Genre: Wit, Humor, Parody, & Satire
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [book one in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1979)
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.“
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator went on: “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper....“
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Blind Panic,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making, which is why it is so disorienting the first time you take the plug out of a wash-basin in Australia and see the water spiraling down the hole the other way around. The very laws of physics are telling you how far you are from home.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.“
If you can begin a novel with an observation that has every chance of becoming a world-class quotation, you’re off to a great start—and that’s exactly what happened with this first sentence (all of the major quotation anthologies quickly picked it up).
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk.“
The Restaurant At the End of the Universe [book 2 in The Hitchiker’s Guide series] (1980)
The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
These are the first words of Chapter 1, and it’s hard to imagine a better way to begin the book.
The first words of a brief Preamble to the book are also beautifully expressed: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.“
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
This simple opening sentence can be appreciated at so many different levels—all of them interesting, and all of them highly relevant to the immigrant experience. In their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,“ the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 41.
Written in the 1940s, but not published until 1990, Chromos anticipated many of the later immigrant narratives that would become so important in American fiction. The book came from out of nowhere to be nominated for the 1990 National Book Award, and is now regarded as a masterpiece of metafiction.
My family has always been into death.
The opening words of this modern American classic come from Ginny Babcock, a teenage girl growing up in a privileged white family in Tennessee. She continued: “My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a tracheal puncture with the same deftness as a junky a vein.”
In a Time magazine review, Paul Gray described the book as “abundantly entertaining,” and wrote about it: “The novel proves again—if any doubters still remain—that women can write about physical functions just as frankly and, when the genes move them, as raunchily as men. It strikes a blow for the picara by putting a heroine through the same paces that once animated a Tom Jones or a Holden Caulfield. And it suggests that life seen from what was once called the distaff side suspiciously resembles the genitalia-centered existence that male novelists have so long monopolized. The organs are different; the scoring is the same.” [In his review, Gray’s unusual use of the word picara was a reference to the lovable rogues featured in picaresque novels]
The Cat Who Came for Christmas (1987)
To anyone who has ever been owned by a cat, it will come as no surprise that there are all sorts of things about your cat you will never, as long as you live, forget.
The Cat and the Curmudgeon (1990)
“Some cats,” Shakespeare said, “are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Amory continued: “Actually, Shakespeare didn’t say that about cats, he said it about people. And I suppose there will be some purists out there who will take me up on it. Technically they would have a point, but, frankly, it has always seemed to me that Shakespeare was overly concerned with people.”
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.”
“This Old Man: Life in the Nineties,“ in The New Yorker (Feb. 9, 2014)
Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Angell wrote this when he was ninety-three years old, nicely demonstrating that he still possessed the writing chops of his younger years.
In the essay’s second paragraph, he continued: “Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.”
The One and Only Bob (2020)
Look, nobody’s ever accused me of being a good dog.
This is a sequel to The One and Only Ivan, Applegate’s wonderful 2012 children’s novel about a talking gorilla, and, if anything, it is even better. For reasons I’m not sure I completely understand, I absolutely love books narrated by talking animals, and this one starts off with a fabulous opening line. On the rest of the first page, Bob truly finds his “voice” as he continues:
“I bark at empty air. I eat cat litter. I roll in garbage to enhance my aroma.
“I harass innocent squirrels. I hog the couch. I lick myself in the presence of company.
“I’m no saint, okay?”
And so it goes—with a staccato-like delivery style that would be the envy of a stand-up comic—for 340 pages of one of the best animal-narrated stories I’ve ever read.
I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)
In 1977, I wrote my autobiography. Since I was dealing with my favorite subject, I wrote at length and I ended with 640,000 words.
In every one of his 500-plus books, Asimov found a way to express his wry sense of humor—and in this one, it shows up in the very first sentence.
Lady Oracle (1976)
I planned my death carefully, unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.
In this parody of Gothic romance novels and fantasy/fairy tales, the narrator and protagonist is Joan Foster, a chronically unhappy romance novelist with a lifelong tendency to prefer a world of fantasy to the complexities and challenges of the real world. She continued: “My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance.“
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Described by English writer and editor Robert McCrum as “The archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale,“ these opening words have achieved legendary status, appearing near the top of almost every Top Ten list ever compiled.
In How to Read Literature (2013), British scholar Terry Eagleton described this line as “One of the most renowned opening sentences in English literature” and “a small masterpiece of irony.“ Eagleton went on to add: “The irony does not exactly leap off the page. It lies in the difference between what is said—that everyone agrees that rich men need wives—and what is plainly meant, which is that this assumption is mostly to be found among unmarried women in search of a well-heeled husband.“
In the novel, the narrator continued: “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.“
“Slow Days, Fast Company,“ the title story of Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (1977)
This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent. But I want it clearly understood from the start that I don’t expect it to turn out well.
“Jealousy,“ in Black Swans: Stories (1993)
It’s only temporary: you either die, or get better.
The narrator, an unnamed L.A. woman who bears a striking relationship to the real life Babitz, continued: “Something we used to say about life in general, feeling sophisticated and amusing in bars, back in the days when we thought how you behaved was the fault of other people.“
What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (2005)
“You’re T. S. Eliot,” said a taxi driver to the famous poet as he stepped into his cab. Eliot asked him how he knew. “Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity,” he replied. “Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ And do you know he couldn’t tell me.’”
The Crow Road (1992)
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
This is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated “hooks” in Young Adult literature, but I would argue that it is one of the best opening lines in all of literature. Colin Falconer placed it No. 13 on his 2013 list of “The Best 43 Opening Lines in Novel Writing History,” wryly observing about it: “Hard not to be hooked after that. The day your grandmother explodes is always an important day.“
The opening words come from Prentice McHoan, a Scottish university student who returns home for his grandmother’s funeral (her death was the result of a forgotten pacemaker). In the novel, he continued: “I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”
The Fly Strip (2016)
I think a guy’s name must have some bearing on how his life will turn out. Malcolm Clapper...now that’s a peculiar name to be saddled with, huh? I suspect my mom was still sucking on the ether tube when she labeled me and my kid brother, Leland. Maybe she was hoping for a unicycle act. Anyway, as a result of my lean frame, I ended up with a good nickname, “Weed.“
In this coming-of-age tale, set in the 1960s, the narrator and protagonist is a 17-year-old high school student with a memorable literary name—Weed Clapper—and a clear Holden Caulfield quality. He continued: “Since Ginzberg, Kerouac and all the beats smoke weed, I think my nickname gives me an air of sophistication. And it’s a dang sight better than ’Peaches.’“
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
Whenever I hear writers opining that a novel’s opening words should be pithy and punchy, I think about the many brilliant opening sentences that stretch out to more than 100 words—as in this gem from one of the modern era’s most acclaimed writers.
Barth’s 119-word opening sentence dazzled the critics of his day, and continues to impress modern readers. In a 2010 Time magazine feature on “The 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005,” critic Richard Lacayo wrote:
“A feast. Dense, funny, endlessly inventive (and, OK, yes, long-winded) this satire of the 18th-century picaresque novel—think Fielding’s Tom Jones or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—is…impossibly rich, a wickedly funny take on old English rhetoric and American self-appraisals.”
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.”
Good Neighbors (1997)
The last day of Reggie DeLillo’s life started off with a bad cup of coffee, then went downhill from there.
A Fine Romance (2015)
It was midway through October 1985, as I waddled in a huge plaid tent dress through the ground floor of Bergdorf’s. I’d put on almost fifty pounds since becoming pregnant. A woman kept peering at me, looking away, looking back. Finally she approached. “You know, you have Candice Bergen’s face.“
“But not her body,“ I said.
The Return of Little Big Man (1999)
My name is Jack Crabb, and in the middle of the last century I come [sic] West with my people in a covered wagon, at age ten went off with and was reared by Cheyenne Indians, given the name of Little Big Man, learned to speak their language, ride, hunt, steal ponies, and make war, and, in part of my mind, to think like them, and in my teen years was captured by the U.S. Cavalry and went on to have many adventures and personal acquaintanceship with notables of the day and place like General George A. Custer, James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and many others, surviving Custer’s fight at the Little Bighorn River, which the Indians called the Greasy Grass.
Crabb continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “Now I already give a detailed account of these and other episodes of my early life to a fellow name of Ralph Fielding Snell, who come to the old folks’ home back a few months, or years—when you’re old as me such distinctions don’t matter much; I happen to have just turned 112. Yeah, I don’t believe it either, but I’m the one that’s got to live with the fact.“
Little Big Man (1964)
I am a white man and never forgot it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.
With these simple first words, the 111-year-old Jack Crabb—the only living survivor of Custer’s Last Stand—introduces himself. As he continues in the second paragraph, readers get their first glimpse of what the book holds in store for them: “My Pa had been a minister of the gospel in Evansville, Indiana. He didn’t have a regular church, but managed to talk some saloonkeeper into letting him use his place of [sic] a Sunday morning for services. Hoosier fourflushers on their way to New Orleans, pickpockets, bullyboys, whores, and suchlike, my Pa’s favorite type of congregation owing to the possibilities it afforded for the improvement of a number of mean skunks.“ Crabb, one of literary history’s most colorful characters, was brought to life in a spectacular way by Dustin Hoffman in a 1970 film adaptation of the book.
In a fascinating fourteen-page “Foreword by a Man of Letters,“ Berger’s narrator, a fictional writer named Ralph Fielding Snell, sets the stage for the novel by writing: “It was my privilege to know the late Jack Crabb—frontiersman, Indian Scout, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, adopted Cheyenne—in his final days upon this earth. An account of my association with this remarkable individual may not be out of order here, for there is good reason to believe that without my so to speak catalytic function these extraordinary memoirs would never have seen the light of day. This apparently immodest statement will, I trust, be justified by the ensuing paragraphs.“
Roy Blount, Jr.
”Reading and Nothingness: Of Proust in the Summer Sun,” in The New York Times (June 2, 1985)
A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don’t know where anyone got that idea.
Blount continued: “The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it—slow hours—and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over. So all you have to do is to start reading Heidegger, say, on the first day of summer. One day you look up and both summer and Heidegger are done.“
“Car Hits a Tree,” syndicated column (Jan. 24, 1971); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
The other night a tree I had never seen before swerved in front of me at the end of our driveway and clipped my right fender.
“A Mother’s Eye,” syndicated column (Aug. 18, 1968); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
Of all the means of communication known to man, none is quite as effective as the Mother’s Eye.
In her opening paragraph, Bombeck continued: “Or, as we say, one glance is worth a thousand punches in the mouth.”
“Paint Tint Caper,” syndicated column (Sep. 4, 1965); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
Once…just once…I’d like to be dressed for an emergency.
Bombeck published more than 4,000 syndicated columns in her career (the first appeared in 1965, the last in the year she died, 1996. All forms of writing benefit from great opening lines, but given the competition for reader’s eyes, they may be more important in newspaper columns and magazine articles than in books.
Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own (1971; with Bill Keane)
In my mind, I always dreamed of the day I would have teenagers.
With some books, it takes a few paragraphs to effectively get the ball rolling. Such is the case here. Bombeck continued:
“Young boys would pinch me in the swimming pool and exclaim, ‘Gee, ma’am, I’m sorry. I thought you were your sensuous daughter, Dale.’
“The entire family would gather around the piano and sing songs from the King Family album. And on Friday nights, we’d have a family council meeting to decide what flavor of ice cream their father, Ozzie, would bring home from the ice-cream parlor.
“It never worked out that way,”
T. C. Boyle
The Road to Wellville (1993)
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter, not to mention caramel-cereal coffee, Bromose, Nuttolene and some seventy-five other gastrically correct foods, paused to level his gaze on the heavyset woman in the front row. He was having difficulty believing what he’d just heard.
The narrator continued: “As was the audience, judging from the gasp that arose after she’d raised her hand, stood shakily and demanded to know what was so sinful about a good porterhouse steak—it had done for the pioneers, hadn’t it? And for her father and his father before him?“
The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017)
Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.
In a 2017 book review in SFGate.com, writer and editor Alexis Burling called this a “whopper of an opening sentence.“ Writing more expansively on the novel’s dramatic opening, Viola Hayden of the Curtis Brown literary agency offered the following assessment in one of the firm’s 2020 blog posts:
“This is a sprawling opening sentence, but every part has earned its place. We meet our narrator—and a mysterious ’we’—and you get such a strong sense of their wry voice. This is clearly Ireland and that inimitable Irishness is captured and conveyed beautifully; it’s not quite contemporary (’long before’) but it’s rural, religious, hypocritical and vengeful. The word ’whore’ slaps you around the face when you reach it after being lulled into a comfortable meander by the litany of descriptions. And it changes your impression of the direction of the book—now you know our narrator likely has a poor opinion of the church, rather than of their mother. Overall, a belter.“
A Window Over the Sink: A Mainly Affectionate Memoir (1981)
You may have noticed, as I have, that if you ever find yourself declaring unequivocally that you will never do some one particular thing, chances are good that this is precisely what you will one day find yourself doing.
The I Hate to Cook Book (1960)
Some women, it is said, like to cook.
This book is not for them.
I always enjoy a book—especially a non-fiction book—in which the author gets straight to the point. Bracken, one of her era’s most respected humorous writers, went on to explain:
“This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”
Sombrero Fallout (1976)
“A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the Main Street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.”
As the book opens, this entire passage is presented in quotation makes, and we quickly surmise that it is the opening paragraph of a novel the author is currently writing. As the story unfolds, Brautigan does something I’ve never before seen in literary fiction. Here’s how Eric Lorberer, editor of The Rain Taxi Review of Books, described it in a Fall, 2000 essay in his publication:
“As the novel opens, a writer is writing a novel, gets discouraged, and throws the opening lines in the trash. While one track of the novel chronicles the next hour in the writer’s life, the other follows the discarded lines, which ‘decided to go on without him.”
A Confederate General from Big Sur (1965)
When I first heard about Big Sur I didn’t know that it was a member of the Confederate States of America.
There’s nothing like the assertion of a historical impossibility to arrest a reader’s attention, and Brautigan does that very nicely in the opening sentence of his debut novel, published when he was twenty-eight. In the novel, Brautigan—a popular San Francisco street poet in the early days of the “hippie” movement—tells the story of Lee Mellon, an alienated and often delusional California man who believes he is a descendant of a heroic Confederate general from Big Sur, California. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“I had always thought that Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas were the Confederacy and let it go at that. I had no idea that Big Sur was also a member.”
A critical and commercial failure after it was published, the novel soon went out of print. It was re-issued two years later—after the success of Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967)—and is now regarded as a counter-culture classic.
“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.”
All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business (2021)
The writing of this book serves as a kind of confession.
You, the readers will be my confidants. I’m going to tell you all my secrets. Things I’ve never told anybody. Things I don’t want anybody to know! I don’t want you to breathe a word of what you find out in this book. Keep everything under your hat!
Wait a minute, wait a minute…that might not work.
I’m not in a confessional booth, and a lot of you are probably not priests.
This is a book! And this book needs to sell!
One could call this a “Just kidding” type of opening. Brooks continued:
“So let me revise what I just told you: Don’t keep it under your hat. Spill the beans! Spread the word. Let the secrets out! Tell all! Tell everybody! Let everybody you know hear all the terrible things I’ve done. Everything I didn’t want the world to know—shout it from the rooftops! (Because I think I’m gonna need a couple of million confidants to make any money on this book.)“
“Adventure Made Painless,” in Pieces of Hate and Other Enthusiasms (1922)
One of my favorite characters in all fiction is D’Artagan. He was forever fighting duels with people and stabbing them, or riding at top speed over lonely roads at night to save a woman’s name or something.
Broun, an Algonquin Round Table member who became one of the most popular newspaper columnists in the early decades of the twentieth century, continued in the opening paragraph:
“I believe that I glory in D’Artagnan because of my own utter inability to do anything with a sword. Beyond self-inflicted razor wounds, no blood has been shed by me.”
Rita Mae Brown
Venus Envy (1993)
“Dying’s not so bad. At least I won’t have to answer the telephone.“
This whistling past the graveyard reflection comes from 35-year-old Frazier Armstrong, an art gallery owner who has learned that her lung cancer is so advanced she has only a short while to live.
The opening paragraph continued: “Frazier Armstrong breathed deeply, which wasn’t easy, since the oxygen tube stuck down her throat had rubbed it raw. ’Then again, I never will have to fill out the IRS long form, buy a county sticker for my car, be burdened with insurance payments that stretch into eternity, to say nothing of my business license and the damned money I pay to the county each year on my depreciating business machines. No more mortgage payments and no more vile temptation as the doors of Tiffany’s yawn at me like the very gates of hell.’“
Brown then found a way to recycle a famous Oscar Wilde quip as her narrator continued about the dying patient: “She burrowed ever deeper into the hospital bed. Porthault sheets brought from home made the bed more comfortable but every time she glanced at the saccharine wallpaper, a dusty rose with tiny little bouquets, she thought, ’One of us has to go.’“
Rita Mae Brown
Six of One (1978)
I bought mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise.
Rita Mae Brown
Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988)
Writers will happen in the best of families. No one is quite sure why.
Brown’s helpful—and entertaining—guide for writers begins with a clever tweak of an old English proverb: “Accidents will happen in the best regulated families” (Charles Dickens put a version of the saying into the mouth of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield). The American humorist Oliver Herford also piggybacked on the saying, writing in The Entirely New Cynic’s Calendar (1905): “Actresses will happen in the best regulated families.”
Rita Mae Brown
Rita Will: Memoirs of a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1997)
My mother was mucking stalls at Hanover Shoe Farm outside of Hanover, Pennsylvania, within a shout of the Mason-Dixon line, when her water broke. Had the hospital not been nearby, I would have been born in a manger.
In her career, Brown has been so adept at crafting opening lines, I was almost certain she’d come up with a winner when she decided to pen a memoir. I wasn’t disappointed. In the opening paragraph, she continued in fine form:
“Perhaps I came into the world knowing Jesus had already done that, and since he suffered for all of us I saw no reason to be redundant.”
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019)
Long ago, when I was a junior high school student in Iowa, I remember being taught by a biology teacher that all the chemicals that make up a human body could be bought in a hardware store for $5.00 or something like that.
In his opening paragraph, Bryson continued: “I don’t recall the actual sum. It might have been $2.97 or $13.50, but it was certainly very little even in 1960s money, and I remember being astounded at the thought that you could make a slouched and pimply thing such as me for practically nothing.”
A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you think.
Bryson continued in the second paragraph: “To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.”
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way (1990)
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say the results are sometimes mixed.
Bryson continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.’”
When many foreigners attempt to write in English, Bryson wrote that they often aren’t hampered in the least by their ignorance of the language—and he expressed his opinion in a most delightful way: “It would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.”
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989)
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
Bryson begins his collection of travel essays with a snappy one-liner that would make a stand-up comic proud. In a 2022 ShortList.com post, writer Marc Chacksfield ranked this Number Three on his list of thirty of “The Funniest-Ever Opening Lines.”
In the essay, Bryson continued: “When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.”
Too Soon to Say Goodbye (2006)
What started out the worst of times ended up the best of times.
The big news of 2006 is that I’m still alive. After being in the hospice waiting to die, I said, “To hell with it, I’m going to write a book.”
And write a book he did. Or more precisely, dictated a book. In the last year of his life, while sitting in a comfortable chair in his hospice room, Buchwald dictated the entire memoir—the last of his thirty books—to his associate Cathy Crowley.
Buchwald retained his trademark sense of humor right up to the end. After his death at age 81 from kidney failure on January 17, 2007, the New York Times website posted a video obituary which began with Buchwald saying, “Hi. I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.”
Thank You for Smoking (1994)
Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.
“Fish Story,” in Forbes Life (November 2012); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
My wife, in her wisdom, decreed that we must have a fish tank in our bathroom. Like Rumpole of the Bailey, I refer to my darling as She Who Must Be Obeyed. So the only answer was “Darling, what an excellent idea. I am so excited to have fish in our bathroom.”
In the second paragraph, Buckley continued: “I did not utter aloud the next sentence that formed in my mind: ‘How convenient for flushing them down the toilet after they have lived to the ripe old age of forty-eight hours.’”
“Dogged Pursuit,” in Forbes Life (December 2009); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
It’s a bit cramped in the back of the Cessna 206. The windows are frosting over, and as I scrape away the rime with the edge of a credit card what I can make out is not entirely reassuring.
In the opening paragraph, Buckley continued: “Fog and terrain—the latter is disturbing because it is at eye level. Nor is it reassuring that the automatic warning keeps announcing in computer deadpan voice: ‘Caution, terrain. Caution, terrain.’ At such moments one asks oneself, What am I doing here?”
“Hoof in Mouth,” in Forbes FYI (May 1998); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
“Good to see you again,” I greeted the gentleman, a family friend, important businessman and former cabinet secretary. “How’s Carol?” The friendly grin remained, but I caught the suppressed wince.
“She died three years ago,” he said.
Where does one go from there? “Gosh, well…seen any good movies lately?” I made my way to the men’s room to bash my head against the wall in private.
Buckley continued: “The Japanese are so much more efficient about this: you chop off the little finger and present it neatly wrapped in a pocket handkerchief to the offended party. If you really screw up, use a bigger knife and disembowel yourself. You have to admire a culture that has ritualized shame into a performance art.”
No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)
Babette Van Anka had made love to the President of the United States on eleven previous occasions, but she still couldn’t resist inserting “Mr. President” in “Oh, baby, baby, baby.”
In the novel—an absolutely hilarious “take” on presidential sex scandals—the narrator continued: “He had told her on the previous occasions that he did not like being called this while, as he put it, congress was in session. But she couldn’t stop thinking to herself, I’m screwing the President of the United States! In the White House! Unavoidably, the ‘Mr. President’ just kept slipping out.” The novel, one of my all-time favorites, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Make Russia Great Again (2020)
“How could you work for a man like that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“What possessed you?”
All the time I get this, even in here, which frankly strikes me as a bit rich. Who knew inmates at federal correctional institutions had such keenly developed senses of moral superiority?
The narrator and protagonist is Herb Nutterman, a longtime Trump Organization employee who is called out of retirement to become President Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Buckley has given us some terrific opening lines in his career, and it was wonderful to see the old master continuing to perform at such a high level. This one easily made my list of The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020.
Has Anyone Seen My Toes? (2022)
He shuffles to the bathroom scale and steps onto it with the enthusiasm of a man mounting the gallows.
The first sentence of Buckley’s most recent novel—a hilarious and heavily autobiographical examination of an aging writer’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic—perfectly captures an almost universal experience (since reading it, I haven’t looked at my bathroom scale in the same way again). I was delighted to honor the opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“He imagines metallic groans, the sound of springs straining to their limit, the creak of timbers about to crack. But how can this be? It’s a high-tech scale, probably engineered by people whose native language is German and wear white laboratory gowns. It was a hint-hint present from his wife, Peaches. It tells you not only how much you weigh but also how much you weighed yesterday, and how many calories you can consume today in order to weigh less tomorrow. But all this is academic, for he cannot see the numbers, owing to the protuberance of his belly.”
A Pirate Looks at Fifty (1998)
When I was growing up in Alabama, the beginning of the new school year was a bad time. It meant the end of summer, which is my season. I packed away my shorts and t-shirts, put on socks, shoes, and my parochial-school uniform, and dragged my ass to class.
Buffett continued: "To make matters worse, the first thing the nuns would make us all do on the first day back was to write about what we had done that summer. Having to recall it all while sitting in the antiseptic atmosphere of a classroom was like staring at the goodies in a bakery window with no money in your pocket."
Post Office (1971)
It began as a mistake.
Opening lines rarely get any simpler—or more effective. It’s almost impossible not to wonder, “What began as a mistake?“ Post Office is a heavily autobiographical novel that was based on Bukowski’s three years as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. The narrator is Henry Chinaski, a misanthropic alter ego who shows up in five Bukowski novels (he was also memorably played by Mickey Rourke in the 1987 film Barfly).
In the novel’s second paragraph, Chinaski continued: “It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft!“
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?“
Earthly Powers (1980)
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Few opening lines in literary history exceed this one in what might be called in-your-face daring. A 2012 article on “Arresting Openings” in London’s The Telegraph described this opener as “outrageously provocative.“
Also in 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum hailed Burgess’s opening sentence as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,“ writing: “This is one of the supreme show-off first-person openings. Burgess challenges the reader (and himself) to step on to the roller coaster of a very tall tale (loosely based on the life of Somerset Maugham).“
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.
“Kindred Spirits,” in The New Yorker (May 31, 2021)
It’s a good time to be dead—at least, if you want to keep in touch with the living.
Cep continued: “Almost a third of Americans say they have communicated with someone who has died, and they collectively spend more than two billion dollars a year for psychic services on platforms old and new. Facebook, Tik Tok, television: whatever the medium, there’s a medium.“ This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
The Laugh’s on Me (1959)
There now are more than 175 million people, census takers tell us, in this blessed land of ours, and as I write this probably fifty million of them are telling a story. Just how well they are telling it is another matter.
Cerf continued: “Nobody is a ‘born’ storyteller. The art of squeezing the ultimate drop of laughter from a droll tale must—and can—be learned.”
Try and Stop Me (1944)
I have always had a hitherto useless knack for remembering hundreds of unrelated anecdotes about unrelated people. In the minds of some this has constituted me a “raconteur.”
Cerf continued: “In the mind of my wife, who has had to listen to the same yarns a hundred times, it has inspired justifiable thoughts of mayhem.”
At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (1977)
I am a rather unusual specimen in that not only I but all four of my grandparents and both of my parents were born on the island of Manhattan.
Cerf continued: “My father’s family were of Alsatian extraction and my mother’s family were Germans named Wise. My father’s father, Marcel Cerf, was a jeweler. The Cerf family was loaded with charm but little money, while the Wise family had very little charm but a lot of money.”
Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote (1605)
In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.
In 1985, when Walker Percy was asked by staffers at The New York Times about his “favorite opening passage in a work of literature,“ he replied: “My choice is the first sentence of the first novel ever written—and perhaps still the best—Don Quixote.“ Percy went on to add: “My pleasure derives both from the sense of what Cervantes must have been feeling when he wrote it and from the anticipation of the coming adventures of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance.“
G. K. Chesterton
The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (1936)
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington.
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.
Don’t Let Go (2017)
Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy.
Of the many great opening lines Coben has penned in his career, this is my personal favorite. None of the others can match it in what might be called epistemological wackiness, and none are as laugh-out-loud funny. Don’t Let Go was Coben’s 30th novel, and, like the last ten, it debuted in the Number One spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
When asked about the opener in a CBS This Morning interview, Coben said, “I just thought I’d have fun with the first line ’cause we’re about to get dark.” And get dark is a good way to describe the novel. Writing for the very first time in the first-person, present-tense, Coben let protagonist Napoleon “Nap” Dumas tell the entire tale— with most of it speaking directly to his dead twin brother (who died under mysterious circumstances while they were in high school). About the approach he took with the book, Coben said, “He’s trying to find the truth. I’m trying to both break your heart and stir it a little.”
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.”
America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t (2012)
I wrote another book. I hope you’re happy. Because this book is your fault.
Colbert continued: “You see, everywhere I go I hear bellyaching about how we as a nation have lost it. Now sure, we’ve taken some shots lately. We’re feeling beat up, and why shouldn’t we? It’s like after 235 years as King of the Monkey Bars, the other kids have held us down and made us eat a bug.”
I Am America (And So Can You) (2007)
I am no fan of books. And chances are, if you’re reading this, you and I share a healthy skepticism about the printed word. Well, I want you to know that this is the first book I’ve ever written, and I hope it’s the first book you’ve ever read. Don’t make a habit of it.
My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002)
I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.
Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (2013)
March 14, 2013, my sixty-fifth birthday. I got up that morning, padded over to the bathroom, threw some water on my face, looked in the mirror, and my uncle Al was staring back at me. My scream brought Janice, my wife of forty-two years, running in. I kept yelling, “HOLY SHIT! What the fuck happened to me?” Somehow, overnight, it seemed I had turned from a hip, cool baby boomer into a Diane Arbus photograph.
Crystal continued: “I looked at Janice for an encouraging word, for a hug, for an ‘It’s okay, Billy, you look great. It’s an old mirror.’ All she did was glance down at my robe, which had opened up, and ask: ‘When did your pubic hair turn gray?’”
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.’”
Peter De Vries
The Tents of Wickedness (1959)
Charles Swallow was taking a bath, and as was his custom on such occasions, he had undressed before climbing into the tub.
Peter De Vries
The Vale of Laughter (1967)
Call me, Ishmael.
By the simple insertion of a comma, De Vries completely changes the meaning of Melville’s classic opening line from Moby-Dick. The opening words come from Joe Sandwich, a wisecracking stockbroker who is talking on the phone to a client named Ishmael (or, as he sometimes calls him, “Ish, baby”).
Sandwich continued: “Feel absolutely free to. Call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home and I’ll be glad to give you the latest quotation with price-earnings ratio and estimated dividend of any security traded in those tirelessly tossing, deceptively shaded waters in which we pursue the elusive whale of Wealth, but from which we come away at last content to have hooked the twitching bluegill, solvency.“
The boy shot Wild Bill’s horse at dusk, while Bill was off in the bushes to relieve himself.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death (2019)
No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.
Doughty’s entire book consists of her answers to questions about death and dying posed by children. It opens with this creepy-but-adorable answer to a question that also served as the title to Chapter One: “When I Die, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs.” About the book, reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer (“The Bookworm Sez”) wrote: “There’s serious science here, but also cultural lessons in death and dying, a little history, and a touch of gruesomeness wrapped in that shroud of sharp, witty humor.“
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014)
A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.
Doughty is a California mortician, a YouTube celebrity (“Ask a Mortician”), and a passionate advocate for funeral industry reform. In 2006, at age 23, she began working in a San Francisco mortuary, and her description of an experience from her very first day on the job ultimately ended up as a spectacular opening line (in truth, it’s hard to imagine a better way for a female mortician to begin a book about her work). In the book, Doughty continued:
“It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.”
In a 2015 PsychologyToday.com article (“The Truth About Cremation”), psychologist Susan K. Perry wrote, “If you delight in a one-of-a-kind writer’s voice…I doubt that you have ever read a first sentence like this one.”
Bred up in luxurious indolence, I was surrounded by friends who seemed to have no business in this world but to save me the trouble of thinking or acting for myself.
Edgeworth was well known for her anti-aristocratic sentiments, and the opening chapters of Ennui provide a powerful commentary on the deleterious effects of great wealth and inherited privilege on English society.
The novel begins as a kind of memoir of Lord Glenthorn, a young English gentleman, who continued: “And I was confirmed in the pride of helplessness by being continually reminded that I was the only son and heir of the Earl of Glenthorn.“
George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Daniel Deronda (1876)
Was she beautiful or not beautiful?
These are the first thoughts that spring to the mind of the title character as he finds himself strongly responding to a brief glance from a woman who is experiencing a run of bad luck at a roulette table in a German gambling resort. As the opening paragraph unfolds, his thought process continues: “And what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?“
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.
Move On: Adventures in the Real World (1991)
I packed up his comic books, sold off the bunk beds, gave away the last Star Wars sheet and threw out the beanbag chair that had bled to death in 1975. I tore down the six MASH posters super-glued to the wall between his room and mine.
Ellerbee continued: “Next I tore down the wall. After that, I ripped up the floor, raised high the roof beam, put up a skylight big enough to bring the moon home, put down a Jacuzzi big enough to do the backstroke across, planted flowers so fragile they faint if you frown twice, painted everything else a lovely shade of Childless White and watched my son go nuts.“
Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table (2005)
I’m not crazy about Florence except for the pig museum. If precisely speaking, it’s not a museum, that’s only because some fool in the Italian government doesn’t recognize a national treasure when he sees one.
Any opening paragraph that contains the words “pig museum” is certainly tantalizing, but when it goes on to describe the museum as “a national treasure,” it become a bona fide hook.
“Vaginal Politics,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is “knowing what your uterus looks like.”
“Crazy Ladies,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up.
“Moving On,” in I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006)
In February 1980, two months after the birth of my second child and the simultaneous end of my marriage, I fell in love.
“Who Are You?” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I know you. I know you well. It’s true I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment.
Ephron continued: “We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. We’ve had a delightful conversation about how we are the last two people on the face of the earth who don’t kiss on both cheeks. Now we’re having a conversation about how phony all the people are who do kiss on both cheeks. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’re so charming. If only I could remember your name.”
“The D Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
The most important thing about me, for quite a long chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. Even after I was no longer divorced but remarried, this was true.
Ephron continued: “I have now been married to my third husband for more than twenty years. But when you’ve had children with someone you’re divorced from, divorce defines everything; it’s the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.”
“The O Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I am sixty-nine years old.
Really old is eighty.
But if you are young, you would definitely think I’m old.
No one actually likes to admit that they’re old.
The most they will cop to is that they’re older. Or oldish
“Reunion,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
A boy and a girl are taking a shower together in the bathroom.
Ephron continued: “How to explain the significance of it? It is a Friday night in June, the first night of the tenth reunion of the Class of 1962 of Wellesley College, and a member of my class has just returned from the bathroom with the news. A boy and girl are taking a shower together. No one can believe it.”
“On Never Having Been a Prom Queen,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
The other night a friend of mine sat down at the table and informed me that If I was going to write a column about women, I ought to deal straight off with the subject most important to women in all the world. “What is that?” I asked. “Beauty,” she said.
The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,“ I said, “is that I can’t even date.”
The narrator is Rachel Samstat, a New York City food writer who is married to a journalist with a reputation for womanizing. In her opening words, she chooses a most interesting way to disclose her reaction to the news that her husband has begun an extra-marital affair (Heartburn is a novel, but it reflects many of the details of Ephron’s four-year marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein).
In the first paragraph, Samstat continued: “Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word ’date,’ which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant.”
“Funny, But I Do Look Jewish,” in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 15, 2003)
Funny, but I do look Jewish, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by.
Epstein continued: “I’m fairly sure I didn’t always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent.”
Lawrence J. Epstein
George Burns: An American Life (2011)
George Burns was always willing to sacrifice truth for a good line.
Epstein continued: “He liked, for instance, to tell the story of the stage manager who heard him singing and fired him on the spot. But Burns could never tell it the way it really happened. He retold it with comic exaggeration to hide the pain.”
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.”
Intruder in the Dust (1948)
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
“The sex instinct,” repeated Mr. Talliaferro in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, “is quite strong in me.”
Some opening lines are impressive at multiple levels. The sex instinct is quite strong in me, on its own, is a memorable line, but it takes on a special significance when it is embedded in a beautifully phrased observation about how human beings reveal themselves to one another.
Mr. Talliaferro is not some upper-class Englishman, but an American lingerie salesman who has attempted to construct a sophisticated persona. He continued with words that draw the reader in more deeply: “Frankness, without which there can be no friendship, without which two people cannot really ever ‘get’ each other, as you artists say.”
Congratulations on your purchase of this American-made genuine book. Each component of this book was selected to provide you with maximum book performance, whatever your reading needs may be.
In a review in London’s Sunday Telegraph, Viv Groskop hailed Bossypants as “A masterpiece in comedy writing,” adding “I was hooked from the first word.”
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.”
“How I Wound Up with a Wound from Heteronyms,” in The Washington Post (May 20, 2021)
The English language has something to confuse or annoy just about anyone—the mysteries of who and whom usage, the e.g. vs. i.e. standoff, the polarizing Oxford comma. I have a long-standing, personal problem with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but don’t sound alike. Allow me to explain with a little story.
Joseph Andrews (1742)
It is a trite but true observation that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.
This is one of literary history’s most admired opening lines, and it came in Fielding’s first full-length novel, published when he was thirty-five (the full original title was: Joseph Andrews, or The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams). Fielding said he wrote the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” and the cover of the book announced that it was “Written in imitation of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.”
The novel’s opening sentence has the quality of a Grand Declaration, and the narrator continues the lofty tone in the remainder of the opening paragraph: “And if this be just in what is odious and blameable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praiseworthy. Here emulation most effectually operates upon us, and inspires our imitation in an irresistible manner. A good man therefore is a standing lesson to all his acquaintance, and of far greater use in that narrow circle than a good book.“
M. F. K. Fisher
Consider the Oyster (1941)
An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.
Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.
Fisher was one of history’s most popular and influential food writers, but she had great fans in the writing world as well, with W. H. Auden once saying of her: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.“ While I can’t be sure, I’ve got to believe Auden was thinking about these opening words when he made his remark.
In a 1941 New York Times review, Edward Larocque Tinker described Consider the Oyster as a “A gay, pleasant, and instructive book.” Tinker went on to add: “This contribution to gastronomic lore completes the picture of a new type of cookery book that has captured popular favor.”
The Best Awful There Is (2004)
Suzanne Vale had a problem, and it was the one she least liked thinking about: She’d had a child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay.
In this sequel to Postcards from the Edge, Fisher continues to explore the twists and turns of protagonist Suzanne Vale—and she opens it in a most memorable way. When the book came out in paperback in 2005, the title was shortened to The Best Awful.
Postcards from the Edge (1987)
Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.
The opening words come from protagonist and narrator Suzanne Vale, an aspiring actress whose bipolar disorder becomes life-threatening when it is fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. Vale is a thinly-disguised version of the author, and the novel colorfully recounts numerous elements of her reckless life. In her first paragraph, Vale continued:
“Besides, what was I supposed to do? He came up to my room and gave me that dumb stuffed animal that looks like a thumb, and there I was lying in bed twelve hours after an overdose. I wasn’t feeling my most attractive. I’d thrown up scallops and Percodan on him the night before in the emergency room. I thought that it would be impolite to refuse to give him my number. He probably won’t call anyway. No one will ever call me again.”
In 1990, Mike Nichols adapted the novel into film, with Meryl Streep playing the lead role and Shirley MacLaine her mother. In a 2106 Entertainment Weekly interview, Fisher was asked how the relationship between Suzanne Vale and her mother paralleled her relationship with her real-life mother, Debbie Reynolds. She replied: “I wrote about a mother actress and a daughter actress. I’m not shocked that people think it’s about me and my mother. It’s easier for them to think I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries”
Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations (1996)
After Delacorte asked me to write a book on politics, my very first creative act was coming up with the title Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I thought the title, aside from being personally offensive to Limbaugh, would sell books. Let me explain why: it makes fun of Limbaugh by pointing out that he is a big lardbutt.
Franken continued in the book’s next two paragraphs:
“Confident that I was now on my way to a bestseller, I took some time off and went to Florida with my wife and kids. But when I returned and sat down to work, it became immediately apparent that the “title tail” was going to wag the “content dog.” That is to say, I’d actually have to write about Rush Limbaugh.
Which, of course, meant I’d have to listen to him on radio, read his books, and watch him on TV. ’How much am I getting paid for this?’ I asked myself.“
What Would Kinky Do?: How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World (2008)
Let us begin this ordeal with a fairly safe assumption: No human being who has ever lived in this world has ever taken good advice.
Friedman continued: “Millions upon millions of people, however, have gladly and gratefully taken bad advice, foolish advice, pop advice, and glib advice. Why is this? No doubt it’s partly because of the perversity of human nature. This notwithstanding, the other part, I believe, is because of the sanctimonious, constipated, pompous, smug, and self-righteous way that good advice is usually given.”
“Outlaws,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
The life of a country singer can at times be very tedious. You have to pretend that your life is a financial pleasure even when your autographs are bouncing.
“Ode to Billy Joe,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
If Carl Sandburg had come from Waco, his name would have been Billy Joe Shaver.
“Foreword” to Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die (2012)
In April 1933, Willie’s mother, Myrle, gave birth to him in a manger somewhere along the old highway between Waco and Dallas.
“A Salty Piece of Land: Wise Old Jimmy Buffett,” in The New York Times (Nov. 28, 2004)
There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.
It’s uncommon to find a killer opening line in a book review, but Friedman is not exactly your typical book reviewer. He continued: “The two of us are among the few musicians in the Western world who make a regular habit of writing prose, which may also explain why this newspaper decided upon me to review this book rather than, say, Philip Roth.”
In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner wrote about the opening words of Friedman’s review: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence.”
Garner went on to write: “Reviewing Robbins’s novel ’The Carpetbaggers’ in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in The Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed ‘The Carpetbaggers’ between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.”
Greenwich Killing Time (1986)
I held the mescal up to the light and watched the worm slide across the bottom of the bottle.
This is an impressive opening line in Friedman’s debut novel, and it only gets better as the narrator and protagonist, a fictionalized version of the author, continued: “A gift from a friend just back from Mexico. The worm was fat and white and somewhat dangerous looking with great hallucinogenic properties attributed to it. You were supposed to eat it and it was supposed to make you so high you would need a stepladder to scratch your ass. We’d see.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
The Affluent Society (1958)
Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved wildly persuasive.
Galbraith continued: “But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn’t enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well-observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish.“
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (2021)
Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbor Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, never have seen a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.
The year is 1619, and the opening words come from Katharina Kepler, an illiterate and curmudgeonly herbalist who, we will shortly learn, is also the mother of the renowned mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. In this fictionalized, darkly comic portrayal of an actual 1620 witchcraft trial, Katharina’s son actually shows up at the proceedings to defend his mother against the charges.
“In ‘Yours in Haste and Adoration,’ Terry Southern’s Thoughts Spill Out,” in The New York Times (Dec. 15, 2015)
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
In the article’s second paragraph, Garner continued: “It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.”
“Metaphysics Laced with Magic,” in The New York Times (February 8, 2022)
Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” Billie Holiday sang. So, it turns out, is photosynthesis.
GUEST COMMENTARY from veteran poet, playwright, and author Louis Phillips, who writes: “Although I may not fully agree with Dwight Garner’s assessment of Heti’s new novel, I’m impressed with how he’s able to deliver his entire review in three simple, eye-opening sentences. Each one elicits a specific reaction. The first startles with a great improbability. The second is a clever allusion about the novel. And the third delivers the witty knock-out punch.” See some of Phillips’ great opening lines on the Short Stories page.
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
I was ever of [the] opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single and only talked of population.
Dr. Charles Primrose, the novel’s narrator and title character, continued with what have become legendary words on how to choose a wife: “From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year, before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife, as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.”
David L. Goodstein
States of Matter (1975)
Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.
Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.
It’s exceedingly rare for textbooks in any field to have a spectacular opening line—and especially one with such understated wit—but professor Goodstein manages to achieve it in a graduate-level physics text! For another opening gem from a physics text, see the Paesler and Moyer entry.
Rubber Balls and Liquor (2011)
If I knew one day I’d write a book, I would have tried to live a more interesting life.
Stephen Jay Gould
“A Most Ingenious Paradox,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Abstinence has its virtuous side, but enough is enough.
The One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding (1962)
Immediately, right off the bat, without further ado, here and now, I wish to say that much of what happened to me that fateful week-end is completely unprintable, since it all happened with a lady (colored) of ill repute. So all pornography-seekers are warned to seek elsewhere. I wish to make that point quite clear before proceeding further.
I first picked up this book after hearing the 21-year-old Bob Dylan praise it in a 1963 interview with Studs Terkel. I was a college junior at the time, and the opening paragraph immediately pulled me in. In addition to the Holden Caulfield-like quality of the narrator, I found myself intrigued by the very idea of “a fateful week-end” involving a young white guy and a black female prostitute (who, we later learn, turns out to be only fourteen years old).
In an Esquire review, Gore Vidal highly praised the book, writing: “Gover’s first stroke of inspiration is that neither boy nor girl can understand, literally, a word the other says. She speaks almost entirely in four-letter words and Negro-jazz argot; he speaks in ballooning Chamber of Commerce sentences which tend to pop just as some sort of meaning has begun to emerge from all that breath.” Vidal concluded his review by saying, “I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country.”
S is for Silence (2005)
When Liza Mellincamp thinks about the last time she ever saw Violet Sullivan, what comes most vividly to mind is the color of Violet’s silk kimono, a shade of blue that Liza later learned was called “cerulean,” a word that wasn’t even in her vocabulary when she was fourteen years old.
I is for Innocent (1992)
I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.
The narrator and protagonist, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, continued: “There was no beckoning white light at the end of a tunnel, no warm fuzzy feeling that my long-departed loved ones were waiting on The Other Side. What I experienced was a little voice piping up in an outraged tone, ‘Oh, come on. You’re not serious. This is really it?’”
R is for Ricochet (2004)
The basic question is this: given human nature, are any of us really capable of change?
The question is posed by Kinsey Millhone, who is clearly in a philosophical frame of mind. She continued with an additional reflection—one that suggests her current mood might be the result of a boneheaded move she’s made: “The mistakes other people make are usually patently obvious. Our own are tougher to realize.”
A is for Alibi (1982)
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.
This was the first of Grafton’s “alphabet series” of detective novels, inspired by Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a 1963 rhyming book in which English schoolchildren meet macabre deaths (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears; C is for Clara who wasted away; D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh,” and so forth). “I was smitten with all those little Victorian children being dispatched in various ways,” Grafton told The New York Times in 2015, adding “Edward Gorey was deliciously bent.”
In writing the opening words to her first Kinsey Millhone novel, Grafton was almost certainly inspired by the first line of Ambrose Bierce’s 1886 short story, “An Imperfect Conflagration,“ where he wrote: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.“
U is for Undertow (2009)
What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself.
The opening reflection—now one of my favorite quotations about the past—comes from narrator and protagonist Kinsey Millhone.
O is for Outlaw (1999)
The Latin term pro bono, as most attorneys will attest, roughly translated means for boneheads and applies to work done without charge.
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included this Grafton opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”
B is for Burglar (1985)
After it’s over, of course, you want to kick yourself for all the things you didn’t see at the time.
In a WritersWrite.com interview with Claire E. White, Grafton might have been thinking about this opening line when she said: “With the mystery novel you have to know where you’re going, but not in any great detailed sense. I generally know whodunit, who died, and what the motive for the crime was. Then I have to figure out what I call the angle of attack. In other words, how do you cut into the story? Where does the story begin? What’s relevant in that first line or paragraph from the reader’s point of view?“ She concluded: “You would be astonished how long it takes me to figure that out from one book to the next.“
Looking for Alaska (2005)
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.
In his debut novel, Green spun a captivating coming-of-age tale featuring Miles Halter, a young man with a peculiar fascination with the last words of famous people (as in “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” from Rabelais).
In the opening paragraph, Miles continued: “Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years.”
The Fault is in Our Stars (2012)
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
The opening words come from 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, who continued: “Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.
A review in The Manila Bulletin said about the author’s opening: “Just two paragraphs into the work, and he immediately wallops the readers with such an insightful observation delivered in such an unsentimental way that it’s hard not to shake your head in admiration.“
We soon learn that Hazel uses sarcasm and dark humor as a way of coping with her own diagnosis of terminal cancer (about which, she says, “thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs”). While attending the support group, she meets a fellow patient named Gus, and their unfolding story becomes totally engrossing. In a Time magazine review, Lev Grossman recalled Hazel’s observation that “Cancer books suck” to write that this particular cancer book “does not suck. In fact, it is damn near genius.”
In 2014, the novel was adapted into a terrific movie, starring the enormously talented Shailene Woodley as Hazel. In a New York Times review, A. O. Scott wrote: “The film sets out to make you weep—not just sniffle or choke up a little, but sob until your nose runs and your face turns blotchy. It succeeds.“
As the master of the Indian Spring school emerged from the pine woods into the little clearing before the school-house, he stopped whistling, put his hat less jauntily on his head, threw away some wild flowers he had gathered on his way, and otherwise assumed the severe demeanor of his profession and his mature age—which was at least twenty.
“The Idyll of Red Gulch,” in The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches (1870)
Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea-bush, in pretty much the same attitude in which he had fallen some hours before.
The narrator continued: “How long he had been lying there he could not tell, and didn’t care; how long he should lie there was a matter equally indefinite and unconsidered. A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition, suffused and saturated his moral being.”
Cruel and Unusual Puns (1991)
Have you heard about the inner-city video game called Super Barrio Mothers? The musical version of The Ten Commandments, to be titled Runelight and Moses? Or that new self-help book on postpartum depression, The Blues of the Birth?
In the opening words to his book on transpositional humor, Hauptman wisely provided a sampling of what was in store for readers. His book was aimed at punsters and fans of wordplay, including one of the great masters, Richard Lederer, whose blurb for the book couldn't have been more apt: "This definitive treasury of transposition puns is truly a re-wording experience."
“Big Brother is Us,” in Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Good-Bye! (1993)
Every so often I grow despondent over my body and soul marching inexorably into middle age: I go to a nightclub and deeply inhale the heady odor of tobacco, whisky, dirt, and hormones, then after fifteen minutes I get tired and go home.
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.
“Babes in the Jungle,” in Strictly Business (1910)
Montague Silver, the finest street man and art grafter in the West, says to me once in Little Rock: “If you ever lose your mind, Billy, and get too old to do honest swindling among grown men, go to New York. In the West a sucker is born every minute; but in New York they appear in chunks of roe—you can’t count ’em!
“The Gold that Glittered,” in Strictly Business (1910)
A story with a moral appended is like the bill of a mosquito. It bores you, and then injects a stinging drop to irritate your conscience. Therefore let us have the moral first and be done with it.
“Springtime à la Carte,” in The Four Million (1906)
It was a day in March.
Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable.
I believe this was the only thing Henry ever wrote on the subject of opening lines, and he does it in characteristic fashion—making an emphatic assertion and then immediately walking it back. The narrator continued:
“For the following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.
“Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.
“Think of a New York girl shedding tears on the menu card!
“To account for this you will be allowed to guess that the lobsters were all out, or that she had sworn ice–cream off during Lent, or that she had ordered onions, or that she had just come from a Hackett matinee. And then, all these theories being wrong, you will please let the story proceed.”
“The Cop and the Anthem” (1904), in The Four Million (1906)
On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.
So begins the story of one of Henry’s most unforgettable characters, a Manhattan vagrant who does everything he can to get himself arrested in order to find a warm place to stay in the upcoming winter.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “A dead leaf fell in Soapy’s lap. That was Jack Frost’s card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready.”
The character of Soapy was magnificently brought to the Big Screen by English actor Charles Laughton in O. Henry’s Full House, a 1952 film anthology of five of the author’s most memorable short stories (each story was introduced by John Steinbeck, and this one included a terrific bit part by the young Marilyn Monroe).
“The Ransom of Red Chief,” in The Saturday Evening Post (July 6, 1907); reprinted in Whirligigs (1910)
It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.
This opening line not only establishes the “voice” of the narrator, but it perfectly telegraphs the nature of the story about to unfold—two small-time criminals named Sam and Bill see their brilliant kidnapping scheme backfire in an ironic and comical way.
The story also captures the essence of a common human experience: our worst failures often originate in cockamamie schemes we originally considered quite clever. Many years later, in a 1977 interview, Rebecca West was thinking along similar lines when she famously said: “If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be, ‘It seemed a good idea at the time.’”
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (1973)
In previous anthologies I have often begun my introduction with the words “Good Evening.” In all good conscience I cannot do that now.
I believe that such a greeting would be highly inappropriate. The contents of this volume are designed to give you a bad evening. A very bad evening indeed. And perhaps an even worse night.
From Under My Hat (1952)
Once upon a time there was a six-toed cousin. Mine.
Hopper continued: “When I first saw him, I knew I was in show business. Kids in the neighborhood couldn’t afford pennies, but I made them pay five pins every time they got a look at him.“
Just Like You (2020)
How could one say with any certainty what one hated most in the world? It surely depended on how proximate the hated thing was at any given moment, whether you were doing it or listening to it or eating it at the time.
The opening words not only raise important questions about the nature of hatred, they pave the way for an introduction to a protagonist who is known only by her first name, Lucy. She is an unhappy, soon-to-be divorced, 42-year-old schoolteacher with two school-age boys. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued about her:
“She hated teaching Agatha Christie for A level, she hated any conservative education secretary, she hated listening to her younger son’s trumpet practice, she hated any kind of liver, the sight of blood, reality T.V. shows, grime music, and the usual abstractions—global poverty, war, pandemics, the imminent death of the planet, and so on.”
High Fidelity (1995)
My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:
- Alison Ashworth
- Penny Hardwick
- Jackie Allen
- Charlie Nicholson
- Sarah Kendrew
One wouldn’t expect a list of anything to be a good way to begin a book, but when the list is preceded by the phrase “most memorable split-ups,” it immediately gets readers to reflect on their own romantic histories—and thereby becomes particularly enticing.
The opening words come from a 35-year-old London music junkie and record-store owner who is known only by his first name, Rob. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura. As soon as Rob “hooks” readers with his opening words, he reels them in as he continues in the second paragraph:
“These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.”
All in all, this is a brilliant opening. If you haven’t yet read Hornby’s spectacular debut novel, please try to rectify the error soon. In a New York Times review, Mark Jolly described the protagonist as “a fictional figure of Prufrockian pathos” and wrote the following about the novel: “Mr. Hornby captures the loneliness and childishness of adult life with such precision and wit that you’ll find yourself nodding and smiling. High Fidelity fills you with the same sensation that you get from hearing a debut record album that has more charm and verve and depth than anything you can recall.”
Adolph Sutro: King of the Comstock Lode and Mayor of San Francisco (2020)
I hate biographies; they always end badly.
When reading biographies, it’s rare to find an opening line that might work perfectly in a standup-comedy routine, but that’s what happened when I opened the pages of Huber’s book about one of the most fascinating personalities in San Francisco’s colorful history. This great line came at the beginning of Chapter One. A page earlier, in the book’s Introduction, Huber also began memorably, writing: “A biography of one born in 1830 is sure to end with the death of the subject, and the opening chapter describes that inevitable outcome.”
“Blue Evening,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
When I walked into the bar and saw him on the corner stool alone, I could tell something was wrong.
The words come from Simple’s friend and foil, Ananias Boyd, who encounters his pal in a neighborhood bar. The following dialogue unfolds:
“Another hang-over?” “Nothing that simple. This is something I thought never would happen to me.” “What?” I asked “That a woman could put me down….”
“An Auto-Obituary,” in Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)
“I will now obituarize myself,” said Simple at the bar. “I will cast flowers on my own grave before I am dead.”
Simple had a clever way with words, and I’m a little surprised that this creative coinage didn’t catch on in the broader culture.
“Guns, Not Shovels,” in the Chicago Defender (Feb. 13, 1943)
The cat was taking his first physical, standing in line in front of me at the hospital where our draft board had sent us. He was talking and he didn’t care who heard him.
These words mark the first appearance of Hughes’s most popular fictional character, a Harlem resident formally named Jesse B. Semple, but known to all of his friends as “Simple.”
The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006)
The night of my mother’s funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.
Some opening lines gently extend a hand to readers and say, “Come, join me.” Others, like this one, grab readers by the collar and exclaim, “C’mon, were off for a ride!” The narrator and protagonist is Ed Loy, a Los Angeles private detective who has recently returned to Dublin to attend his mother’s funeral.
As soon as the ride begins, though, it takes a quick and unexpected turn, as Loy continues: “Now she was lying dead on her living room floor, and the howl of a police siren echoed through the surrounding hills. Linda had been strangled; a froth of blood brimmed from her mouth, and her bloodshot eyes bulged.”
In a 2021 blog post, writer Greg Levin included Hughes’s opener in a post on “25 of the Best Opening Lines in Crime Fiction.” About his selections, Levin wrote: “Few things enthrall me more than cracking (or clicking) open a novel and reading a first line that catapults me into Chapter 1. A line that reminds me why I read, why I write, what it means to be alive. A line that gives me whiplash. A line that makes me forget to feed my pets for the next few hours.”
“A Toast to Harlem,” in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
Quiet can seem unduly loud at times.
I have a soft spot for oxymoronic openings, and this one is a beauty.
“Sympathy,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“Some people do not have no scars of their faces,” said Simple, “but they has scars on their hearts.”
A deeply profound thought from an ostensibly simple man.
“Cousin Minnie Wins,” in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965)
“It is better to be wore out from living than to be wore out from worry,” said Simple.
“Soap Opera,” in The Progressive (October 1967)
You could probably prove, by judicious use of logarithms and congruent triangles, that real life is a lot more like soap opera than most people will admit.
“Good Morning, Fort Worth! Glad to Be Here,“ in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (1992)
I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults. If Texas were a sane place, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
“My, Oh, My, It’s the Ninth Wonder of the World,” in Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (May 15, 1994)
Great Caesar’s armpit! Sweet suffering catfish! Holey Gamoley! I have been to the Pyramids of America. I have seen the cathedral of commerce, our Coliseum, our Chartres. I have been to the Mall of America, the world’s largest shopping mall.
“Magnolias and Moonshine,” in Mother Jones (June 1988)
Watching the candidates metamorphose into Southerners was sort of like watching The Fly.
In a column on the ingratiating quality of presidential candidates early in the election season, Ivins continued: “Bob Dole claimed to be a Southerner-in-law. Paul Simon noted he is from southern Illinois. Albert Gore, Jr., fondly reminisced about shoveling pig manure, and Pat Robertson ate grits in public. George Bush, who only the week before had been in New Hampshire claiming to be the full-blooded Yankee—Drink Syrup or Die—turned up in Houston wearing boots, cowboy hat, and neckerchief.”
“Say So,” in Rosie magazine (2001, Vol. 128)
I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults.
“Texas Woman: True Grit and All the Rest,” in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 212, 1992)
They used to say that Texas was hell on women and horses—I don’t know why they stopped.
“Who Needs Breasts, Anyway,“ in Time magazine (Feb. 18, 2002)
Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.
Ivins retained her irreverent sense of humor even while struggling with the cancer that would take her life—at age 62—in 2007. She continued: “One of the first things you notice is that people treat you differently when they know you have it. The hushed tone in which they inquire, ‘How are you?’ is unnerving. If I had answered honestly during 90% of the nine months I spent in treatment, I would have said, ’If it weren’t for being constipated, I’d be fine.’ In fact, even chemotherapy is not nearly as hard as it once was, although it still made all my hair fall out.”
Unreliable Memoirs (1980)
I was born in 1939. The other big event of the year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.
These are the wry opening words to Chapter One of James’s memoir, but he also began the Preface to the book in an engaging way:
“Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the center, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth.”
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2009)
You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to inform his surroundings of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.
So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old Folks’ Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out—into the flower bed.
This maneuver required a bit of effort, since Allan was 100 years old, on this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old Folks’ Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.
The entirety of Chapter One is composed of these four paragraphs, and there are few better openings to a comic novel, or any novel, for that matter. Once Karlsson makes his escape, he becomes a Forrest Gump-like figure who shares the stage with some of the 20th century’s most famous figures. He also participates in some of the century’s most explosive events—and, since Karlsson was a former munitions expert, I mean that literally.
The book became an immediate bestseller in Sweden, but Jonasson struggled to find a publisher for an English-language version. It was finally picked up by Hesperus Press, a tiny English publisher (only five employees), and went on to become an international bestseller, with more than 10 million copies sold. A film version, starring Will Ferrell, is in production.
A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir (2020)
I’ve wanted to write a book my entire life. Partially because (as you will soon learn) I have difficulty taking what’s inside my head and saying it out loud.
Opening a memoir with the transparent admission of a personal weakness is always a good idea, but this one is particularly special, for it ultimately helps readers see something familiar in a new way. As Jost continued, he offered the fascinating hypothesis that a weakness that might have derailed a career as a stand-up comic or improvisational comedian worked very nicely for someone who decided to become a comedy writer. He explained it this way:
“For someone whose job is essentially speaking, this creates a deep anxiety and sometimes a paralysis that keeps me from expressing what I’m really thinking. Whereas the act of writing allows my brain to function in a different way. I can write and not be afraid of what I’m going to say.”
Jost was a Saturday Night Live comedy writer for nine years before becoming the show’s “Weekend Update” co-anchor (with Michael Che) in 2014.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.
I was never all that impressed with this opener, but the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 21 in their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.“ In a 2012 Guardian article, English wordsmith Robert McCrum included it in his compilation of “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction.” About it, he wrote: “This is the classic third-person opening to the 20th-century novel that has shaped modern fiction, pro and anti, for almost a hundred years.”
One of literary history’s most influential novels, Ulysses was an epic “stream-of-consciousness” novel that had famous supporters and dissenters. T. S. Eliot said it was “the most important expression which the present age has found.” Vladimir Nabokov hailed it as a “divine work of art.” And Virginia Woolf wrote about it: “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”
Cherry: A Memoir (2000)
No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars--bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for. In fact, to disembark from your origins, you’ve done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy.
Lit: A Memoir (2009)
Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.
Karr begins Book Three of her memoirs with a Prologue titled “Open Letter to My Son.“ She continued: “It’s true that—at fifty to your twenty—my brain is dimmer. Your engine of recall is way superior, as you’ve often pointed out.
The Liar’s Club: A Memoir (1995)
Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it. He sat back on his knees and held the tile up so the sun through aged yellow curtains seemed to pierce the hole like a laser. He winked at my sister Lecia and me before turning to my gray-haired mother, now bent over her copy of Marcus Aurelius and a bowl of sinus-opening chili, and he quipped, “Now Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.“
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?“
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blas?, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry.“ She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.“
These three paragraphs open the Introduction to Karr’s memoir, and they should be required reading for anyone who believes a short, pithy hook is the best way to begin a book. Karr went on to add in the next paragraph: “Which tells you first off why I chose to write The Liar’s Club as memoir instead of fiction: when fortune hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up?“
In some cases, it’s difficult to determine what actually constitutes a book’s “opening words.“ After the several-page Introduction, the actual first sentence of Chapter One (“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark”) is followed by a memory from age seven when Karr was being examined by a doctor who “had a long needle hidden behind his back.“ It’s an interesting and well-written beginning, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the opening paragraphs of the Introduction.
Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007)
Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.
She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman (2004)
The premise of this book is simple: when it comes to pleasuring women and conversing in the language of love, cunnilingus should be every man’s native tongue.
It’s hard to imagine a better—or more clever—way to begin a sex manual. This opening sentence may shock the sensibilities of some, but those who are offended are almost certainly not members of the target audience.
In the book, Kerner continued in the first paragraph: “As bestselling author Lou Paget has written, ‘Ask most women, and if they’re being honest, they will admit that what makes them hottest and come hardest is when a man can use his tongue well.’”
I also admired the lovely metaphorical way Kerner began the book’s second paragraph: “But as with any language, in order to express yourself fluently, in order to make your subject sing and soar, you must be thoroughly acquainted with the rules of grammar and style.”
Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957)
I had the feeling all along that this book should have an Introduction, because it doesn’t have an Index and it ought to have something.
The Snake Has All the Lines (1960)
I make mistakes; I’ll be the second to admit it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.
These first words immediately suggest paranoid ideation, and that impression is confirmed as the narrator--who we will shortly learn is a Native American psychiatric patient named "Chief" Bromden--continues: "They're mopping when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulking and hating everything, the time of day, the place they're at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don't see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment [that] detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio."
In 1975, director Milo? Forman adapted Kesey's classic novel into an equally classic film, starring Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a mental institution. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress (to Louise Fletcher as nurse Rached), and Best Supporting Actor (to Brad Dourif).
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (2012)
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing.
These are the opening words of the Introduction to the book. In the first chapter, titled “I Was a Three-Year-Old Arsonist,” Lawson also began memorably:
“Call me Ishmael. I won’t answer to it, because it’s not my name, but it’s much more agreeable than most of the things I’ve been called. Call me ‘that-weird-chick-who-says-fuck-a lot’ is probably more accurate. But ‘Ishmael’ seems classier, and it makes a way more respectable beginning than the sentence I’d originally written, which was about how I’d just run into my gynecologist at Starbucks and she totally looked right past me like she didn’t even know me. And so I stood there wondering whether that’s something she does on purpose to make her clients feel less uncomfortable, or whether she just genuinely didn’t recognize me without my vagina.”
Squeeze Play (1990)
You see a lot of penises in my line of work: short ones, stubby ones, hard ones, soft ones. Circumcised and uncircumcised; laid-back and athletic.
There’s only one word to describe an opener like this: a hook. The words come from A. B. Berkowitz, a female Washington Tribune sportswriter who’s been assigned to cover the Washington Senators, the worst team in major league baseball. In the novel’s first paragraph, Berkowitz continued:
“Professionally speaking, they have a lot in common, which is to say they are all attached to guys, most of whom are naked while I am not, thus forming the odd dynamic of our relationship. They are athletes who believe in the inalienable right to scratch their balls anytime they want. I am a sportswriter. My job is to tell you the score.”
An autobiographical novel inspired by the Leavy’s own sportswriting career with the Washington Post, the novel was described by Allen Barra in an Entertainment Weekly review as “the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I’ve ever read.” Barra went on to add that the novel “is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams—and that’s good enough for me.”
“A Few Words on a Few Words,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Democracy is an interesting, even laudable, notion and there is no question but that when compared to Communism, which is too dull, or Fascism, which is too exciting, it emerges as the most palatable form of government.
Lebowitz continued: “This is not to say that it is without its drawbacks—chief among them being its regrettable tendency to encourage people in the belief that all men are created equal.”
“Taking a Letter,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
As one with a distinct aversion to newspapers I rely heavily for information on the random remarks of others. Therefore my sources are far from impeccable.
“Writing: A Life Sentence,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.
“Modern Sports,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury.
Lebowitz continued: “It is not that I am totally indifferent to the joys of athletic effort—it is simply that my idea of what constitutes sport does not coincide with popularly held notions on the subject.”
“Sleep,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
I love sleep because it is both pleasant and safe to use.
“My Day: An Introduction of Sorts,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
12:35 P.M.—The phone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up.
Writer and critic Edmund White once called Fran Lebowitz “The funniest woman in America,“ and these opening words are a perfect example of her wry wit. What makes the opener so witty, of course, is that the phone call awakening Lebowitz has come just after noontime.
In the opening essay of her now-classic 1978 collection of essays, Lebowitz continued: “My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish.”
Anguished English (1989)
Mark Twain once wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” He could have added, “The human being is the only animal that truly laughs. Or needs to.”
Tweaking a famous quotation is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a non-fiction work—and Lederer does that very nicely here and in his The Miracle of Language entry.
For more than a quarter of a century, Lederer taught English at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. From early in his teaching career, Lederer began recording “bloopers” and “blunders” from his students (like “Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark” and “A man with more than one wife is a pigamist”). Over time, he began soliciting additional examples from teachers around the world, and the result was Anguished English, which he delightfully subtitled: “An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.“
The book was hugely successful, allowing Lederer to quit his New Hampshire teaching job, move to San Diego, and pursue his passion for words on a full-time basis. In a full and vibrant career, the ageless Lederer—who turns eighty-four in 2022—has written more than fifty books that have sold well over a million copies. Count me among the many verbivores—a word coined by Lederer, by the way—as a national treasure.
Education and Ecstasy (1968)
Teachers are overworked and underpaid. True. It is an exacting and exhausting business, this damming up the flood of human potentialities.
It is generally inadvisable to begin a book with a sarcasm-laced observation, but Leonard--a leader of the human potential movement and critic of the educational establishment—was clearly trying to get people’s attention. In the first paragraph, he continued: “What energy it takes to make a torrent into a trickle, to train that trickle along narrow, well-marked channels!“
Freaky Deaky (1988)
Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.
Tishomingo Blues (2002)
Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder.
Mr. Paradise (2004)
Late afternoon Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe trying to get Kelly to help entertain Anthony Paradiso, an eighty-four-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his girlfriend.
Get Shorty (1990)
When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.
This opening line introduces Ernesto “Chili” Palmer, a Mob-connected loan shark who has his treasured leather jacket stolen by Ray “Bones” Barboni, a rival thug from another group of Miami Beach thugs (the two characters were brought to life in a memorable way by John Travolta and Dennis Farina in a 1995 film adaptation of the novel). Given his nature, Chili has only one alternative—to retrieve his jacket—and the action continues from there.
In “Analysis of Elmore Leonard’s Novels,” a 2019 post on Literariness.org, site founder Nasrullah Mambrol wrote: “Among all of his novels, Get Shorty most clearly reveals [Leonard’s] intention of making his fiction read like motion pictures. He even incorporates some pages of a screenplay that his sleazy characters are trying to peddle.”
In One Era and Out the Other (1973)
It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.“
Levenson, one of his era’s most admired humorous writers, continued: “So I took my arm by the hand and off we went to seek my fortune. Show business was the last place in the world I expected to find it.” Levinson’s memoir is also graced by one of my all-time favorite book titles.
Elmer Gantry (1927)
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.
Following the example of the American Book Review, which published a 2006 list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” many subsequent lists of Great Opening Lines offer only the first sentence (“Elmer Gantry was drunk”), shortsightedly omitting the beauty and the power of the novel’s full first words. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). See the Heller entry here.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”
Elmer Gantry was the most controversial book of 1927, banned in Boston, of course, and in many other American cities. After the influential American evangelist Billy Sunday denounced Lewis as “Satan’s cohort,” ministers all around the country followed suit, suggesting he be “tarred and feathered,“ and even imprisoned for his heresy (not surprisingly, the author received numerous death threats and, for a time, even had police protection). The controversy greatly spurred book sales, ultimately making it the best-selling novel in the U.S. for 1927. In 1960, director Richard Brooks adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film with a riveting, Oscar-winning performance by Burt Lancaster in the title role.
A. J. Liebling
The Telephone Booth Indian (1942)
There was once a French-Canadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window in his stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellow of a doctor was able to study the man’s inner workings, and that is how we came to know all about the gastric juices, as I suppose we do.
These are the first words of the Preface to the book. Liebling continued: “The details are not too clear in my mind, as I read the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year in elementary school, but I have no doubt it is essentially correct.”
Priestdaddy: A Memoir (2017)
“Before they allowed your father to be a priest,” my mother tells me, “they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace.”
Priestdaddy was one of the most acclaimed memoirs of 2017, an extraordinary recounting of Lockwood’s experiences as the daughter of a Lutheran minister who became a highly unconventional Catholic priest. It also had what I regard as the best opening line of the year in the world of non-fiction—a perfect signal to readers that this would be a memoir with both wit and edge.
In a New York Times review, Dwight Garner was clearly thinking about Lockwood’s opening salvo when he wrote that the book “roars from the start.” Priestdaddy went on to win the 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor. And in 2019, The New York Times included it on its list of “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.“
Changing Places (1975)
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
This is a spectacular opening line, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see it included in the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” posted by the American Book Review in 2006 (it came in at #98).
“‘Max’ in Danger” (1922), in Essays on Life and Literature (1951)
Max is in danger of being canonized.
Since canonization is typically regarded as a good thing, Lynd immediately gets our attention by suggesting that, at least in this case, the very opposite is true. At the time the article was written, all literate readers would have known that the “Max” in question was Max Beerbohm, one of the truly great wits in the early decades of the twentieth century. In his opening paragraph, Lynd continued: “Critics may quarrel about him, but it is only because the wreaths get in the way of one another, and every critic thinks that his should be on top.”
After this engaging introduction to the subject of the essay, Lynd continued to write with great flair as he went on to say: “In order to avert this unseemly canonization—or, at least, to keep it within the bounds of reason—one would like to adopt the ungracious part of advocatus diaboli and state the case against ‘Max’ in the strongest possible terms. But, alas! one finds that there is nothing to say against him, except that he is not Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson.”
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016)
Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a chronic gambler, a lout, a cheapskate, a deadbeat, and on his worst days, a poet. He’s probably the last person on earth you would ever look to for life advice or expect to see in any sort of self-help book.
Which is why he’s the perfect place to start.
Groucho and Me (1959)
The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland. If you write about yourself, the slightest deviation makes you realize instantly that there may be honor among thieves, but you are just a dirty liar.
Marx continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Although it is generally known, I think it’s about time to announce that I was born at a very early age. Before I had time to regret it, I was four and a half years old. Now that we are on the subject of age, let’s skip it. It isn’t important how old I am. What is important, however, is whether enough people will buy this book to justify my spending the remnants of my rapidly waning vitality in writing it.”
George Barr McCutcheon
Brewster’s Millions (1902)
“The Little Sons of the Rich” were gathered about the long table in Pettingill’s studio. There were nine of them present, besides Brewster. They were all young, more or less enterprising, hopeful, and reasonably sure of better things to come. Most of them bore names that meant something in the story of New York. Indeed, one of them had remarked, “A man is known by the street that’s named after him,“ and as he was a new member, they called him “Subway.“
McCutcheon has been almost completely forgotten by modern readers, but he was very popular in the early decades of the 20th century (of his 42 novels, 25 were made into silent films). Brewster’s Millions (1902) was his most enduring work, adapted into a successful 1906 stage play, and then into a number of films over the rest of the century (including a most enjoyable 1985 version starring Richard Pryor).
George Barr McCutcheon
A Fool and His Money (1913)
I am quite sure it was my Uncle Rilas who said that I was a fool.
I was immediately engaged when I first came upon this line, thinking to myself, “I don’t know for sure, but if one of my uncles said I was a fool, I’m pretty sure I would remember which one he was.“
The narrator continued in a way that further engaged me: “If memory serves me well he relieved himself of that conviction in the presence of my mother— whose brother he was— at a time when I was least competent to acknowledge his wisdom and most arrogant in asserting my own. I was a freshman in college: a fact—or condition perhaps— which should serve as an excuse for both of us.
Dead Man in the Silver Market: An Autobiographical Essay on National Prides (1954)
Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation of their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for.
Menen has been largely forgotten by modern readers, but he was popular enough to be remembered in a warm New York Times obituary after his death in 1989. A prolific writer of two-dozen novels, travel books, and non-fiction works, Menen was born in London in 1912 to an Irish mother and Indian father. He was also known as a gifted satirist, as he proves in this magnificent opening line. Menen’s book is often described as an autobiography, but it is in reality a series of essays, many of a semi-autobiographical nature.
A View from A Broad (1980)
I will never forget it! Only moments before I found out that a world tour was being planned for me, I was exactly where I most like to be—flat on my back on my lovely redwood deck, overlooking the glorious, ever-changing moods of the Santa Ana Freeway.
In her cleverly titled memoir, Midler demonstrates that one of the best ways to begin a book is with an unexpected twist—the sight of a nearby freeway is not generally regarded as an exceptional view. She continued: “I was truly at peace. And I was truly a mess, having just forged my way through the potentially crippling round of severe calisthenics I dutifully perform every evening of the year.”
Craig Nettles and Peter Golenbock
Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.
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.“
P. J. O’Rourke
A Cry from the Middle: Dispatches From a Divided Land (2020)
What this country needs is fewer people who know what this country needs.
In his opening paragraph, O’Rourke continued: “We’d be better off, in my opinion, without so many opinions. Especially without so many political opinions. Including my own.”
P. J. O’Rourke
Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government (1991)
The subject of this book is government because I don’t have to do anything about it.
This is the opening line of the Preface to the book, famously titled, “Why God is a Republican and Santa Claus Is a Democrat.” A scathing—and hilarious—critique of the American political system, O’Rourke continued:
“I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist’s code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don’t have to step on roaches. All we have to do is turn on the kitchen light and watch the critters scurry.”
P. J. O’Rourke
Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics (2007)
I had one fundamental question about economics: Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?
This is exactly the kind of clever opening line one might expect from O’Rourke as he tackles “the dismal science” known as economics. In the opening paragraph, he continued: “It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup.” About the book, Forbes FYI said: “O’Rourke has done the unthinkable: he’s made money funny.”
Joyce Carol Oates
them [Book 3 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1969)
One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.
Joyce Carol Oates
Expensive People [Book 2 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1968)
I was a child murderer.
I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice.
The concept of a child being a murderer immediately raises a number of questions: Who was murdered? Why did the child do it? And how?
The opening words come from Richard Everett, an angry, obese adolescent boy growing up in an upscale Detroit suburb in the 1960s (his father is a successful business executive, his mother a glamorous novelist who describes herself as a Russian émigré, but actually grew up in a working-class family in upstate New York). Throughout the first chapter, Richard makes frequent reference to being a murderer, but provides no details. It’s clear we must read on to learn more, and we do so eagerly.
Joyce Carol Oates
Black Water (1992)
The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.
Am I going to die—like this?
This is the entirety of the novel’s first chapter, and the haunting final thoughts of Kelly Kelleher, a fictional version of Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old political staffer who drowned in 1969 when a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy skidded off a small bridge on Chappaquidick Island in Massachusetts. The novel parallels the tragic events, but it is also a larger, almost mythical story about, in Oates’s words, “the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.“
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.
The Thursday Murder Club [Book 1 of The Thursday Murder Club series] (2020)
Killing someone is easy. Hiding the body, now, that’s usually the hard part. That’s how you get caught.
These are the first word the reader sees, from a kind of preface or epigraph to the book. In a 2021 blog post, book editors at Amazon.com included this in their compilation of “10 of the Best Opening lines from the Past Decade.” About the book, editor Al Woodworth wrote:
“Who would have ever thought a group of septuagenarians—amateur sleuths—in a retirement village would be the ones chasing down a murderer? Well that’s exactly what happens in The Thursday Murder Club, and let me just say, hilarity ensues,”
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1972)
A few years ago, on the East Side of Manhattan, not far from Bloomingdale’s, a man set up a business where he sold diet shakes, delicious chocolate milk shakes having only seventy-seven calories. Well, I tell you, fat young girls came from near and far and lined up around the block at lunchtime. Only seventy-seven calories and such heaven! I was one of the ones that had two for lunch every day.
C. Northcote Parkinson
Parkinson’s Law: or, The Pursuit of Progress (1957)
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This is the legendary opening line of Parkinson’s classic book, but when he introduced his famous “law” two years earlier in a November, 19, 1955 article in The Economist, the opening words were slightly more expansive: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
“Edna St. Vincent Millay Meets Tarzan,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
All afternoon I had confused Dorothy Parker with Edna St. Vincent Millay. I had done worse than that. I had confused Edna St. Vincent Millay with her own goddamn self, by which I mean to say that I kept referring to her as St. Edna Vincent Millay.
The Dog of the South (1979)
My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October.
These words introduce us to Raymond E. Midge, a Little Rock, Arkansas ex-newspaper reporter who has now returned to college to work on a degree. He continued: “They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles.”
A 1979 Kirkus Review said of the novel: “Portis holds our attention in a headlock by being so relaxed and unfazed and good-natured—in a funky, off-center book that never guns its motor and yet is always arriving at some place that’s green and fresh and funny.“
The 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.”
Playing with Myself (2022)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….
Fine, I didn’t write that. But it’s how I really wanted the opening chapter of this book to begin. No phrase could more perfectly epitomize the last six years of my life, full of unimaginable highs and lows, for me personally and on the world stage.
Rainbow does here what many memoirists have done over the years: if you can’t come up with a great opening line of your own, borrow one of history’s most famous—and describe how perfectly it applies to you.
In the second paragraph, Rainbow continued: “Unfortunately, my buzzkill editor has advised against direct plagiarism. Apparently Mr. Dickens would be none too thrilled.”
“An Untitled Letter,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (Jan-Feb, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this untitled.
In the universe of titillating openings, this is one of the very best. Who can not read on?
The Cracker Factory (1977)
I woke up, rolled over carefully to prevent the pin cushion in my head from doing major damage, opened the eye with the astigmatism and focused on the window with its mesh screen and bars.
“Oh no,” I groaned, “I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole again.” I curled up in a ball, or more appropriately, since I was in a psychiatric ward, the fetal position.
These are the dramatic opening words of a best-selling autobiographical novel about a smart-talking Cleveland woman with a major drinking problem. The novel was adapted into a 1979 ABC-TV “Movie of the Week,” with Natalie Wood in the starring role.
Rebeta-Burditt was a writer and television network executive best known for creating the TV series Diagnosis: Murder. Her Cracker Factory book contains what I regard as the single best observation ever offered on the subject of alcoholism: “Alcoholism isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play.“
I Remember Me (2013)
I Remember Me offers fifty-five chapters of varying lengths, containing remembrances of things past. It is my theory that these memories are stored in a part of one’s brain that does not allow your mind to access them until you are at least ninety years old. Three months ago, I became eligible, and the following is what my mind had stored in my brain.
This single paragraph is the entirety of the book’s Preface, and I can’t think of a better way for a man who recently turned ninety years old to begin his autobiography.
In Pursuit of Laughter (1936) (1936)
No man pursues what he has at hand. No man recognizes the need of pursuit until that which he desires has escaped him.
Books that begin with a grand, sweeping generalization carry an aura of authority, and this one is no exception. In her beautifully-phrased opening observation, Repplier immediately comes across as someone who knows what she’s talking about—and there is a clear suggestion she is about to edify us on the subject. In this case, the opening words also provide a strong clue as to the thesis of the book: humans pursue laughter the most when there is little true humor in their lives.
Repplier continued in the first paragraph: “Those who listen to the Middle Ages instead of writing about them at monstrous length and with undue horror and commiseration, can hear the echo of laughter ringing from every side, from every hole and corner where human life existed. Through the welter of wars and famine and pestilence, through every conceivable disaster, through an atmosphere darkened with ignorance and cruelty and needless pain there emerges, clear and unmistakable, that will to live that man shares with the beast, and which means that, consciously or unconsciously, he finds life worth the living.”
“The Big Nap,” in The New Yorker (July 6, 2021); and ultimately in the anthology New Teeth: Stories (2021)
The detective woke up just after dawn. It was a typical morning. His knees were scraped and bruised, his clothes were damp and soiled, and his teeth felt like someone had socked him in the jaw. He reached for the bottle he kept under his pillow and took a sloppy swig. The taste was foul, but it did the trick.
In a New York Times review, Sarah Lyall wrote about this opening paragraph: “Alert readers will recognize the cadence, vocabulary and world-weary tone of Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. But this detective is even more clueless than Philip Marlowe: He’s a toddler looking for a lost stuffed unicorn who can’t even figure out how the client, his own baby sister, got into the house.”
By the time we finish the story’s second paragraph, it’s abundantly clear that we’re in for an entertaining ride—or should I say entertaining read. The detective continued: “Her past was murky. The detective had heard that she came from the hospital. But there was also a rumor she’d once lived inside Mommy’s tummy. It didn’t add up. Still, a job was a job. ‘So, what brings you here?’ asked the detective”
In her review, Lyall continued about the story: “A triumph of sustained humor that works equally well as a parody of hard-boiled noir detective fiction and as a moving account of siblings banding together against a world that makes no sense, “The Big Nap” is the best thing in an uneven but mostly delightful book by the extravagantly talented Rich. Really, I wish I could just keep quoting from it.”
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps. It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resume for a minute more. Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.
Manipulating his kneecaps? Where on earth could this be going? It all becomes clear—and delightfully so—as Roach continues in her opening paragraph: “The study concerns human sexual response. Kneecap manipulation elicits no sexual response, on this planet anyway, and that is why the man is doing it: It’s the control activity. (Earlier, the man was told to manipulate the more usual suspect while the researchers measured whatever it was they were measuring.)”
About Bonk, writer A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) said: “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That’s a godsend!” As we saw earlier with Roach’s Stiff book, many of the opening lines of other chapters in Bonk are also inspired. Let me cite a few examples. In Ch. 2 (“Dating the Penis-Camera”), Roach began: “Let me state it simply. Women came into Masters and Johnson’s laboratory and had sex with a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—their physical responses to it.”
Ch. 6 (“The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring”), opened this way: “A man having penis surgery is the opposite of a man in a fig leaf. He is concealed face-to-feet in surgical sheets, with only his penis on view. It appears in a small, square cutout in the fabric, spotlit by surgical lamps.”
And in Ch. 12 (“Mind Over Vagina”), Roach’s opening paragraph began: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the ‘vaginal vestibule.’ Take off your coat and stay awhile.”
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005)
I don’t recall my mood the morning I was born, but I imagine I felt a bit out of sorts. Nothing I looked at was familiar. People were staring at me and making odd sounds and wearing incomprehensible items. Everything seemed too loud, and nothing made the slightest amount of sense.
Roach’s opening paragraph may not have much to do with life after death, but it’s an intriguing way to begin any book, especially a science book.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.
Science writers are not noted for a sense of humor, but in her debut book, Roach proved from the outset that it’s possible to write a serious science book that is also world-class quirky and laugh-out-loud funny. In the book’s Introduction, Roach continued by describing how cadavers have played an integral, even essential, role in human history—albeit in their own deathly quiet way.
In the remainder of the book, Roach proved herself to be an Opening Lines master, beginning almost every chapter in a way that would have garnered an A-plus from any college professor of Creative Writing. For example, in Chapter One (titled, “A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”), here’s how she began a chapter on a Face-Lift Refresher Course for Plastic Surgeons:
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here today are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.”
Later chapters open in an equally impressive manner, and here are three examples. In Ch. 3 (“Life After Death”), Roach began: “Out behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass where people lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes the shade, depending on where the researchers put them.”
In Ch. 4 (“Dead Man Driving”), Roach opened with: “By and large, the dead aren’t very talented. They can’t play water polo, or lace up their boots, or maximize market share. They can’t tell a joke, and they can’t dance for beans. There is one thing dead people excel at. They’re very good at handling pain.”
And in Ch. 8 (“How to Know If You’re Dead”), she began: “A patient on the way to surgery travels at twice the speed of a patient on the way to the morgue. Gurneys that ferry the living through hospital corridors move forward in an aura of purpose and push, flanked by caregivers with long strides and set faces, steadying IVs, pumping ambu bags, barreling into double doors. A gurney with a cadaver commands no urgency. It is wheeled by a single person, calmly and with little notice, like a shopping cart.”
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021)
On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province of northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars.
I had to read this opening sentence a second time to make sure I got it right. As it turns out, I did. In her latest popular science book, Roach turned her attention to conflicts between human beings and the natural world. And, as she has done with each of her previous eight books, she found a way to begin with a great opening line.
In the opening paragraph, Roach continued: “The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from peoples’ gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court on the twenty-eighth of June, at a specified hour, where they would be assigned legal representation.”
Another Roadside Attraction (1971)
The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.
The suitcase and its contents, we later learn, belong to John Paul Ziller, an oddball character who, along with his wife Amanda, operated “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve” in the Puget Sound region of Washington. The narrator continued: “However significant that discovery may be—and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us—it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”
“The Kiss,” in Playboy (Feb., 1990); reprinted under the title “Kissing” in Wild Ducks Flying Backward (2005)
Kissing is our greatest invention. On the list of great inventions, it ranks higher than the Thermos bottle and the Airstream trailer; higher, even, than room service, possibly because the main reason room service was created was so people could stay in bed and kiss without going hungry.
These are the opening lines of arguably the most entertaining essay ever written on the subject of kissing. Robbins went on to write: “Kissing . . . didn’t imitate nature so much as it restructured it. Kissing molded the face into a brand-new shape, the pucker shape, and then, like some renegade scientist grafting plops of sea urchin onto halves of ripe pink plums, it found a way to fuse the puckers, to meld them and animate them, so that one pucker rubbing against another generates heat, moisture, and a luminous neuro-muscular friction. Thomas Edison, switch off your dim bulb and slink away.” Robbins continued in this vein for three more pages, in a veritable tour de force on one of history’s most fascinating subjects.
Still Life With Woodpecker (1980)
If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.
This is the attention-grabbing first sentence of the Prologue to the book. A Prologue or Preface is generally a kind of Author’s Note to the reader, and, for the most part, is not generally regarded as a novel’s “opening line.” It’s rare for a Prologue to open so strikingly, but this one is a refreshing exception to the rule.
The official opening words of the novel—at the beginning of Chapter One—are also pretty special: “In the last quarter of the twentieth century, at a time when Western civilization was declining too rapidly for comfort and yet too slowly to be very exciting, much of the world sat on the edge of an increasingly expensive theater seat, waiting—with various combinations of dread, hope, and ennui—for something momentous to occur.”
A few years back, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a classic Dan Fogelberg song was inspired by this novel. Here’s how the singer-songwriter expressed the thought in an interview: “Make Love Stay was based on a book written by Tom Robbins called Still Life With Woodpecker. It was wonderful. His precept was the most difficult concept that man in the late twentieth century has to really wrestle with is to make love stay. I love that idea. I thought that was a great philosophical moment, so I just wrote some music, basically to his ideas.”
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976)
It is the finest outhouse in the Dakotas. It has to be.
This is the entire first paragraph—and it may be the only opening sentence in literary history to celebrate an outhouse. In the next paragraph, the narrator provides rich, back-up detail:
“Spiders, mice, cold drafts, splinters, corncobs, habitual stenches don’t make it in this company. The hands have renovated and decorated the privy themselves. Foam rubber, hanging flower pots, a couple of prints by Georgia O’Keefe (her cow skull period), fluffy carpeting, Sheetrock insulation, ashtrays, an incense burner, a fly strip, a photograph of Dale Evans about which there is some controversy. There is even a radio in the outhouse, although the only radio station in the area plays nothing but polkas.”
Jitterbug Perfume (1984)
The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
This metaphorical masterpiece is from “Today’s Special” which appears to be a kind of preface or prologue to the work. The narrator continued in a figurative frenzy:
“Slavic people get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their serious from beets.
“The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip… [ellipsis in original]
“The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized.”
The Great American Novel (1973)
Call me Schmitty.
Roths satirical look at America’s national pastime—which begins with a tip of the hat to the opening line of Moby Dick—is one of his least-known works, but he once said that no other novel was more fun to write. Much of what made it fun, in all likelihood, was coming up with the names of the characters. The narrator is a sportswriter named Word Smith (he is the Schmitty of the opening line) and other characters include Spit Baal and his father Base Baal.
Rita Rudner's Guide to Men (1994)
This is a guide to men. It's not that I've had much experience, or that I've done lots of research--it's just, they're not very hard to figure out.
Rudner continued with this parenthetical clarification: "(I forgot to mention, this is a guide to heterosexual men, because these are the men who give women the most trouble.)"
Naked Beneath My Clothes (1992)
An Introduction: I Was a Teenage, Pregnant, Alcoholic, Junkie Ninja Hooker.
Rudner continued: "Actually, I wasn't. I just wanted to get your attention. You have just learned the first lesson of show business. Embellish. Make everything about you bigger. (Except your nose. Make that smaller. Immediately.)"
“A Piece of Pie” (1937); reprinted in Runyon on Broadway (1950)
On Boylston Street, in the city of Boston, Mass., there is a joint where you can get as nice a broiled lobster as anybody ever slaps a lip over, and who is in there one evening partaking of this tidbit but a character by the name of Horse Thief and me.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Herman Axelrod, Ph.D., a retired Philadelphia public school teacher and former Penn State professor. Dr. Axelrod writes: “These opening words from one of my favorite Damon Runyon stories are, if you’ll pardon the expression, simply too delicious not to be included in your fine collection. The story is set in New York City’s Mindy’s restaurant, where a man and a woman in an eating contest attempt to finish off a twelve-course meal—a meal, by the way, that ends with a pumpkin pie that is three inches deep and two feet in diameter. Like so many Runyon tales, the story is filled with one-of-a-kind vernacular phrases (like ’as anybody ever slaps a lip over’) and ends with an unexpected and completely satisfying twist.“
J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
The opening words come from one of literary history’s most famous fictional characters, 13-year-old Holden Caulfield, and they demonstrate how important it is to immediately establish the voice of the narrator. He went on to add: “In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.”
In a 2012 article in The Guardian, Robert McCrum suggested that, in crafting Holden’s introductory words, Salinger might have been influenced by the opening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (see the Twain entry here).
Caulfield’s opening monologue has become such an integral part of pop culture that tweaks of it are instantly recognizable. Woody Allen fully realized this when he began his 2020 memoir Apropos of Nothing this way: “Like Holden, I don’t feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap, although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me.“
Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1928)
He came into the world in the middle of the thicket, in one of those little, hidden forest glades which seem to be entirely open, but are really screened in on all sides. There was very little room in it, scarcely enough for him and his mother.
With these words, the English-speaking world was introduced to a baby deer named Bambi (the book was originally published in Germany in 1923). In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “He stood there, swaying unsteadily on his thin legs and staring vaguely in front of him, with clouded eyes, which saw nothing. He hung his head, trembled a great deal, and was still completely stunned.”
Salten, an Austrian Jew, originally wrote the novel as an allegory about the persecution of the Jews in Europe, and it was no surprise when the book was banned in Nazi Germany in 1936. In 1942, the novel was adapted into the second feature-length animated film by Walt Disney productions (the first was Fantasia in 1940). The Disney film, which introduced the new characters Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk, was far lighter than the original novel, but it still retained some of the darkness of the original.
In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, when Stephen King was asked by Andy Greene what drew him to the horror elements that are featured so prominently in his novels, he replied: “It’s built in. That’s all. The first movie I ever saw was a horror movie. It was Bambi. When that little deer gets caught in a forest fire, I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated. I can’t explain it.”
Memoirs of a Professional Cad (1960)
On July 3, 1906, the world was at peace. Nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening in the capital cities of any of its countries. Nothing disturbed the summer lethargy of its population. Everywhere people dozed contentedly, unaware that an event of major importance was taking place in St. Petersburg, Russia. At number 6 Petroffski Ostroff, to Margaret and Henry Sanders, a son of dazzling beauty and infinite charm was being born. It was I.
“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,” in The Village Voice (August 27, 1996)
At a dinner party recently, a nice young political consultant rhapsodized to me about the portent of the millennium, in which he saw the dawn of, yes, a New Age. I wasn’t having it. I remarked that scholars now date the birth of Jesus to about 6 B.C., so the millennium passed already.
Schjeldahl continued: “Round numbers mean nothing, anyway, except when, as just happened to me, your Detroit clunker’s odometer rotates majestically from 99999.9 to all zeroes: prophecy of mounting repair bills.”
“Picasso and the Weeping Women,” in The Village Voice (July 20, 1994)
Did Pablo Picasso exist? It gets harder to believe. Think of him wielding pencil and pecker, astride a century. He rewired the world’s optic nerves and imagination.
In a long and distinguished career, Schjeldahl, longtime art critic for The New Yorker and The Village Voice became one of the most respected—and entertaining—voices in the history of criticism. He continued in the opening paragraph: “He clambered through life on a jungle-gym of female flesh. ‘I’m God! I’m God!’ he crowed occasionally to his umpteenth girlfriend Dora Maar in the late thirties. He was then still four decades short of receiving the universe’s riposte. It must have killed him to die.”
"The Gaudy Career of Jonas Cord Jr.," in The New York Times (June 25, 1961)
It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.
These were the devastating opening words of Schumach's review of Harold Robbins's 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers. He continued: "Ostensibly Harold Robbins' long novel is about the men and women in Hollywood, aviation, high finance. Actually it is an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex--and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder." In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner paid Schumacher the highest compliment when he cited this as one of the two most memorable opening lines in the history of the New York Times Book Review.
In his tribute, Garner wrote: "The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence. (Writing here a few years ago, Kinky Friedman began a review this way: 'There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.') This week, Tom Carson reviews a biography of the onetime best-seller page regular Harold Robbins. Reviewing Robbins's novel The Carpetbaggers in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in the Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: 'It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.' Not quite as fun as Kinky's opener, but it does get its point across."
Is This Anything? (2020)
“Is this anything?” is what every new comedian says to every other comedian about any new bit.
Ideas that come from nowhere and mean nothing.
But in the world of stand-up comedy, literal bars of gold.
“Fabulous Tuba Museum Opens in Durham. Womp!“ in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Feb. 22, 2016)
To the ears of a musical novice, the tuba ranks lowest in the family of instruments—an oafish cousin with a voice like a bullfrog. It lacks the flash of a saxophone, the brashness of a trumpet or the showiness of a piccolo—the melodic equivalent of a St. Bernard, warbling from the orchestra’s back row.
These were the opening words of Shaffer’s enthusiastic review of a unique new musical museum that had recently opened in Durham, NC. The full article contains other impressive rhetorical flourishes as well.
“Zebulon Now Boasts North America’s Only Crafter of Bagpipes,” in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Jan. 24, 2023)
The bagpipe occupies the strangest rung on the musical ladder, shaped like an octopus in plaid pants, sounding to some like a goose with its foot caught in an escalator and played during history’s most lopsided battles—by the losing side.
Shaffer has crafted some memorable opening paragraphs in his career—commonly referred to as ledes in the world of journalism—and two of them are unforgettable descriptions of musical instruments (the other one, also in this section, pertains to the tuba). In this article about Roddy MacLellan and “the only North American studio that makes, sells and teaches the Scottish national instrument,” Shaffer continued:
“Add to this the bagpipe’s cantankerous nature, fashioned from some of the world’s rarest wood, a combination of cracking pipes and leaking bags that strain all but the heartiest lungs.”
Florida Straits [Book 1 of Key West Capers series] (1992)
People go to Key West for lots of different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.
One Big Joke [Book 13 of the Key West Capers series] (2018)
“What is it with you lately?” said Marsha Gluck on what might or might not have turned out to be the last evening of her nine-year marriage to the then-unemployed comedy writer Lenny Sullivan.
Shot on Location [Book 9 of the Key West Capers series] (2013)
When the call came in, Jake Benson, ghostwriter extraordinaire, was pinching dead leaves from the last remaining basil plant on a windowsill of his Upper West Side apartment.
Tropical Depression [Book 4 of the Key West Capers series] (1996)
When Murray Zemelman, a.k.a. the Bra King, started up his car that morning, he had no clear idea whether he would go to work as usual, or sit there with the engine idling and the garage door tightly shut until he died.
Key West Normal [Book 16 of Key West Capers series] (2021)
Some folks say you can’t make this stuff up.
When I wrote to tell Shames how much I appreciated the opening line of his latest book, he wrote back: “Speaking as a sort of poor man’s postmodernist, the ambiguity pleases me. So, can you make it up, or can’t you? It’s a novel, so of course it’s made up. So why does the narrator pretend it isn’t? Why would anyone believe him? And who is the narrator anyway? In my mind, at least, so many possibilities come out of those ten syllables.”
In the novel, the narrator—a homeless man named Pineapple—continued: “Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried to make stuff up. I’ve never had to. Why would I? I live in Key West, Florida.”
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.”
Nacho Unleashed [Book 14 of the Key West Capers series] (2019)
So it was just another gorgeous day in Key West, sunny, mostly quiet though with a steady background hum of people doing stuff, having fun. Popping beer cans, revving scooter engines, singing along with the radio, that sort of thing. Harmless, goofy, peaceful stuff. No hint whatsoever that, before this day was over, it would turn into a life and death adventure of which I would be the unlikely hero. But we’ll get to that.
The narrator is Nacho, an aging Chihuahua and the pet dog of retired Mafioso, Bert the Shirt. Both have been staples in Shame’s Key West Capers series, but this is the first in which Nacho plays the prominent narrator role. He continued: “In the meantime, the weather, which is after all a big attraction: The humidity was pretty low for Florida, which is to say cars didn’t get wet just sitting there. As for the temperature, it was warm enough for the tourists to go practically naked at Smathers Beach, though it was actually a little cool for my taste; but then, I’m of Mexican descent, bred to hot places.”
At some point, I’ll be featuring this in a post on “20 of the Best Opening Lines from Animal Narrators and Protagonists.” If you’d like to nominate any candidates, let me know.
Relative Humidity (to be published Jan. 26, 2023)
Now and then, not often, life offers up a perfect moment, a moment when everything just fits together, almost as if there was a plan, as if the world had been designed to be at least an occasional Paradise for those who took the trouble to notice its ingenious construction, as if life would be a calm and peaceful pleasure if that moment just went on and on.
But of course it never does.
I’m a big fan of Laurence Shames and a great admirer of his opening lines. The opener of Relative Humidity, his most recent work, is like a combination punch in boxing—first the set-up, then the sting. When I asked Shames if there was a backstory behind the opener, he replied:
“I’ve always enjoyed playing around with the conventions of the mystery novel, turning them upside-down or inside-out whenever possible. In this opening, I wanted to do the complete opposite of the grab-the-reader-by-the-throat first beat. I wanted it to be as quiet as possible—though, of course, if the narrative stayed ‘calm and peaceful’ there would be no book, as every reader of commercial fiction already knows. So the zinger, while inevitable, is meant as a payoff for the reader’s patience and as reassurance that the mayhem will soon begin.”
A Gift of Laughter: The Autobiography of Allan Sherman (1965)
My life has been a wild ride, up-and-down, up-and-down. I have always been a yo-yo on a roller coaster, and if I never quite fell off—if I’ve been able to hang on and enjoy the ride this far—it is because God gave me one shining thing, a gift of laughter.
Sleep Till Noon (1950)
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life…
But first let me tell you a little about myself.
Opening lines that start off one way, and then quickly dart in another, completely unexpected direction are a staple of novel beginnings—and this one is perfectly executed.
This Laugh Is On Me: The Phil Silvers Story (1973; with Robert Saffron)
When I was eight I sang at a stag coming-out-of-jail party for a local hoodlum named Little Doggie. In the middle of my number, a man was shot dead at my feet.
It’s hard to imagine a better opening to a memoir from a famous funny man. In the book’s second paragraph, Silvers continued: “The Brownsville section of Brooklyn was a tough neighborhood in the 1920’s, so I didn’t think it was too strange. My first reaction was, is the program going to pay me my $3?
I said a silent prayer. Actually, silent is the only type of prayer a guy should attempt when his head’s in a toilet.
The opening words come from the novel’s 14-year-old narrator and protagonist, Ryan Dean West, who’s head is being shoved into a toilet by two bullies at his private boarding school. He continued: “And, in my prayer, I made sure to include specific thanks for the fact that the school year hadn’t started yet, so the porcelain was impeccably white—as soothing to the eye as freshly fallen snow—and the water smelled like lemons and a heated swimming pool in summertime, all rolled into one. Except it was a fucking toilet. And my head was in it.”
H. Allen Smith
Lost in the Horse Latitudes (1944)
This is the last chapter.
Smith was one of the most popular humorous writers of his era, and this was how he began Chapter One, titled “Concerning the Sex Life of Chickens.” He continued: “I have yanked it out of its proper place and installed it here at the beginning because it was written before any of the others; because the book is so disorganized that nobody would ever notice the difference; but chiefly because a great many people always read the last chapter of a book first, even in mystery series.”
100 Sideways Miles (2014)
Look: I do not know where I actually came from. I wonder, I suspect, but I do not know.
I am not the only one who sometimes thinks I came from the pages of a book my father wrote. Maybe it’s like that for all boys of a certain—or uncertain—age: We feel as though there are no choices we’d made through all those miles and miles behind us that hadn’t been scripted by our fathers, and that our futures are only a matter of flipping the next page that was written ahead of us.
I am not the only one who’s ever been trapped inside a book.
The narrator is Finn Easton, a sixteen-year-old epileptic with heterochromatic eyes (one blue, the other brown), a quirky philosophic perspective, and an ability to express himself in highly original and remarkably quotable ways. His mom died in a freak—and freaky—accident when he was seven, and his dad is a writer who wrote a sci-fi cult classic that featured an alien protagonist also named Finn.
100 Sideway Miles was nominated for a National Book Award, and was also selected as one of the best books of the year by National Public Radio, the American Library Association, and The New York Times Book Review).
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.”
H. Allen Smith
The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler (1977)
The picturesque and comfortable little town of Nyack snuggles up to the Hudson River at the point where it widens into the Tappan Zee. Nyack is on the west shore of the Hudson. Once widely acclaimed as the most beautiful river on earth, today the Hudson is only 9.2 percent water.
The two opening sentences are pretty standard stuff, but the third—with its tongue-in-cheek claim about the percentage of water in the Hudson River—immediately suggests that this will be no ordinary biography.
Smith continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Late of a blustery night, a good many years back, one of the citizens of Nyack came traveling up from Manhattan, a former scalawag newspaperman named Charlie MacArthur. Accompanying him to his home was an amiable reprobate, himself a veteran of the newspaper shops, a tall athletic handsome fellow called Gene Fowler. The two cavaliers had been hard at the swilling of grog for something like eight hours, and they were awash with all manner of liquid concoctions.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Bad Beginning, or, Orphans [Book 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
The narrator continued: “This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Reptile Room [Book 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
The stretch of road that leads out of the city, past Hazy Harbor and into the town of Tedia, is perhaps the most unpleasant in the world. It is called Lousy Lane.
The narrator continued: “Lousy Lane runs through fields that are a sickly gray color, in which a handful of scraggly trees produce apples so sour that one only has to look at them to feel ill. Lousy Lane traverses the Grim River, a body of water that is nine-tenths mud and that contains extremely unnerving fish, and it encircles a horseradish factory, so the entire area smells bitter and strong.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Austere Academy [Book 5 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (2000)
If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.
The narrator continued: “Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.”
In a New York Times review when the novel was published, Gregory Maguire wrote: “Had the gloom-haunted Edward Gorey found a way to have a love child with Dorothy Parker, their issue might well have been Lemony Snicket, the pseudonymous author of a multivolume family chronicle brought out under the genteel appellation A Series of Unfortunate Events. The scribe of the Baudelaire family misfortunes speaks morosely to his readers, promising that however cheery things may appear, in the end nothing will go well. Rewardingly, so far in five volumes, nothing has.“
“Postscript,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while.
So begins a brief article explaining the origins of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a 2008 essay originally published in TomDispatch.com. The original essay immediately struck a nerve in female readers, and when on to become enormously popular. Even though Solnit did not coin the term “mansplaining,” her essay inspired the term.
In her opening paragraph, Solnit continued: “My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other.”
Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
“I’ve read many books,” said Professor Mephesto, with an odd finality, wearily flattening his hands on the podium, addressing the seventy-six sophomores who sat in easy reverence, immortalizing his every phrase with their pads and pens, and now, as always, giving him the confidence to slowly, artfully dramatize his words, to pause, shrug, frown, gaze abstractly at the ceiling, allow a wan wistful smile to play at his lips, and repeat quietly, “many books . . .” [ellipsis in original]
In an unusual writing arrangement, Southern and Hoffenberg wrote the book in tandem, mailing the chapters back and forth to each other as they finished them. The end result was a delightful parody of both Pascal’s Candide and smutty American novels. The book was originally published in France in 1958 by Olympia Press, a popular publisher of smutty books. It was released to great acclaim in America in 1964, with William Styron calling it “a droll little sugarplum of a tale” in The New York Review of Books. Sixty years later, in a 2018 New York Times piece, Dwight Garner wrote that the book hadn’t become dated, even in the “Me, Too” era. He also offered this delightful assessment of the novel’s soaring quality: “Every sentence in Candy seems to have a little propeller on it.”
In the opening paragraph above, the authors captured the profound effect a rapt audience can have on a lecturing professor—or any kind of speaker, for that matter. The narrator went on: “A grave nod of his magnificent head, and he continued: ‘Yes, and in my time I’ve traveled widely. They say travel broadens one—and I’ve…no doubt that it does.’ Here he pretended to drop some of his lecture notes and, in retrieving them, showed his backside to the class, which laughed appreciatively.”
Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades (2021)
Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian. So is anger, aggression, and sadness.
This is the first sentence of Chapter One, nicely titled: “Disguised as a Normal Person.” Steinberg continued, “If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.”
Steinberg opens his book with an assertion that is widely believed in the world of show business—comedians may make people laugh, but it is not laughter that produces comedians, but rather a constellation of qualities on the other end of the spectrum from laughter.
You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (2002)
Perfect, gentle reader: I will not begin this book with a tribute to your discernment, because a person of your obvious accomplishments would certainly be immune to such blandishments. You would surely see through such transparent puffery and reject it out of hand. Someone with as much self-assurance and insight as you would not want any soft soap and sycophancy, but rather candor and direct truth.
Well, nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.
Stengel continued: “We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery.”
Man at the Helm (2014)
My sister and I and our little brother were born (in that order) into a very good situation and apart from the odd new thing life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel—a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.
This is an intriguing beginning to Stibbe’s debut novel, and the highly suggestive element at the end keeps us reading. As we move into the second paragraph, things quickly shift into a higher gear as the narrator—an engagingly precocious nine-year-old named Lizzie Vogel—says: “The following morning she took a pan of eggs from the lit stove and flung it over our father as he sat behind his paper at the breakfast table.”
After that, we’re off to the races in a highly acclaimed novel that was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. In a New York Times review, John Williams wrote: “Ms. Stibbe’s writerly charms and her sneakily deep observations about romantic connection are on display throughout.” He went on to add that the novel “is densely peppered with funny lines, but even more striking is the sustained energy of the writing. In almost all the space between jokes, there remains a witty atmosphere, a playful effect sentence by sentence.”
Repent, Lanny Merkel (1981)
Like innumerable other mid-life woman who suffer from insecurity, paranoia, grave misgivings, vague longings, and obvious shortcomings, I’m basically a happy person.
This magnificent opening sentence has been in my personal collection for more than two decades, and I’m delighted to finally have a way to share it with others. The opening words come from Laura Pomfret, a middle-aged Minnesota mother and housewife whose life is upended when she receives an invitation to her 25th high school reunion (she had never attended a previous one).
The invitation immediately triggers painful adolescent memories of boyfriend Lanny Merkel asking her “to return his letter sweater, class ring, identification bracelet, framed photograph, National Honor Society pin, and copy of From Here to Eternity with all the good parts underlined.” As Laura frets over whether or not to attend, she worries that many will still remember the fourteen “Repent, Lanny Merkel” signs she posted all around town on the night of her high school graduation.
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (2014)
Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
If you’re going to begin a book with a description of a person, it had better be a good one. This one starts off beautifully—and continues at the same high level for an entire 147-word first paragraph:
“Thick neck. Goatee. Hair trimmed tight on the sides and to a broomlike inch on top, having grown too thin to facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades. Big, calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt-force trauma, of which dozens resulted in his arrest. Self-applied four-dot tattoo on his left wrist, signifying his years as a guest of the state. A belly nourished by beer, whiskey, Rumple Minze, and buckets of both haute cuisine and Buffalo chicken wings—of the latter, seventy-two at one sitting—but ameliorated by excellent posture. He leads with this chest, shoulders thrown rearward, daring the world to take a swing at him.”
Swift’s tour de force of a first paragraph is followed by a few more of the same high quality, and they ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion. You’ll have to check it out on your own, though. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.
Atilla the Gate Agent (2007)
I once had an engagement in the town of Normal, Illinois. I was delighted to learn that a place called Normal actually existed, because I happen to live just a few miles from the town of Peculiar, Missouri. I don’t think it’s any accident of the universe that I live a lot closer to Peculiar than Normal.
When I’m asked, “Of the many different types of opening lines, is there one that is your favorite?“ I usually answer, “Yes, the ones that make me laugh.“ And when it comes to laugh-out-loud opening lines, I generally add that they are not restricted to history’s great humorous writers, like Mark Twain, James Thurber, Erma Bombeck, or Fran Lebowitz. This usually prompts a request for examples from lesser-known authors, and when it does, I generally mention this one from Tamblyn, a talented contemporary musician who describes himself as a “motivational humorist.“
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.”
William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848)
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place.
One of the great satires in literary history, Vanity Fair is framed as a puppet show in which the Manager of the Performance—think Thackeray—is able to look down on the performers and their actions. The opening line above comes from the Preface to the novel, where the narrator continued:
“There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy.”
Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
This is the opening line of one of the most epic beginnings in contemporary fiction. In the opening paragraph, the narrator—a Gonzo journalist named Raoul Duke—continued:
“I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’”
The writing is so crisp and clear that the scene is easy to imagine: a guy, totally high on drugs, is racing his open convertible at a super-high rate of speed down a long, straight Nevada highway when the hallucinogenic effects of the drug begin to really kick in. Just as we imagine the worst is about to happen, the narrator continues in the second paragraph:
“Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ’It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.“
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting opening to a novel. After two paragraphs, we are completely “in” for the rest of the ride. In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox hailed “The energy of this opening!“ After adding that “The prose is blasting off into space,“ Fox went on to write:
“Despite all the craziness of this opening, it really has a simple strategy: character building. This is the type of character who loves taking drugs, who drives a hundred miles an hour toward Vegas while on drugs, and who doesn’t even realize that he is the one shouting at the imaginary animals (the ‘voice’ is his own).“
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” The New Yorker (March 18, 1939)
“We’re going through!” The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye.
This now-legendary short story opens with a bang, but we will shortly learn that it is only a daydream of the mild-mannered Walter Mitty. Even though the scene is only in Mitty’s mind, it is filled with rich, bold detail. The daydream continues in full force for several more moments as Mitty—with his wife in the passenger seat—is driving his car on a Connecticut highway. The daydream is finally interrupted when Mrs. Mitty exclaims: “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast! What are you driving so fast for!”
“The Unicorn in the Garden,” in The New Yorker (Oct 31, 1939)
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden.
John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.
In this spectacular 162-word opening paragraph, the narrator begins by describing the unusual “look” of the novel’s 30-year-old protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. As he continues, he provides a illustration of one of Reilly’s quirkiest qualities: an overly-critical fascination with how people are dressed:
“Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”
Sadly, Toole was not alive to see his book published, appreciate the wonderful artistic renderings of his colorful character, or accept the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded to him posthumously. He died by his own hand in 1969, a full eleven years earlier. The book only came to be published after his mother found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in his apartment after his death, and then made it her mission to somehow bring it to publication. After years of rejection by publisher after publisher, she doggedly pestered author Walker Percy to take a look at it. He finally agreed, primarily to get her off his back. Once he began reading it, he enjoyed that first paragraph so much, he continued reading. The rest is history, and Percy tells that portion of the story in a moving Foreword to the book. If you haven’t read the novel—or Percy’s introductory words—I heartily recommend that you do so soon. You won’t regret it.
The title of Toole’s novel was inspired by an observation from Jonathan Swift in Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting (1711): “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” The Swift essay also begins with a great opening line, which you can see here.
“Chubby” (1998), in Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin(2011)
It’s common these days for memoirs of childhood to concentrate on some dark secret within the authors ostensibly happy family. It’s not just common; it’s pretty much mandatory.
In his opening paragraph, Trillin continued: “Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race. A memoir that reveals incest is trumped by one that reveals bestiality, and that, in turn, is driven from the bestseller list by one that reveals incestuous bestiality.”
“Nerds, Dorks, and Weenies” (1990), in Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin (2011)
The reason so many Hollywood movies are made about nerds in high school who triumph in some improbable way over the jocks is this: Nearly everybody who makes movies in Hollywood was himself a nerd in high school.
Trillin continued: “They weren’t called that, of course. The word changes all the time. But they know who they are. So do I. I keep track of these things. O even keep track of the current word for ‘nerd.’ I’m that sort of person.”
In his essay, Trillin ticked off a number of words that have been used to describes nerds over the years, including dork, weenie, dweeb, and the English term “wally.”
“Extracts From Adam’s Diary” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
Monday—This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals.
Because we know the title of the short story, we immediately deduce the identity of the new creature. And since Eve has been only recently created, there is no female pronoun for Adam to use. She is most certainly not a “he,“ so he uses the only available option: “It.“ And then, in what I regard as one of Twain’s most brilliant lines, Adam provides a hint about how his world is unalterably changing: “Cloudy today, wind in the east; think we shall have rain….We? Where did I get that word?—I remember now—the new creature uses it.”
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)
This is the year 1492. I am eighty-two years of age. The things I am going to tell you about are things which I saw myself as a child and as a youth.
When the first installment of the novel was published in Harper’s Magazine in April of 1895, Twain feared that his reputation as a humorous writer might negatively influence readers, so he presented the work as a translation (by a Frenchman named Jean Francois Alden) of the memoirs of Louis de Conte, a fictionalized version of Joan of Arc’s real page, Louis de Contes.
Twain’s authorship became quickly known, however, and he was formally identified as the author when Harper and Brothers published the book in 1896. In the novel, the narrator continued:
“In all the songs and histories of Joan of Arc which you and the rest of the world read and sing and study in the books wrought in the late invented art of printing, mention is made of me, the Sieur Louis de Conte. I was her page and secretary. I was with her from the beginning until the end.”
“Confessions of a Wild Bore,” in Assorted Prose (1965)
Pity the poor bore. He stands among us as a creature formidable and familiar yet in essence unknowable. We can read of the ten infallible signs whereby he may be recognized and of the seven tested methods whereby he may be rebuffed.
In an essay that is now regarded as a masterpiece of parody, Updike introduced his subject with an inspired tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph. He continued with a brilliant piece of writing that embedded one of his most quotable observations (it’s at the conclusion of the paragraph, and I’ve put it into italics so you can locate it more readily):
“Valuable monographs exist upon his dress and diet; the study of his mating habits and migrational routes is well past the speculative stage; and statistical studies abound. One out of three hundred and twelve Americans is a bore, for instance, and a healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”
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 Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan 7, 1962)
A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.
Some opening sentences are so eloquently expressed they cause the reader to stop reading for just a moment to appreciate the beauty of the construction. This is one of those gems.
Necessary Losses (1986)
We begin life with a loss. We are cast from the womb without an apartment, a charge plate, a job or a car.
In a castle of Westphalia, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, lived a youth, whom nature had endowed with the most gentle manners.
In Volraire’s most famous novel, the narrator continued: “His countenance was a true picture of his soul. He combined a true judgment with simplicity of spirit, which was the reason, I apprehend, of his being called Candide.”
God Bless You Mr. Rosewater (1965)
A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
Having written “The End” to this story of my life, I find it prudent to scamper back here to before the beginning, to my front door, so to speak, and to make this apology to arriving guests: “I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen.”
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.”
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.”
Living in the Present (1953)
The moment he decided to commit suicide, Edgar began to live in the present. It was, for him, a novel sensation.
In this almost-forgotten comedy of manners, not published in America until 1960, the protagonist is Edgar Banks, a depressed English schoolmaster who also decides to murder some totally worthless person along the way (his first choice is a bungling neo-Nazi named Rollo Philipson-Smith). A New York Times review by Robert O. Bowen said of the novel: “The plot is a pseudo-picaresque chase in which the hero dashes about the Continent trying to stage his murder-suicide. Each attempt is thwarted by some comic situation, and most often the situation involves social satire of a lively if unoriginal sort.”
In the novel, the narrator followed his oxymoronic opening line this way: “Always, during the twenty-nine years he had lived, there had been some menacing tomorrow, some nagging yesterday, which between them had contrived to smother today, to render it haggard and pock-marked with worry. But from this moment, seven o’clock on the evening of February 7th, all that was over. He had decided. No more tomorrows, during the brief time that remained to him; and yesterday, deprived of its all-powerful ally, would be insignificant.”
Going All the Way (1970)
When the two soldiers boarded the train at St. Louis they caught one another’s eyes for a moment in a mutually questioning gaze that broke off teasingly short of recognition, like a dream not quite recalled.
Sometimes, the best way to entice readers is to “wow” them with a piece of extraordinary writing. When I first came across this beautifully phrased passage, I read it silently to myself three or four times, savoring it before reading on. As Wakefield continued, the exceptional quality of the writing continued as well:
“The short, boyish-looking soldier moved away into the crowd, his apple cheeks burning brighter, as if they had just been shined, and he climbed in a coach farther down. Something about the face of that other soldier he had seen hinted of the past, and that was precisely what the young man wished to avoid on this of all days, which he felt marked the start of a whole new part of his life—the ‘real part,’ he hoped.”
Wakefield’s heavily autobiographical novel was adapted into a popular 1997 film by the same title, with Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons playing the two soldiers.
Starting Over (1973)
Potter was lucky; everyone told him so.
“You’re lucky,” they said, “that you didn’t have any children.”
Divorce wasn’t any bowl of cherries, of course, but as long as there weren’t any children involved it wasn’t an irreparable damage, like the sundering of a full-blown family. Just the busted dream of a couple of consenting adults. When Potter met new people and the subject of his recent divorce came up, he was congratulated so often for not having any children, he was tempted to start passing out cigars in celebration, saying heartily, “It wasn’t a boy—or a girl!”
In Wakefield’s comic exploration of sexual mores in the late 1960s, the opening paragraphs introduce Phil Potter, a recently divorced man who isn’t exactly finding it easy to start over after his marriage falls apart. In 1979, the novel was adapted into a popular film, with Burt Reynolds as Potter, Candice Bergan as his former wife Jessica, and Jill Clayburgh as the woman who ultimately becomes his second wife.
The very first sentence above is also the novel’s final sentence, leading Nancy Kress to write in Beginnings, Middles & Ends (1993): “The first paragraph congratulates Phil Potter on his divorce; the last, on his remarriage. By using the same wording for two opposite events, author Wakefield slyly points up [sic] that Potter has learned nothing, grown not at all from his experiences. He has only come first circle.”
Robert Penn Warren
A Place to Come To (1977)
I was the only boy, or girl either, in the public school of Dugton, Claxford County, Alabama, whose father had ever got killed in the middle of the night standing up in the front of his wagon to piss on the hindquarters of one of a span of mules and, being drunk, pitching forward on his head, still hanging on to his dong, and hitting the pike in such a position and condition that both the left front and the left rear wheels of the wagon rolled, with perfect precision, over his unconscious neck, his having passed out being, no doubt, the reason he took the fatal plunge in the first place. Throughout, he was still holding on to his dong.
I still recall—quite vividly, in fact—reading this opening paragraph when I was in college many decades ago, and thinking, “I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy this novel.” The narrator and protagonist is Jed Tewksbury, a world-renowned literary scholar who was born dirt-poor in rural Alabama. Jed opens with a vivid description of an event that has become something close to folklore in Claxford County.
In Lonelier Than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000), biographer Randy Hendricks described this first paragraph—comprised of two sentences, the first one ninety-six words long—as “one of the most interesting in contemporary fiction.” He added: “The novel’s opening suggests that Jed has reached something akin to a stand-up comic’s distance from his source material.”
Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery (1901)
I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I began reading this classic American autobiography, but one of the last would’ve been a wry display of humor. By beginning with a touch of levity, Washington sent a clear message to readers that, despite the many sordid details of his early life, he was going to do everything he could to make his autobiography an enjoyable read.
During his lifetime, Washington never knew anything about the circumstances of his birth. He did not know the day, month, or year of his birth; and nor did he know that has mother had been impregnated by a white man from a neighboring plantation. After his death in 1915, evidence emerged that he was born on April 5, 1856.
You might also find it interesting that, in composing his opening words, Washington was almost certainly inspired by the opening of another famous autobiography by a black man: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).
“The Gentle Wit of Robert Benchley,” in American Heritage magazine (Nov./Dec., 2021)
Comedians yammer on and on, but humorists are a somber bunch.
Watson, a noted American writer/biographer/historian and senior editor at American Heritage, continued with words almost guaranteed to get readers to stay glued to the page: “Though funny in print, their party personas tend to brooding. Their lives are often a mess. You don’t have to be Freud to see that sorrow is the soul of wit. But meet Robert Benchley.”
Lonelyheart 4122 [Book 4 of the Inspector Furbright Mysteries] (1967)
Arthur Henry Spain, butcher, of Harlow Place, Flaxborough, awoke one morning from a dream in which he had been asking all his customers how to spell “phlegm” and thought, quite inconsequentially: I haven’t seen anything of Lilian lately.
A popular technique in the world of Great Opening Lines is to begin with a strange or unusual juxtaposition, and this is a particularly fine example. In a New York Times review, writer and critic Anthony Boucher described Watson as “a fine maverick talent.“ The opening line above is consistent with another thing Boucher admired about the British detective writer’s work: “Mr. Watson writes lightly and skillfully, and has an unforgivably sharp eye for the ridiculous.”
Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (2010)
In the fall of 1963, America was suffused with an unbearable whiteness of being.
It’s rare for a serious work of history to begin with a dash of wordplay, but Watson’s opening sentence does exactly that—cleverly playing off the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If I read the meaning of the opening line correctly, I believe Watson was making a subtle, but extremely important point: when a racially diverse society gives overwhelming power and authority to only its white members, the result can be summarized in a single word: unbearable.
In his opening paragraph, Watson went on to describe America in the fall of 1963: its unprecedented prosperity, its handsome young president, its Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, its massive cars with flamboyant fins and taillights, and the fact that ninety-nine percent of homes had TVs, almost all of them black and white. About the offerings of the seven channels then available for viewing, Watson wrote: “Not a single program showed a dark face in any but the most subservient role.” He then ended the opening paragraph this way: “In the halls of Congress and in city halls across the nation, all but a few politicians were as white as the ballots that elected them. Yet, from this ivory tower, the future could be spotted.”
In a recent personal communication, Watson wrote to me: “My editor didn’t like the opening line, thinking people wouldn’t get the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ reference, but I stuck to it.” And I’m glad he did.
A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography (1964)
Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.
Words of Advice (1977)
We all have friends who are richer than ourselves, and they, you may be sure, have richer friends of their own. We are most of us within spitting distance of millionaires.
Spit away—if that’s what you feel like.
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
Written decades before the arrival of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, this opening line—and especially the tantalizing phrase at his desk—has been a favorite of black comedy fans since it first appeared in the early years of the Great Depression. After the book was published, Miss Lonelyhearts became a generic term for writers of advice columns.
In Phrases and Sayings (1995), Nigel Rees also reports that the term “lonelyhearts column” was once commonly used to describe what we now call “personal ads” in English newspapers and magazines.
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Somebody Owes Me Money (1969)
I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent.
This opening line—one of Westlake’s most famous—comes from Chester “Chet” Conway, a larger-than-life New York City cab driver with a weakness for playing the ponies. He continued: “That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974)
Sometimes I think I’m good and sometimes I think I’m bad. I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know what stance to take.
The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was, “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.“
“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont. “With an umlaut,” I explained.
In a 2018 review of a reissue of the book published under the Hard Case Crime imprint, Levi Stahl wrote of this opening: “Four sentences in, and Westlake is saying: I want to be clear about the kind of book this is. I intend to make you laugh, and I will even do it with a joke like this if it seems like that’s what’s needed.”
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Two Much! (1975)
It all began innocently enough; I wanted to get laid.
This is an absolute gem of an opening line. It comes from Art Dodge, a principle-challenged single guy who is (1) secretly sleeping with his best friend’s wife and (2) more than willing to lie to women if it will get him what he wants. And therein lies the plot of the story, which begins to unfold when he meets Liz Kerner, a beautiful girl who just happens to have an identical twin sister.
In the novel’s first paragraph, Art continued: “So when Candy and Ralph said we were invited to a party over in Dunewood I said fine, wait while I change. Ralph said, ‘There’ll be some singles there,’ and Candy stuck her tongue out at me behind Ralph’s back.’”
The first sentence of Two Much! has held an honored place in my personal collection for more than four decades—ever since a good friend handed me a copy of the book and, with a wide grin on his face said, “I believe I’ve just discovered the words I’m going to have inscribed on my epitaph.”
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014)
I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.
When novelists write non-fiction works, they often bring a certain flair that is both refreshing and enjoyable—and we clearly see that in this brilliant opening line. In 2011, Whitehead was given what many writers would consider the assignment of a lifetime—a $10,000 stake from the sports website Grantland.com to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Even though Whitehead viewed himself as “one of the most unqualified players in the history of the big game,” he eagerly accepted. After all, he was a MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient, and all he had to do was write about the experience.
The result was The Noble Hustle (2014), a hugely entertaining book that critics couldn’t stop raving about. In a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rathe Miller said he was completely hooked by the first sentence. “He had me at ‘half dead’,” wrote Rathe, adding: “From the first sentence to the last, Colson Whitehead never stops being clever—and never stops kvetching.” He went on to add, “If Whitehead played poker as well as he writes, he would have made the final table.”
In his opening paragraph, Whitehead continued: “My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.”
Seven Days in June (2021)
In the year of our Lord 2019, thirty-two-year-old Eva Mercy nearly choked to death on a piece of gum. She’d been attempting to masturbate when the gum lodged in her throat, cutting off her air supply.
I knew nothing about this book—or the author—when I first picked it up, but after these two sentences, I immediately thought to myself, “I believe I’ve just read the best opening lines of the year.” Even though I was eager to continue reading, I decided to read the opening words to myself a few more times, just to savor their delicacy.
After a spectacular hook like this one, many first paragraphs loose a bit of steam, and even loose some readers in the process. Not so here. Things only got better as I continued reading: “As she slowly blacked out, she kept imagining her daughter, Audre, finding her flailing about in Christmas jammies while clutching a tube of strawberry lube and a dildo called the Quarterback (which vibrated at a much higher frequency than advertised—gum-choking frequency). The obituary headline would be ‘Death by Dildo.’ Hell of a legacy to leave her orphaned twelve-year-old.”
Williams’s entire opening paragraph was so sensational that I included it in a list of “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021” (an end-of-year post on Smerconish.com)
P. G. Wodehouse
The Return of Jeeves (1953)
The waiter, who had slipped out to make a quick telephone call, came back into the coffee-room of the Goose and Gherkin wearing the starry-eyed look of a man who has just learned he has backed a long-priced winner.
P. G. Wodehouse
The Heart of a Goof (1926)
It was a morning when all nature shouted “Fore!”
The narrator continued: “The breeze, as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip-shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat. The fairway, as yet unscarred by the irons of a thousand dubs, smiled greenly up at the azure sky; and the sun, peeping above the trees, looked like a giant golf-ball perfectly lofted by the mashie of some unseen god and about to drop dead by the pin of the eighteenth.”
P. G. Wodehouse
The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.
Writer and critic Robert McCrum hailed this as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction” in a 2012 article in The Guardian. About the line, he wrote: “A classic English comic opening, perfectly constructed to deliver the joke in the final phrase, this virtuoso line also illustrates its author’s uncanny ear for the music of English.”
The Coyotes of Carthage (2020)
Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet.
In his debut novel, Wright, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, gets off to an intriguing in media res beginning. From the outset, there is a clear suggestion that the narrator, a black political operative named Andre Ross, has more than just a passing familiarity with the art of pickpocketing.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning—two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills.”
The Coyotes of Carthage was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The novel was described as “riveting” by the Washington Post, and John Grisham welcomed Wright as “a major new voice in the world of political thrillers.”
The 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.”