewish—Radcliffe student who clearly seems out of his league. He continued:
“She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem.”
Originally written as a novella, Goodbye, Columbus won the 1960 National Book Award for Fiction and was ultimately adapted into a popular 1969 film starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw as the unlikely couple.
Rita Rudner's Guide to Men (1994)
This is a guide to men. It's not that I've had much experience, or that I've done lots of research--it's just, they're not very hard to figure out.
Rudner continued with this parenthetical clarification: "(I forgot to mention, this is a guide to heterosexual men, because these are the men who give women the most trouble.)"
“Our Sexual Ethics“ (1936); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Sex, more than any other element in human life, is still viewed by many, perhaps by most, in an irrational way.
A simple assertion, crafted skillfully by a talented writer, can be a most effective way to begin an essay, as Russell demonstrates here. When I first read these opening words as a young man in the 1960s, my first reaction was, “How little things have changed.” And now, almost ninety years after Russell first penned the words, my reaction is exactly the same.
In his essay, Russell continued: “Homicide, pestilence, insanity, gold and precious stones—all the things, in fact, that are the objects of passionate hopes or fears—have been seen, in the past, through a mist of magic or mythology; but the sun of reason has now dispelled the mist, except here and there. The densest cloud that remains is in the territory of sex, as is perhaps natural since sex is concerned in the most passionate part of people’s lives.“
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.“
The Fur Person (1957)
When he was about two years old, and had been a Cat About Town for some time, glorious in conquests, but rather too thin for comfort, the Fur Person decided that it was time he settled down.
These are the opening words of a charming novel inspired by Sarton’s own cat, Tom Jones. In a 2015 “Conscious Cat” blog post, writer and cat lover Ingrid King hailed the The Fur Person as “one of the most endearing cat stories I’ve ever read.” About the book, King added: “This little book captures the essence of what a cat is all about in the beautiful prose of this gifted and sensitive writer and poet.”
And, speaking of beautiful prose, Sarton’s novel contains one of my favorite examples of the literary device known as chiasmus:
“A Fur Person is a cat who had decided to stay with people as long as he lives. This can only happen if a human being has imagined a part of himself into a cat just as the cat has imagined part of himself into a human being.“
For more information on chiasmus, go here.
When I was five, I decided that when I grew up I’d be a “children’s detective on parents.”
After the publication of Conjoint Family Therapy (1964), a graduate school textbook, Satir became one of her era’s most respected family therapists. In the opening words to Peoplemaking, her first psychology work aimed at a popular audience, she found an intriguing way of suggesting that her interest in family dynamics started very early in her life. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “I didn’t quite know what it was I would look for, but even then I realized that there was a lot going on in families that didn’t meet the eye.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Satir offered one of her most famous observations: “Family life is something like an iceberg. Most people are aware of only about one-tenth of what is actually going on—the tenth that they can see and hear—and often think that is all there is.”
“My Chivalric Fiasco” in Harper’s Magazine (September 2011)
Once again it was TorchLightNight.
Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.
Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.
Martha: That guy is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.
I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.
All of a sudden she recognized me.
Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.
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 an opening line this is 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.”
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 nicely 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.”
Love Story (1970)
What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?
The novel opens on a dramatic note with a powerful rhetorical question posed by Oliver Barrett IV, a Harvard graduate and heir to a huge family fortune. Against his family’s wishes, Barrett has decided to marry Jennifer Cavilleri, the daughter of a Rhode Island baker. In the second paragraph Oliver answers the question:
“That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me. Once, when she specifically lumped me with those musical types, I asked her what the order was, and she replied, smiling, ’Alphabetical.’”
Originally written as a screenplay before he decided to also turn it into a novel, Love Story went on to become the top-selling novel of 1970. It also became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with an Oscar-winning performance by Ali McGraw, and an Oscar-nominated one by Ryan O’Neal.
The Inventors: A Memoir (2016)
This book is about two men who were very important to me. The first was there at my conception, the second came along thirteen years later. Each had a profound influence on me. You could say they invented me, such was their influence.
This opening paragraph comes from the memoir’s Prologue, and nicely helped to explain why Selgin titled the memoir as he did. He continued in an equally intriguing manner in the second paragraph: “They invented themselves, too. The first man did so through an act of omission, by denying his past. The second did so through a series of fabrications, by lying about his. The first man was Paul Joseph Selgin, my father—who, it so happens, was an inventor. The second was my eighth-grade English teacher.”
And just to make sure we grasped the central theme of his book, Selgin continued in the third paragraph: I’ve had other inventors, too: a mother, my twin brother, the places I’ve lived, the people I’ve known. They all helped invent me.”
“Hipster Megachurch in Shambles Over Pastor’s Alleged Affair,” in The Daily Beast (Jan. 21, 2022)
When volunteers at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, arrived at their pastor’s house last November, they were hoping to raise his spirits with a surprise visit. Instead they got a shock: Pastor Tavner Smith was alone with a female church employee—she in a towel, he in his boxers.
This was the “Lede of the Week” in The Sunday Long Read on Jan 30, 2022. In the article’s second paragraph, Shugerman continued: “The charismatic 41-year-old hurriedly explained that the two of them had been making chili and hot dogs and gotten food on their clothes, according to one volunteer who was present. But, as the volunteer put it, “I don’t think none of us was that dumb.”
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
The rowdy gang of singers who sat at the scattered tables saw Arthur walk unsteadily to the head of the stairs, and though they must all have known that he was dead drunk, and seen the danger he would soon be in, no one attempted to talk to him and lead him back to his seat.
The narrator continued: “With eleven pints of beer and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach, he fell from the top-most stair to the bottom.”
The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (1962)
My first recollection of life is one that my mother insisted I could not possibly have, because I was only eighteen months old at the time.
Sinclair continued: “Yet there it is in my mind: a room where I have been left in the care of a relative while my parents are taking a trip. I see a little old lady, black-clad, in a curtained room; I know where the bed is located, and the oil-stove on which the cooking is done, and the thrills of exploring a new place. Be sure that children know far more than we give them credit for; I hear fond parents praising their precious darlings, and I wince, noting how the darlings are drinking in every word. Always in my childhood I would think: ‘How silly these grownups are! And how easy to outwit!’”
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.”
I Capture The Castle (1949)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
In 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum called this one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,” writing about it: “A brilliant beginning to a much-loved English classic.” Around the same time, British Journalist Liz Jones also wrote admiringly about the line, saying in a Stylist.com article: “The opening sentence of this book is so unexpected: intimate, awkward, throwaway, as heroine Cassandra Mortmain, aged 17, begins her diary of her impoverished if glamorous life in a ruined castle.”
The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956)
Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Missis Pongo. (Missis had added Pongo’s name to her own on their marriage, but was still called Missis by most people.) They were lucky enough to own a young married couple of humans named Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, who were gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent—almost canine at times.
The novel gets off to a great start with these opening lines, but it begins to soar when the narrator continues:
“They understood quite a number of barks: the barks for ‘Out, please!’ ‘In, please!’ ‘Hurry up with my dinner’ and ‘What about a walk?’ And even when they could not understand, they could often guess—if looked at soulfully or scratched by an eager paw. Like many other much-loved humans, they believed that they owned their dogs, instead of realizing that their dogs owned them. Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.”
At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.
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.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?
Great opening lines often create a sense of heightened expectation, and there are few that rival this one—which prompted Colin Falconer to write in a 2013 blog post (“The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History”): “Yes, yes, yes! What if?”
My Beloved World (2013)
I was barely awake, but my mother was already screaming. I knew Papi would start screaming in a second. That much was routine, but the substance of their argument was new, and it etched that morning into my memory.
These words come from the Prologue to the book, and they raise questions that cry out to be answered: What was it like to grow up with parents whose screaming arguments were so frequent they were described as routine? What was new about the substance of this latest argument? And why did it become so indelible etched in Justice Sotomayor’s memory?
Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
“I’ve read many books,” said Professor Mephesto, with an odd finality, wearily flattening his hands on the podium, addressing the seventy-six sophomores who sat in easy reverence, immortalizing his every phrase with their pads and pens, and now, as always, giving him the confidence to slowly, artfully dramatize his words, to pause, shrug, frown, gaze abstractly at the ceiling, allow a wan wistful smile to play at his lips, and repeat quietly, “many books . . .” [ellipsis in original]
In an unusual writing arrangement, Southern and Hoffenberg wrote the book in tandem, mailing the chapters back and forth to each other as they finished them. The end result was a delightful parody of both Pascal’s Candide and smutty American novels. The book was originally published in France in 1958 by Olympia Press, a popular publisher of smutty books. It was released to great acclaim in America in 1964, with William Styron calling it “a droll little sugarplum of a tale” in The New York Review of Books. Sixty years later, in a 2018 New York Times piece, Dwight Garner wrote that the book hadn’t become dated, even in the “Me, Too” era. He also offered this delightful assessment of the novel’s soaring quality: “Every sentence in Candy seems to have a little propeller on it.”
In the opening paragraph above, the authors captured the profound effect a rapt audience can have on a lecturing professor—or any kind of speaker, for that matter. The narrator went on: “A grave nod of his magnificent head, and he continued: ‘Yes, and in my time I’ve traveled widely. They say travel broadens one—and I’ve…no doubt that it does.’ Here he pretended to drop some of his lecture notes and, in retrieving them, showed his backside to the class, which laughed appreciatively.”
Dear John (2006)
What does it mean to truly love another?
There was a time in my life when I thought I knew the answer.
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.”
The Art of Racing in the Rain (2008)
Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question.
This candid declaration comes from Enzo, an aging Golden Retriever who from early life has felt like a human trapped in a dog’s body (he was masterfully “voiced” by Kevin Costner in a 2019 film adaptation). As Enzo approaches the end of life, he is heartened by a belief that, after death, he will be reincarnated as a human being.
Enzo went on to complete his opening thought this way: “I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.”
At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.
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.”
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 Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.
William Makepeace Thackeray
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)
Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it.
Anna Karenina (1877)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
This legendary opening line came to the attention of Western readers in a 1901 English translation of the novel by Constance Garnett (another popular translation is: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The narrator continued in the second paragraph:
“Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted two days, and not only the husband and wife, but all the members of their family and the household, were painfully conscious of it.”
In the Foreword to a 1939 edition of the novel, Thomas Mann shared what he described as “a marvelously pretty little anecdote” about the writing of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy, according to Mann, originally intended to begin the novel with the “Everything was in confusion” line. After reading an Alexander Pushkin short story, however, he decided it just didn’t work and he replaced it with the now-legendary opening line.
Mann didn’t go into any detail about how it all transpired, simply saying in an understated way: “The present beginning, the aperçu about happy and unhappy families, was introduced later.” I’m still trying to learn more about the inspiration for the “happy families” opening, but so far have not been successful. If you have something to add to the discussion, please write me.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir (2020)
The last image of my mother, but for the photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death.
The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the former U. S. Poet Laureate (2012-13), Trethewey brings her exceptional talent to the world of memoir in a moving work that begins with a haunting, understated reference to a crime—the brutal murder of her mother by her former stepfather.
In a Washington Post review, Lisa Page wrote: “We know from the first page of this riveting memoir that poet Natasha Tretewey’s mother is dead.” A few moments later, she went on to write: “Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being.”
Ordinary Heroes (2005)
All parents keep secrets from their children. My father, it seemed, kept more than most.
In 2006, when Turow was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if he had a favorite sentence, he identified the first sentence of this opening paragraph, saying, “It’s the first line of the narrative in my seventh novel, Ordinary Heroes, and it reverberates on almost every page that follows.”
Presumed Innocent [book 1 of Kindle County Series] (1987)
This is how I always start:
“I am the prosecutor.
“I represent the state. I am here to present to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh the evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt.
“This man—” And here I point.
In these four short opening paragraphs, readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Kindle County, a fictional county that feels a whole lot like Illinois’s Cook County. In the novel, Sabich continued:
“You must always point, Rusty, I was told by John White. That was the day I started in the office. The sheriff took my fingerprints, the chief judge swore me in, and John White brought me up to watch the first jury trial I’d ever seen. Ned Halsey was making the opening statement for the state, and as he gestured across the courtroom, John, in his generous avuncular way, with the humid scent of alcohol on his breath at ten in the morning, whispered my initial lesson. He was the chief deputy P.A. then, a half Irishman with white hair wild as cornsilk. It was almost a dozen years ago, long before I had formed even the most secret ambition to hold John’s job myself. If you don’t have the courage to point, John White whispered, you can’t expect them to have the courage to convict.”
“Extracts From Adam’s Diary” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
Monday—This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals.
Because we know the title of the short story, we immediately deduce the identity of the new creature. And since Eve has been only recently created, there is no female pronoun for Adam to use. She is most certainly not a “he,“ so he uses the only available option: “It.“ And then, in what I regard as one of Twain’s most brilliant lines, Adam provides a hint about how his world is unalterably changing: “Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….We? Where did I get that word?—I remember now—the new creature uses it.”
Celestial Navigation (1974)
My brother Jeremy is a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home. Long ago we gave up expecting very much of him, but still he is the last man in our family and you would think that in time of tragedy he might pull himself together and take over a few of the responsibilities. Well, he didn’t.
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.”
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.”
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.
The narrator continued with an unsettling observation about the relationship between this father and son: “The sensation chills him, above and beyond the terminal air-conditioning. But, then, facing Nelson has made him feel uneasy for thirty years.” Rabbit at Rest is regarded as one of Updike’s finest novels. After winning the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award, it went on to win the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Steel Beach (1992)
“In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.
The Sci-Fi world has seen many great opening lines over the years, and this is one of the very best. I can’t imagine anyone reading it for the first time and declining to read further.
The Big Hustle (2020)
I’d been in fights all my life. I’d been pummeled by the toughest guys you’d ever not want to meet. I’d been beaten up, knocked unconscious, whacked in the head with a crowbar, and thrashed by a prison guard. But far and away the worst gut punch I ever took was when I discovered that my son was on drugs.
Wahlberg, the fifth child in a Dorchester, Mass. family of nine children that included Donnie (8th) and Mark (9th), was an ex-con and former addict who finally got his life together and dedicated his life to the recovery movement. After a successful marriage that produced three wonderful children, he wasn’t prepared for the next crisis in his life. He continued: “Daniel was sixteen years old. His behavior had been off, his energy seemed low, but we attributed that to recently losing his best friend to cancer.”
Starting Over (1973)
Potter was lucky; everyone told him so.
“You’re lucky,” they said, “that you didn’t have any children.”
Divorce wasn’t any bowl of cherries, of course, but as long as there weren’t any children involved it wasn’t an irreparable damage, like the sundering of a full-blown family. Just the busted dream of a couple of consenting adults. When Potter met new people and the subject of his recent divorce came up, he was congratulated so often for not having any children, he was tempted to start passing out cigars in celebration, saying heartily, “It wasn’t a boy—or a girl!”
In Wakefield’s comic exploration of sexual mores in the late 1960s, the opening paragraphs introduce Phil Potter, a recently divorced man who isn’t exactly finding it easy to start over after his marriage falls apart. In 1979, the novel was adapted into a popular film, with Burt Reynolds as Potter, Candice Bergan as his former wife Jessica, and Jill Clayburgh as the woman who ultimately becomes his second wife.
The very first sentence above is also the novel’s final sentence, leading Nancy Kress to write in Beginnings, Middles & Ends (1993): “The first paragraph congratulates Phil Potter on his divorce; the last, on his remarriage. By using the same wording for two opposite events, author Wakefield slyly points up [sic] that Potter has learned nothing, grown not at all from his experiences. He has only come first circle.”
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.”
Robert James Waller
Border Music (1995)
When this nameless piece a’ shit tore off Linda Lobo’s G-string instead of sticking money in it like he was supposed to, Texas Jack Carmine went crazy-over-the edge and hit him with a pool cue.
The narrator continued: “Four hours later and two hundred miles down the road, Jack bought coffee and sweet rolls in Chisolm for him and Linda. After that they headed up to Ely, then cut southeast down through the Superior National Forest. Not moving too fast, understand, Jack more or less letting the ’82 Chevy S-10 have its own way.”
Robert James Waller
High Plains Tango (2005)
Not exactly a dark and stormy night, but nonetheless: a strange, far place in a strange, far time, distant buttes with low, wet clouds hanging across their rumpled white faces and long, straight highways running somewhere close to forever. In a settled land, the truly wild places are where nobody is looking anymore. This was a wild place.
Robert James Waller
Bridges of Madison County (1992)
There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.
The narrator, an unnamed Iowa writer, continued: “In late afternoon, in the autumn of 1989, I’m at my desk, looking at a blinking cursor on the computer screen before me, and the telephone rings. On the other end of the wire, is a former Iowan named Michael Johnson. He lives in Florida now. A friend from Florida has sent him one of my books. Michael Johnson has read it; his sister Carolyn has read it; and they have a story in which they think I might be interested.”
The remainder of the story is presented as fictionalized version of a true story of a married Iowa woman who—while her husband is away at the Iowa State Fair—has an affair with a National Geographic reporter who is on an assignment to photograph the county’s historic covered bridges. There was nothing at all true about the story, however; it sprang straight from Waller’s imagination a few years earlier when—on vacation from his teaching job at the University of Iowa—he was taking photographs of those same covered bridges. Waller said he wrote the novella—171 pages in all—in just eleven days.
Even though the novel was dismissed by most critics (The New York Times Book Review described it as “bodice-heaving”), it made The New York Times bestseller list the very first week it was published, quickly made it to the top position, and remained on the list for 164 consecutive weeks (yes, more than three years). It went on to sell over 60 million copies. in 1995, it was adapted into one of the year’s most popular films, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (2009)
Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.
About this opening line—and the heartwarming tale that follows—I cannot improve upon the publisher’s description: “So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls’s no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in [Walls’s 2008 memoir] The Glass Castle.” The New York Times named Half Broke Horses one of The Ten Best Books of 2008.
The Silver Star (2013)
My sister saved my life when I was just a baby.
The words come from 12-year-old “Bean” Holladay, who continued: “Here’s what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. I was only a few months old, so Mom put me in the infant carrier. She set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind—craziness, craziness, craziness, she’d say later. Completely forgetting that she’d left me on the roof, Mom drove off.”
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.
Judith Paris [Book 2 in The Herries Chronicles] (1931)
The old woman and the new-born child were the only living things in the house.
This simple, but compelling, first sentence is the novel’s entire first paragraph—and even though written close to a century ago, it has the feel of what is often described these days as a “hook.” In the next three paragraphs, the narrator reels the reader in:
“The old woman, Mrs. Henny, had finished her washing and laying-out of the bodies of the child’s father and of the child’s mother. She had done it alone because she had been afraid to leave the house with no one alive in it save the new-born child. Now she was exhausted and, in spite of her labor, fearfully chilled, for the snow, although it fell now more lightly, was piled high about the doors and windows as if, with its soft thick fingers, it wished to strangle the house.
“She was very cold, so she drank some gin, although it was not as a rule her weakness. The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Herries lay, the eyes decently closed, the pale hands folded, each in its proper bed.
“A fine heat burnt through Mrs. Henny’s old body. The gin was good. Then her head fell forward and she slept.”
The clear, unsettling implication is that the baby is now being left unattended. We anxiously read on, in large part to see what will happen with the child.
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.
“A Worn Path,” in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1941)
It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her.
The best way to begin any piece of writing is to craft a beautifully-written, multi-layered first paragraph—and that is the case here with Welty’s description of an elderly black woman trudging slowly but purposefully along a wooded pathway. When I first read the story, I wondered to myself if she had chosen the name Phoenix for a reason—and, not surprisingly, it turned out to be exactly the case.
In a 2012 essay in the literary journal Soundings (titled “The Life of a Sentence”), writer Suzanne Berne highlighted the artistry and significance of the fourth sentence in particular, writing:
“The sentence’s vitality, of course, springs from the comparison between an old woman and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, a comparison built in stages, starting with the way she walks, ‘from side to side,’ to the ‘balanced heaviness and lightness’ of her steps. Perfectly weighted in that simile also rests the whole story: Phoenix Jackson is headed to town to buy medicine for her chronically ill grandson, a long journey repeated ‘as regular as clockwork’…. On her way, Phoenix surmounts obstacles, confronts monsters and outwits foes, an odyssey signaled visually, metaphorically, even structurally in nearly every sentence.”
Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959)
A book about one’s life necessarily demands a tremendous amount of recollection and research, and I have never kept a diary. I once told an interviewer that if I ever kept a diary it would have to be written in invisible ink.
Great openers typically come from a book’s first chapter, and occasionally from a Preface or Foreword. In this book, however, these are the first words of the “Acknowledgments” section, and in my mind and they qualify as a great opener.
The title of the book comes from West’s 1932 film Night After Night. After a woman says about the jewelry West is wearing, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” she famously replied, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
Written decades before the arrival of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, this opening line—and especially the tantalizing phrase at his desk—has been a favorite of black comedy fans since it first appeared in the early years of the Great Depression. After the book was published, Miss Lonelyhearts became a generic term for writers of advice columns. In Phrases and Sayings (1995), Nigel Rees also reports that the term lonelyhearts column was once commonly used to describe what we now call “personal ads” in English newspapers and magazines).
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974)
Sometimes I think I’m good and sometimes I think I’m bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know what stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.“
“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. “With an umlaut,” I explained.
In a 2018 review of a reissue of the book published under the Hard Case Crime imprint, Levi Stahl wrote of this opening: “Four sentences in, and Westlake is saying: I want to be clear about the kind of book this is. I intend to make you laugh, and I will even do it with a joke like this if it seems like that’s what’s needed.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Two Much! (1975)
It all began innocently enough; I wanted to get laid.
This is an absolute gem of an opening line. It comes from Art Dodge, a principle-challenged single guy who is (1) secretly sleeping with his best friend’s wife and (2) more than willing to lie to women if it will get him what he wants. And therein lies the plot of the story, which begins to unfold when he meets Liz Kerner, a beautiful girl who just happens to have an identical twin sister.
In the novel’s first paragraph, Art continued: “So when Candy and Ralph said we were invited to a party over in Dunewood I said fine, wait while I change. Ralph said, ‘There’ll be some singles there,’ and Candy stuck her tongue out at me behind Ralph’s back.’”
The first sentence of Two Much! has held an honored place in my personal collection for more than four decades—ever since a good friend handed me a copy of the book and, with a wide grin on his face said, “I believe I’ve just discovered the words I’m going to have inscribed on my epitaph.”
Hudson River Bracketed (1929)
By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the College of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents then lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called “Getting There,” to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.
Any opening paragraph containing the words invented a new religion is certain to get the attention of most readers. As the narrator continues, there is another four-word phrase—for a whole week—that has a similar quality:
“He had also been engaged for a whole week to the inspirer of the poems, a girl several years older than himself called Floss Delaney, who was the somewhat blown-upon daughter of an unsuccessful real-estate man living in a dejected outskirt of the town.”
Ethan Frome (1911)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
The narrator, an unnamed engineer who is visiting Starkfield, Massachusetts, is referring to stories he has heard about Ethan Frome, an intriguing village resident who presents a “striking figure” despite a marked limp from a mysterious “smash-up” suffered decades ago. In a Wonderslist.com post on “10 of the Most Powerful Opening Lines in Novels,” writer Sufia Banu ranked this opening line Number Seven.
In a 1911 review in The New York Times, the novel was described as “A cruel, compelling, haunting story of New England.” In 1993, the famed English director John Madden adapted the novel into a film of the same title, starring Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette.
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)
Vagina: A New Biography (2012)
Why write a book about the vagina?
This is an opening question readers would’ve never seen a few generations ago, but we clearly live 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.”
My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey (2004; with Steve Jamison)
I was raised on oatmeal.
When authors begin an autobiography with a line like this, we’re pretty sure they will soon be using it to make an important point—and by the time we get to the end of Wooden’s first paragraph we know exactly what that point is. He continued:
“My brothers—Maurice, Daniel, and Billy—and I had oatmeal for breakfast nearly every morning on our farm back in Denterton Indiana. I raised my own children on oatmeal. Some things don’t change; some lessons remain the same. Those my father taught many years ago may seem old-fashioned now, but like oatmeal they still work.“
Marjorie Morningstar (1955)
Customs of courtship vary greatly in different times and places, but the way the thing happens to be done here and now always seems the only natural way to do it.
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.’“
Mireille sat in the dressing room she shared with the six other “pretty waiter girls” at the Dirty Spoon and stared at her reflection in the mirror. A macabre image, scarcely recognizable as her own, stared back at her, its eyes blue-ringed, sunk far back into its head, its lips cracked and swollen, while its sick, corpselike pallor contrasted with the fiery red of a chin and cheeks scraped raw by the wiry mustaches and whiskers of drunken and amorous clients, whom to call beasts would be to insult the entire animal kingdom.
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.