Genre: Young Adult (YA) Fiction
Dare Me (2012)
After a game, it takes a half-hour under the shower head to get all the hairspray out. To peel off all the sequins. To dig out that last bobby pin nestled deep in your hair.
The narrator is 16-year-old Addy Hanlon, a high school cheerleader who describes herself as having “hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band.“ She continued: “Sometimes you stand under the hot gush for so long, looking at your body, counting every bruise. Touching every tender place. Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.“
American Dervish (2012)
I remember it all with a vividness that marks the moment as the watershed it would be.
The “it” was the moment protagonist Hayat Shah had his very first taste of pork (the son of Pakistani immigrants, he was at a college basketball game with friends when a food vendor mistakenly gave him a bratwurst instead of the beef hot dog he ordered). That bite set in motion a series of life-altering decisions that went on to change everything for Shah in this coming-of-age tale set in 1980s Wisconsin.
A Place to Hang the Moon (2021)
Funeral receptions can be tough spots to find enjoyment, but eleven-year-old Edmund Pearce was doing his best.
In her debut novel, Albus had her narrator continue: “He was intent on the iced buns. Some of them had gone squashy on one side or the other, some had lost their icing when a neighboring bun had been removed, and a few had been sadly neglected in the icing department from the start.”
As the opening paragraph continued, the narrator neatly captured additional age-appropriate behavior for an eleven-year-old boy: “Undaunted, Edmund picked through the pile, finding two that met with his approval. He shoved one into each of his trouser pockets and, scooping up a handful of custard cream cookies to round out the meal, navigated through the crowd until he found a vacant armchair. There he settled, quite content despite the occasion. It helped that he’d never cared much for his grandmother, anyway.”
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (1868)
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,“ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!“ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,“ added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother, and each other,“ said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The first four lines of Alcott’s debut novel introduce us to all four March sisters—and provide a glimpse of what we are to learn about each of them as the story unfolds.
Louisa May Alcott
Eight Cousins: or The Aunt-Hill (1875)
Rose sat all alone in the big best parlor, with her little handkerchief laid ready to catch the first tear, for she was thinking of her troubles, and a shower was expected.
This has long been one of my favorite opening lines—mainly because it is such a fabulous metaphor. Over the years, whenever the subject of someone’s potential crying comes up, I’ve been inclined to say, “To piggyback on a line from Louisa May Alcott, ‘A shower is expected.’”
Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
I've been called Bone all my life, but my name's Ruth Anne.
My family has always been into death.
The opening words of this modern American classic come from Ginny Babcock, a teenage girl growing up in a privileged white family in Tennessee. She continued: “My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placemat at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat. Even now, by running my index fingers along my collarbones to the indentation where the bones join, I can locate the optimal site for a tracheal puncture with the same deftness as a junky a vein.”
In a Time magazine review, Paul Gray described the book as “abundantly entertaining,” and wrote about it: “The novel proves again—if any doubters still remain—that women can write about physical functions just as frankly and, when the genes move them, as raunchily as men. It strikes a blow for the picara by putting a heroine through the same paces that once animated a Tom Jones or a Holden Caulfield. And it suggests that life seen from what was once called the distaff side suspiciously resembles the genitalia-centered existence that male novelists have so long monopolized. The organs are different; the scoring is the same.” [In his review, Gray’s unusual use of the word picara was a reference to the lovable rogues featured in picaresque novels]
The Rachel Papers (1973)
My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me.
Readers who take the bait in the opening sentence are quickly reeled in as the narrator continues: “It’s such a rangy, well-traveled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. I wear glasses for a start, have done since I was nine. And my medium-length, arseless waistless figure, corrugated rib-cage and bandy legs gang up to dispel any hint of aplomb.“
V. C. Andrews
Flowers in the Attic (1979)
It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator is 12-year-old Cathy Dollanganger, who was only twelve years old when her mother forced her and her three siblings to live secretly in the attic of their grandparents’ home.
In the opening paragraph, Cathy continued: “And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic.“
Tuck Everlasting (1975)
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. The narrator continued ominously: “It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightning, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.”
In a 2016 blog post on “What Makes a Great First Line,” literary agent Amanda Luedeke wrote: “The first line from Tuck Everlasting ...doesn’t do much in the way of drawing the reader into the action–it actually goes out of its way to describe a notable lack of activity–but it serves as an example of another effective function of an opening sentence: laying a foundation.”
Luedeke went on to write that “Babbitt paints a quick picture of a certain time of year, evoking the weather (probably hot) and the pace of life (slow) at the moment the story opens, and we absorb these details and are primed to interpret the characters and events to come...without her having to explain everything...right up front.”
National Velvet (1935)
Unearthly humps of land curved into the darkening sky like the backs of browsing pigs, like the rumps of elephants.
The narrator continued: “At night when the stars rose over them they looked like a starlit herd of divine pigs. The villagers called them Hullocks.“
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 ooening 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.’“
James M. Barrie
Peter and Wendy (1911)
All children, except one, grow up.
The son of a weaver, Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh before moving to London in 1885 to pursue a writing career. In 1897, he befriended Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a London couple with three young sons, George, John, and Peter (they ultimately added two more boys to the mix). Barrie loved playing with the boys, and regaled them with many fanciful stories, including one in which Peter was a bird before he was born and, after his birth, retained the ability to fly.
In 1902, Barrie introduced the character of Peter Pan in his novel The Little White Bird, but it was only a minor role, and Peter never advanced beyond infancy. Two years later, he developed Peter into the character we all know today for the 1904 London stage production, “Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.“ The play was a spectacular success, and catapulted Barrie into worldwide celebrity.
In 1911, Peter Pan was already one of the world’s most famous fictional characters when Barrie extended the stage play into a full-blown novel titled Peter and Wendy. The novel’s opening line is now regarded as a classic in world literature. What is less well known, though, is how Barrie continued the first paragraph:
“They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.”
L. Frank Baum
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cooking stove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner.
The opening words introduce us to the young, female protagonist, but provide no information about why she is living with relatives. They also provide a hint about what is to come: “There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap-door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.“
The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
In the novel, the protagonist continued in the first paragraph: “But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.“
As soon as it was published, this picaresque novel—Bellow’s third—was being recognized by fellow writers as something special. Delmore Schwartz hailed it as “a new kind of book.“ Martin Amis paid it the highest compliment of all: “The Great American Novel. Search no further.“ By the end of the year, the novel was almost a no-brainer to win the 1954 National Book Award for Fiction, and it put the author on a clear path that would ultimately lead to the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a 2005 NPR essay, literary critic Alan Cheuse ranked the opening sentence right up there with the first sentences of Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since those two works, Cheuse wrote, “no one but Bellow has fashioned an opening as memorable and as powerful and as important.“ He continued his rave with a memorable metaphor: “This line that sprung open the padlock of American art language by using the pick of free-style diction. This line that announced that American writers didn’t have to glove their knuckles anymore when they knocked at the door.“
Girl Gone Mad: A Novel (2020)
The girl cut herself.
With a knife, most likely—with a paring knife or steak knife pilfered from the kitchen when her parents weren’t around—or maybe she used a pair of scissors already in her bedroom, opening them up and then pressing the tip of one of the blades against her skin.
The opening words come from Emily Bennett, a 28-year-old Pennsylvania therapist who works with troubled teen and pre-teen girls—and herself a former troubled middle school girl whose past is about to be resurrected.
In her opening words, Bennett continued: “It was one of the things I would eventually get to, but not today. Today was the girl’s first appointment. An intake, really. All I had was the referral that she had been sent from the psychiatric inpatient facility where she’d been for eight days.”
Rita Mae Brown
Alma Mater (2001)
If knowledge were acquired by carrying books around, I’d be the sharpest tool in the shed, Vic thought as she carted the last load up three flights of stairs on a hot summer day.
The opening words come from Victoria “Vic” Savedge, a striking, six-foot-tall, raven-haired beauty beginning her senior year at William & Mary College. As the novel begins, she has no idea that her longtime plans to marry the scion of one of Virginia’s most prominent families will soon be upended when she meets a new transfer student from Vermont, a young woman named Chris.
A boy and girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.
With these simple—but highly evocative—words, we are introduced to Gemma Brogan and David “Tar” Lawson, both fourteen years old and on the verge of escaping their highly dysfunctional home environments. Little do they know at this point of their journey that an even more dismal future awaits.
Burgess’s dark and gritty tale about teenage drug addiction went on to win the 1996 Carnegie Medal, awarded annually by England’s Library Association for the outstanding children’s book by a British writer. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, Junk was named one of the Top Ten winners of the award. In 1997, the book was published in America under the title Smack, yet another slang term for heroin.
When the novel came out in a 25th Anniversary edition in 2021, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare wrote about it: “Melvin Burgess’s ground-breaking Junk remains the best book about teenagers and drugs to this day.”
For Kings and Planets (1998)
Years later, Orno Tarcher would think of his days in New York as a seduction.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “A seduction and a near miss, a time when his memory of the world around him—the shining stone stairwells, the taxicabs, the sea of nighttime lights—was glinting and of heroic proportion. Like a dream. He had almost been taken away from himself. That was the feeling he had, looking back.”
Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game (2010)
I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.
In a 2016 Guardian article on the best opening lines in children’s and young adult fiction (“Hook, Line, and Sinker”), Ciara Murphy wrote about this line: “Rarely do we start novels already rooting for a character from the very first sentence, but Orson Scott Card makes sure we do just that by immediately introducing us to ‘the one’. This line, from an unnamed narrator, describes a protagonist who we will shortly discover is named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,“ thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?“
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.
The narrator and protagonist of this coming-of age novel is 21-year-old Art Bechstein, the son of a mob money launderer who wants his son to pursue a legitimate career. Bechstein continued: “We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill-will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”
In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox wrote: “Talk about using a character to entice the reader. You just mention ‘gangster’ and everyone is all ears. And the emotional landscape of the son, and of his relationship to his father, is exceptionally clear. Consider how much information is packed into this single paragraph.”
Chabon was twenty-one and in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh when he began writing the novel. He continued work on it when he was accepted into the two-year Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine. Chabon used the novel as his thesis for an M.A. degree, awarded in 1987. One of his thesis advisors was UC-I professor Donald Heiney, who had written more than a dozen novels under the pen name of MacDonald Harris. Chabon’s professor was so impressed with the novel that he immediately passed it on to his agent. A year later, the book was published by William Morrow, became a surprise bestseller, and launched an extraordinary literary career for Chabon.
Trust Exercise (2019)
Neither can drive. David turns sixteen the following March, Sarah the following April. It is early July, neither one within sight of sixteen, and the keys to a car.
The opening paragraph ends on an ominous note, which is a time-honored way to begin a novel. From the outset, Choi's novel was hailed by critics, and it ultimately won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.
My Education: A Novel (2013)
Since arriving the previous week, I’d kept hearing about a notorious person, and now as I entered the packed lecture hall my gaze caught on a highly conspicuous man. That’s him, I declared inwardly, which of course was absurd.
The narrator is Regina Gottlieb, a twenty-one-year old woman who is beginning her graduate studies at an elite East Coast university. She continued: “It was a vast university, of thousands of souls. There was no reason these two kinds of prominence—scandalous noteworthiness, and exceptional, even sinister, attractiveness—must belong to the same human being. Yet they had. The man was Nicholas Brodeur, though I knew it for sure only later.“
I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?
Katniss Everdeen begins Book 3 in The Hunger Games trilogy by surveying the complete destruction of her family home by the Capitol’s firebombs.
Catching Fire [Book 2 of The Hunger Games Trilogy] (2009)
I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor.
The book begins with a bleak situation beautifully described by protagonist Katniss Everdeen. She continued: “I should get up, move around, and work the stiffness from my limbs. But instead I sit, as motionless as the rock beneath me, while the dawn begins to lighten in the woods. I can’t fight the sun. I can only watch helplessly as it drags me into a day that I’ve been dreading for months.”
The Hunger Games (2008)
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.
The opening words come from sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, one of the modern era’s most popular literary heroines, thanks to the success of Collins’s blockbuster dystopian novel. She continued: “My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
“The reaping?“ we immediately think, and in that exact moment, Collins achieves the goal of all opening paragraphs—seducing the reader into her world.
Emily M. Danforth
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012)
The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.
With an opening sentence like this, readers immediately sense they’re in for quite a ride—and they won’t be disappointed. In Miles City, Montana in 1989, twelve-year-old Cameron Post is beginning to experience sexual feelings for other girls when her parents die in an automobile accident. Placed in the care of her grandmother and a deeply religious aunt, Cameron’s struggle for authenticity takes place in an environment with many obstacles, including “conversion therapy” for gay adolescents.
In a 2012 review in the Los Angeles Times, Susan Carpenter hailed Danforth as a “talented wordsmith,“ adding that she writes with “impeccable phrasing but emotional and visual clarity, drilling down into individual moments and dwelling there in slow motion to help readers experience Cameron’s hopes and fears.“
In 2018, the film was adapted into a film, starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role. At the Sundance Film Festival, it was awarded the U. S. Grand Jury Prize, the film festival’s highest award.
David Copperfield (1849)
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
I’ve long admired this opening and recently came across a 2020 Book Riot post from blogger Kathleen Keenan (“City Girl with a Twist”) that perfectly summarized my own feelings: “Whatever you think of Dickens as a writer, he knew how to establish a mood immediately.”
In the novel, generally regarded as the most autobiographical of Dickens’s works, the title character continued: “To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at midnight. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”
Killing Mr. Griffin (1978)
It was a wild, windy, southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them.
When the chilling idea of killing someone is so matter-of-factly expressed, it has a jarring quality—but also a compelling one. Duncan was a pioneering figure in what eventually became known as YA (Young Adult) fiction, and a number of her works, including Killing Mr. Griffin, I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), and Summer of Fear (1976) were adapted into popular films aimed at a teen audience.
In a New York Times review (“Teaching Teacher a Lesson”), writer Richard Peck wrote about the Mr. Griffin book: “Lois Duncan breaks some new ground in a novel without sex, drugs or black leather jackets. But the taboo she tampers with is far more potent and pervasive: the unleashed fury of the permissively reared against any assault on their egos and authority. A group of high school seniors kill an English teacher who dares trouble them with grades, homework and standards.”
Peck went on to add: “The value of the book lies in the twisted logic of the teenagers and how easily they can justify anything.”
Invisible Man (1952)
I am an invisible man.
This simple but powerful opening statement comes from an unnamed black male protagonist in his third year at an unnamed all-black college. Now regarded as one of modern literature’s most powerful opening lines, Ellison almost tossed his first draft in the wastepaper basket as soon as he first typed it. Reflecting on that exact moment in a 1979 essay, he said his first reaction was to view the line as “an assertion so outrageous and unrelated to anything I was trying to write that I snatched it from the machine and was about to destroy it.“ He added, “But then, rereading it, I became intrigued. And as I sat musing, the words began to sound with a familiar timbre of voice.“
When Ellison returned to his typewriter, he stayed with the opening line and had his protagonist continue: “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.“ The novel went on to win the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction.
The Lying Life of Adults (2020)
Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.
The narrator is 13-year-old Giovanna, an Italian adolescent who is recalling a long-ago event that continues to sting despite her father’s later apologetic explanation. She continued: “The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via Dan Giacomo dei Capri, in Rione Alto.”
The Grownup (2014)
I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.
These are among the most arresting opening lines I’ve ever read, but I don’t expect to see them appearing in too many Top Ten lists anytime soon. Originally published as a short story under the title “What Do You do?” it first appeared in Rogues, a 2014 anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. After winning the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Short Story, it was retitled and published as a stand-alone book in 2016.
The unnamed narrator, a sex worker in a massage parlor, has given so many hand jobs over the past three years that she has been forced to retire because of a somewhat predictable medical condition: carpal tunnel syndrome. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is not to overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over. Basically, it’s like a golf swing.”
Dark Places (2009)
I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.
The graphic and somewhat disturbing opening words come from Libby Day, the only survivor of the fictional Day family massacre in rural Kansas in 1985. From the outset, the book triggered memories of the real-life 1959 murder of the Clutter family, also in Kansas, and also described by a gifted writer.
A book review in London’s Daily Mail nicely captured the contrast: “Set in the bleak Midwest of America, this evocation of small-town life and dysfunctional people is every bit as horribly fascinating as Capote’s journalistic retelling of a real family massacre, In Cold Blood, which it eerily resembles.”
Gone Girl (2012)
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
I’d know her head anywhere.
The novel begins with an unusual set of reflections for a husband to have about his wife, but they are the thoughts of Nick Dunne about his wife Amy (about Nick’s somewhat bizarre meanderings, Barry Lancet wrote in a 2016 Criminalelement.com blog post: “The beginning of Gone Girl set the tone for a dark story about a dark marriage”).
What starts off as unusual moves in the direction of creepy as Nick continues: “And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?”
As the novel progresses, Amy disappears and—not surprisingly—an air of suspicion begins to hover around her husband. After the book was published, many believed Flynn was inspired by the 2002 murder of Laci Peterson in California. While admitting some parallels, Flynn said she had not relied on any true crime accounts. Flynn also went on to write the screenplay for the 2014 film adaptation of the novel, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
In the fall of 1960, when I was 16 and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.
In a 2012 New York Times review, Andre Dubus III wrote about this opening sentence: “This is an engaging voice: earnest without being morose; honest without being exhibitionistic; understated, humble and wise from years of trusting in questions more than in answers.”
The Princess Bride (1973)
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
This is a spectacular first sentence, and it’s easy to understand why it has piqued the curiosity of readers for nearly a half century. When readers encounter this oxymoronic opening for the first time, most quite naturally wonder, “How can a book become a favorite if one never reads it?” There is a satisfactory answer to that question, of course, and it has to do with reading a book oneself versus having someone else read the book to you.
As the novel unfolds, the distinction between fantasy and reality is blurred from the outset, with Goldman suggesting he is writing an abridgement of a classic European tale by a writer named S. Morganstern (the full title and subtitle is The Princess Bride: S. Morganstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the “Good Parts” Version). There is no such author, of course, and no classic book; it’s simply a literary conceit employed by Goldman in order to create a number of different ways the story could be interpreted and understood.
In 1987, Rob Reiner came out with a film adaptation that was only a modest success at the time, but is now regarded as a Hollywood classic (in 2016, it was added to the National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films”).
Perfect Tunes (2020)
When Laura was sixteen she wrote a perfect song.
The narrator continued: “It was the first song she’d ever written, so she didn’t understand how hard it was to write even an okay song, or how hard it was to make anything new, in general. She still thought, then, that making something was primarily a way to have fun.”
Looking for Alaska (2005)
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.
In his debut novel, Green spun a captivating coming-of-age tale featuring Miles Halter, a young man with a peculiar fascination with the last words of famous people (as in “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” from Rabelais).
In the opening paragraph, Miles continued: “Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years.”
The Fault is in Our Stars (2012)
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
The opening words come from 16-year-old Hazel Lancaster, who continued: “Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.
A review in The Manila Bulletin said about the author’s opening: “Just two paragraphs into the work, and he immediately wallops the readers with such an insightful observation delivered in such an unsentimental way that it’s hard not to shake your head in admiration.“
We soon learn that Hazel uses sarcasm and dark humor as a way of coping with her own diagnosis of terminal cancer (about which, she says, “thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs”). While attending the support group, she meets a fellow patient named Gus, and their unfolding story becomes totally engrossing. In a Time magazine review, Lev Grossman recalled Hazel’s observation that “Cancer books suck” to write that this particular cancer book “does not suck. In fact, it is damn near genius.”
The Captain and the Enemy (1988)
I am now in my twenty-second year and yet the only birthday which I can clearly distinguish among all the rest is my twelfth, for it was on that damp and misty day in September I met the Captain for the first time.
In Greene’s final novel, he crafts what may well be his very best beginning. The narrator, an Englishman named Victor Baxter, continued: “I can still remember the wetness of the gravel under my gym shoes in the school quad and how the blown leaves made the cloisters by the chapel slippery as I ran recklessly to escape from my enemies between one class and the next. I slithered and came to an abrupt halt while my pursuers went whistling away, because there in the middle of the quad stood our formidable headmaster talking to a tall man in a bowler hat, a rare sight already at that date, so that he looked a little like an actor in costume—an impression not so far wrong, for I never saw him in a bowler hat again. He carried a walking-stick over his shoulder at the slope like a soldier with a rifle. I had no idea who he might be, nor, of course, did I know how he had won me the previous night, or so he was to claim, in a backgammon game with my father.’’
In a New York Times review (titled “Father Lost Me in a Backgammon Game”), writer Brian Moore wrote: “The opening paragraph at once and magisterially upends us into Graham Greene’s universe.” Moore went on to add: “Won him? In a backgammon game? And who is this unlikely stranger who has come to claim his prize? In fewer than 20 pages we see the boy deftly abducted from his boarding school, introduced to the ways of a superb confidence man and taken, with his full consent, to live with Liza, a young woman who was once the mistress of the boy’s father. An author who can make us believe this scenario—and we do believe it—must be able to calibrate a precise balance between the unlikely and the plausible. But that, of course, is Graham Greene’s strength.”
The Four Winds (2021)
Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.
The exact nature of Elsa’s illness, the details of her dreams and fantasies, the specific novels that influenced her, and a number of other things as well, have not yet been revealed, but we’re eager to read on—and already rooting for the young, female protagonist.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator further stirred the pot by adding: “On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.”
S. E. Hinton
The Outsiders (1967)
When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.
In the world of Great Opening Lines, this is a modern classic. The narrator is 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, a Tulsa, Oklahoma “greaser” who is about to be attacked by members of a rival gang. Without giving away anything about the plot, The Outsiders is one of only a handful of novels in history in which the opening and closing lines are exactly the same.
The novel, which helped establish the YA (Young Adult) genre in American fiction, is now regarded as a modern classic. In 2019, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) included it on their list the 100 novels that have most “shaped our world.”
The novel was written by Susan Hinton while she was still in high school, but she was urged to publish it under the pen name S. E. Hinton to avoid the problem of female diminishment by male reviewers. She signed a book contract with Viking Press on her high school graduation day (and very shortly thereafter deposited the $1,000 advance they offered).
Practical Magic [Book 1 of The Practical Magic series] (1995)
For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.
This is the first sentence of an opening paragraph that extends a warm, almost irresistible, invitation to read on:
“If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was—lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, of science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame.”
The Book of Magic [Book 3 of The Practical Magic series] (2021)
Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end, but all the best stories begin in a library.
In a New York Times review, Joanne Ramos wrote: “So opens The Book of Magic, the final installment of Alice Hoffman’s popular Practical Magic series, a page-turning fairy tale of a saga that spans three books, one star-studded movie adaptation and multiple centuries of adventure and misadventure, love lost and found and bottomless cauldrons of sorcery in the lives of the bewitchingly witchy Owens family.”
The opening line warmed my heart, and I believe it will be similarly experienced by friends of libraries everywhere. In the novel’s opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “It was there that Jet Owens saw her fate in a mirror behind the reference desk. Even in her eighties, Jet was still beautiful. Each day she washed with the black soap the family prepared in March during the dark phase of the moon, with every bar then wrapped in crinkly cellophane. Jet had no aches or pains and had never been ill a day in her life, but fate is fate and it can often be what you least expect it to be. On this day, when the daffodils had begun to bloom, Jet saw that she had seven days to live.”
Island of the Aunts (originally published in England under the title Monster Mission) (1999)
Kidnapping children is never a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.
This is yet another example of a novel for children treating a serious crime in a sensible or almost commendable way. In the novel, the narrator continued: “Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old, and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people.” The novel was named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2000.
In One Person (2012)
I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.
The narrator and protagonist, a bisexual novelist named Billy Abbott, continued: “We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”
The World According to Garp (1978)
Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater. This was shortly after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and people were being tolerant of soldiers, because suddenly everyone was a soldier, but Jenny Fields was quite firm in her intolerance of the behavior of men in general and soldiers in particular.
The narrator continued: “In the movie theater she had to move three times, but each time the soldier moved closer to her until she was sitting against the musty wall, her view of the newsreel almost blocked by some silly colonnade, and she resolved she would not get up and move again. The soldier moved once more and sat beside her.”
The novel begins with a description of a feisty woman standing up to a rape attempt. In an Introduction to a 40th anniversary edition of the book in 2018, Irving wrote: “The World According to Garp was always a feminist novel, but in the passage of time I’ve become more of a feminist. Why? Because the inequalities and discrimination women faced in the start-up days of the women’s movement haven’t gone away…. Garp is a political novel, and the politics of sexual intolerance and suppression haven’t gone away.” The novel was Irving’s first bestseller, and the first to be translated into other languages. It went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Paperback General Fiction.
Last Night in Twisted River (2009)
The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.
From the very first sentenced, the reader is thrust into a dramatic and dangerous scene. The technical term for this is in media res (Latin for “into the middle of things”), and Irving demonstrates great skill at employing the device.
In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “One of the loggers had reached for the youth’s long hair—the older man’s fingers groped around in the frigid water, which was thick, almost soupy with the sloughed-off slabs of bark. Then two logs collided hard on the would-be rescuer’s arm, breaking his wrist. The carpet of moving logs had completely closed over the young Canadian, who never surfaced; not even a hand or one of his boots broke out of the brown water.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
These powerful opening words come from narrator John Wheelwright, who, along with his best friend Owen Meany, grew up in a small New Hampshire town in the 1950s. John described Owen as remarkable young man who saw himself as God’s instrument on earth, and as fulfilling a role that had been prophesied for him. The novel is generally regarded as an homage to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Grass, along with Charles Dickens, was an enormous influence on the adolescent Irving, and it can hardly be a coincidence that Owen Meany has the same initials as The Tin Drum’s protagonist, Oskar Matzerath. In a 2007 New York Times article (“A Soldier Once”), Irving formally acknowledged that the Meany book was written in “homage” to Grass.
In a 2019 Book Chase blog post, reviewer Sam Sattler identified his three favorite opening paragraphs, this one from Owen Meany, another from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and a third from Peter Dexter’s Spooner. About them, he wrote: “A good first paragraph is one of the most important tools an author has available to grab my book-browsing attention—usually quickly and in less than 100 words. I can learn more about the style and readability of an author from an opening paragraph than I will ever gather from a canned dust jacket summary or some blurb from a fellow author of the writer’s that I wouldn’t believe in a million years anyway.”
“Rip Van Winkle,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
Whoever has made a voyage up the Hudson, must remember the Kaatskill mountains. They are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river, swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country.
The range is now known as the Catskill Mountains, of course, but Irving was writing at a time when the original Dutch spelling of place names predominated. By modern standards, this might not be regarded as a great opening line, but I have always admired it, and I especially enjoyed the lovely metaphor of a mountain range lording it over the surrounding countryside.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” in The Sketch Book (1819-20)
In the bosom of one of the spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town of rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.
The opening words of novels and short stories can be appreciated in many different ways—some of them highly unexpected. In this case, the narrator continued with a delicious tidbit about how Tarrytown, New York got its name:
“The name was given, we are told, in former days, by the good housewives of the adjacent country, from the inveterate propensity of their husbands to linger about the village tavern on market days.”
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
In a 2017 Literary Hub post, Emily Temple hailed this as “The Best Opening Paragraph of All Time,“ and her assessment is easy to understand. For me, the killer line is the final sentence. Did the family members all die as a result of mushroom poisoning? And did they all die at the hand of Merricat, as the narrator and protagonist wishes to be called?
In her post, Temple continued: “This paragraph is brilliant because of Merricat’s voice, and so is the rest of the book. It immediately teaches us who she is, and what this book is going to be like.“ Michael Douglas’s production company adapted the novel into an acceptable 2019 film, but one that didn’t do justice to the novel.
The Other Woman (1972)
When Carol Prince was fourteen she wrote in her diary: "Someday I am going to be important." She did become important, but in a way she least expected.
Gareth P. Jones
Constable & Toop (2013)
In her last few moments of life, as the blood gushed from the knife wound in her neck, Emily Wilkins found her thoughts drifting to her mother’s death.
Gareth P. Jones
The Thornthwaite Inheritance (2010)
Lorelli and Ovid Thorhthwaite had been trying to kill each other for so long that neither twin could remember which act of attempted murder came first.
Only in the opening lines of children’s literature do we find murder portrayed so matter-of-factly, or discussed in such a diabolically delicious manner. In the opening paragraph, the narrator went on to add: “Was it Lorelli’s cunning scheme to put on a play about the French Revolution, casting Ovid in the role of an aristocrat to be executed using a working guillotine? Or could it have been that long hot summer when Ovid managed to produce an ice lolly containing a small but deadly explosive, triggered by the surrounding ice reaching melting point.”
About the opening sentence, Jones said in response to a query from me that he considered it “one of my stronger opening lines.“ He went on to add, “I often describe the line as a key that unlocks the story and advise young readers to re-read it once they know what happens and see how the essence of the story is contained in that one sentence.“
As Karl Rossman, a poor boy of sixteen who had been packed off to America by his parents because a servant girl had seduced him and got herself a child by him, stood on the liner slowly entering the harbor of New York, a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illuminate the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light, although he had sighted it long before.
Kafka began work on this story in 1912, just after finishing "Metamorphosis." After giving it a working title of Der Verschollene ("The Missing Person" or "The Man Who Disappeared"), he worked on the project in a desultory way for the next dozen years. It remained unfinished at his death in 1924.
In his will, Kafka left everything to Max Brod, his literary editor, close friend, and executor of his estate. Kafka wanted all of his unfinished literary works to be destroyed, but Brod used Kafka's raw notes to finish the tale. Brod changed the title to Amerika when it was first published in Germany in 1927, and he insisted on retaining the German title when an English language translation appeared in 1928.
The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove (2009)
Once upon a time you knew nothing.
It wasn’t your fault—you were just a kid. And growing up where you did, most people assumed that this was for the best. The longer it took a small town southern girl to catch on to the backward ways of her world, the better off everyone was.
In her debut YA novel, Kate plays off the classic once upon a time opener to introduce Natalie Hargrove, a Charleston, South Carolina high school senior with a saucy attitude (it’s not as in-your-face as Holden Caulfield’s, but it’s there nonetheless, and Natalie doesn’t hesitate to display it in her interactions with schoolmates). The first two paragraphs also achieve an important goal of great opening lines: giving a voice to the protagonist. In the third paragraph, Natalie continued:
“Back then, your biggest worries were not getting caught stealing that pack of Juicy Fruit from the drugstore…oh, and making it out of elementary school with some semblance of a soul.”
Kate went on to achieve international fame for her bestselling Fallen series, but The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove was the work that started it all. If, a few chapters into it, you sense something vaguely familiar about the story, it turns out to be the author’s reworking of the Macbeth tale.
Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret Life of Bees (2002)
At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
The words come from Lily Owens, a fourteen-year-old girl who, struggling under the care of an abusive single-parent father, continues to be haunted by memories of her mother, who died when she was only four.
It’s a terrific opening, but it was preceded by an even more spectacular epigraph, taken from Man and Insects, a 1965 text on beekeeping by L. Hugh Newman:
“The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness.“
All New People (1989)
I am living once again in the town where I grew up, having returned here several weeks ago in a state of dull torment for which the Germans probably have a word.
I fell in love with this line when I first read it more than two decades ago—and was delighted to recently discover what writer Richard Bausch said about it in a 1989 New York Times book review: “Anne Lamott’s wonderful little novel is gripping not because it possesses any of the usual qualities of suspense or dramatic tension, but because its strong, clear, self-deprecating and witty voice takes immediate hold and refuses to let go. I find it hard to imagine that anyone’s critical faculties could withstand the unconventional charm of the very first line.”
Crooked Little Heart (1997)
Rosie and her friends were blooming like spring, budding, lithe, agile as cats. They wore tiny dresses and skirts so short that their frilly satin tennis bloomers showed.
The narrator continued about the 13-year-old girls: “Into their bloomers they tucked an extra tennis ball to extract when it was needed, as with sleight of hand, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, a quarter from behind an ear.”
Imperfect Birds (2010)
There are so many evils that pull on our children. Even in the mellow town of Landsdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses, or jail. Once a year a child from the county of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the second paragraph, the narrator grimly continued: “Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday-morning comings and goings of townspeople, and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds.“
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (2012)
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (2017)
On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake up in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1961)
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
The narrator is Jem’s younger sister “Scout,“ the daughter of Alabama country lawyer Atticus Finch (her mother died when she was a baby).
In the next paragraph, Scout introduced the character Dill (based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote): “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.“
The novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it went on to be regarded as a cultural treasure after the 1962 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck. In 2003, the American Film Institute hailed Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.
Made in the U.S.A. (2009)
Lutie McFee struggled into the too tight red, sleeveless turtleneck, smoothed it across her ribs, then checked herself out in the mirror of the Wal-Mart dressing room.
Few modern writers have been better than Letts in capturing the world of adolescent females. The narrator continued in the next paragraph: “She was almost pretty but still had the not quite finished look of a teenager—unlined skin dappled with sand-colored freckles, cheeks not quite shed of baby fat, frizzy hair too wild to be tamed by gel or hair spray. Her hips were as narrow as a boy’s, and her feet looked too big for her tiny ankles and spindly legs.”
And in the third paragraph, she added: “But worst of all, she was convinced—not for the first time that day—that her breasts were never going to grow beyond the two walnut-size bumps on her chest. The best she could hope for was a Wonderbra, but she doubted even that would perform the miracle she needed.”
Where the Heart Is (1995)
Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight—and superstitious about sevens—shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.
In a 2018 post, the editors of Stylist.com included this in their compilation of “The Best 100 Opening Lines From Books.“ Yes, it’s a terrific beginning, but things only got better over the next three paragraphs:
“For most people, sevens were lucky. But not for her. She’d had a bad history with them, starting with her seventh birthday, the day Momma Nell ran away with a baseball umpire named Fred. Then, when Novalee was in the seventh grade, her only friend, Rhonda Talley, stole an ice cream truck for her boyfriend and got sent to the Tennessee State School for Girls in Tullahoma.
“By then, Novalee knew there was something screwy about sevens, so she tried to stay clear of them. But sometimes, she thought, you just can’t see a thing coming at you.
“And that’s how she got stabbed. She just didn’t see it coming.“
Letts’s novel debuted to sluggish sales and lukewarm reviews (one critic called it a “lightweight story with a fair amount of charm”), but three years later became a New York Times bestseller after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her Book Club (it was later adapted into a 2000 film starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd).
C. S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
I especially like what writer Danielle Karthauser said about this classic opening line in a 2016 post on Mugglenet.com: “This first line literally gives the reader all they need to know about his character. Author C. S. Lewis is telling his readers, ’Here is my main character. Do you think he has an ugly name? Yeah, he does. Does his personality match it? Almost.’“
In the novel—the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia series—the narrator continued with one other savory tidbit about the protagonist: “His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.“
C. S. Lewis
The Silver Chair (1953)
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.
This opening line from Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia series couldn’t be simpler, or more affecting. Close your eyes, and the scene appears almost automatically in your mind.
The narrator continued: “She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was ’Co-educational,’ a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a ’mixed’ school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked was bullying the others.“
A Long Way from Welcome (2002)
Alert and purposeful, Maggie McGilligan approached her bike as a warrior would a respected opponent. Keeping her eyes on the overloaded front basket, she took a deep breath, gripped the chest-high handlebars of the rusted, crusted relic, and strained to drag the beast away from the school stand.
Year of the Reaper (2021)
When it came to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them.
This is a terrific first line—straightforward, succinct, but highly evocative. The narrator continued: “This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.”
The protagonist, we will shortly learn, is 18-year-old Lord Cassia, a young nobleman recently emerged from prison and returning to his home in the middle of a devastating worldwide plague and after a long, costly war with a neighboring kingdom. About the book, Jennifer Harlan. said in a New York Times review: “This moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.”
The Secret Lives of Dresses (2011)
Dora had a rhythm going, or if not a rhythm, a pattern, and it went something like downshift, wipe tears away with back of hand, sob, upshift, scrub running nose with horrible crumpled fast-food napkin, stab at the buttons on the radio, and then downshift again.
The opening sentence describes Dora Winston, a college student who is clearly upset. It takes a second to sink in, but the intriguing placement of the terms upshift and downshift cleverly suggests she is crying and driving at the same time. As the first paragraph continues, the narrator also continues to meld the emotional and automotive elements:
“That had been the order of things for the past two hours. The first two hours had been pure howling, crying so hard she almost couldn’t see, but then it had slowed down, a torrent turning into a spitting rain. Still bad weather, but not impassable.”
McKean, the former editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary and founder of Wordnik.com, is one of the world’s foremost lexicographers. In The Secret Lives of Dresses, her debut novel, she proves she can also craft a great opening paragraph. The novel grew out of one of McKean’s other passions: fashion (which she has explored since 2003 in “A Dress a Day” blog, posted out of the website: Dressaday.com).
Black Swan Green (2006)
Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it’s a matter of life or death. Don’t they?
The opening words come from 13-year-old Jason Taylor, described in a Boston Globe review as “one of the most endearing, smart, and funny young narrators ever to rise up from the pages of a novel.” The novel was widely praised—winning several Best of the Year awards—and almost everyone likened the narrator and protagonist to Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. In the first paragraph, Jason continued:
“Dad’s got an answering machine like James Garner’s in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he’s stopped leaving it on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn’t hear it up in her converted attic ’cause “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn’t hear ’cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That’s just not normal. S’pose Dad’d been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number ’cause all his other I.D.’d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.”
The entire opening paragraph is wonderful, but the first words of the second paragraph match it in quality: “So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard’s chamber after being told not to.”
In this heavily autobiographical novel, Jason is a stammerer (in America, we generally say stutterer instead), a speech disorder the author also struggled with in his early years. In a 2011 article in Prospect magazine, Mitchell bemoaned the fact that stammering is rarely discussed openly and constructively (he tweaked a famous Oscar Wilde observation by saying, “Stammering is the disability which cannot say its name”). In his article, he continued: “This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers…my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this ‘don’t mention the stammer’ policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13-year-old.”
The Bone Clocks (2014)
I fling open my bedroom curtains, and there’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff, but I’m already thinking of Vinny’s chocolaty eyes, shampoo down Vinny’s back, beads of sweat on Vinny’s shoulders, and Vinny’s sly laugh, and by now my heart’s going mental and, God, I wish I was waking up at Vinny’s place in Peacock Street and not in my own stupid bedroom.
The opening words come from 15-year-old Holly Sykes, who is wildly infatuated with a 24-year-old man named Vinnie. In the opening paragraph, Holly continued: “Last night, the words just said themselves, ‘Christ, I really love you, Vin.” and Vinny puffed out a cloud of smoke and did this Prince Charles voice, ‘One must say, one’s frightfully partial to spending time with you too, Holly Sykes,’ and I nearly weed myself laughing.”
In a New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “Dazzling,” adding “Mitchell’s heavy arsenal of talents is showcased in these pages: his symphonic imagination; his ventriloquist’s ability to channel the voices of myriad characters from different time zones and cultures; his intuitive understanding of children and knack for capturing their solemnity and humor; and his ear for language—its rhythms, sounds and inflections.”
Everything I Never Told You (2014)
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
This was Ng’s debut novel, and what a spectacular debut it had, winning numerous prizes, including the 2014 Amazon Book of the Year award.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.“
It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.
The year is 2091 and the narrator is Lena Haloway, a 17-year-old girl who continues: “Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already. My older sister, Rachel, has been disease free for nine years now. She’s been safe from love for so long, she says she can’t even remember its symptoms. I’m scheduled to have my procedure in exactly ninety-five days.”
In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “From the first line of her novel, Oliver welcomes us into a world very much unlike our own, with a unique twist on the dystopian theme, and promises us a love story quite unlike any we’ve ever read before.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Shadow of the Wind (2001)
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
In a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote: “My socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip [and] I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafón definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.”
Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow.
Sagan was only eighteen when her debut novel was published to international acclaim in 1954 (she borrowed the phrase bonjour tristesse—literally hello sadness—from a poem by Paul Éluard). A teenage rebel who had been expelled from a convent school in 1953, Sagan wrote the novel in less than three months, working on it only two or three hours a day.
The narrator and protagonist, a wealthy, disillusioned 17-year-old French girl named Cécile, continued: “The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.”
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.“
Sapphire (pen name of Ramona Lofton)
I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ’n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.
These words of introduction come from Claireece Precious Jones, an obese and functionally illiterate 16-year-old student in a Harlem junior high school. In the novel, she continued: “I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’.”
More than a dozen years elapsed before the novel was adapted to the Big Screen, but almost immediately after the film Precious was released in 2009, it became a critical and commercial success. The film was nominated for six Oscars, winning two: Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay. In her first screen role, Gabourey Sidibe received a Best Actress nomination for her moving portrayal of Precious Jones.
The Fur Person (1957)
When he was about two years old, and had been a Cat About Town for some time, glorious in conquests, but rather too thin for comfort, the Fur Person decided that it was time he settled down.
These are the opening words of a charming novel inspired by Sarton’s own cat, Tom Jones. In a 2015 “Conscious Cat” blog post, writer and cat lover Ingrid King hailed the The Fur Person as “one of the most endearing cat stories I’ve ever read.” About the book, King added: “This little book captures the essence of what a cat is all about in the beautiful prose of this gifted and sensitive writer and poet.”
And, speaking of beautiful prose, Sarton’s novel contains one of my favorite examples of the literary device known as chiasmus:
“A Fur Person is a cat who had decided to stay with people as long as he lives. This can only happen if a human being has imagined a part of himself into a cat just as the cat has imagined part of himself into a human being.“
For more information on chiasmus, go here.
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006)
I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: something lyric like Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”; or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” People remember those words even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I’ve read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.
It’s rare to find opening lines about the subject of literary opening lines, and this one has to be regarded as the best. If you’re reading it for the first time, the words do not come from a person who loves books, but from an animal—a rat named Firmin. When he was born in the basement of a Boston bookstore in 1960, Firmin was the 13th baby born to an alcoholic mother rat who had twelve nipples.
As the runt of the litter, Firmin had to do something to survive, so he began nibbling on the pages of his bedding, an old, discarded copy of Finnegan’s Wake. Firmin’s unusual diet had a transformative effect, allowing him to read and think symbolically. As he grew older, his literary tastes grew more and more refined, and his sense of alienation from his fellow creatures increased—leading him to make dismissive, but brilliant, remarks about them. My favorite was this one: “Thanks to their dwarfish imaginations and short memories they did not ask for a lot, mostly just food and fornication, and they got enough of both to take them through life.”
The first paragraph of Firmin is spectacular, and the second may be even better, capturing the almost universal experience of anyone who has chosen to write for a living: “In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully—yes, that’s the word, manfully—as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion! Exactly the opposite was true.”
Erica Lorraine Scheit
Uses for Boys (2013)
In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.
Her bed is a raft on the ocean. It’s a cloud, a forest, a spaceship, a cocoon we share. I stretch out big as I can, a five-pointed star, and she bundles me back up in her arms. When I wake I’m tangled in her hair.
“Tell me again,” I say and she tells me again how she wanted me more than anything.
“More than anything in the world,” she says, “I wanted a little girl.”
In “7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader,” a 2014 article in the Hunger Mountain Review, Miciah Bay Gault wrote that an opening line this is going to “set us up for the heartbreak that surely follows.”
Gault also viewed this as an opening worthy of emulation by aspiring writers, writing: “The tender relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully sketched, and the future trouble, the coming heartbreak, is foreshadowed by mention of later stepbrothers and stepfathers. As in life, we prefer hearing about a heartbreak to having one. Let your reader know there’s trouble ahead and she’ll hang around to hear about it.”
Black Beauty (1877)
The first place that I can well remember was a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside. At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook, overhung by a steep bank.
The opening paragraph reads like the beginning of almost any autobiography you’ve ever read. As readers begin the second paragraph, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the autobiography of a human being:
“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot, we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold, we had a warm shed near the grove.”
“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,“ title story of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959)
As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn’t mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police.
This delightful opening comes from a young British working-class teenager known only as Smith. After his arrest for robbing a bakery, he’s been sentenced to a youth detention center known in England as a borstal. Shortly after his arrival, authorities become aware of his prowess as a runner and attempt to use him for their own purposes.
In 1962, the story was adapted into a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful film, with novice actor Tom Courtenay in the starring role (he went on to win a BAFTA award for Most Promising New Actor).
I Capture The Castle (1949)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
In 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum called this one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,” writing about it: “A brilliant beginning to a much-loved English classic.” Around the same time, British Journalist Liz Jones also wrote admiringly about the line, saying in a Stylist.com article: “The opening sentence of this book is so unexpected: intimate, awkward, throwaway, as heroine Cassandra Mortmain, aged 17, begins her diary of her impoverished if glamorous life in a ruined castle.”
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.”
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.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (1883)
Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
In a 2012 Guardian article on “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction,” Robert MCCrum described this introductory paragraph as “Among the most brilliant and enthralling opening lines in the English language.”
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.”
The Little Friend (2002)
For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have the Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.
This is the first sentence of the Prologue, and they clearly meet the oft-stated goal of “setting a tone” for the remainder of the story.
The opening words of the first chapter are equally impressive: “Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened. People in the town still discussed the death. Usually they referred to it as ‘the accident,’ though the facts (as discussed at bridge luncheons, at the barber’s, in bait shacks and doctors’ waiting rooms and in the main dining room of the Country Club) tended to suggest otherwise. Certainly it was difficult to imagine a nine-year-old managing to hang himself through mischance or bad luck.”
The Queen’s Gambit (1983)
Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard.
These opening words introduce Elizabeth Harmon, a precocious 8-year-old girl whose life has been shattered at an early age. About her, the narrator continued: “The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: ’Orphaned by yesterday’s pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.’“
Beth’s incredible story—from heavily tranquilized resident of a school for orphan girls to World Chess Champion—was in danger of being completely forgotten when, in 2019, Netflix decided to produce a seven-episode series based on the novel. In the month after its 2020 launch, it became a smash hit, attracting well over sixty million viewers. It put Tevis’s 1983 book on the 2020 bestseller lists—and also reminded readers of some of his other classic works.
Concrete Rose (2021)
When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.
They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.
J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit (1937)
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
This is the line that started it all, written during the height of a worldwide depression when millions around the world were also hungering for a bit of escapism. In a 2016 Guardian article on “The Best Opening Lines in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction,” Ciara Murphy wrote: “In just ten words, Tolkien’s opening line is so simple and yet leaves the reader with so many questions. What is a hobbit? Why does he live in a hole? And why is this particular hobbit so important that an entire novel is going to be centered on him?”
About the hole in the ground, the narrator continued: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The Hobbit was greeted with international acclaim from the day it was published. Writing in The Times of London, C. S. Lewis wrote about it: “The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humor, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”
“My Boyhood Dreams,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
The dreams of my boyhood? No, they have not been realized. For all who are old, there is something infinitely pathetic about the subject you have chosen, for in no gray-head’s case can it suggest any but one thing—disappointment.
“My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
As I understand it, what you desire is information about “my first lie, and how I got out of it.”
A Horse’s Tale (1907)
I am Buffalo Bill’s horse. I have spent my life under his saddle—with him in it, too, and he is good for two hundred pounds, without his clothes.
The narrator is Soldier’s Boy, who describes himself as Buffalo Bill’s favorite horse. He continued: “And there is no telling how much he does weigh when he is out on the war-path and has his batteries belted on. He is over six feet, is young, hasn’t an ounce of waste flesh, is straight, graceful, springy in his motions, quick as a cat, and has a handsome face, and black hair dangling down on his shoulders, and is beautiful to look at; and nobody is braver than he is, and nobody is stronger, except myself.” A Horse’s Tale was first published in two installments of Harper’s Magazine in August and September, 1906.
A Dog’s Tale (1904)
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian.
The narrator is a pet dog—with the unusual name Aileen Mavourneen—who was brought into her new owner’s family a year after a new baby girl was born. The dog ultimately saved the baby’s life when a fire erupted in the nursery, but was savagely beaten when her owner mistakenly interpreted what had happened. The prolific American writer Frederick Busch wrote that the novel “boasts one of the great opening sentences” of all time.
The novel was an expanded version of a short story originally published in Harper’s Magazine in December 1903. The story, which had Aileen’s puppy dying in a research project designed to improve human vision, was published a month later as a stand-alone pamphlet by the National Anti-Vivisection Society.
In the novel’s opening paragraph, Aileen continued: “This is what my mother told me; I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education.”
“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches (1900)
It was many years ago. Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region round about. It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions.
“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.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
In a 2012 article in The Guardian, writer and critic Robert McCrum honored this as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction.” About it, he wrote: “The influence of this opening reverberates throughout the 20th century, and nowhere more so than in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.”
The passage above may be the tale’s formal opening lines, but they are not the first words readers see. In a “Notice” at the very beginning of the book, Twain wrote: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Now is the Time To Open Your Heart (2004)
Kate Talkingtree sat meditating in a large hall that was surrounded by redwood trees. Although the deep shade of the trees usually kept the room quite cool, today was unseasonably warm and Kate, with everybody else, was beginning to perspire.
The Color Purple (1982)
I am fourteen years old.
I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
The letter writer is fourteen-year-old Celie, a poor, uneducated black girl who is living a miserable existence in rural Georgia in the early 1900s. Beaten and sexually abused by her father, she has already given birth to two children, both of whom have been taken away by her father. As the novel opens, her deep sense of hopelessness is assuaged slightly by letters she writes to God. A key to the letter’s significance in her life and her attempt to speak the complete truth is reflected in her striking out I am and changing it to I have always been a good girl.
Hailed by critics from the outset, The Color Purple went on to win the 1983 National Book Award for Fiction and the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1985, Steven Spielberg adapted the novel into a critically acclaimed film, with Whoopi Goldberg playing the role of Celie (and also starring Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery). The film received eleven Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Goldberg, and Best Supporting Actress for both Winfrey and Avery, but ended up winning none (Goldberg did, however, win the Golden Globe Best Actress Award).
Many internet sites suggest that the opening line of the novel is, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.” Technically, however, that is the epigraph to the opening chapter, and the novel truly opens with Celie’s letter. Indeed, Walker herself considered the letter to be the book’s opening lines, once writing: “I would have thought that a book that begins ’Dear God’ would immediately have been identified as a book about the desire to encounter, to hear from, the Ultimate Ancestor.”
The Silver Star (2013)
My sister saved my life when I was just a baby.
The words come from 12-year-old “Bean” Holladay, who continued: “Here’s what happened. After a fight with her family, Mom decided to leave home in the middle of the night, taking us with her. I was only a few months old, so Mom put me in the infant carrier. She set it on the roof of the car while she stashed some things in the trunk, then she settled Liz, who was three, in the backseat. Mom was going through a rough period at the time and had a lot on her mind—craziness, craziness, craziness, she’d say later. Completely forgetting that she’d left me on the roof, Mom drove off.”
The Glass Castle (2005)
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
This is an extraordinary opening line, all the more impressive because it is coming from a work of non-fiction. Walls, a successful journalist and gossip columnist, continued: “It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.”
The book went on to win the 2006 American Library Association’s Alex Award, an honor for books written for adults but which have special appeal to young adults.
The boy asks the girl a question. It is a question of marriage. Ask me again tomorrow, she says, and he says, That’s not how this works.
I loved this opening line from the moment I first read it, but the truth is I had trouble articulating exactly why it was so special. And then I read Jamie Fisher’s review of the book in The Washington Post. It begins: “Weike Wang’s Chemistry is the most assured novel about indecisiveness you’ll ever read.” This was Wang’s first novel, and it went on to win the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction.
Salvage the Bones (2011)
China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws.
The words come from a young black girl named Esch, who is living in southern Mississippi with her father and three brothers as Hurricane Katrina approaches. As Esch continues, there is a slight hint that the dog may sense something the humans do not: “I would think that she was crazy. Which she is, in a way. Won’t let nobody touch her but Skeet.” The novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction.
White Ivy: A Novel (2020)
Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected—and that made her reckless.
In a 2020 CrimeReads.com post, Molly Odintz described White Ivy as a “peculiar, haunting, and vicious thriller that owes much to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair.”
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Her features were so average and nondescript that the brain only needed a split second to develop a complete understanding of her: skinny Asian girl, quiet, overly docile around adults in uniforms. She had a way of walking, shoulders forward, chin tucked under, arms barely swinging, that rendered her invisible in the way of pigeons and janitors.”
“Snow in Summer,” in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018)
They call the white flower that covers the lawn like a poplin carpet Snow in Summer. And because I was born in July with a white caul on my head, they called me that, too. Mama wanted me to answer to Summer, which is a warm, pretty name. But my Stepmamma, who took me in hand just six months after mama passed away, only spoke the single syllable of my name, and she didn’t say it nicely.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Shadow of the Wind (2001)
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
In a July 2021 article in The Strand Magazine (“For Openers: Great First Lines of Legendary Novels”) writer Deborah Goodrich Royce wrote: “My socks were knocked off when I first read this opener. I was traveling on a short stint in Singapore, accompanying my husband on a business trip [and] I was so engrossed in this novel that I ended up cancelling my sightseeing to loll in the hotel bed reading the book instead. And Zafón definitely delivered all that was promised from this tidbit: a sinister, dangerous, and otherworldly Barcelona that I could see more clearly than the hotel room surrounding me.”
I Am The Messenger (2002)
The gunman is useless.
I know it.
He knows it.
The whole bank knows it.
These opening words come from 19-year-old Ed Kennedy, who, along with his best friend Marvin, is lying face down on the floor of a bank that is being robbed. Kennedy—an Australian taxi driver and soon-to-be hero—continues: “Even my best mate, Marvin knows it, and he’s more useless than the gunman.”