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The 20 Best Opening Lines From Books

by Anushree Nande
27 November 2013 37 Comments

It's all very well to get into a thick book with a slow burn, but the best books are the ones that grab you from the very first sentence. Here are MY favourite openers to books...

First lines are crucial in any narrative, whether novels, films, novellas and especially short fiction. They are what decide whether you feel like reading or watching ahead, are gripped at the earliest stage possible and immediately engaged with the world of the narrative. Though I have read a fair few novels and watched a fair few films whose opening lines/scenes though not special or different, have lead on to narratives that I enjoyed. However you can never discount the impact of an opening, just as you can’t scoff at the need for a powerful, memorable ending. Here are a few of my favourites from all the books I have personally read. (In chronological order of book release)

1. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

2. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

3. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877).

4. 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 Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).

5. All children, except one, grow up – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1902).

6. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin – Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis (1915).

7. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. 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 – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937).

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8. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again – Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938).

9. It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen – George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

10. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951).

11. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventyfirst birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).

12. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963).

13. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful – Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988).

14. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).

15. Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one – Amelie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling (1999).

16. I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time – Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind (2001).

17. There is no mystery to happiness – Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder (2006).

18. First the colours.

Then the humans.

That’s how I usually see things.

Or at least, how I try.

*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***

You are going to die.

- Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2006).

19. A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins of a word of praise in exchange for a story … a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price – Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game (2008).

20. Death is only the beginning; afterward comes the hard part – Jed Rubenfeld, The Death Instinct (2010).

If you like it, Pass it on

image descriptionCOMMENTS

Nick 9:44 am, 24-Apr-2013

"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." (Earthly Powers)

sam 10:37 am, 24-Apr-2013

can't believe you didn't include the opening line from "I Capture The Castle" which, in my humble opinion, is the best opening line to a book ever written!

Max Tucker 11:14 am, 24-Apr-2013

Apologies, but I think these two belong in the greats: We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson 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. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Gene Spencer 12:37 pm, 24-Apr-2013

As is to be expected whenever somebody publishes a list of 'best things', I must take immediate exception to the glaring omission of the following opening line: 'We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold'. Now that's how you begin a bloody book, sod all those dusty relics that the fusty old academics foist upon impressionable first years with even less sense than money. Nobody actually cares about Jane Austen or Daphne Du Maurier, they only say they do to fit in with the elitest literati. No, what the world really needs are more vomit stained pages and blood soaked ravings. Oh, and I have deliberately witheld the title of the book because anybody who considers themselves to be a serious reader or writer will instinctively know who wrote it. And if you don't, well, that's your loss and you'll have to learn to live with it. And don't even think about Googling it for Brownie points...

Owen Blackhurst 1:17 pm, 24-Apr-2013

Good shout on F&L, can I add "It began as a mistake" Post Office by Bukowski

Nathan 4:00 pm, 24-Apr-2013

"It began as a mistake" - Charles Bukowski Post Office

CL 8:52 pm, 24-Apr-2013

You seem to have taken a load of classic books and listed the opening lines. There are better opening lines, see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brighton Rock, Coming up For Air.

Simon Henderson 10:00 pm, 24-Apr-2013

I am a sick man. I am an angry man. I an an unattractive man. I think there's something wrong with my liver." Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Kris 6:51 am, 25-Apr-2013

A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite opening to a book, but please include the whole paragraph, because the end is quite important to the meaning. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Kris 7:10 am, 25-Apr-2013

Karl Marx went one better, because while his opening line is memorable "A spectre is haunting Europe; the spectre of Communism." in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), his final line is even more famous, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!" How many writers manage to bookend a work so well.

chris wilcock 6:17 pm, 26-Apr-2013

It was the day my grandmother exploded-the crow road

Liam Flynn 10:03 pm, 26-Apr-2013

Surely "Once upon a time..." Should be in there somewhere or did Magna Carta die in vain?

Madhamish 1:04 am, 27-Apr-2013

It was love at first sight when Yossarian first saw the Texan. "Catch 22", Joseph Heller.

Steve C 2:54 pm, 30-Apr-2013

"Coventry are fuck all" John King, The Football Factory. Classic.

Brad Reed 8:37 pm, 17-May-2013

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 or punt. 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…”

Brad Weisman 1:19 am, 21-May-2013

"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that i've been turning over in my mind ever since. 'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'" ~The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and also) "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." ~The Bible, by God.

Michel 10:52 pm, 9-Jul-2013

Here's a great novel opening from Deadly Endings by Raymond Russell. Wide, brown leather straps with small, brass buckles ensnared the young boy’s wrists and ankles against a thick, circular piece of wood. His body sprawled out like Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. He couldn’t move an inch in any direction and what’s more, he didn’t want to. The wooden board felt unstable beneath him and although the arena was large, it was also pitch black, except for a powerful spotlight trained on his entire body, like a full moon reflected in a puddle. The target squinted his serpentine-green eyes shut against the glare. The people present were silent, watching, anticipating disaster or even hoping for it.

Michael 12:16 pm, 22-Jul-2013

DEADLY ENDINGS by Raymond Russell. I also like the first lines of the second chapter, which I think should have been chapter one.

Otto 11:54 pm, 24-Jul-2013

‘The first time I smelt Jap was in a deep dry riverbed in the Dry Belt, somewhere near Meiktila. I can no more describe the smell than I could describe a colour, but it was heavy and pungent and compounded of stale cooked rice and sweat and human waste and . . .Jap.’ George MacDonald Fraser's Burma war memoir, Quartered Safe out Here. Greatest WW2 memoir ever written

Ivanko 12:09 pm, 8-Sep-2013

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns." — Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita)

Louis 11:22 pm, 2-Oct-2013

" Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, was to remember that distant afternoon, when his father took him to discover ice ".. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Shelly 6:35 pm, 8-Oct-2013

Ode to Zimbabwe: "I was not sorry when my brother died." (Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga) "We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and Me." (We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo)

Flic Everett 12:20 am, 7-Nov-2013

The opening to Bleak House is infinitely better than A Tale of Two Cities because it's the best description ever written of a rainy winter day in London. I truly think all aspiring writers should read it. Also, the beginning of Our Mutual Friend is better, too. And while I am a big fan ofJK Rowling, I would not, in any world, include the opening sentence of Harry Potter in the twenty best novel openings. You could also have included Tender Is the Night, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of prose, and in modern novels, The Crimson Petal and the White is memorable. In fact, this does seem to be just a list of famous lines, rather than a personal selection. But hey. An irritable editor in possession of a blank page must be in want of a blog, so I forgive you.

Tom 4:44 pm, 27-Nov-2013

"It was the best of times, it was the ...blurst of times, you stupid monkey" - C. Montgomery Burns

Andy 7:41 pm, 27-Nov-2013

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. - The Gunslinger

Andre Felipe 10:05 pm, 27-Nov-2013

"Call me Ishmael"

Matthew Glover 4:16 pm, 29-Nov-2013

All opening lines are good, opening lines that aren't don't get published.

Andrew Glynn 9:37 pm, 29-Nov-2013

"The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new." - Samuel Beckett, Murphy

vijaya kumari 5:10 pm, 2-Dec-2013

Dickens' novels and their openings are unique

Vin 4:34 pm, 5-Dec-2013

It is a truth universally acknowledged that nearly all these same lines keep coming up in lists of best openings. Not because they are necessarily good but because of group think.

Barry Spivey 5:15 pm, 24-Dec-2013

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It.

Shane 9:15 pm, 4-Mar-2014

The greatest opening line of any book ever written is "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." So begins the epic journey of Roland Deschain and the Dark Tower, King's magnus opus.

Lauren Wills 2:23 am, 16-Mar-2014

Chiliad by Simon Otius, at unhappened [dot] com, is almost wholly written in notable sentences. Here is the opening sentence: "To avoid giving the impression, – most particularly here at the very gatehouse of this, for the most part, linear narrating of what is believed a remarkable enough history, one that may, — making its slow but inexorable way to credit, — challenge the very tenets of traditional biography, – that words, – generally believed good-fellows, merry men nearly all, – are already right eager, – by building a labyrinth of intricable mystery, – to confound the unwary reader at the very onset : it will prove very useful if a few, simple, but important facts, concerning the family Troke, and their seat, are first supplied."

Michelle Bowers 10:10 pm, 26-Jul-2014

"My wound is my geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call." Pat Conroy.

Bruce Wiggins 7:54 am, 6-Aug-2014

Not a comment, but I'll bet you can answer a question or two. In a book, I think it was titled, The American Absurd, (We're going back 25 + years here) there is a quote from, I don't remember, maybe Barthe (Sp?), Vonnegut, or Pynchon about . . . society's greatest rebel. . . . It's not from Kurt. And while I'm at it, What exactly is the opening line from the Novel "Shane?" I think it is something like, "He rode into out valley in the summer of ___ ? I forget the year. I'm writing a piece of fiction and I think I might begin by having the 1st person narrator say something like: "We rode his (italics?) ass out of our (italics valley in the summer of 2010. Actually, it was the winter, but it's always summer in Hawaii where we live now in Niu Valley on the Oahu's east coast." Bla-bla-bla. This was right after he, our dad, scored a seven on a ten-panel. It might not even occur to a lot of you girls out there to test your dad for drugs. . . " Like the sight, just happened to stumble across it somehow.

Irina Stuart 3:31 am, 2-Sep-2014

There is a difference between a great first line and the first line of a book you happen to think is great.

Irina Stuart 5:51 pm, 2-Sep-2014

A great stand-alone first line just makes you want to get on the train. The first line of a book you love makes you want to get on the train because you already know where it's going.

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