Genre: War/Combat & Espionage/Spies
Stephen E. Ambrose
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (2014)
This is the story of two men who died as they lived—violently.
Books about the parallel lives of famous figures have been around since the Greeks (the first was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the 1st c. A.D.), but few have begun with a better opening sentence. Ambrose continued in the first paragraph:
“They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat.”
Overkill [Book 2 of Agent Paul Richter series] (2016)
Most of the time they didn’t fuck around with the executions. A bullet in the back of the head or a blade drawn across the throat and the body left pretty much where it fell. But when Rashid was there it was different. Rashid liked to play.
In a 2007 post on his “Gravetapping” blog, writer and reviewer Ben Bouldon wrote “This is one of the coolest openings I have read recently.” I agree. The first portion is starkly straightforward, and it ends with a haunting phrase that that couldn’t be more removed from the usual sense of the word play.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Bizarrely, Rashid looked more like a caricature of an accountant than anything else—small and slight, hunched, with thick pebble-lensed glasses—but nobody smiled when he was around. He had learnt his trade in the back streets of Baghdad and Basra, and refined his skills working on Russian prisoners seized by the Afghans. The smell of death was on him.”
The Hazmat Diary (1992)
March 1, 2050
I repulse her. Entertain her. Enlighten her. Lead her. Teach her. Carry her. Ignore her. Lecture her. Embarrass her. Sadden her. Help her. Help her. Hinder her. Watch her. Psychoanalyze her. Probe her. Question her. Answer for her. Fuck her. Forgive her. Wrong her. Confuse her. Understand her. Hold her. Cry with her. Lie to her. Laugh with her. Feed her. Drive her. Support her. Culture her. Contour her. Sodomize her. Plagiarize her. (I’m plagiarizing her now.) Vitalize her. Victimize her. Intrigue her. Haunt her. Stalk her. Catch her. Skin her alive. But mostly I love her.
Yes, I love her.
And I know the feelings are mutual.
All of them.
This is the first entry in a diary found by a character named Anatole Laferriere III in 2099, over four decades after an apocalyptic American Revolution in 2058 resulted in the former superpower descending into Third World status. The diary, written by a 37-year-old bartender named Doc was one of a number of diaries found in a region of the country once known as New England. Originally planned as a follow-up to Bechard’s debut novel (The Second Greatest Story Ever Told), it became a groundbreaking, but little-read multi-media web-novel in the early days of broadband. It was reissued in print and electronic versions in 2010.
Warren A. Boyd, Jr.
“The Army Mule is Back,” in Supthai Sentinel (August 23, 1968)
The nickel phone call and basketball’s two-hand set shot may never make a comeback, but the Army mule has returned.
Boyd’s clever nostalgic lead began a story about how the U.S. Army and Royal Thai Army joined forces to train 140 mules to provide support to troops in remote areas of Thailand during the Vietnam conflict.
Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima (2000; with Ron Powers)
In the spring of 1998, six boys called to me from half a century ago on a distant mountain and I went there.
It’s a simple, straightforward, and immensely powerful first sentence. The gripping quality of the opening words continued as Bradley went on in the opening paragraph:
“For a few days I set aside my comfortable life—my business concerns, my life in Rye, New York—and made a pilgrimage to the other side of the world, to a primitive flyspeck island in the Pacific. There, waiting for me, was the mountain the boys had climbed in the midst of a terrible battle half a century earlier. One of them was my father. The mountain was called Suribachi; the island Iwo Jima.”
Bradley’s father John, a U.S. Navy corpsman, was identified as one of the six soldiers who raised the American flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima. The dramatic scene was captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, and it went one to win him a 1945 Pulitzer Prize (fittingly, the photograph graced the cover of the book).
After Bradley returned home from the war, he never said a word about the famous photograph or his other wartime experiences. But when he died at age 70 in 1994, his family found boxes of letters, photographs, and other items. That discovery triggered something in son James, who soon began working on a book that ultimately led to his personal pilgrimage to the site. In a New York Times review, Richard Bernstein hailed Flags of Our Fathers as “a touching eulogy” and “one of the most instructive and moving books on war and its aftermath that we are likely to see.” The bestselling book went on to be adapted into a 2006 film directed and scored (yes, scored) by Clint Eastwood.
In a stunning historical footnote, the U.S. Navy announced in 2016 that two of the six soldiers in the iconic 1945 photograph were wrongly identified, including John Bradley. In a New York Times article on the news, journalist Michael S. Schmidt wrote that James Bradley concurred with the assessment, adding that Bradley “said that his father had participated in an earlier flag-raising and mistakenly believed that it had been the one captured by Mr. Rosenthal.”
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him....
These opening words come from protagonist and narrator Major-General Richard Hannay, a WWI English spy who went on to become something of a prototype for later characters created by Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. Buchan’s novel—one of the earliest “man-on-the-run” spy thrillers—might have been lost to history if not for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation, which became a movie classic.
In the novel, Hannay continued: “The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”
Lincoln and the Civil War (2011)
If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning.
In the opening paragraph, Burlingame continued: “As historian William Hanchett has cogently argued, ‘Contrary to the conventional assumption, the North, not the South, was the underdog in the Civil War.’”
Killing Floor [ Book 1 of 27 in the Jack Reacher series] (1997)
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
In a 2016 Criminalelement.com post on “5 Masters of Opening Lines” in crime fiction, Barry Lancet wrote:
“There’s a matter-of-factness to the opening lines of Lee Child’s first novel, Killing Floor, that is deceptive. A diner, lunchtime, eggs, and coffee—it’s hard to get more matter of fact than that. And yet, this simple opening segment’s immediacy captures our attention. The short, punchy sentences create a rhythm and pull us into the story with a series of equally matter-of-fact whys. Why was this guy arrested? Why is he eating breakfast at lunchtime? Why was he wet and tired and walking into town in the rain—who does that? Jack Reacher, of course.”
Child’s debut novel went on to win two of the highest honors given to mystery/crime novels, the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel. In 2022, it was adapted for the first season of the Amazon Prime Video series “Reacher,” starring Alan Ritchson in the title role.
The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988)
They called him the Archer. It was an honorable title, though his countrymen had cast aside their reflex bows over a century ago, as soon as they had learned about firearms.
The narrator, who is describing an Afghan mathematics professor-turned-freedom fighter, continued: “In part, the name reflected the timeless nature of the struggle. The first of the Western invaders—for that was how they thought of them—had been Alexander the Great, and more had followed since. Ultimately, all had failed.““
The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. Too many deaths on this voyage, he thought, I’m Pilot-Major of a dead fleet.
The Spy and the Priest: Which Way to Heaven? (2016)
Max Hartman shifted his considerable weight from one cheek to the other in his leather Eames chair. Sitting in that chair, sometimes with his feet on the matching footstool, sometimes flat on the floor, was the only place other than in bed be could be comfortable for more than five minutes at a stretch.
In this opening paragraph, we are introduced to Max Hartman, an aging ex-CIA operative, the spy of the book’s title, and a childhood friend of Andy Coffer, the priest. The narrator continued: “Despite five major back operations, a sixth scheduled the next month, he’d felt no relief from the sciatic and lumbar pain. Prescription OxyContin and morphine had made him feel slow and stupid without touching the pain.”
The Great Santini (1976)
In the Cordova Hotel, near the docks of Barcelona, fourteen Marine Corps fighter pilots from the aircraft carrier Forrestal were throwing an obstreperously spirited going away party for Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meecham, the executive officer of their carrier based squadron. The pilots had been drinking most of the day and the party was taking a swift descent toward mayhem.
The opening paragraph provides no information about where the novel is going, but it nicely captures the environment the protagonist is coming from. The narrator continued: “It was a sign to Bull Meecham that he was about to have a fine and memorable turbulent time. The commanding officer of the squadron, Ty Mullinax, had passed out in the early part of the afternoon and was resting in a beatific position on the table in the center of the room, his hands folded across his chest and a bouquet of lilies carefully placed in his zipper, rising out of his groin.”
The novel’s protagonist was based on Conroy’s actual larger-than-life father, U. S. Marine Colonel Don Conroy—a highly decorated fighter pilot and, in his private life, a highly abusive father. For a sense of exactly how abusive he was, see the entry by Wright Thompson in the “Non-Fiction” and “Essays, Articles, & Columns” pages, and be prepared for a heart-wrenching description.
Conroy’s father was still living when The Great Santini was published and, not surprisingly, he predicted the novel would be read only by “psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals, and women.” When the book—and subsequent film—became hugely successful, though, Colonel Conroy reflected deeply on his son’s portrayal of him, became a changed man, and went on to earn his son’s deep respect and affection. About his father’s profound personal transformation, Conroy went on to write: “He had the best second act I ever saw.”
In 1979, the novel was adapted in a critically acclaimed film, with Robert Duvall giving an Oscar-nominated performance as Bull Meecham. Michael O’Keefe, in the role of Meecham’s son Ben—a thinly disguised Pat Conroy—received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
This is one of the most beautiful opening sentences in the history of American literature—so beautifully crafted that all we have to do is close our eyes and let the scene slowly appear in our minds. As impressive as is the opening sentence, things only get better as the opening paragraph continues:
“As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills.“
In a 1914 article in the Yale Review (“Stephen Crane As I Knew Him”), Hamlin Garland wrote: “The first sentence fairly took me captive. It described a vast army in camp on one side of a river confronting with its thousands of eyes a similar monster on the opposite bank.”
A little over a century later, in The 100 Best Novels in English (2015), Robert McCrum described Crane’s classic work as “the godfather of all American war novels.” He also sang the praises of the opening paragraph, writing: “The Red Badge of Courage is not a conventional historical novel. Its texture is cinematic; at the same time, breaking the rules, it eschews all reference to time and place. As the ‘retiring fog’ lifts on the opening page, an army is revealed ‘stretched out on the hills, resting.’ This is followed by a brilliant passage, surely an inspiration to subsequent generations of screenwriters.”
In her 1998 biography, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Linda H. Davis dropped a delicious tidbit about the novel’s opening words: Apparently, Crane had told close friends that the entire first paragraph came to him one night in something like an epiphany, with “every word in place, every comma, every period fixed.” Lacking a typewriter, he carefully wrote it out in longhand—and in ink—on legal-sized paper, and it went on to appear in exactly that way when the book was ultimately published.
Fountain Society (1999)
The cell held fifteen men. It was ten by twelve and stank of sweat, filth and fear. The only amenity offered was a hole in the center of the concrete floor which served as a toilet.
This was Craven’s first—and only—novel, and he gets off to an exceptional start. The narrator continued: “The cell contained, so far as Rashid al-Assad had been able to gather, three Lebanese commandos who kept to themselves and were dreaded even more than the jailers. One of their number had been beaten badly during capture and was raving with fever and gangrene. This kept the others in a murderous mood.“
Simone de Beauvoir
The Mandarins (1954)
Henri found himself looking at the sky again— a clear, black crystal dome overhead. It was difficult for the mind to conceive of hundreds of planes shattering that black, crystalline silence! And suddenly, words began tumbling through his head with a joyous sound— the offensive was halted...the German collapse had begun.
The man looking upward is Henri Perron, editor of a leftist newspaper in Paris during WWII (Perron is believed by many to be a fictional version of Albert Camus). Word from the front lines is just arriving that Allied planes have scored a major victory over Nazi forces. The novel went on to win the 1954 Goncourt Prize.
Louis de Bernières
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)
Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.
The narrator continued: “He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.“
In 2001, the novel was adapted into a film starring Nicolas Cage and Penélope Cruz.
“We Are Trapped in the Madness of Powerful Individuals,” in The New York Times (Feb. 27, 2022)
What has surprised me most about the history I have lived through is how often we get dragged on demented, destructive rides by leaders who put their personal psychodramas over the public’s well-being.
In the article, published just after Vladimir’s Putin’s infamous invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022, Dowd was reminded of a number of previous “demented, destructive rides” she’d been forced to take in her lifetime. She continued: “And it always feels as though we are powerless to stop the madness of these individuals, that we are trapped in their ego or libido or id or delusion.”
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.
Casino Royale (1953)
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
Casino Royale was the world’s introduction to a British spy who bears little resemblance to the super-stud action hero later portrayed by Sean Connery in the blockbuster films produced by Albert Broccoli. It was also the debut novel for Fleming, a former WWII intelligence officer who wanted to write “the spy novel to end all spy novels.”
In the next paragraph, the protagonist is introduced: “James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.”
In a 2012 Introduction to a reprint of the novel, British writer Alan Judd wrote: “What do these first few lines do? To start with, they take us immediately there. You don’t have to have been in a casino at three in the morning—as most of Fleming’s early readers wouldn’t have—to get the glamour and the tawdriness. We trust the guide who writes so casually but persuasively about soul-erosion, and we’re introduced to a man who, whatever else he may be, is human like us: he gets tired, while having qualities we might aspire to—he’s a calculated risk-taker, has a degree of self-knowledge, is decisive.”
Term Limits (1997)
The old wood cabin sat alone, surrounded by trees and darkness. The shades were drawn, and a dog lay motionless on the front porch. A thin stream of smoke flowed out of the chimney and headed west, across the rural Maryland countryside toward Washington, D.C. Inside, a man sat silently in front of the fireplace, shoving stacks of paper into the hot flames.
Even if an opening paragraph is not dramatic or compelling, it can still entice readers if it is an exceptional word painting. After reading this opener, I closed my eyes for a moment and visualized the entire scene with ease. We soon learn that the man torching documents is Scott Coleman, a former Navy SEAL who is described as “an assassin of assassins, an exporter of death, trained and funded by the United States government.”
In the early 1990s, after receiving a medical discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps, Flynn was working in a commercial real estate job in Minneapolis when he felt inspired to write a political thriller. He quit his job, moved to Denver, and bartended at night while working on the book during the day.
After five years and sixty rejection letters, he decided to self-publish the book. When the book found an audience back in Flynn’s home state of Minnesota, Pocket Books came knocking, and published a hardcover edition in 1998 (a paperback version came a year later.) The book was hailed by critics, made the New York Times Bestseller list, and established Flynn as a major new writer. He went on to write twenty more novels, most of them bestsellers, before his premature death at age 47 in 2013 after a three-year struggle with an aggressive prostate cancer.
The Key to Rebecca (1980)
The last camel collapsed at noon.
The narrator is describing a camel belonging to Alex Wolff, a fictional character based on the real-life WWII Nazi spy Johannes Eppler, an Egyptian-born man of German and Arab cultural heritage. Code-named “The Sphinx,” Eppler was described by the German General Edwin Rommel this way: “Our spy in Cairo is the greatest hero of them all.” The novel’s first sentence has long been admired by lovers of great opening lines, and The Last Camel Died at Noon even went on to become the title of a 1991 novel by American suspense writer Elizabeth Peters.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with this delightful observation about camels: “It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.”
C. S. Forester
The African Queen (1935)
Although she herself was ill enough to justify being in bed had she been a person weak minded enough to give up, Rose Sayer could see that her brother, the Reverend Samuel Sayer, was far more ill.
These words introduce us to an English spinster who has joined her missionary brother in an Anglican mission in German East Africa. It is the beginning of WWI, and the German military commander has conscripted the mission’s entire native population. Rose and her brother are left alone to fend for themselves. If he dies, what will become of her?
In the opening paragraph, the narrator further communicates the gravity of the situation by continuing: “He was very, very weak indeed, and when he knelt to offer up the evening prayer the movement was more like an involuntary collapse than a purposed gesture, and the hands which he raised trembled violently. Rose could see, in the moment before she devoutly closed her eyes, how thin and transparent those hands were, and how the bones of the wrists could be seen with almost the definition of a skeleton’s.”
Rose Sayer is a multi-faceted character whose eccentricities, uptightness, and controlling tendencies are ultimately overcome by her feistiness, loyalty, and depth of feeling (the character was memorably brought to life by Katharine Hepburn in John Huston’s 1951 film adaptation of the novel).
C. S. Forester
The Beat to Quarters (1937)
It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.
The Beat to Quarters was the first of three novels (the other two were Ship of the Line and Flying Colors) that Forester adapted for the swashbuckling 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower, with Gregory Peck in the title role. Eventually, Forester wrote a total of eleven Hornblower novels.
The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015)
We all make mistakes, but starting the Third World War would have been a rather large one.
This is a tantalizing opening sentence with a delightful dash of understatement. Forsyth straight-off confesses to making a blunder that might have started a world conflagration, and then adds: “To this day, I still maintain it was not entirely my fault. But I’m getting ahead of myself.” It’s hard to imagine a reader not wanting to read on.
Forsyth is best known as a bestselling action writer, but he also lived an action-filled life. He was once described in the Washington Post as “A writer of thrillers whose life is one, too.”
Kirkus Reviews wrote about the memoir: “Acclaimed thriller writer Forsyth delivers a charming autobiography about his real-life adventures around the globe. His tales of derring-do are a pleasure to read, especially when coupled with his self-deprecating humor, but his most endearing quality is his ravenous curiosity, which pulled him from one exotic location to another. Forsyth has seen it all. After living such an exciting life, he has earned his bragging rights.”
Cold Mountain (1997)
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a handful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.
As Confederate soldier W. P. Inman lies in a makeshift military hospital near Raleigh, North Carolina, he awakens to the sensation of flies zeroing like dive bombers on a gaping wound in his neck. It’s a grisly but captivating opening.
Frazier’s debut novel went on to become a surprise best-seller, with worldwide sales of over three million copies. In a New York Times review, James Polk wrote: “For a first novelist, in fact for any novelist, Charles Frazier has taken on a daunting task—and done extraordinarily well by it. In prose filled with grace notes and trenchant asides, he has reset much of the Odyssey in 19th-century America, near the end of the Civil War.”
The book was awarded the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a film of the same title, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger (who won a Best Supporting Actress for her role.)
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
Watching a newsreel or flipping through an illustrated magazine at the beginning of the American war, you were likely to encounter a memorable image: the newly invented jeep, an elegant, slim-barreled 37-mm gun in tow, leaping over a hillock.
Fussell continued: “Going very fast and looking as cute as Bambi, it flies into the air, and behind, the little gun bounces high off the ground on its springy tires. This graceful duo conveyed the firm impression of purposeful, resourceful intelligence going somewhere significant, and going there with speed, agility, and delicacy—almost wit.”
Gathering Five Storms [Book 3 in The CIA’s Dangerous Clique series] (2022)
By every measure, the operation was a success, but it marked the first time Katrina Leonidivna had ever vomited on her target.
About the opening line, Gilion Dumas of the Rose City Reader was certainly speaking for me when she remarked: “Well, that’s a sentence that gets your attention.” The novel’s delightful opener stands in stark contrast to most spy thrillers, where the central characters are often portrayed one-dimensionally, almost as if they had no regular human emotions. From the outset, we’re eager to learn more about the person named Katrina, not the agent/assassin by the same name.
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (2021)
There was a time when the world’s largest airport sat in the middle of the western Pacific, around 1,500 miles from the coast of Japan, on one of a cluster of small tropical islands known as the Marianas. Guam. Saipan. Tinian.
To open a book with a little known historical fact is a time-honored tradition among non-fiction authors, and for reasons I’m not sure I can easily articulate, I found something especially appealing about this opening sentence. Gladwell continued: “The Marianas are the southern end of a largely submerged mountain range—the tips of volcanoes poking up through the deep ocean waters. For most of their history, the Marianas were too small to be of much interest or use to anyone in the wider world. Until the age of airpower, when all of a sudden they took on enormous importance.”
During WWII, the Japanese controlled the entire area until the summer of 1944, when a brutal and costly series of victories by American forces brought them under Allied control. Almost immediately, U.S. Navy Seabees commenced one of the most ambitious construction projects in military history. With a few months, American commanders had at their disposal four of the largest airports the world had ever seen, all equipped with the 8,500-foot runways that were needed to accommodate massive B-29 “Superfortress” bombers—and ultimately bring the war to an end.
The End of the Affair (1951)
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.
In this acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix, an up-and-coming English writer who is having an affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman. In the opening paragraph, Bendrix continued on the subject of how—and especially when—to begin a novel:
“I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’”
It was love at first sight.
Many readers were puzzled when this unspectacular opening sentence showed up on the American Book Review’s 2006 list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels” (it was ranked Number 59). In my view, it made the list not on its own merits, but because of the spectacular second line of the novel: “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
While most writers do everything they can to avoid clichés—especially at the beginning of a novel—Heller was able to pull it off because he used it as a “set-up” for his inspired second line. In the ABR post, however, nothing was said about the second line, leaving many readers confounded by the inclusion of a hackneyed cliché in an article celebrating history’s best opening lines. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927). See the Gantry entry here.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.
This simple-but-beautiful opening sentence introduces us to Robert Jordan, an American university professor who has become an anti-fascist guerilla fighter in the Spanish Civil War. Assigned to blow up a local bridge, he surveys the countryside he must traverse in order to make his way to the target.
The narrator continued: “The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.”
“Hiroshima,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 1946)
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed on Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the patent office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
In a 2020 NPR interview, Lesley Blume, author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (2020), described this as “one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history.”
After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought WWII to an end, the U.S. government released plenty of pictures of mushroom clouds and landscape devastation, but nothing about the horrifying human toll. The government’s reluctance to be transparent was captured in a remark by Henry Stimson, then U. S. Secretary of War: “I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities”
Hersey, a respected war correspondent at the time, chose to tell his story through the experiences of six Japanese survivors of the atomic blast. His 30,000-word article took up nearly the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker magazine. For the first time, the American public was learning about such ghastly details as melting eyeballs and people being vaporized.
The issue sold out within hours of publication, and the article was soon reprinted in newspapers around the country, unheard of at the time for a piece of such enormous length. Two months later, the article was published as a full-length book. A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was sent free to members (the first and only time this has happened). The book is now regarded as a classic in journalism history.
The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
At precisely one o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 6, November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichführer of the SS and Chief of state Police, received a simple message: “The Eagle has landed.”
This is the first sentence of the Prologue to the book, and it immediately brings the reader into the heart of the story. In the second sentence, the narrator continued: “It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend.”
From 1959 to 1974, Higgins wrote thirty-four thrillers and spy novels—some under his real name (Harry Patterson), and others under a variety of pen names. The Eagle Has Landed was his thirty-fifth book and, after exploding on the literary scene, it quickly outsold all of his previous novels combined. In addition to being Higgins’s most popular work (with more than fifty million copies sold), the novel is now regarded as a classic in the spy/thriller genre.
Many people believe Higgins is the author of the popular phrase “the eagle has landed,“ but that would be a mistake. The saying first appeared on July 20, 1969, when U. S. astronaut Neil Armstrong said it about the landing of the Lunar Module Eagle on the surface of the moon.
In 1976, the novel was adapted into a film by the same title, starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, and Robert Duvall. Directed by the legendary director John Sturges, it was the fifteenth highest-grossing film of 1977.
William Bradford Huie
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1951)
A six-foot-tall, yellow-haired whore from Mississippi was the most successful revolutionary of the Second War. Her name was Mamie Stover.
Few protagonists in literary history have been introduced as effectively, or as memorably. The narrator continued: “She made a fortune. The war wasn’t a disaster for her; it was an opportunity. It multiplied the demand for her merchandise. It brought her long lines of eager new customers.”
Huie’s novel was a blockbuster, selling over three million copies in paperback alone When 20th Century Fox acquired film rights in 1955, they intended it as a vehicle for Monroe, but they were never able to finalize a deal. Jane Russell ultimately starred in the 1956 film adaptation, and her performance was widely praised, even by critics who panned the film as a highly sanitized version of the original novel.
Schindler’s Ark [published in America as Schindler’s List] (1982)
In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and—in the lapel of the dinner jacket—a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block in Straszewskiego Street on the edge of the ancient center of Crakow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine.
“Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,” said the chauffeur. “It’s icy like a widow’s heart.”
The Other Side of Silence [Book 11 in the Bernie Gunther series] (2016)
Yesterday I tried to kill myself.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die as much as the fact that I wanted the pain to stop.
These are dramatic opening words, and I believe they perfectly capture the reality of most people considering suicide: they don’t want to end their lives so much as they want to bring an end to the unbearable pain they’ve been experiencing. In this case, the pain-sufferer is Bernie Gunther, an aging former Berlin homicide detective with a dark past. As the novel begins, he is working under a false name as a concierge at a hotel in the French Riviera—and he is definitely not a happy camper. In his opening words, he continued: “Elizabeth, my wife, left me a while ago and I’d been missing her a lot. That was one source of pain, and a pretty major one, I have to admit. Even after a war in which more than four million German soldiers died, German wives are hard to come by. But another serious pain in my life was the war itself, of course, and what happened to me way back then, and in the Soviet POW camps afterward.”
“Redeployment,“ title story of Redeployment (2014)
We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought a lot about that.
Tucker Max, writer and co-founder of Scribe Media, wrote about these first words: “This is the best opening to a book I’ve ever read. I’m actually a dog person, so this shocked the hell out of me. It was gripping. As you read, the sentence starts making more sense, but it stays just as shocking. And you can’t help but finish the page and the chapter to understand why. But my God, what a way to hook a reader.“
By the end of the first page, readers understand the rationale for the shootings: during the Iraq war, stray dogs were licking up blood from dead bodies, thereby giving away the position of American troops to enemy snipers. Klay’s collection of twelve short stories-—his first published book—was immediately hailed by critics, and few were surprised when it went on to win the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.
An American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (2012; with Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice)
Every story has a beginning.
Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors.
In the third paragraph of the book, Kyle continued: “I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun; life’s too short not to.“
Almost immediately after it was published, the book broke into The New York Times Best-Seller list, where it remained for 37 weeks (it was later adapted into an acclaimed 2014 film, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Bradley Cooper).
Pagan Babies (2000)
The church had become a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes.
The narrator is describing a scene in war-torn Rwanda a few years after the genocide of the local Tutsi population by neighboring Hutu forces. It’s a gripping opening line, made macabre by the narrator’s continued words: “The benches had been removed and the bodies reassembled: men, women and small children laid in rows of skulls and spines, femurs, fragments of cloth stuck to mummified remains, many of the adults missing feet, all missing bones that had been carried off by the scavenging dogs.”
The Enigma Affair (2022)
It wasn’t just the bullet passing by Patton’s left ear that concerned her.
This is a terrific in media res (literally, “into the middle of things”) opening line, and the entire first paragraph goes from zero to sixty in a nanosecond. The dramatic nature of the line got my immediate attention, but its somewhat unusual phrasing also got me thinking, “I don’t know about anyone else, but if a bullet just whizzed past my left ear, it would be the only thing that concerned me!“ In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“After all, she had sustained gunfire before, even been hit once—if you could call a graze on the forearm that barely left a scar a hit. No, what worried Patton was the sound this bullet made, or rather the sound this bullet didn’t make. Every bullet that had ever traveled near her had brought with it the distinctive crack of an object in supersonic motion. But this bullet merely hissed quietly as it crossed the kitchen before embedding itself in her refrigerator. This bullet was subsonic.”
At this point, we don’t understand why a subsonic bullet is more concerning than a supersonic one, but we’ve already been yanked into the story, and feel confident we’ll know the answer soon. In a blurb for the book, writer Rex Pickett (Sideways and The Archivist) hailed the novel for its “breathtaking, brisk prose that vaults you into the story at a torrid pace.”
The Bourne Identity [Book 1 of the Jason Bourne Series] (1980)
The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.
The novel opens with a dangerous storm at sea, threatening a trawler that is likened to an animal struggling for its very existence. The narrator continued: “The waves rose to Goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white spray caught in the night sky cascaded down over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were the sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining against wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying.”
The Naked and the Dead (1948)
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953)
The sea was bitter cold. From the vast empty plains of Siberia howling winds roared down to lash the mountains of Korea, where American soldiers lost on patrol froze into stiff and awkward forms.
This is a grisly, but captivating opening, and it grew out of Michener’s experience as a combat journalist. After serving as a U. S. Navy officer in WWII, in 1951 he was embedded with Task Force 77, an historic strike force of battleships and aircraft carriers brought back into action during the Korean War. Throughout the conflict, he wrote periodic dispatches for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications.
Michener’s Toko-Ri novella chronicled the experiences of U. S. Navy helicopter pilots who were tasked with destroying a series of heavily defended bridges in North Korea. An immediate bestseller, the book was quickly adapted into a highly regarded film by the same title, starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, and others.
My bad luck started just before Christmas 1985. But at the time, as so often happens, it seemed like good luck.
In this fictional account of the Iran-Contra affair, the opening words come from U. S. Army Major Norman Starr. A member of the National Security Council, he has received a subpoena to appear before a congressional committee investigating illegal covert activities by U.S. military personnel.
In the novel’s second paragraph, Starr continued: “I had graduated from West Point just in time to join the final fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Returning with a chest full of medals, a few earned, most routine, I married Nancy Makin, a girl from Maryland whom I’d been dating whenever I found myself with stateside duty. We had spent our first three years of married life in the Panama Canal Zone, where I had the shameful task of watching as Jimmy Carter gave away that marvel of engineering to the Panamanians.”
The Slowworm’s Coming (2022)
I have had the letter just over a week now and I look at it every day.
One sentence in, readers already know that the entire novel hinges on the contents of the letter in question. In the opening paragraph, the narrator and protagonist—a former British soldier and recovering alcoholic named Stephen Rose—continues: “Sometimes I look at it several times a day. I have shown it to no one. No one other than myself and the people who sent it know it exists.”
Gone With the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.
In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers far, far nicer than the book would have them be.“
Despite the problems enumerated by Whitfield, the novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also gave readers one of the most unforgettable female characters in the history of literature, brought to life in an equally unforgettable way by Vivian Leigh in David O. Selznick’s 1939 film adaptation.
In the novel, the narrator continued about Scarlett: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.“
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer (2015)
I am a spy, sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
The setting is the Vietnam War and the unnamed narrator is a captured North Vietnamese spy with one foot in each of two different worlds (his mother was Vietnamese and his father a French Catholic priest). As the novel opens, he is being forced to write a confession while confined to a 3-by-5-foot solitary cell. Nguyen’s debut novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.”
In 2017, Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, told the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler that he’d been struggling for months to write an opening sentence that would “grab the reader from the beginning” and “once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.” One day, after many months poring over a new 2011 translation of António Lobo Antune’s 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas (published under the title Land at the End of the World), a line popped into his mind: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen was elated. Finally, he had found his first sentence, saying to Fassler: “It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.”
In the novel, the narrator continued: “Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
“The Things They Carried,” the title story of The Things They Carried (1990)
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a Junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.
In the first story in this collection of Vietnam-era short stories, the narrator continued: “They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s March, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.”
The book won 1990 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is now regarded as a classic in war literature.
Going After Cacciato (1978)
It was a bad time.
This brilliantly understated opening line comes from Vietnam war soldier Paul Berlin, a frustrated and disenchanted soldier who ultimately chases a deserter named Cacciato, the only problem being that the deserter may exist only in his imagination. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead.”
In a 1978 New York Times article, Richard Freeman gave O’Brien’s novel a spectacular review, writing: “To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.” The book went on to win the 1979 National Book Award for Fiction.
Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack: A Boyhood Year During World War II (2004)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens didn’t write those words about the year that I was nine in Baltimore, but they happen to fit. That year, 1942, was the best of times for a Baltimore boy who always seemed to be feeling good and the worst of times for a nation reeling from the first blows of World War II.
My American Journey (2010; with Joseph E. Persico)
I usually trust my instincts. This time I did not, which almost proved fatal.
In stark contrast to the boring opening lines of so many autobiographies, Powell engages the reader from the very outset. He went on to describe how he and his wife almost died in a 1992 helicopter crash after accepting an invitation from Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley to visit his childhood home. At one point in their journey, Powell’s hosts suggested they use an aging UH-1 helicopter from the Jamaican government instead of his usual American Blackhawk. Powell wrote, “I could not easily reject their gesture of pride, though my antennae quivered.” Sadly, and as he feared, the helicopter crashed, but happily, the couple and the Jamaican pilots all survived.
“The Horrible Waste of War,” in New York World-Telegram (June 16, 1944)
I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.
These are the opening words of a D-Day dispatch filed by Pyle to his American readers. About them, writer and editor David A. Fryxell wrote in a 2008 Writer’s Digest article: “Understated? Certainly. Powerful? Even 50 years later.” Fryxell went on to add: “Pyle could have opened with a burst of exclamation-point prose; no question that his subject warranted it. He could have screamed about the casualties and the massive invasion fleet. He could have doled out comparisons to the Norman Conquest or piled adjective upon adverb. But instead he took his readers for a walk along the beach.”
In Fryxell’s article—titled “Tips for Powerful, Understated Writing”—he offered wise advice about the importance of understatement in nonfiction writing, especially when the topics being written about are large, powerful, or historic. He argued: “It’s precisely when writing about subjects that seem extreme that understatement can be most effective. If your subject is grand or overwrought or hyperbolic, if it comes already laden with innate drama (real or manufactured), you might find that speaking softly works better than a big stick.“
In the third paragraph of Pyle’s dispatch, he decided to add a dash of irony to his exceptional opening: “The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell, yes. Four-leaf clovers are supposed to be good-luck charms, but for the doughboys who perished on this blood-soaked beach of indescribable mayhem, D-Day was anything but lucky.”
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.
Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
These are the first words one reads after opening the book—and they are among the most powerful I have ever seen at the beginning of a novel.
The opening paragraph is clearly an Author’s Note, a Prologue, or a Preface, but it has no formal heading. It simply appears as you see it above—naked, stark, and honest—and the impact is very real. For me, they kept reverberating in my mind as I began to read Chapter I, which formally began: “We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace.”
Remarque was a German veteran of WWI, and the original German title of his book was Im Westen nichts Neues, which translates to “Nothing New in the West,” with West referring to the Western Front of the war. When the book appeared in an English edition in 1929, it was given the now-classic title All Quiet on the Western Front. An international bestseller, it was quickly adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1930 film by the same title. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked the film Number 7 in its list of “Top Ten Epic Films.”
I recently began to see Remarque’s opening paragraph in a new way when I learned that, fresh out of school, he was drafted at age eighteen and sent directly to the front lines of WWI. Wounded five separate times, he lost all of his friends in combat and was haunted by wartime memories for the rest of his life.
Heather Cox Richardson
How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020)
The moment in July 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater took the stage at Cow Palace outside San Francisco and beamed at the cheering Republicans who had just nominated him for president is iconic—but not for the reasons we remember.
This is a terrific opening salvo for any book—but especially a history book—fitting into a category of openers that might be titled: “You think you know something, but you have it wrong.” As she continued, she proceeded to (for me, at least) a startling conclusion:
“Goldwater delivered the line that became a rally cry for a rising generation of conservatives in the Republican Party…But the moment did much more than galvanize activists. It marked the resurrection of an old political movement by a modern political party. In Goldwater’s time, people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before, their predecessors had called themselves ‘Confederates.’”
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.
Sophie’s Choice (1979)
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if for nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb.
The protagonist, a WWII veteran and struggling young writer with the unusual name of Stingo, opens the novel nicely, but it’s about to get a whole lot better. As he continues, he advances the story with what I regard as literary history’s best-ever description of that dreaded condition known as Writer’s Block:
“At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided. It was not that I no longer wanted to write, I still yearned passionately to produce the novel which had been for so long captive in my brain. It was only that, having written down the first few fine paragraphs, I could not produce any others, or—to approximate Gertrude Stein’s remark about a lesser writer of the Lost Generation—I had the syrup but it wouldn’t pour.“
The novel went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Fiction, but the story didn’t become a part of popular culture until the 1982 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep.
The Last Days of Hitler (1947)
Now that the new order is past, and the thousand-year reich has crumbled in a decade, we are able at last, picking among the still smoking rubble, to discover the truth about that fantastic and tragical episode.
About this opening line, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum wrote in 2016: “From his commanding opening sentence, the author of this engrossing forensic masterpiece, a work of brilliant reportage, knows that the story he is about to unfold will be unputdownable, a scoop of historic proportions: history in the making.” It was opening lines like this that led Irish writer John Banville to describe Trevor-Roper as “The Prince of the Essay” (see the Banville entry for more, including a lovely opening paragraph in its own right).
McCrum ranked The Last Days of Hitler at No. 32 in The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books” of all time. About the book, McCrum wrote: “Some books simply exude excitement and self-confidence, as if the writer is on fire with ideas, or intoxicated with information. This is one of those titles.”
Barbara W. Tuchman
The Guns of August (1962)
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.
The book, an exhaustive examination of the first month of WWI, became an immediate hit and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 42 consecutive weeks. President Kennedy was so impressed with the work that he purchased copies for his entire cabinet and all of his principal military advisors, and ordered them to read it. The book went on to win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (it was ineligible for the history award because Pulitzer Prizes for History must be about American History).
Ordinary Heroes (2005)
All parents keep secrets from their children. My father, it seemed, kept more than most.
In 2006, when Turow was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if he had a favorite sentence, he identified the first sentence of this opening paragraph, saying, “It’s the first line of the narrative in my seventh novel, Ordinary Heroes, and it reverberates on almost every page that follows.”
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.”
All this happened, more or less.
This is one of literary history’s most admired opening lines, and I can understand why, for it might be considered an accurate description of every story ever told. The central message, expressed in other words, might go something like this: “I’m going to tell you a true story, but one that is not completely true.” As a reader, I’m thinking, “Okay, thanks for the heads-up.”
The narrator continued: “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.”
The Winds of War (1971)
Commander Victor Henry rode a taxicab home from the Navy Building on Constitution Avenue, in a gusty gray March rainstorm that matched his mood. In his War Plans cubbyhole that afternoon, he had received an unexpected word from on high which, to his seasoned appraisal, had probably blown a well-planned career to rags. Now he had to consult his wife about an urgent decision; yet he did not altogether trust her opinions.
The Caine Mutiny (1951)
It was not a mutiny in the old-time sense, of course, with flashing of cutlasses, a captain in chains, and desperate sailors turning outlaws. After all, it happened in 1944 in the United States Navy. But the court of inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as “the Caine mutiny” throughout the service.
The story begins with Willie Keith because the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.
The novel’s first paragraph beautifully sets the stage for the story that is about to unfold. The second makes the intriguing suggestion that seemingly innocuous characters can sometimes set off hugely significant events—and it does so in one of literary history’s best analogies.
The winner of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel was adapted into a 1954 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg and Robert Francis as Ensign Willie Keith. It was a magnificent film, and Bogart’s performance was legendary. At the Academy Award ceremonies later that year, though, the film lost out to On the Waterfront for Best Picture, and Bogart had to watch Marlon Brando walk off with the Oscar for Best Actor.