Genre: Speculative Fiction
The Ark Sakura (1984)
Once a month I go shopping downtown, near the prefectural offices. It takes me the better part of an hour to drive there, but since my purchases include a lot of specialized items—faucet packing, spare blades for power tools, large laminated dry cells, that sort of thing—the local shops won’t do. Besides, I’d rather not run into anyone I know. My nickname trails after me like a shadow.
The entire opening paragraph piques our curiosity, but especially the final sentence. The narrator then goes on to advance the story in an intriguing way:
“My nickname is Pig—or Mole. I stand five feet eight inches tall, weigh two hundred and fifteen pounds, and have round shoulders and stumpy arms and legs. Once, hoping to make myself more inconspicuous, I took to wearing a long black raincoat—but any hope I might have had was swept away when I walked by the new city hall complex on the broad avenue leading up to the station. The city hall building is a black steel frame covered with black glass, like a great black mirror; you have to pass it to get to the train station. With that raincoat on, I looked like a whale calf that had lost its way, or a discarded football, blackened from lying in the trash. Although the distorted reflection of my surroundings was amusing, my own twisted image seemed merely pitiful.“
The narrator’s use of rich, vivid detail is a hint of things to come. In a 1988 New York Times review, Edmund White wrote about the book: “It is a wildly improbable fable when recalled, but it proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within. For instance, the hollowed-out interior of the mountain is so well described that by the end of the book the reader is capable of drawing a map of its intricate corridors and chambers, its booby traps and depots—and especially its high-suction toilet that has the talismanic force of a coffin.“
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [book one in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1979)
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.“
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator went on: “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper....“
The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003)
This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.
For One More Day (2006)
“Let me guess. You want to know why I tried to kill myself.“ — Chick Benetto’s first words to me.
This is a story about a family and, as there is a ghost involved, you might call it a ghost story. But every family is a ghost story. The dead sit at our tables long after they have gone.
The First Phone Call From Heaven (2013)
On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.
Albom clearly knows how to write a great first sentence, but he’s also adept at writing a compelling first page. Here’s how he continued after the opening sentence:
She ignored the ring and dug her nails into the plastic.
She clawed her forefinger through the bumpy part of the side.
Finally, she made a rip, then peeled off the wrapping and scrunched it in her palm. She knew the phone would go to answering machine if she didn’t grab it one more—
“Ach, this thing,“ she mumbled. She heard the machine click on her kitchen counter as it played her outgoing message.
“Hi, it’s Tess. Leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can, thanks.“
A small beep sounded. Tess heard static. And then.
“It’s Mom...I need to tell you something.“
Tess stopped breathing. The receiver fell from her fingers.
Her mother died four years ago.
Hans Christian Andersen
“The Little Mermaid” (1837)
Far out at sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
Hans Christian Andersen
There was once a woman who did so want to have a wee child of her own, but she had no idea where she was to get it from. So she went off to an old witch and said to her, “I would so dearly like to have a little child. Do please tell me where I can find one.“
M. T. Anderson
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
This delightful opening line suggests that teenagers will always have their own special argot, even in the dystopian future. The words come from a shallow, fun-loving teenager known only as Titus. After a disappointing trip to the moon, the “feed” going into his brain begins to malfunction—and the temporary absence of spoon-fed information from corporate controllers reawakens a questioning attitude that has been almost completely extinguished.
In a 2007 NPR blog post “Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers,” Nancy Pearl wrote: “Who could resist the first line of the chillingly satirical Feed by M. T. Anderson?” She went on to add: “That line sets the stage for the plot of this futuristic world that’s become overrun with rampant consumerism. Computer chips are implanted in most babies at birth. There’s no need to go to school, since you can Google any information you might need; there’s no need to talk to anyone, since you can IM instantaneously. There’s certainly no need to think, especially since the banner ads that float through your mind tell you exactly what you need to buy, do, and be to join the “in” crowd. But what happens when someone hacks into the computer feed that everyone is receiving? This is a terrific choice for both teen and adult book discussion groups.”
Anderson’s cyberpunk novel was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and went on to be included in Time magazine’s list of the “100 Best YA Books of All Time.”
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.“
The One and Only Bob (2020)
Look, nobody’s ever accused me of being a good dog.
This is a sequel to The One and Only Ivan, Applegate’s wonderful 2012 children’s novel about a talking gorilla, and, if anything, it is even better. For reasons I’m not sure I completely understand, I absolutely love books narrated by talking animals, and this one starts off with a fabulous opening line. On the rest of the first page, Bob truly finds his “voice” as he continues:
“I bark at empty air. I eat cat litter. I roll in garbage to enhance my aroma.
“I harass innocent squirrels. I hog the couch. I lick myself in the presence of company.
“I’m no saint, okay?”
And so it goes—with a staccatto-like delivery style that would be the envy of a stand-up comic—for 340 pages of one of the best animal-narrated stories I’ve ever read.
The Robots of Dawn (1983)
Elijah Baley found himself in the shade of the tree and muttered to himself, “I knew it. I’m sweating.“
He paused, straightened up, wiped the perspiration from his brow with the back of his hand, then looked dourly at the moisture that covered it.
I hate sweating,“ he said to no one, throwing it out as a cosmic law. And once again he felt annoyance with the Universe for making something both essential and unpleasant.
I, Robot (1950)
I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. I’d spent three days at U. S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home with the Encyclopedia Tellurica.
The name of the encyclopedia immediately suggests a place that exists in the future. But where? And when? And how does it differ from the present day?
Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
It was a dazzling four-sun afternoon.
In only six simple words, we already know we have left earth and are about to have an out-of-this-world adventure
Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.
The novel begins at the exact moment the narrator is conceived, and it captures precise details, including key aspects of her parents’ lovemaking patterns. The narrator, who will ultimately be known as Ruby Lennox, continued in the first paragraph: “At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to sleep—as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”
Atkinson’s brilliant opening had a vague, but familiar feeling about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why until I read what she wrote in her Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of the book: “The beginning of the book is a nod to Tristram Shandy.” She went on to add that her novel—like Sterne’s classic work and, indeed, all of literature—is “about the journey of the self toward the light.”
Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Atkinson’s debut novel, and what a way to start a career. It won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award and is now regarded as a modern classic.
Oryx and Crake (2003)
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide come in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.
The Heart Goes Last (2015)
Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it's no palace to begin with. If it was a van they'd have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they're lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn't make the car any bigger.
The Testaments (2019)
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
In a 2011 blog, the English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “Typical of Atwood, her first sentence begins at once lucidly simple and loaded with implications. It’s a sentence that aches with time.“
The narrator of tale, a handmaid known as Offred, continued: “The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.“
Among its numerous awards, Atwood’s powerful dystopian novel won Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1985. In 2017, Hulu adapted the novel into a ten-episode streaming series, with Elizabeth Moss starring as Offred. After the first season, the series received 13 Primetime Emmy nominations, winning eight, including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The series continues to be Hulu’s most popular offering, and is now in its fifth season.
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
The opening words come from Iris Chase, an elderly woman who is reflecting on the death of her younger sister in 1945, at age twenty-five. At her death, Laura left behind a sci-fi novel titled The Blind Assassin, which went on to become a posthumous cult classic. Atwood’s complex, multi-layered, novel-within-a novel was panned by many critics, but went on to win numerous awards, including the 2000 Booker Prize.
Timbuktoo: A Novel (1999)
Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would get rid of it.
The opening paragraph gets off to a terrific start, and continues like this for a full 270 words, as the character named Mr. Bones describes—with great concern—the deteriorating condition of someone who is very, very dear to him.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the story takes a dramatic turn as we learn that Mr. Bones is a dog. The narrator continued: “What was a poor dog to do? Mr. Bones had been with Willy since his earliest days as a pup, and by now it was next to impossible for him to imagine a world that did not have his master in it.”
Willy, a homeless man who lives in Brooklyn, is also concerned about the fate of Mr. Bones in a Willy-less world, and the two characters soon embark on a journey to rectify the situation. It’s a compelling novel, and a few years ago, I was delighted to learn that it was a personal favorite of celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl.
In a 2006 piece she did for National Public Radio, Ms. Pearl wrote: “Mr. Bones narrates the story of his life with Willy G. Christmas, which began when Mr. Bones was a pup and Willy was Willy Gurevitch, the brilliant son of Polish refugees. Now, Willy and Mr. Bones are on a search for Willy’s old high school English teacher, perhaps the only person who recognized Willy’s poetic gift. But it’s likely that Willy is going to die soon, and although Mr. Bones is pretty sure he knows what happens when people die—Willy has told him often enough that they go to Timbuktu—he’s not quite sure that dogs can go there too. And if not, where would he be without Willy? This novel, both like and unlike anything else that Auster has written, introduces two unforgettable characters.”
Tuck Everlasting (1975)
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued ominously: “It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
In a 2016 blog post on “What Makes a Great First Line,” literary agent Amanda Luedeke wrote: “The first line from Tuck Everlasting ...doesn’t do much in the way of drawing the reader into the action–it actually goes out of its way to describe a notable lack of activity–but it serves as an example of another effective function of an opening sentence: laying a foundation.”
Luedeke went on to write that “Babbitt paints a quick picture of a certain time of year, evoking the weather (probably hot) and the pace of life (slow) at the moment the story opens, and we absorb these details and are primed to interpret the characters and events to come...without her having to explain everything...right up front.”
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.”
L. Frank Baum
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner.
The opening words introduce us to the young, female protagonist, but provide no information about why she is living with relatives. They also provide a hint about what is to come: “There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.“
Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney
Bored of the Rings: A Parody (1969)
"Do you like what you doth see...?" said the voluptuous elf-maiden as she provocatively parted the folds of her robe to reveal the rounded, shadowy glories within. Frito's throat was dry, though his head reeled with desire and ale.
In this brilliant Harvard Lampoon parody of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the narrator continued: "She slipped off the flimsy garment and strode toward the fascinated biggie unashamed of her nakedness. She ran a perfect hand along his hairy toes, and he helplessly watched them curl with the fierce insistent wanting of her."
The Second Greatest Story Ever Told (1991)
It was a tight squeeze.
This is the only novel I’ve seen that begins with a description of the birth of a baby, and the first words capture the event accurately and succinctly. The new-born is Ilona Ann Coggswater, who we will shortly learn is no ordinary baby, but the first daughter of God.
The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “And though the safety, comfort, warmth, and humidity of her mother’s womb seemed preferable to the glare and rubber gloves that now surrounded her, it was checkout time.”
Bechard is better known as an independent filmmaker and documentarian, but his debut novel demonstrated great talent at satirical writing. He also provided an intriguing epigraph to the first chapter—an updated version of John 3:17: “For God did not send His Daughter into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Her might be saved.”
William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist (1971)
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.
What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.
So begins a novel that has become a classic in horror fiction: the story of the demonic possession—and subsequent exorcism—of an eleven-year-old girl. Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in 1949 when the campus was bristling with news of recent exorcism, and the story stayed with him, untold, until he finally put it together in fictional form twenty years after he graduated.
An immediate best-seller, the novel was adapted by William Friedkin into a 1973 film by the same title. Now regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, it was the first in the genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it received ten nominations, winning two, for Best Adapted Screenplay—written by Blatty, incidentaly—and Best Sound).
Jorge Luis Borges
“The Aleph,“ in The Aleph and Other Stories (1949)
On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes.
In a 2017 interview with Joe Fassler of The Atlantic magazine, writer Michael Chabon said about the opening line: “We learn the narrator is in love with a woman who has just died. We witness his heartbreak in the incredible first sentence, one that would definitely be in contention if I had to choose a favorite opening line.” He went on to explain his thinking this way:
’When I first read that sentence, it sounded amazing to me. I loved its language and its pacing, though I had never actually experienced the phenomenon it’s trying to capture: the sense, after somebody you love had died, of how things plod on in such a banal way. In this one sentence, Borges captures the complete indifference of the universe to the people you love. It’s definitely one that, over the years, I’ve tried to model various of my own first sentences after.“
"The Coffin," in Dark Carnival (1947)
There was any amount of banging and hammering for a number of days; deliveries of metal parts and oddments which Mr. Charles Braling took into his little workshop with a feverish anxiety. He was a dying man, a badly dying man, and he seemed to be in a great hurry, between racking coughs and spittlings, to piece together one last invention.
What reader cannot be thinking, "What is this last invention?" And, if you're a sophisticated reader, you may be musing, "I think I can guess what it is."
“The Jar,“ in Weird Tales magazine (Nov. 1944); reprinted in Dark Carnival (1947)
It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little drowsy town.
In a 2015 blog post, writer Tyler Miller describes this opening line as “a doozey,“ and a perfect example of Bradbury’s gift for “taking the ordinary and making it truly disturbing.“ Miller writes more fully: “The accumulation of prepositional phrases takes what should otherwise be a simple everyday object and shifts it further and further into the world of the strange and unnatural: in a jar, in the tent, of a sideshow, on the outskirts. The words sideshow and outskirts in particular suggest to the reader that whatever is in that jar is definitely out of the norm. And it’s gonna seriously disturb the complacency of that little, drowsy town.“
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
It was a pleasure to burn.
This legendary opening line is loaded with ambiguity. Is the narrator himself burning, and finding pleasure in it? Or is he finding pleasure in burning something else? With these six simple words, we are immediately thrust into a dystopian future, where the narrator, a fireman named Guy Montag, finds pleasure in burning books that have been outlawed by censorious officials in an autocratic state (we also eventually learn that the title refers to the temperature at which books spontaneously erupt into flame).
These opening words have been praised by countless writers, and discussed in every creative writing class that has ever existed. One of my favorite comments about the line comes from a 2011 Litreactor article by Meredith Borders, where she explains why the beginning is so effective: “The sentence is made up of six words, elegant in their brevity and crushing in their implications. Fireman Guy Montag lives his entire life taking casual pleasure in government oppression—until a series of events leads him to look at his life and society with growing horror.“
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 Postman (1985)
In dust and blood—with the sharp tang of terror stark in his nostrils—a man’s mind will sometimes pull forth odd relevancies.
The narrator is describing the mind of protagonist Gordon Krantz, a wandering apocalypse survivor who, after losing everything to bandits, stumbles upon a United States Postal Service uniform. He originally dons the uniform solely for warmth, but eventually decides it will be helpful in his attempt to build faith in a “restored” United States of America (the tale was brought to the big screen in a 1997 film adaptation, starring Kevin Costner).
The narrator continued: “After half a lifetime in the wilderness, most of it spent struggling to survive, it still struck Gordon as odd—how obscure memories would pop into his mind right in the middle of a life-or-death fight.“ Brin’s novel was hailed from the beginning by critics, and it went on to win the 1986 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
“Perhaps,” in The Green Shoe Sanctuary website (June 30, 2021)
They went by Alberto and Maria when they moved to Italy. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie decided to spend their retirement years together, living in neighboring flats in Pisa.
I have a soft spot in my heart for alternate history tales, but, frankly, most of them do not have great opening lines. This short story by Brook is a delightful exception—and the story’s second paragraph is as exceptional as the first:
“Many afternoons, Alberto would play his violin in public, typically on the carless Borgo Stretto, busking for change which he would collect and donate monthly to a local animal rights group. He was particularly fond of the Ippoasi sanctuary, which he and Maria periodically visited. Maria spent many of her afternoons writing science fiction stories, which she would mail to friends around the world. It was quite a change from their Nobel Prize-winning days.”
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)
I used to love this season.
It is apple-picking time in the harvest season of 1666 and, after only six words, we’re wondering what happened—and already know it must have been bad.
Rita Mae Brown
Venus Envy (1993)
“Dying’s not so bad. At least I won’t have to answer the telephone.“
This whistling past the graveyard reflection comes from 35-year-old Frazier Armstrong, an art gallery owner who has learned that her lung cancer is so advanced she has only a short while to live.
The opening paragraph continued: “Frazier Armstrong breathed deeply, which wasn’t easy, since the oxygen tube stuck down her throat had rubbed it raw. ’Then again, I never will have to fill out the IRS long form, buy a county sticker for my car, be burdened with insurance payments that stretch into eternity, to say nothing of my business license and the damned money I pay to the county each year on my depreciating business machines. No more mortgage payments and no more vile temptation as the doors of Tiffany’s yawn at me like the very gates of hell.’“
Brown then found a way to recycle a famous Oscar Wilde quip as her narrator continued about the dying patient: “She burrowed ever deeper into the hospital bed. Porthault sheets brought from home made the bed more comfortable but every time she glanced at the saccharine wallpaper, a dusty rose with tiny little bouquets, she thought, ’One of us has to go.’“
“Knock,“ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (December 1948)
There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long:
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door...
Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course, isn’t in the story at all; it’s in the ellipsis, the implication: what knocked at the door. Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies something vaguely horrible.
But it wasn’t horrible, really.
These four paragraphs serve as the introduction to a short story about university professor Walter Phelan, who believes that he and possibly one other person—a single woman—are the only survivors of a cataclysmic event two days earlier in which “the human race had been destroyed.“ The second line, which was presented in italics in the original story, has gone on to achieve an iconic status in the literary world, with many saying it amounts to one of history’s best “short-short” stories (or, as some like to call them, “One-Line Novels”).
As the story begins, the narrator suggests that the second line comes from a horror story, but Brown clearly wrote it himself, and he chose to use it in the opening lines of this short story. Without giving away anything about the plot, that second, italicized line also became the final line of the story. The underlying idea that forms the basis for the tale is not original to Brown, and he may have been inspired by the following passage in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s Ponkapog Papers (1903): “Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!“
The Heart of a Dog (1925)
Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying. There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me in this doorway and I’m howling with it. I’m finished.
The Heart of a Dog is a searing satire of Russian Bolshevism. Almost immediately banned by Communist authorities, the novella didn’t surface again until many decades later. The narrator of the tale, it quickly becomes clear, is a dog—and a dog with strong political opinions.
As the story begins, he is writhing in pain. He goes on to explain: “Some bastard in a dirty white cap—the cook in the office canteen at the National Economic Council—spilled some boiling water and scalded my left side. Filthy swine—and a proletarian, too. Christ, it hurts. That boiling water scalded me right through to the bone. I can howl and howl, but what’s the use?“
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.”
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.
The opening words come from an 18-year-old protagonist known only as “Middle Sister” (we will shortly learn that no characters in the novel are formally named). The novel was hailed by critics from the outset, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
In a 2019 “Narrative Muse” post, Australian blogger Aisha Lelic wrote, “Milkman had me hooked with the very first line,“ adding: “Its hypnotic rhythm and tone reminded me of hard-boiled fiction—tough, terse, and cynical with a touch of loneliness and dread. And yet it’s nothing like hard-boiled fiction. In fact, Milkman is like nothing I have ever read.“
If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances that led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself.
Octavia E. Butler
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.
The opening words come from Dana Franklin, a 27-year-old black writer. A year earlier, she came to consciousness in a hospital to find her left arm amputated. When the police questioned her and husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, they were reluctant to tell the truth because their time-travel story is so far-fetched they know they will not be believed.
In the novel, Franklin continued: “And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone. When the police released Kevin, he came to the hospital and stayed with me so that I would know I hadn’t lost him too.”
Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game (2010)
I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.
In a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s and young adult fiction (“Hook, Line, and Sinker”), Ciara Murphy wrote about this line: “Rarely do we start novels already rooting for a character from the very first sentence, but Orson Scott Card makes sure we do just that by immediately introducing us to ‘the one’. This line, from an unnamed narrator, describes a protagonist who we will shortly discover is named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,“ thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?“
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.
In a 2000 New York magazine review shortly after the book was published, Daniel Mendelsohn said the book "had me hooked from the first, wistful, epic-tinged sentence." The novel went on to win the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and in 2006 was hailed by Bret Easton Ellis (of American Psycho fame) as "one of the three great books of my generation." In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel Number 57 on its list of The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.
In a 2013 Atlantic magazine article titled "This Did Something Powerful to Me," staff writer Joe Fassler asked a number of authors to identify their "Favorite First Lines" from novels and other books. Roxane Gay, the American writer, professor, and social commentator, chose the opening words of Chabon's Amazing Adventures novel. She explained: "I love this sentence because it does so much work. The sentence is a story in and of itself and reveals Chabon's amazing talent for long, meandering sentences that are satisfying in both sound and substance."
G. K. Chesterton
The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
This has long been my favorite Chesterton quotation, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was the opening line of a 1904 alternate reality novel that imagined what life in London would be like in 1984. In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this opener: “Astute observations accompanied by an implied sigh of disgust are tricky to master, but Chesterton, one of the most multifaceted men of letters, lights the way for you with this sample of the form.“
There are many who believe that the future date chosen for Chesterton’s novel inspired George Orwell to title his classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.
These are the opening words to the book’s Foreword. Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, continued: “Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.”
Chapter One of the novel actually begins this way: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.”
Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.
Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, also offered some memorable opening words in the Foreword to the book: “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.“
J. M. Coetzee
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.
The narrator, who is living in an unspecified time in the distant past, meets a man wearing a new and novel kind of protective eye covering. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention.“
When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, the Nobel Prize committee described Waiting for the Barbarians as “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.“
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.”
I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?
Katniss Everdeen begins Book 3 in The Hunger Games trilogy by surveying the complete destruction of her family home by the Capitol’s firebombs.
Catching Fire [Book 2 of The Hunger Games Trilogy] (2009)
I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor.
The book begins with a bleak situation beautifully described by protagonist Katniss Everdeen. She continued: “I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sit, as motionless as the rock beneath me, while the dawn begins to lighten in the woods. I can’t fight the sun. I can only watch helplessly as it drags me into a day that I’ve been dreading for months.”
The Hunger Games (2008)
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
The opening words come from sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, one of the modern era’s most popular literary heroines, thanks to the success of Collins’s blockbuster dystopian novel. She continued: “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
“The reaping?“ we immediately think, and in that exact moment, Collins achieves the goal of all opening paragraphs—seducing the reader into her world.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
The year is 1826, the city is London, and these taut opening words come from Frannie Langton, a black Jamaican woman who has been accused of the double murder of her employers, the eminent English scientist George Benham and his French wife Marguerite. In the novel’s second paragraph, Frannie continued: “I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best,”
All in all, this is a compelling opening to a spectacular debut novel. About the book, writer Christine Mangan (Tangerine) wrote: “From the sweltering heat of the West Indies to the rain-slicked cobbles of London, Collins transports her readers to the nineteenth century with an enthralling historical thriller. Frannie Langton is an unforgettable heroine, one who boldly reclaims her narrative within the context of a history that seeks to silence her. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is gorgeous―Gothic writing at its very best.”
The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883)
Centuries ago there lived—
“A king!“ my little readers will say immediately.
No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.
I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny that it looked like a ripe cherry.
As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy. Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:
“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of a table.”
He grasped the hatchet quickly to peel off the bark and shape the wood. But as he was about to give it the first blow, he stood still with arm uplifted, for he had heard a wee, little voice say in a beseeching tone: “Please be careful! Do not hit me so hard!”
So begins the story of a block of wood that ultimately became a wooden puppet named Pinocchio—and one of the most popular children’s stories of all time. Originally presented in 1881-82 in serial form in a popular Italian children’s magazine, the story was published as a single book in 1883. In 1957, the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce hailed it as one of the greatest works in all of Italian literature, not just children’s literature.
In her classic Children’s Literature (1972), Francelia Butler said the novel “remains the most translated Italian book and, after the Bible, the most widely read.” The opening lines above are from Carol Della Chiesa’s 1926 translation.
Dead Reckoning (2014)
Up in my attic, sorting through a decaying box packed with forty years of personal detritus, is proving more gripping than the tedious job I anticipated. Alice, my exacting wife for most of these forty years, all but pulled out my fingernails to get me to do this.
In this heavily autobiographical novel, Colmore, a retired Episcopal priest, tells the story of Henry Simpson, a retired Episcopal priest. The narrator continued: “Old notes from seminary (good God, Henry, that paper on the sources of the Pentateuch belongs in a museum), a couple of citations commending my parish for housing the homeless. And tchotchkes my sisters and I couldn’t bring ourselves to toss out after our mother died.”
James and the Giant Peach (1961)
Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life. He lived peacefully with his mother and father in a beautiful house beside the sea. There were always plenty of other children for him to play with, and there was the sandy beach for him to run about on, and the ocean to paddle in. It was the perfect life for a small boy.
These words could begin any typical children’s book, but things take a dramatic, dark, and disturbing turn as the reader moves on to the second paragraph: “Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.“
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
This is an intriguing way to begin any book, but especially a children’s book. This is no ordinary children’s book, however. Dahl’s narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “Well, there is nothing very wrong with all of this. It’s the way of the world. It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their own revolting offspring, that we start shouting, ‘Bring us a basin! We’re going to be sick.’”
The Divine Comedy: Inferno (1321)
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
In 1985, replying to a query about a “favorite opening passage in a work of literature.” Gloria Vanderbilt told New York Times Book Review staffers that this was her personal favorite. She explained: “This strikes into the center of the dark night of the soul. Unforgettable, haunting, mysterious—the spirit plunges into the abyss. At the same moment it gives a kind of wild hope—a surge of will, a determination to find the road back from darkness into light.”
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
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992)
Once again, Cardinal Dominic Trujillo Guzman felt a pang like that of childbirth spear him in the belly, and he doubled over, clutching himself and moaning. As always when this happened, his only thoughts were of the guilt of his life.
This is a powerful opening sentence, and readers immediately begin to wonder, “What has this man done that haunts him so?“ The narrator continued: “In his anguish it was as if ancient coffers opened before his eyes, but instead of overflowing with gold doubloons, louis d’or, silver crucifixes encrusted with rubies, there spilled out demons.“
A Christmas Carol (1843)
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
These opening words have been popular since they were first written, and even showed up in a clever bit of repartee a few years back. As the story goes, Harlan Ellison was giving a lecture on writing fiction when he confidently asserted, “The opening of a story must breathe! It must have life!” Before he could say another word, a voice from the back of the room retorted, “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
In Dickens’s classic novel, the narrator continued: “The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
The expression “good upon ’Change” has puzzled readers—especially American readers—since A Christmas Carol was first published. ’Change is a shortened version of Exchange (as in The Stock Exchange or The Royal Exchange). The meaning of the passage is that Scrooge’s reputation among money traders was so good that his signature could be absolutely relied on.
The saying dead as a doornail, you should also know, was not original to Dickens; he was simply repeating a popular colloquial expression that dates to the 14th century in England. The narrator went on to add about the phrase: “Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
The Grasshopper King (2003)
I think it’s best that I begin with a legend—a mostly true one.
It’s rare for a math genius to write an entertaining and engaging book of fiction, but Ellenberg, one of America’s most respected mathematicians, proves it can be done—and with a most inviting opening sentence as well.
The Sentence (2021)
While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use.
The narrator, a middle-aged Native American woman named Tookie, continued: “The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of the day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.”
Erdrich’s most recent novel covered a lot of ground—COVID, the murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, a bookstore-haunting ghost named Flora—but the most enduring theme is suggested in the opening words. Writer Malcolm Jones (Little Boy Blues and others) summarized that theme beautifully in a New York Times book review: “Set in a bookstore, narrated by a bookseller whose former life in prison was turned around when she discovered books and began to read ‘with murderous attention,’ The Sentence testifies repeatedly to the power books possess to heal us and, yes, to change our lives. It may be that, as Tookie argues, ‘books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.’ But that harsh judgment notwithstanding, there are books, like this one, that while they may not resolve the mysteries of the human heart, go a long way toward shedding light on our predicaments. In the case of The Sentence, that’s plenty.” The opening words were so special that I included them in a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
The Trees (2021)
Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.
Normally, it is inadvisable for an opening paragraph to include a word that will send readers scrambling for a dictionary, but in this case, it seems quite fitting to insert a word defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Absence of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.”
About Everett’s opening paragraph, Lorraine Berry wrote in a Los Angeles Times review: “The butt of the joke here is the white Establishment, reduced by Everett’s tropes and puns to a redneck laughingstock.”
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.
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.”
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.”
The Eyre Affair (2001)
My father had a face that could stop a clock
The words come from protagonist and narrator Thursday Next, the daughter of Wednesday Next and her husband Colonel Next, a former official in a British Special Operations Unit known as The ChronoGuard. She continued: “I don’t mean he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.”
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.”
American Gods (2001)
Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
The novel begins with this extraordinary introduction to Shadow Moon, a convict who is about to be released from prison after his wife has been killed in a car accident. About these opening words, sci-fi writer Philip Palmer said in a 2011 blog post: “Wonderfully restrained evocative prose, with a laugh-out-loud funny joke in the middle sentence. After this great start, the book gets even better.”
The narrator continued: “The best thing—in Shadow’s opinion, perhaps the only good thing—about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he’d plunged as low as he could plunge and he’d hit bottom. He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He did not awake in prison with a feeling of dread; he was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.” American Gods went on to win the 2002 Nebula Award and 2002 Hugo Award.
Gabriel García Márquez
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
For savvy readers, the phrase bitter almonds is always associated with a tragic end, and the desire to learn more naturally results. The narrator continued: “Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.“
Gabriel García Márquez
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004)
The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.
In a 2005 review in The Oxonian Review (titled “The Nonagenarian and the Nymphette”), Glen Goodman wrote: “For most readers, this opening line may smack more of Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov than of the perfumed, sensual prose of Gabriel García Márquez; but, like the Nobel Prize winner’s previous novels, the first sentence of Memoria de mis putas tristes (literally “memoir of my sad whores”) engages the reader while encapsulating the central motivation of the narrative. The book—García Márquez’s first work of fiction in a decade—details the nonagenarian narrator’s first encounter with actual love, revealing the late-blooming romantic hidden deep within himself.“
Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Opening lines don’t get much better that this one. In fact, in a 2014 Vox.com post, writer Max Fisher wrote a piece titled “Gabriel García Márquez Wrote the Greatest Opening Line to a Book, Ever.” He went on to add:
“The question of what constitutes the greatest first line to any novel in literary history is not something that can ever really be decided. But Marquez’s is surely as good a contender as any. It has been repeatedly ranked as one of the best, for example in 2006 by the American Book Review, which declared it the fourth-best opening line in literary history. The other top sentences, by Herman Melville and others, are worthy but ultimately unpersuasive competitors: for inventiveness, for vividness, and for the sheer force by which Marquez’s first line compels you to drop everything and go read his novel from beginning to end, there is no real equal.”
In Colin Falconer’s 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,” he ranked the line Number Two. About it, he commented succinctly: “So many questions and all from just one sentence.”
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
About this classic opening line, Mark Nichol wrote in a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post (“20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story”) : “Don’t expect any fluffy bunnies or fragrant blossoms or dulcet giggles to show up in this seminal cyberpunk story. A spot-on metaphor expresses the story’s nihilism, letting you know what you’re in for and lugubriously inviting you in.”
In addition to its acclaimed opening line, Neuromancer is also noteworthy for popularizing the term cyberspace and presciently imagining something very close to what we now know as the internet or World Wide Web. It was Gibson’s debut novel, and the very first novel to win the three biggest honors in the sci-fi genre: The Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award.
Many years later, Gibson offered one of history’s best metaphors on the subject of great opening lines. In “The Handshake,” an essay in Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark (2017), a brilliant collection of brief works that grew out of his “By Heart” interviews in The Atlantic, Gibson wrote: “The first sentence is the handshake, on either side of the writer-reader divide. The reader shakes hands with the writer. The writer has already had to shake hands with the unknown. Assuming both have heard the click, we’ve got it going on.”
Lord of the Flies (1954)
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.
Golding’s classic dystopian novel starts off innocently enough, but quickly descends into a dark allegorical tale about the moral degeneration of a band of English schoolboys stranded on an island.
A quarter of a century after the novel came out, Golding shared with an interviewer the story of the book’s inception. Sitting with his wife in front of the home fireplace, he looked over at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” When she said, “That’s a first-class idea! You write it!” Golding concluded: “So I went ahead and wrote it.”
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”).
Confessor [the 11th and final book in the Sword of Truth Series] (2007)
For the second time that day, a woman stabbed Richard.
This is the entire first paragraph, and it’s an excellent way to lure a reader in for more. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Jolted fully awake by the shock of pain, he instantly seized her bony wrist, preventing her from ripping open his thigh. A dingy dress, buttoned all the way up to her throat, covered her gaunt figure. In the dim light of distant campfires Richard saw that the square of cloth draped over her head and knotted under her angular jaw looked to be made out of a scrap of frayed burlap.”
The Little White Horse (1946)
The carriage gave another lurch, and Maria Merryweather, Miss Heliotrope, and Wiggins once more fell into each other’s arms, sighed, gasped, righted themselves, and fixed their attention upon those objects which were for each of them at this trying moment the source of courage and strength.
This is a lovely in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening that ends with an important life lesson: different individuals find comfort and courage—and probably lots of other things as well—in different things. The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “Maria gazed at her boots. Miss Heliotrope restored her spectacles to their proper position, picked up the worn brown volume of French essays from the floor, popped a peppermint into her mouth, and peered once more in the dim light at the wiggly black print on the yellowed page. Wiggins meanwhile pursued with his tongue the taste of the long-since-digested dinner that still lingered among his whiskers.”
And, just to make sure her young readers got the message, Goudge continued in a third paragraph: “Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people—those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food; and Miss Heliotrope, Maria, and Wiggins were typical representatives of their own sort of people.”
After winning The Carnegie Medal in 1946, Goudge’s novel became a favorite childhood book for many Baby Boomers, including J. K. Rowling, who said in a 2011 interview: “The Little White Horse was my favorite childhood book. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.” in 2008, the book was adapted into a film titled “The Secret of Moonacre.”
The Tin Drum (1959)
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight.
The novel’s opening words come from Oskar Matzerath, a Polish man in his late twenties who is being confined in a mental hospital in the early 1950s. Is he a legitimate patient, or some kind of Cold War political prisoner? He offers a hint at the answer when he goes on to say: “There’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”
The Tin Drum was Grass’s first novel (his previous works were poetry, dramatic plays, and libretti for ballet), and he originally struggled to turn the ideas he had about the novel to words on a page. He struggled and struggled until the first sentence above came to him. After that, he reported, “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely.”
Forrest Gump (1986)
Let me say this: bein an idiot is no box of chocolates. People laugh, lose patience, treat you shabby. Now they say folks is sposed to be kind to the afflicted, but let me tell you—it ain’t always that way. Even so, I got no complaints, cause I reckon I done live a pretty interestin life so to speak.
With these words, we are introduced to one of the modern era’s most interesting fictional characters (brought to life by actor Tom Hanks in a 1994 film adaptation).
Gump continues his irresistible self-introduction in the novel’s second paragraph: “I been an idiot since I was born. My IQ is near 70, which qualifies me, so they say. Probly, tho, I’m closer to bein a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I’d rather think of myself as a halfwit, or something—an not no idiot—cause when people think of a idiot, more’n likely they be thinkin of one of them Mongolian idiots—the ones with they eyes too close together what look like Chinamen an drool a lot an play with theyselfs.”
In the 1994 film adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, the novel’s opening metaphor was changed to, “My mama always said, life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The movie version of the thought is the one that is best remembered today.
The Midnight Library (2020)
Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.
From the opening sentence, readers know the book will likely involve libraries and suicide, but few have a clue—at this early stage—as to where Haig’s speculative fiction novel is going to take them. The novel—a brilliant exposition of the theme of infinite possibilities—became an immediate bestseller and was shortlisted by the British Book Awards for the 2021 Fiction Book of the Year.
Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
Given the longstanding pattern of bestowing unearthly names on beings from other planets, Heinlein immediately gets our attention by going in a completely different direction (his delightful “exception to the rule” opening is now regarded as one of the sci-fi genre’s most outstanding opening lines). The allure of the first sentence is also enhanced by the traditional once upon a time beginning.
In a 2014 SFSignal.com post on “The Best Book Openings,” sci-fi writer John C. Wright wrote about Heinlein’s classic opener:
“The contrast of the oddest of oddities, a Martian, and the most quotidian of names, Smith is here on display. The reader’s eye is pulled as if magnetically to the next line to discover how a Martian can have so very terrestrial a name. Also present is the slightest hint of one of the philosophical points of the novel: Smith is a not a man from Mars, for he is not a man at all, since by upbringing he is an alien. In other words, this story asks what it means to be human, and that opening line serves to establish the question to be asked.”
Lost Horizon (1933)
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.
This is a wonderful opening line, perfectly capturing the mixture of sadness and disappointment that has been experienced by countless middle-aged people over the years when they’ve had some kind of reunion with childhood or adolescent friends.
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.”
“Rip Van Winkle,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson, must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.
The range is now known as the Catskill Mountains, of course, but Irving was writing at a time when the original Dutch spelling of place names predominated. By modern standards, this might not be regarded as a great opening line, but I have always admired it, and I especially enjoyed the lovely metaphor of a mountain range lording it over the surrounding countryside.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
In the bosom of one of the spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town of rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.
The opening words of novels and short stories can be appreciated in many different ways—some of them highly unexpected. In this case, the narrator continued with a delicious tidbit about how Tarrytown, New York got its name:
“The name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.”
The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
The narrator continued: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.“
In a 2003 Preface to a new edition of Jackson’s novel, Stephen King wrote glowingly about this opening: “I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend words, words which add up to a total greater than the sum of the parts.“
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
In a 2017 Literary Hub post, Emily Temple hailed this as “The Best Opening Paragraph of All Time,“ and her assessment is easy to understand. For me, the killer line is the final sentence. Did the family members all die as a result of mushroom poisoning? And did they all die at the hand of Merricat, as the narrator and protagonist wishes to be called?
In her post, Temple continued: “This paragraph is brilliant because of Merricat’s voice, and so is the rest of the book. It immediately teaches us who she is, and what this book is going to be like.“ Michael Douglas’s production company adapted the novel into an acceptable 2019 film, but one that didn’t do justice to the novel.
Stillicide: A Novel (2020)
The boy’s hand opened and closed as if he reached for a glass of water but it was just the nerves dying through his body.
In one sentence, we’re completely hooked. Quickly transported to the opening scene, we see a young, gravely injured boy, lying on the ground just in front of us, his life slowly slipping away. The narrator continues with grisly, but gripping details:
“With the thick rain the blood from the wound ran a thin washed pink.
“Nearby again a pheasant crowed, a klaxon call as they make before thunder.
“The bullet had gone in at the boy’s jaw and removed that side.”
The Metamorphosis (1915)
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
This line, with its fantastical and highly unexpected ending, has excited readers for more than a century. When the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez first read the line as an undergraduate at the National University of Colombia in the late 1940s, the effect was immediate and dramatic. “The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised,” he later recalled in a 1981 Paris Review interview. Márquez went on to add: “When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”
“A Report to An Academy,” in A Country Doctor (1919)
Honored members of the Academy!
You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I formerly led as an ape.
The narrator of Kafka’s short story—originally published in a 1917 issue of the German monthly Der Jude—is a West African ape. Five years earlier, he was shot and captured by a hunting expedition, given the name Red Peter by his captors (after a red facial scar from the gunshot wound), and shipped in a cage to Europe. In transit, he studied the behavior of the crew and, beginning with the human handshake ritual, found it surprisingly easy to imitate them. Arriving in Europe, he worked even harder at his imitative efforts in an effort to avoid a lifetime of future confinement in a zoo. After acquiring the rudiments of human language, he’s able to make a living as a music-hall performer named Peter.
Sailor Song (1992)
Ike Sallas was asleep when it began, in a red aluminum Galaxxy, not all that far away and only a short skip into the future. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—and that wasn’t even the half of it.
After this nifty tribute to Charles Dickens, the narrator continued: “He was dreaming about his ex-wife Jeannie, and how good she looked in their duster days in Fresno—the clean, simple days, before the baby and the Bakatcha Movement were born. Before the decade came to be known as the Nasty Nineties.“ NOTE: Galaxxy is spelled correctly in the first sentence.
Jack Ketchem (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Hide and Seek (1984)
I don’t believe in omens, but I think you can know when you’re in trouble.
Follow me on this, even if it sounds like bullshit.
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Girl Next Door (1989)
You think you know about pain?
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Box (1994)
“What’s in the box?” my son said.
“Danny,” I said, “Leave the man alone.”
It was two Sundays before Christmas and the Stamford local was packed—shoppers lined the aisles and we were lucky to have found seats. The man sat facing my daughters Clarissa and Jenny and me, the three of us squeezed together across from him and Danny in the seat beside him.
I could understand my son’s curiosity. The man was holding the red square gift box in his lap as though afraid that the Harrison stop, coming up next, might jolt it from his grasp. He’d been clutching it that way for three stops now—since he got on.
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
The Lost (2001)
Katherine took another sip of vodka. Ask him, she thought. It’s sick but it’s what you really want to know most of all, isn’t it? So go on and ask him. Truth or lie you want to hear his answer. She lit a cigarette and shook out the match.
“So you didn’t tell me, Ray,” she said. “What did it feel like?”
“Huh? I did tell you.”
“You told me how it felt after. Not then. Not at the time.”
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
Off Season (1980)
They watched her cross the meadow and step over the low stone wall, into the woods beyond. She looked awkward. She would be easy to catch.
They took their time. Breaking off the white birch switches, peeling the bark away. They could hear her moving through the underbrush. They looked at one another and smiled, but said nothing. They peeled the switches, and then they started after her.
It was openings like this that inspired Stephen King to write: “Ketchum has become a kind of hero to those of us who write tales of terror and suspense. He is, quite simply, one of the best in the business.” And about this particular novel, King wrote that Off Season was “a kind of literary Night of the Living Dead.”
Ketchum has often been dismissed as a purveyor of violent pornography, but that would be writing him off too easily. In 2011, he received the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award for outstanding contribution to the horror genre
Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr)
“The Business,” in Peaceable Kingdom (2003)
The cockroach was not too big but it was coming right at him, moving in that drunken way they have, a little to the left, a little to the right, appropriate in this place, moving past Mama’s beer spill on a trajectory that would take it directly yet indirectly to his scotch.
“Hey Billy,” he said to the barman, “pass me another napkin, will ya?”
“Description is, in effect, word painting,“ wrote Rebecca McClanahan in her book Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (1999). In this description of an approaching cockroach, Ketchum has provided us with a mini-masterpiece.
In the short story, the narrator continued: “Billy didn’t like him. Howard knew that. He couldn’t have cared less. He got service because he left a decent tip. Billy handed him the cocktail napkin. Howard squished the bug. If you had a potato chip stuffed with onion dip, that was what it felt like.”
Peter Straub once said that people often came to Ketchum’s writings for the wrong reasons and stayed with him for the right ones—and one of those right reasons might well be his sensational openings, many of which are featured above.
“Flowers for Algernon,” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (April 1959)
Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey things that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its important so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me. I hope they use me. Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart. My name is Charlie Gordon. I am 37 years old and 2 weeks ago was my birthday. I have nuthing more to rite now so I will close for today.
Charlie is a man with an IQ of 68, and these are the opening words come from his very first “Progris riport.” A few weeks earlier, he was recruited to be the first human subject in an experimental surgical procedure designed to increase intelligence (an earlier procedure on a mouse named Algernon paved the way).
Keyes’ short story was widely praised, winning the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. A few years later, he expanded it into a critically acclaimed novel (it shared the 1968 Nebula Award for Best Novel). The tale went on to become a part of popular culture when it was adapted into the 1968 film Charlie, starring Cliff Robertson.
Sue Monk Kidd
The 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.”
The Shining (1977)
Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
This is the novel’s entire first paragraph—the protagonist’s simple but powerful assessment of a man who’s interviewing candidates for the job of off-season caretaker of a grand old hotel in the mountains of Colorado.
In the second paragraph, Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic, continued: “Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.”
In 1980, the novel was adapted into a Stanley Kubrick film with an unforgettable performance by Jack Nicholson. When King first saw the film, he hated it, but ultimately came to respect it as a work of art. He wrote in Danse Macabre (1981); “Even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse, and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there.”
Needful Things (1991)
YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.
All authors can cite the favorite opening lines they have themselves written, and this one is King’s. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler, King said: “But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote—and I learned it from [James] Cain, and learned it from [Douglas] Fairbairn—is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE.“
King went on to add: “All there by itself on one page, inviting the reader to keep reading. It suggests a familiar story; at the same time, the unusual presentation brings us outside the realm of the ordinary. And this, in a way, is a promise of the book that’s going to come. The story of neighbor against neighbor is the oldest story in the world, and yet this telling is (I hope) strange and somehow different. Sometimes it’s important to find that kind of line: one that encapsulates what’s going to happen later without being a big thematic statement.“
Salem’s Lot (1975)
Everybody thought the man and the boy were father and son.
Great opening lines are often more like lures than hooks, and this one has been beckoning readers since the early stages of King’s career. In a 2020 essay on “Great Hookers I Have Known,“ King wrote about it: “I suppose if I had to pick a favorite opening sentence from my own work—and it still isn’t much of a hooker—it would be the opening sentence of Salem’s Lot.“
The man and the boy turn out to be the man and the girl, a father and daughter—Andy and Charlene “Charlie” McGee—who begin the novel “on the run” from government authorities.
You might also be interested in learning that, seven years earlier, in a 2013 interview, King identified yet another opening line from his works as his personal favorite. For more, see the Needful Things (1991) entry.
This is the story of a lover’s triangle, I suppose you’d say—Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine.
The Dark Half (1989)
People’s lives—their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences—begin at different times.
The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)
The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
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.
The Gunslinger [Book 1 of The Dark Tower series] (1982)
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
In a 2011 Lit Reactor article, Meredith Borders included this opener in her list of “The Ten Best Opening Lines of Novels.” About it, she wrote: “Stephen King began writing The Gunslinger when he was a sophomore in college; he has said that the opening sentence came to him as a forceful inspiration that he could not ignore. Twelve and a half years later, the novel was published.”
The inspiration for the novel was Robert Browning’s 1852 poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” A few years after the novel was published, King reported, “I played with the idea of trying a long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem.“ In her 2011 post, Borders agreed that King had accomplished what he set out to do, writing, “The words are stark and lovely, instantly giving the sense that we are in medias res of an epic adventure lasting through time out of mind.”
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.”
W. P. Kinsella
Shoeless Joe (1982)
My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.
The narrator and protagonist is an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella. He goes on to quote his father as saying about Jackson: "He'd put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe."
In the novel, Kinsella hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field in the middle of a huge patch of corn. The field, he is told, will give Shoeless Joe Jackson, the central figure in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, a chance at redemption. The debut novel, acclaimed by critics, was ultimately adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner. The saying "If you build it, he will come" went on to become a cultural meme and was ranked 39th on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time.
W. P. Kinsella
Shoeless Joe (1982)
My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.
The narrator and protagonist is Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who just happens to share the author’s surname. He goes on to quote his father as saying: “He’d put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe.“
In the novel, Kinsella hears a voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a huge corn field. The field, he is told, will give Shoeless Joe Jackson, the central figure in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, a chance at redemption. The novel was acclaimed by critics from the outset and went on to win the 1982 Books in Canada First Novel Award.
After the novel was adapted into the 1989 film Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, the saying “If you build it, he will come” went on to become a cultural meme The saying was recently ranked 39th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time.
Rosemary’s Baby (1967)
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up.
Rosemary, especially, cannot believe the good news, but, from the very beginning, something seems off—and it ultimately turns out to be horribly off.
Levin’s bestselling novel touched off a huge boom in horror fiction in the late sixties. A year later, the novel was adapted into a Roman Polanski film, starring Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, and, in an Oscar-winning role, Ruth Gordon.
C. S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
I especially like what writer Danielle Karthauser said about this classic opening line in a 2016 post on Mugglenet.com: “This first line literally gives the reader all they need to know about his character. Author C. S. Lewis is telling his readers, ’Here is my main character. Do you think he has an ugly name? Yeah, he does. Does his personality match it? Almost.’“
In the novel—the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia series—the narrator continued with one other savory tidbit about the protagonist: “His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.“
C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair (1953)
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.
This opening line from Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia series couldn’t be simpler, or more affecting. Close your eyes, and the scene appears almost automatically in your mind.
The narrator continued: “She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ’Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ’mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked was bullying the others.“
A. J. Liebling
The Telephone Booth Indian (1942)
There was once a French-Canadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window in his stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellow of a doctor was able to study the man’s inner workings, and that is how we came to know all about the gastric juices, as I suppose we do.
These are the first words of the Preface to the book. Liebling continued: “The details are not too clear in my mind, as I read the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year in elementary school, but I have no doubt it is essentially correct.”
The Call of the Wild (1903)
Buck did not read the papers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.
From the phrasing of the first sentence, it becomes clear that Buck is a dog, and not a human being. The opening words also offer the intriguing suggestion that this tale will be a told from a canine perspective, not a human one.
The narrator continued: “Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.“
H. P. Lovecraft
“The Call of Cthulhu,” in Weird Tales magazine (1928)
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
Year of the Reaper (2021)
When it came to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them.
This is a terrific first line—straightforward, succinct, but highly evocative. The narrator continued: “This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.”
The protagonist, we will shortly learn, is 18-year-old Lord Cassia, a young nobleman recently emerged from prison and returning to his home in the middle of a devastating worldwide plague and after a long, costly war with a neighboring kingdom. About the book, Jennifer Harlan. said in a New York Times review: “This moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.”
Foreign Affairs (1984)
On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten A.M. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog.
To be successful, a novel with a beginning like this requires what Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.“ And a novel with this premise is only going to achieve such a result if the writer has the talent to pull it off. Happily, Lurie had exactly the right stuff, as we see in librarian Nancy Pearl’s assessment of the book on National Public Radio in 2006:
“There’s a wonderful invisible dog named Fido…as the protagonist Vinnie Miner has named him [who] always appears when she’s feeling sorry for herself. In London, Vinnie will encounter love, a mysterious housekeeper, and ultimately learn that perhaps Fido just might be her truest companion. Lurie’s novel won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize and is still a wonderful reading choice for anyone looking for marvelous writing, an original take on what could be considered a hackneyed plot, and characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Especially Fido.”
The Miracle at St Anna (2002)
On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.
The Good Lord Bird (2013)
I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.
The narrator and protagonist is a former slave named Henry Shackleford, and he introduces himself in a most memorable way. As an eleven-year-old (or thereabouts) baby-faced boy in the Kansas Territory of 1856, he accidentally meets the legendary abolitionist John Brown, who mistakenly believes him to be a girl, gives him a dress to wear, and enlists him as a good luck charm in his anti-slavery crusade. As the tale unfolds, Henry—dubbed “Little Onion” by Brown—discovers it is easier to keep up the charade than to reveal his true gender. The book won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise.
Of McEwan’s nineteen novels, perhaps the most imaginative is Nutshell, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of a fetus (yes, you heard that right).
In a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, Michael W. Miller wrote: “The idea for the extremely unusual narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell first came to him while he was chatting with his pregnant daughter-in-law. ’We were talking about the baby, and I was very much aware of the baby as a presence in the room,’ he recalls. He jotted down a few notes, and soon afterward, daydreaming in a long meeting, the first sentence of the novel popped into his head. In an Irish Times review, John Boyne wrote: “McEwan has long been considered a master of the opening chapter...and here he makes even more of this talent with an opening sentence that sets out his stall in nine words: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.“
The idea of a novel being narrated by a fetus sounds pretty far-fetched, but once we suspend our disbelief and place ourselves squarely in the hands of a talented storyteller, it works surprisingly well. Alarmed by the murderous plans being hatched by his mother and her brother-in-law, the narrating fetus continues:
“That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”
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.”
J. Leslie Mitchell
When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master’s body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.
One of the most gratifying aspects of my research for this project was discovering spectacular opening paragraphs in the works of authors I’d never heard of. Mitchell, a popular Scottish author in the early decades of the twentieth century, published many novels, including Spartacus, under his own name, and many others under his pen name, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
This is not the Spartacus novel that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s popular 1960 film adaptation, though. Douglas relied on Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name. Mitchell’s opening line above demonstrates great flair and style, and I feel certain that, nearly twenty years later, Howard Fast must have devoured Mitchell’s earlier work when he was writing his version of the Spartacus legend.
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.”
J. Leslie Mitchell
The Thirteenth Disciple (1931)
One of his earliest memories was of how, at the age of five, he set out to commit suicide.
Suicide at age five? A perfect example of what writers describe as a “hook.“
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)
The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?
In a 2017 blog post titled “20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph,” writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Everyone tells you to seek clarity in your opening, to let the reader know where you’re going to take them.” About this particular opening, though, Fox went on to write:
“Murakami blows that advice up. I love how he’s deliberately playing with confusion, so that you know that the narrator is moving inside the elevator, but you have no idea what direction. It’s a feeling of complete lack of control and awareness. It’s a fantastic mystery to start the novel, and dovetails so nicely with the wonderland of the rest of the book.”
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.”
Bend Sinister (1947)
An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver.
The novel begins with this impressive opening description—visual, textured, and layered with potential meaning.
Many years later, Nabokov offered this lovely thought about the entire novel: “Bend Sinister was the first novel I wrote in America, and that was half a dozen years after she and I had adopted each other.”
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.
In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw. Like a lot of things, it didn’t happen all at once.
First I had to get married.
After these opening words, I have just one question: how can you not read on? This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
After this delightful opening, North took the classic western novel and turned it on its head. In a Ms. magazine review, Karla J. Strand wrote: “A western unlike any other, Outlawed features queer cowgirls, gender nonconforming robbers and a band of feminists that fight against the grain for autonomy, agency and the power to define their own worth.” I also enjoyed NPR commentator Maureen Corrigan’s summary description of the novel: “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.“
A Deadly Education [Book I of the Scholomance trilogy] (2020)
I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.
An opening line like, “I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he tried to kill me” would be an excellent way to begin a novel. But after the second time he saved my life? Now that’s an opening line that truly piques our interest.
Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan)
The Third Policeman (1967)
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.
Originally written in 1939-40, The Third Policeman failed to find publication until 1967, a year after O’Nolan’s death. In How to Read Literature (2013), Terry Eagleton hailed it as a great Irish novel, and said about the first paragraph: “It opens with these chilling words.”
The unnamed narrator turns out to be a dead man talking, but readers don’t learn this until the end of the novel. In a 1940 letter to William Saroyan—who was trying to help find an American publisher—O’Nolan wrote: “When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing.”
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.
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.”
Animal Farm (1945)
Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.
The narrator continued: “With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.”
The drunken, careless farmer is the thinly disguised czar Nicholas II, and the unfolding tale a brilliant satire of a high-minded revolution that descends into totalitarianism. When Animal Farm was first published in England in 1945, it was subtitled A Fairy Story. A year later, when the book appeared in the United States, the subtitle was eliminated completely in some printings and replaced with A Satire or A Contemporary Satire in others.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It’s common for dystopian novels to open with a disquieting or unsettling hint, and Orwell’s classic tale does that by mentioning a clock number that doesn’t exist. In How to Read Literature (2013), Terry Eagleton wrote:
“This first sentence gains its effect from carefully dropping the word ‘thirteen’ into an otherwise unremarkable piece of description, thus signaling that the scene is set either in some unfamiliar civilization or in the future. Some things haven’t changed (the month is still named April, and winds can still be bitter), but others have, and part of the effect of the sentence springs from this juxtaposition of the ordinary and the familiar.”
The narrator continued: “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.”
My Name is Red (1998)
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me.
The narrator is Elegant Effendi, a Turkish miniaturist who is clearly speaking from the afterlife. He continued: “As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.”
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (2013)
Every time a human walks out of a room, something with more feet walks in.
This is a magnificent first sentence, and one could easily make the argument that it deserves to be included in any discussion of the greatest opening lines in all of children’s literature.
According to writer Lee Wind, Peck made a startling revelation at a 2013 meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). In a workshop on “Shaping Story From the Opening Line,” the legendary author told participants that the line didn’t come to him until eleven months into his work on the novel, when he was on page 124 of the fifth draft of the book. Immediately sensing that the perfect opening line had arrived, he quickly sat down to re-write the beginning of the tale. About the long wait, he happily admitted, “It was worth it.”
In that same workshop, Peck told participants that books for younger people must suggest action that has begun before the opening line. With children’s books, he said, “We start in the story, not at the beginning.”
The Club Dumas (2003)
The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fixture in the center of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking pictures, the flashes threw the silhouette onto a succession of paintings, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains framing great windows beyond which the rain was falling.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)
Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.
The Light Fantastic [Book 2 in Discworld Series] (1986)
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.
Wyrd Sisters [Book 6 in Discworld Series] (1988)
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin.
Night Watch [Book 29 in Discworld Series] (2002)
Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but finished shaving before doing anything about it.
In a 2015 blog post, Dean Koontz hailed this as a “quick-punch” opening line, adding that it “should intrigue with its mix of the hard-boiled and the comic.”
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
A screaming comes across the sky.
In 2006, The American Book Review ranked this Number 3 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.” Younger readers may be forgiven for not recognizing this classic opening line as an unparalleled description of a WWII V-2 rocket propelling toward its target. Many modern readers also fail to appreciate how the book’s metaphorical title perfectly captures the parabolic trajectory of such a rocket from launch to final impact.
After the book was named co-winner (with Isaac Bashevis Singers’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories) of the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction, the notoriously reclusive Pynchon declined the award. Sensing a rare publicity opportunity, the president of Viking Press suggested that Professor Irwin Corey, an up-and-coming comedian, accept the award on Pynchon’s behalf. During Corey’s mock acceptance speech, a streaker famously ran across the stage and throughout the auditorium.
It’s a sin to write this.
First sentences don’t get much better, and we quickly deduce that this one is coming from the dystopian future. The narrator and protagonist—named Equality 7-2521—is an acutely intelligent young man the government has assigned to work as a street sweeper.
As Equality 7-2521 continues, notice how the first-person pronoun I has been completely eliminated from his vocabulary: “It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
When they pulled her out, she was not crying at all. Her tiny brow was wrinkled, and then her eyes grew wide. She looked at the bright lights, the white-and green-clad figures, the woman lying on the table below her. Somehow familiar sounds washed over her. On her face was an odd expression for a newborn—puzzlement perhaps.
In this acclaimed debut novel—which won the 1986 Locus Award for Best First Novel—the narrator portentously describes the birth of Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway. As the story unfolds, Ellie goes on to become a child prodigy and, as an adult, a leading figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The first work on Contact began in the late 1970s as a screenplay by Sagan, already a world-famous astronomer, and his future wife Ann Druyan. In 1981, when development of the film stalled, Simon and Schuster stepped forward with a staggering two million dollar advance to turn the screenplay into novel. It was the largest book advance ever offered at the time, and the investment paid off handsomely. It went on to become one of the Top Ten bestselling novels of 1985, selling nearly two million copies.
Predictably, the success of the book revived interest in a film, and the novel was adapted into a 1997 film—also a critical and commercial success—with Jody Foster playing the role of Arroway.
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.
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now, I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the young—
But that is false.
That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.
The opening words come from Hans Vollman, a former printer who, after his unexpected death, exists in the Bardo, a space between death and the afterlife. Vollman and some of his ghostlike compatriots go on to figure prominently in the period just after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006)
I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: something lyric like Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”; or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” People remember those words even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I’ve read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.
It’s rare to find opening lines about the subject of literary opening lines, and this one has to be regarded as the best. If you’re reading it for the first time, the words do not come from a person who loves books, but from an animal—a rat named Firmin. When he was born in the basement of a Boston bookstore in 1960, Firmin was the 13th baby born to an alcoholic mother rat who had twelve nipples.
As the runt of the litter, Firmin had to do something to survive, so he began nibbling on the pages of his bedding, an old, discarded copy of Finnegan’s Wake. Firmin’s unusual diet had a transformative effect, allowing him to read and think symbolically. As he grew older, his literary tastes grew more and more refined, and his sense of alienation from his fellow creatures increased—leading him to make dismissive, but brilliant, remarks about them. My favorite was this one: “Thanks to their dwarfish imaginations and short memories they did not ask for a lot, mostly just food and fornication, and they got enough of both to take them through life.”
The first paragraph of Firmin is spectacular, and the second may be even better, capturing the almost universal experience of anyone who has chosen to write for a living: “In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully—yes, that’s the word, manfully—as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion! Exactly the opposite was true.”
Old Man’s War (2005)
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.
This unusual statement comes from narrator and protagonist John Perry, a retired advertising writer who—at some unspecified time in the future—joins the Colonial Defense Forces, undergoes a process in which his mind is genetically reassigned to a new body, and ultimately engages in heroic exploits. This was Scalzi’s debut novel, and the first in a series of six “Old Man’s War” novels. It was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006.
From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder and thought, Well, this sucks.
The Lovely Bones (2002)
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The narrator and protagonist is Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who, after having been raped and murdered by a man in her own neighborhood, watches from heaven as life unfolds for her family, friends, and the murderer. The book went on to win the 2003 American Booksellers Association Adult Fiction Book of the Year.
In a 2016 Bustle.com post, actor and writer Charlotte Ahlin included this on her list of “The 10 Most Terrifying Opening Lines from Books.” About it, she wrote: “If gruesome murder terrifies you, then here’s a killer first line. Granted, the rest of The Lovely Bones is more sad than thrilling and terrifying. But there’s something so matter-of-fact about the opening line and the introduction to Susie’s murder. You’re not sure exactly what you’re in for, but you know that something disturbing is coming your way.”
“Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
It was that uniquely American institution known as the neighborhood bar, small, softly lit and at this moment catering to that unsophisticated pre-cocktail group whose drinking was a serious business undisturbed and uncomplicated by the social frivolities of the five-thirty crowd. The latter group were the cocktail folks whose alcohol was part of a master plan of either business contacts or logistically planned seduction.
“The Midnight Sun,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
“The secret of a successful artist,” an old instructor had told her years ago, “is not just to put paint on canvas—it is to transfer emotion, using oils and brush as a kind of nerve conduit.”
“A Thing About Machines,” in More Stories from the Twilight Zone (1961)
Mr. Bartlett Finchley, tall, tart, and fortyish, looked across his ornate living room to where the television repairman was working behind his set and felt an inner twist of displeasure that the mood of the tastefully decorated room would be so damaged by the T-shirted, dungareed serviceman whose presence was such a foreign element in the room.
“The Whole Truth,” in New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1962)
You could say this of Harvey Hennicutt—he was an exceptional liar.
The narrator continued: “When Harvey peddled one of his used cars, his lying was colorful, imaginative, and had a charm all of its own.”
Black Beauty (1877)
The first place that I can well remember was a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside. At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook, overhung by a steep bank.
The opening paragraph reads like the beginning of almost any autobiography you’ve ever read. As readers begin the second paragraph, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the autobiography of a human being:
“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot, we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold, we had a warm shed near the grove.”
The Paradise Gig [Book 15 of Key West Capers series] (2020)
Well, the whole thing started with a woman standing on her head.
She was doing this yoga-style, on Smathers Beach in Key West, Florida, just a few short weeks ago. It was a beautifully ordinary day, sunny with a salty breeze. She was minding her own business, upside down, when two men suddenly approached her towel. They might have pushed her over but it’s hard to say for sure. Anyway, she came down off her head, left the beach with them, and wasn’t seen for several days. After that, a bunch of crazy stuff happened, and seemed to happen very fast.
The opening scene is set up by Nacho, an even older Chihuahua this year, in his second narrator role in a series of novels that were described by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as “Funny, elegantly written, and hip.” Nacho continued: “That’s one way of looking at it. But you could also say the story really started way back in 1964, long before I was even born, and that things had been sort of simmering very slowly ever since.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
LETTER 1—To Mrs. Saville, England St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17__.
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
This is the first sentence of a letter from English explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret. While on a scientific expedition to the North Pole, Captain Walton’s crew see a man of enormous size driving a dog sled. A few hours later, they discover a half-frozen, emaciated man—Victor Frankenstein—who has been in pursuit of the gigantic figure. The rest of the story slowly unfolds in this epistolary novel that went on to become a classic in world literature.
The story behind the creation of the tale is also quite interesting. On a dark, rainy evening in June of 1816, 18-year-old Mary Shelley and new husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, five years her senior, were guests of Lord Byron, then twenty-eight, at his villa in Geneva, Switzerland. Also present that evening was John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician.
After discussing some German horror stories that had recently appeared in a French translation, Byron offered a whimsical challenge: “We will each write a ghost story.” Mary Shelley struggled at first, but an idea eventually popped into her mind. Here’s how she put it in an 1831 Introduction to a revised version of the story: “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endured with vital warmth.” Galvanism, you should know, was a recent coinage inspired by the work of Italian physician Italo Galvani (1737-98), who discovered that legs of dead frogs twitched when a current of electricity was applied to them.
Later that evening, Shelley was lying in bed, half-asleep, when an image formed in her mind. A man was “kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she wrote in that 1831 Introduction. As her imagination took in “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” she opened her eyes in a state of fright—and an idea for a novel was born. The first edition of the tale was published anonymously in London on January 1, 1818, when Shelley was only twenty years old. Her name first appeared in a second edition, published in 1821.
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.
Grasshopper Jungle (2014)
I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.
But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
The opening reflections come from 16-year-old Austin Szerba, an Iowa high school student who, along with his best friend Robby Brees, is about to do some really dumb—and really dangerous things—when they accidentally unleash an invasion of six-feet tall praying mantises into the world.
In a New York Times review, Clive Thompson wrote: “Grasshopper Jungle is a rollicking tale that is simultaneously creepy and hilarious. Its propulsive plot would be delightful enough on its own, but Smith’s ability to blend teenage drama into the bug invasion is a literary joy to behold.”
The Benefactor (1963)
If only I could explain to you how changed I am since those days! Changed yet still the same, but now I can view my old preoccupations with a calm eye.
The opening lines of Sontag’s debut novel pique our curiosity. What is the nature of the preoccupation? How has it changed? For those of us who’ve experienced a youthful preoccupation calmed by the years, there’s an immediate identification with the narrator, an aging French writer known only as Hippolyte.
As the narrator continues, our curiosity is further heightened: “In the thirty years which have passed, the preoccupation has changed its form, become inverted so to speak. When it began, it grew in me and emptied me out. I ignored it at first, then admitted it to myself, then sought consolation from friends, then resigned myself to it, and finally learned to exploit it for my own wisdom. Now, instead of being inside me, my preoccupation is a house in which I live; in which I live, more or less comfortably, roaming from room to room.”
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?”
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.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.
The narrator continued: “His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouché’s, Bonaparte’s, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of these more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”
Perfume has become one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century, selling more than twenty million copies in more than twenty different languages.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)
After two miles of walking he came to a town. At the town’s edge was a sign that read Haneyville: Pop. 1400. That was good, a good size. It was still early in the morning—he had chosen morning for the two-mile walk, because it was cooler then—and there was no one yet in the streets. He walked for several blocks in the weak light, confused at the strangeness—tense and somewhat frightened. He tried not to think of what he was going to do. He had thought about it enough already
In the small business district he found what he wanted, a tiny store called The Jewel Box. On the street corner nearby was a green wooden bench, and he went to it and seated himself, his body aching from the labor of the long walk.
It was a few minutes later that he saw a human being.
So begins the story of a human-looking extraterrestrial being who lands on earth in hopes of finding an eventual destination for the desperate citizens on his dying planet Anthea. After his arrival, he takes the name Thomas Jerome Newton, insinuates himself into the human population, and begins to implement his plan.
When the novel was adapted into a 1976 film starring David Bowie, it was only moderately successful, despite stunning visuals and an inspired performance by Bowie. The film has since become a cult classic, and it continues to hold an almost religious significance for Bowie fans. When the film was restored and re-released on its 40th anniversary in 2016, cinematographer Tony Richmond said about the casting of Bowie: “I can’t imagine any other actor in that role. It wasn’t just his defining role, but it was the role for him. He kind of glided through it like an alien, and with his face with that white, pasty skin, he was just absolutely perfect.”
About the novel, crime writer James Sallis hailed it as “Among the finest science fiction novels” in a July 2020 review in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He went on to add: “Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.”
J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit (1937)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
This is the line that started it all, written during the height of a worldwide depression when millions around the world were also hungering for a bit of escapism. In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “In just ten words, Tolkien’s opening line is so simple and yet leaves the reader with so many questions. What is a hobbit? Why does he live in a hole? And why is this particular hobbit so important that an entire novel is going to be centered on him?”
About the hole in the ground, the narrator continued: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The Hobbit was greeted with international acclaim from the day it was published. Writing in The Times of London, C. S. Lewis wrote about it: “The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humor, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”
A Horse’s Tale (1907)
I am Buffalo Bill’s horse. I have spent my life under his saddle—with him in it, too, and he is good for two hundred pounds, without his clothes.
The narrator is Soldier’s Boy, who describes himself as Buffalo Bill’s favorite horse. He continued: “And there is no telling how much he does weigh when he is out on the war-path and has his batteries belted on. He is over six feet, is young, hasn’t an ounce of waste flesh, is straight, graceful, springy in his motions, quick as a cat, and has a handsome face, and black hair dangling down on his shoulders, and is beautiful to look at; and nobody is braver than he is, and nobody is stronger, except myself.” A Horse’s Tale was first published in two installments of Harper’s Magazine in August and September, 1906.
A Dog’s Tale (1904)
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian.
The narrator is a pet dog—with the unusual name Aileen Mavourneen—who was brought into her new owner’s family a year after a new baby girl was born. The dog ultimately saved the baby’s life when a fire erupted in the nursery, but was savagely beaten when her owner mistakenly interpreted what had happened. The prolific American writer Frederick Busch wrote that the novel “boasts one of the great opening sentences” of all time.
The novel was an expanded version of a short story originally published in Harper’s Magazine in December 1903. The story, which had Aileen’s puppy dying in a research project designed to improve human vision, was published a month later as a stand-alone pamphlet by the National Anti-Vivisection Society.
In the novel’s opening paragraph, Aileen continued: “This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education.”
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 Angel (1961)
You told me to write you wherever I might be, in whatever corner of the world. Well, I’m not in the world, but I’m writing these letters anyway, with no hope of ever sending them to you, because there’s no mail from our star to your earth.
The letter is being written by Angelos Angelides, a recently departed Greek man who is now a “Reserve Candidate Angel” in the School of Reserve Heavenly Angels. He continued: “But it’s the only thing that can still give me some relief, and I’m glad that, here in Heaven, they haven’t deprived me of this harmless mania, and that there is ample paper in the P.X.”
The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God (1994)
He became a surgeon because he was afraid of knives. He got married because he was afraid of women. He had a child because he was afraid of responsibility. Now, his marriage over and his child no longer speaking to him, he turned off all the lights in the house because he was afraid of the dark.
The novel’s opening words describe a protagonist who is not exactly a paragon of mental health—but we are certainly intrigued by his psychological dynamics. On the book’s dust jacket, he is described this way: “James Abbey, a successful surgeon, is a man so tightly wound that he could have a nervous breakdown in the middle of a crowd, and nobody would notice. And that’s exactly what happens one day, when he finds himself at the zoo and starts hearing voices.”
Night Time Losing Time (1989)
Being dead is the best high I’ve ever seen. Except that being dead does not settle anything.
This is Ventura’s debut novel, and we are immediately pulled in by the unusual opening words. In a New York Times book review, writer Barbara Kingsolver described the narrator and protagonist this way: “The book’s narrator, a fortyish rock-and-roll pianist named Jesse Wales, sits in a Quartzsite motel room remembering his life while steadily losing control of his body and his mind. He spends some time up around the light fixture looking down on his body, and several hours in the drawer with the Gideon, watching his ex-lovers parade by in biblical regalia. It looks like the end of the line for Jesse.”
A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871)
The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.
Aeneid (1st c. B.C.)
I sing of arms and the man.
Also often translated as “Of arms and the man I sing,” these are the words that begin Virgil’s epic tale of Aeneas, a prince in the nation-state of Troy and a man in search of a new land following his exile after the Trojan War. His wanderings finally take him to Italy, where he becomes the progenitor of a people who ultimately become known as Romans.
One of history’s most famous phrases, it shows up in numerous plays and novels (G. B. Shaw titled his 1994 play Arms and the Man). About the opening passage, Alice Hubbard wrote in a December 1912 issue of The Fra: “It is a trumpet-call to attention. We listen and we have listened since man observed and was interested in other men. War has been the writer’s theme since man first wrote.”
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.
The narrator continued: “One of them was a science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. He was a nobody at the time, and he supposed his life was over. He was mistaken. As a consequence of the meeting, he became one of the most beloved and respected human beings in history.”
And about the other, he wrote: “The man he met was an automobile dealer, a Pontiac dealer named Dwayne Hoover. Dwayne Hoover was on the brink of going insane.”
The Sirens of Titan (1959)
Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
It’s a far-fetched—and perhaps even ridiculous—assertion about a future world, but it certainly gets our attention. After making it, the narrator continued: “But mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.”
“The Snow,” in All Soul’s Night: A Book of Stories (1933)
The second Mrs. Ryder was a young woman not easily frightened, but now she stood in the dusk of the passage leaning back against the wall, her hand on her heart, looking at the grey-faced window beyond which the snow was steadily falling against the lamplight.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The passage where she was led from the study to the dining-room, and the window looked out on to the little paved path that ran at the edge of the Cathedral green. As she stared down the passage she couldn’t be sure whether the woman were there or no. How absurd of her! She knew the woman was not there. But if the woman was not, how was it that she could discern so clearly the old-fashioned grey cloak, the untidy grey hair and the sharp outline of the pale cheek and pointed chin? Yes, and more than that, the long sweep of the grey dress, falling in folds to the ground, the flash of a gold ring on the white hand. No. No. NO. This was madness. There was no one and nothing there. Hallucination…” [ellipsis in original]
I can’t be certain, but I have a feeling that Daphne du Maurier might have been inspired by this Walpole story when she created the second Mrs. de Winter for her classic 1938 novel Rebecca. In both cases, the second wives are unable to free themselves from the ghosts of their husbands’ first wives.
“The Tarn,” in The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories (1928)
As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.
One of the great pleasures of my Great Opening Lines project has been discovering intriguing openers from authors I’ve heard of, but never read. “The Tarn” is one of Walpole’s darker short stories, and the opening scene is so beautifully described you can close your eyes and bring every detail to life in your mind’s eye. Go ahead, try it.
A guest in another man’s home, absorbed by the books in his library, has no idea that the man standing just behind him is having dark, delicious fantasies of strangling him. At this point, readers have no idea what the man has done to stimulate such ferocious rage, or if the host will actually follow through. How could they stop themselves from reading on?
As the story unfolds, we learn that both men are writers—and a familiar literary theme emerges. In a 2021 blog post, speculative fiction writer Matthew Rettino described the story this way: “A highly relatable tale of literary jealousy and sweet revenge.”
The Martian (2011)
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
This terse assessment of a dire situation comes from protagonist Mark Watney, an American astronaut who, six days earlier, was one of the first human beings to walk on Mars. After a catastrophic dust storm, his crew is forced to evacuate the planet without him, believing he had perished in an explosion. Watney continued: “Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.”
In 2015, the novel was adapted into a Ridley Scott film, with Matt Damon in the role of the stranded astronaut. Named by more than fifty critics as one of the Top Ten films of the year, it also became the 10th-highest grossing film of 2015. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Damon. Sadly, the novel’s opening lines didn’t make it into the film.
H. G. Wells
The War of the Worlds (1898)
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
H. G. Wells
The Time Machine (1895)
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.
This is a simple-but-beautiful opening line, and, at the time they were written, there was something about those three first words—the time traveller—that immediately stirred the heart of fin de siècle (turn-of-the-century) readers. The narrator continued: “His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated. The fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses.”
E. B. White
Charlotte’s Web (1952)
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
In “When You Were Very Young,” a 2014 New York Times article about a Grolier Club exhibition of early editions of classic children’s literature books, writer Sarah Lyall wrote that Charlotte’s Web had “one of the best opening lines in all of literature.” The first sentence sets the stage perfectly. The ensuing dialog between young Fern Arable and her mother frames the remainder of story:
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of those pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
E. B. White
Stuart Little (1945)
When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.
The narrator continued: “The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse. Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too—wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane. Mr and Mrs. Little named him Stuart, and Mr. Little made him a tiny bed out of four clothespins and a cigarette box.”
In a 2005 New Yorker article, White’s step-son Roger Angell offered this lovely little tidbit about the book’s now-famous opening line: “The first sentence of Stuart Little, to be sure, is just as surprising as its shadowed endings—the fact that the Littles’ second child, on arrival, is a mouse, not a boy. White never explains the anomaly, and simply gets on with the story, but some critics and teacher-parent groups—and Anne Carroll Moore, the retired but still formidable children’s librarian at the New York Public Library—were collectively aghast. Harold Ross, who read everything, stuck his head into Andy’s office one afternoon and said, ‘God damn it, White, at least you could have had him adopted.’ The author and his readers—kids and their read-aloud elders—stayed calm, however, and Stuart Little sold a hundred thousand copies in the first fifteen months after publication.”
The Intuitionist (1999)
It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.
In this sparkling work of speculative fiction—Whitehead’s debut novel—the opening reflection come from Lila Mae Watson, a black female elevator inspector who belongs to the “Intuitionist” school of elevator inspection. In contrast to the competing “empiricist” school, which relies on scientific instruments to determine the condition of elevators, Lila Mae assesses the condition and overall safety of an elevator by using her intuitive abilities to tune into its psychic vibrations. It’s an audacious premise, but Whitehead managed to pull it off, leading Esquire, USA Today, GQ, and more publications to honor it as the Best First Novel of the Year. In a Time magazine review, Walter Kirn hailed The Intuitionist as “the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.“
In the novel, the narrator continues by immediately hinting at a spectacular elevator failure, writing about Lila Mae: “She doesn’t know what to do with her eyes. The front door of the building is too scarred and gouged to look at, and the street behind her is improbably empty, as if the city had been evacuated and she’s the only one who didn’t hear about it.”
The Underground Railroad (2016)
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
We know from the first sentence that Cora will eventually say yes, and that this will be a tale about a man and woman fleeing slavery. As we continue reading, however, we have no clue at this point that this is an “alternate history” tale—or, more significantly, that the legendary underground railroad isn’t a metaphor, but a literal underground railroad
One of the most acclaimed books of the year, The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature. In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel at Number 30 on its list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.”
In a New York Times review, book critic Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “potent, almost hallucinatory,” adding that “It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.”
Irvin D. Yalom
When Nietzsche Wept (1992)
The chimes of San Salvatore broke into Josef Breuer’s reverie. He tugged his heavy gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. Nine o’clock. Once again, he read the small silver-bordered card he had received the day before.
21 October 1882
I must see you on a matter of great urgency. The future of German philosophy hangs in the balance. Meet me at nine tomorrow at the Café Sorento.
So begins a novel that ultimately leads to a fascinating and complex relationship between Breuer—a prominent Viennese physician who has recently established a friendship with a young colleague named Sigmund Freud—and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
About the novel, writer and scholar Theodore Roszak wrote: “Deep thought wrapped up in superb storytelling. What more could one ask?”
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.
The Book Thief (2005)
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.
The narrator, we shall soon discover, is Death, also known as the collector of all souls, and a person who sees colors before he perceives anything else. He continued:
“I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.”