The Top 10 Best Opening Lines Of Novels

62 comments

First and foremost, get their attention.

A novel is made up of many thousands of sentences, but none as deeply important as the opening line. (Except, probably, the closing line—but that’s another post.) The first line should tell the reader what to expect in terms of language, plot and character. It should be mysterious and compelling, either poetic or shockingly abrupt. If a bookstore browser flips to the first page and reads the opening line, he or she should want to immediately sit down in the middle of the aisle and keep reading.

So few books get that critical first line truly, completely right. Here are ten that do:

1. Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood, 1998

“Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.”

Atwood’s novel about maintaining one’s identity tells the story of painter Elaine Risley, who reflects back on her youth and her toxic childhood friendship with a group of three girls.

Why It Works:

The line is lovely in its simplicity, and more to the point, piercingly accurate. What is a book if not a bridge across the dimension of time, allowing one to revisit the past and envision the future? Elaine recalls with exquisite clarity the days of her childhood, the pain of youthful rejection, and the delicate pride of finally embracing her sense of self.

Buy Cat's Eye from Amazon.com

 

2. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Fahrenheit 451 details a dystopian future in which a fireman’s sole job is to burn books, thereby maintaining a society made up of people who are oblivious and manageable. The title refers to the temperature at which paper burns.

Why It Works:

The sentence is made up of six words, elegant in their brevity and crushing in their implications. Fireman Guy Montag lives his entire life taking casual pleasure in government oppression—until a series of events leads him to look at his life and society with growing horror.

 

3. Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This line introduces us to the singular heroine of Mitchell’s Civil War novel. Scarlett survives the burning of Atlanta, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction Era largely on that very charm, coupled with a healthy dose of self-interest.

Why It Works:

The line is bright and fun and instantly engaging. It gives the reader an absolute introduction to Scarlett, a character who is flawed but ultimately insuppressible.

Buy Gone with the Wind from Amazon.com

 

4. The Gunslinger, Stephen King, 1982

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

Stephen King began writing The Gunslinger when he was a sophomore in college; he has said that the opening sentence came to him as a forceful inspiration that he could not ignore. Twelve and a half years later, the novel was published; thirty-eight years after he wrote the first line, King published the concluding volume of The Dark Tower series.

Why It Works:

The line hearkens back to the Robert Browning poem that inspired The Gunslinger, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The words are stark and lovely, instantly giving the sense that we are in medias res of an epic adventure lasting through time out of mind.

Buy The Gunslinger (Revised Edition): The Dark Tower I from Amazon.com

 

5. The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien, 1937

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Tolkien’s precursor to The Lord of the Rings tells the story of one little, simple hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. A tiny, fussy creature, Bilbo surprises himself, the reader, and everyone who knows him with his bravery and strength of character.

Why It Works:

Much like Bilbo himself, the line is small, quaint, and surprising in its impact. Tolkien’s language is always like magic; he instantly immerses the reader in a strange new universe by the power of ten simple words.  

Buy The Hobbit from Amazon.com

 

6. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

“Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is desperately in love and lust with his twelve-year-old step-daughter, Lolita. The novel was tremendously controversial upon publication but has since been hailed as a modernist literary masterpiece rife with irony and genre deconstruction.

Why It Works:

The first three sentences, brief and beautiful, are powerfully romantic. That such passion is directed by a grown man toward a twelve-year-old is part of the perverse irony that makes Lolita such a strange and complicated novel to this day.

 

7. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

And here we are introduced to Cal/Calliope/Callie Stephanides, the strong and elusive protagonist of Middlesex. Cal is born intersex, yet his condition isn’t discovered until a tractor accident in his teens. Until that day, he is raised as a little girl named Calliope. Middlesex is a sprawling coming of age story and generational saga, culminating in Cal’s eventual acknowledgement of his own identity.

Why It Works:

Although Middlesex spans generations and continents, from 1920s Greece to 1960s Detroit to modern day Berlin, the heart of the story is in Cal’s personal journey. The first sentence lets the reader in on precisely what is going to happen, yet the mystery remains as to the manner Cal will respond to the drastic changes in his life.

Buy Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club) from Amazon.com

 

8. Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie, 1911

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan follows the play very closely, but with the lovely benefit of Barrie’s wonderful descriptive passages.

Why It Works:

The central theme of Peter and Wendy lies within these six simple words. Children grow into adults. They must. The sentence also playfully introduces us to Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. That such a brief, unadorned sentence can do so much is testament to Barrie’s talent.

Buy Peter and Wendy from Amazon.com

 

9. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice is a sneaky novel. On the surface it reads as a polite comedy of manners and romantic drama, yet the novel offers uncompromising social criticism and an unblinking adherence to modern principles.

Why It Works:

The first line is wrought with irony, setting the breezy, sardonic tone that so distinguishes Pride and Prejudice from its contemporaries. The novel casts censure on the societal necessity for a woman to marry and for therefore every wealthy man to become an object of imperative. Oh, clever Jane!

Buy Pride and Prejudice from Amazon.com

 

10. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 1969

“All this happened, more or less.”

Vonnegut’s satirical, metafictional novel leaves protagonist Billy Pilgrim “unstuck in time” after his dealings with the alien Tralfamadorians. The nonlinear novel was absolutely revolutionary when published and remains one of the great works of 20th century literature today.

Why It Works:

With the first sentence, Vonnegut clues us in to the fact that the narrative is unreliable. He manipulates the fiction and leaves us questioning the account of the narrator. This casual disinterest in creating a reliable history is one of the things that makes Slaughter-house Five such a fun, intriguing read.

Buy Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) from Amazon.com


Wow. Don’t these opening lines make you want to rush over to your bookshelf and re-read all ten novels simultaneously? Are there any books on this list that you’ve never read before? Did the first line convince you to give it a try? Tell me what I missed and what I shouldn’t have included in the comments, readers!

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 2, 2011 - 11:29am

No Kiss Me Judas by Will Chris Baer? My reaction.

Kidding. This is a brilliant list. 

.'s picture
. December 2, 2011 - 11:35am

Where is Rules Of Attraction? Glad to see Gunslinger in here though.

Paul Kunath's picture
Paul Kunath December 2, 2011 - 12:20pm

Great List. I just read Gunslinger and fahrenheit 451 again recently.

 

What about Kafka
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."

 Chuck may know this one
"TYLER GETS ME a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die"

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson December 2, 2011 - 11:45am

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry December 2, 2011 - 11:46am

I agree.  Gunslinger is an amazing addition, with a great first line.  The Last Good Kiss by Crumley has a good one, as well.  Not surprised it's not here, though, as I think that maybe 17 people have ever read it.

Great selections, Meredith!

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables December 2, 2011 - 11:46am

Nice. Two popped into my head that I would have to add: 

"What's it going to be then, eh?" from A Clockwork Orange, which sets up the arbitrary and aimless violence that Alex commits throughout the novel.  

"Call me Ishmael" from Moby Dick, which casts doubt on the identity and therefore the reliability of the narrator and his entire story. 

Dean Blake's picture
Dean Blake from Australia is reading generationend.com December 2, 2011 - 12:09pm

Nice.

 

Here's one we all probably know:

"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles."

Bob Pastorella's picture
Bob Pastorella from Groves, Texas is reading murder books trying to stay hip, I'm thinking of you, and you're out there so Say your prayers, Say your prayers, Say your prayers December 2, 2011 - 12:10pm

"We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge."

Darker Than Amber, John D. MacDonald

Best. Opening. Line. Ever.

Very surprised it didn't make this list.

 

Katie Estey's picture
Katie Estey December 2, 2011 - 1:18pm

My favorite book opening is Chuck's Choke "If you're going to read this, don't bother."

Limbless K9's picture
Limbless K9 from Oregon is reading Wraeththu December 2, 2011 - 1:28pm

@Katie - That was a great opening line. It made me want to read it even more! 

Damned Thing's picture
Damned Thing from Ireland is reading Risk: The Science & Politics Of Fear December 2, 2011 - 1:34pm

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Anthony Burgess | Earthly Powers

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith December 2, 2011 - 2:17pm

All excellent choices! I haven't read some of these (Earthly Powers, Kiss Me Judas), and those first lines certainly make me want to dive in immediately.

darkfoxx's picture
darkfoxx December 2, 2011 - 2:24pm

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.

Hunter S. Thompson | Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Luke Goldstein's picture
Luke Goldstein from Sherman Oaks is reading Charlie Wilson's War December 2, 2011 - 2:32pm

Great list. I have to agree with 'darkfoxx' though and say Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not only sets up the tone and possible insantiy of the following pages, but it also introduces that first person narrative from Hunter which newer readers might not now of (or be fully prepared for). 

Ricardo Galvan's picture
Ricardo Galvan December 2, 2011 - 2:45pm

Dune 

" A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances arecorrect. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place." 

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie December 2, 2011 - 3:16pm

@Josh

You beat me to the punch

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch December 2, 2011 - 3:20pm

I love "The disremembered and unaccounted for" somewhere in Beloved's first lines. Because it sums up a whole forgotten history.

I want a list of last lines too! Absalom, Absalom! comes to mind - "I don't hate the South. I don't hate it, I don't I don't." (memory quote). Speaks of Quentin's torment from both books. But I had a disagreement with a friend who said it's too obvious for an ending. I for one think it's powerful. Anybody who read the book has thoughts on it?

Aaron Clark's picture
Aaron Clark from Los Angeles, CA is reading "Moxyland" by Lauren Beukes December 2, 2011 - 3:23pm

Like many of these (although I will never understand the literary world's obsession with Austen).

My personal favorite: 

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.

-Terry Pratchett, "Hogfather"

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow December 2, 2011 - 3:58pm

Great list, now I have to go read! I love that line in Austen. In fact, I thought of it immediately when I read the headline to this article. Love this line especially for the undertone of irony and how, in many ways, it still rings true today--for both men and women--that somehow, if you are marry-able (rich, beautiful, famous, strong) you should be married. It's an old theme. There's a great story in Don Quijote (a story within a story) of a young, beautiful woman who refuses to marry and actually runs away to the country to avoid people constantly harrassing her about it.

@Aaron: You know, I never got the obession with Jane Austen while I was studying literature in college. I felt sure she was overrated. Then, I picked up one of her books, and I've read them all now, multiple times.Her writing is quietly brilliant. It's so subtle and miles ahead of her time while being precisely in it. I haven't found much in the contemporarty lit world that achieves quite the balance of careful cultural critique that she was able to strike.

Anyway, thanks for this great list, Meredith! Fun to remember why we work so hard at those first lines anyway! Can't wait to see the last lines article.

Christopher Borders's picture
Christopher Borders December 2, 2011 - 4:28pm

"There are places you can go," Ariana tells him, "and a guy as smart as you has a decent chance of surviving to eighteen." 

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

BobbyRoo's picture
BobbyRoo from Richmond, VA is reading A Feast for Crows--George R. R. Martin December 2, 2011 - 4:54pm

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez December 2, 2011 - 5:21pm

In the beginning...

Taylor Calder's picture
Taylor Calder December 2, 2011 - 6:00pm

What about fear and loathing in las vegas?

 

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

 

 

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 2, 2011 - 6:29pm

"You do an awfully good impression of yourself."

BEE

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 2, 2011 - 6:37pm

'I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without a doubt Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided - oo-la-la! - to tell all.'

I, Lucifer by: Glen Duncan

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing December 2, 2011 - 7:31pm

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.

- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In the Rye

Words that so perfectly encapsulate teenage angst that they belong in a Nirvana song.

Don Hamilton's picture
Don Hamilton December 2, 2011 - 8:17pm

"It’s that moon again, slung so fat and low in the tropical night, calling out across a curdled sky and into the quivering ears of that dear old voice in the shadows, the Dark Passenger, nestled snug in the backseat of the Dodge K-car of Dexter’s hypothetical soul."  - Jeff Lindsay

I read the "Dexter" novels out of order, Dearly Devoted Dexter,being the first one I read, since all copies of Darkly Dreaming Dexter were checked out.  Not a great novel, but I love the first line.

Kasey's picture
Kasey from the morally and physically challenging plains of Texas is reading 12pt. Courier font December 2, 2011 - 8:18pm

"This is not for you."

By you know who.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 2, 2011 - 8:41pm

"This is not for you."

 

By you know who.

 

Pearl Jam?

 

 

.'s picture
. December 2, 2011 - 9:33pm

Lunar Park, Fear and Loathing. How did I forget about these. Let's not forget Dermophoria either.

whiteliz's picture
whiteliz from Sarasota, FL is reading Paw Patrol books to her two- and four-year olds December 3, 2011 - 12:48am

I'm ashamed to say I haven't read a lot of those, but I will now - hard to resist those intros. Thanks for the list! :)

Matt Tuckey's picture
Matt Tuckey December 3, 2011 - 2:13am

    "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn't seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, "Be My Baby" on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so."
        American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Here Ellis instantly sets up the voice of the narrator- intelligent but muddled, overstimulated and in a VERY bad place mentally. The narator thoughts jump from one thing to another, a trait of the insane, and a trait of those who are exposed to too much advertising. He ties together commercialism and insanity in one immense sentence- two themes which run strong on every page of the book. Brilliant.

Above and Beyond's picture
Above and Beyond from Tignes (French Alps) is reading House Rules, by Jodi Picoult December 3, 2011 - 2:44am

As soon as I saw the title of this article, before I even started reading it, this came to mind: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed" - I'm glad The Dark Tower made it in your Top 10! (by the way, this sentence is not only the 1st one but also the last one of the novel)

Mike Hardin's picture
Mike Hardin from Fort Worth Texas is reading sarah vowell, david sedaris, nick hornby December 3, 2011 - 8:41am

"I can count my overdoses on one hand:"

-The Contortionist's Handbook

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler December 3, 2011 - 9:26am

Of course a list like this is gonna be called subjective and then many folks will object, but boy, oh boy, these are all fine choices. Plus, yes, Fahrenheit 451, my very favorite, is on here. I'd like to add that Bradbury, and quite often Vonnegut, were able to create the richest, most evocative, visually-charged sentences with as little or as simple a set of words as one could tip-ta out on the typer. 

Persiphone_Hellecat's picture
Persiphone_Hellecat December 3, 2011 - 2:09pm

Great list. I was going to add Neuromancer, but I see someone else did. Great sentence. But I think everyone missed the most obvious and probably the best sentence I ever read. Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca - an amazing book.   Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again. 

Why it works? It immediately pulls you into the story by setting you up with a load of unanswered questions - Where is Manderlay? Who is speaking? Why can't he or she go there again? Why did they leave? What happened at Manderlay? It goes on and on. When I read that sentence for the first time, I knew it was a book I wasn't going to be able to put down until I had inhaled all of it.

 

Persiphone_Hellecat's picture
Persiphone_Hellecat December 3, 2011 - 2:25pm

This is a good list. I forgot another personal favorite.   Mother died today.  Camus The Stranger   

 

http://www.pantagraph.com/news/article_a125216a-649f-5414-88b5-76a688ea3...

Mats Hanssen's picture
Mats Hanssen from Realm of the Midnight Sun is reading History and pulpy fiction. December 3, 2011 - 6:24pm

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man."

Firebreak (2001) by Richard Stark. 

 

If that does not make you curious you should take a long look in the mirror. Ask yourself: "Am I, really, a pretentious fuck?"

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 3, 2011 - 11:45pm

@Mats: I love that opening line. Can't believe I forgot that one. Firebreak, great fucking book.

Michael Vance's picture
Michael Vance December 4, 2011 - 12:19pm

A Tale of Two Cities!

Nick Giffin's picture
Nick Giffin December 4, 2011 - 2:12pm

Ok - a very tiny contraversy  - let us not forget there were two stellar opening lines in Slaughterhouse Five.

After Vonnegut 'gives up' on the first chapter of the book,  the actual story begins as follows:

"Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time"

Technically it's not the first line written in the book,  but maybe it counts anyways ? :)   I certainly think so.

 

 

 

 

Hon3yBunny's picture
Hon3yBunny December 4, 2011 - 2:18pm

"In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages."

-Perfume, Patrick Suskind

 

"He died with a felafel in his hand"

-John Birmingham

jsundman's picture
jsundman December 4, 2011 - 9:32pm

Never disembowel yourself with a claw hammer and never speak to Margot before noon. These were the rules I lived by. And I would happily break the former as a means to avoid breaking the latter. –Rick Hanson, Spare Parts

Gregory Marlow's picture
Gregory Marlow December 5, 2011 - 8:25am

"'Where's Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

E.B. White's Charlotte's Web

Greatest first line ever.  It manages to completely establish the plot and conflict of the book in six words.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith December 6, 2011 - 7:25am

@Gregory, oh man, that is so true. Pretty chilling for a children's book, too. Perfect.

All of these are so good! This is my favorite list ever!

Madz Adorna's picture
Madz Adorna December 12, 2011 - 12:04am

I will never forget this:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold ||  Gabriel Garcia Marquez

EllisDonovan's picture
EllisDonovan from Boyne City is reading Apocalypse Now Robert Ludlum December 12, 2011 - 4:01pm

"It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea."

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach

 

 

miked's picture
miked from Los Angeles is reading White Noise January 5, 2012 - 3:33pm

Yes @Persiphone_Hellecat!

The next line in Camus's "The Stranger" builds off of the first perfectly, creating an excellent hook overall IMO:

"Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure."

ahmed's picture
ahmed January 23, 2012 - 2:10am
Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 29, 2012 - 11:23am

Excellent list AND comments - I love that The Gunslinger and Lolita included in this very inclusive list, as well as both of the Slaughterhouse Five beginnings referenced by list and comments...I'd have to say that The Stranger and A Clockwork Orange comments were great additions to the list. This list is such a great, broad, subjective thing that it is hard to contain it within a "Top Ten"; it is easily a list that could be a "Top 25" or even better (nudge, hint hint Meredith) a great subject for a recurring column...