I recently read this article, in which Stephen King discusses how important he finds the opening lines of a story. King says, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Of course I couldn’t help but start to think about the first lines that have stuck with me, and I was surprised by how many there were. An evocative opening really is hugely important to a story. Here are a few of my favorites.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This line from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca always gives me chills.
“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.” The opening line of The Outsiders has stuck with me since I first read this book in the sixth grade; it instantly catapults you into the mind of a young teenager, but you can tell from this line that he’s going to lose some of that innocence by the end of the book.
“Mother died today.” Translations are always interpretations, and this line from The Stranger is somewhat contested: the original French has a somewhat different feel to it. However, the coldness and indifference of this line is so striking that it sets the whole tone of the book for me.
“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.” I’m just not really sure you can get much better than this first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” I had this idea that Jane Austen was boring, but at a professor’s recommendation I decided to give Pride and Prejudice a shot when I was an undergraduate. This sentence immediately erased my preconceptions about Austen; the slight sarcasm of this sentence told me that I was way off base about Austen’s stories being boring.
“It began as a mistake.” I have mixed feelings about Charles Bukowski’s work, but I love the beginning of Post Office, his autobiographical novel about working for the postal service.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York…New York was bad enough.” The Bell Jar was my constant companion for a while- I don’t think I could tell you how many times I read this as a teenager (so clichéd!). This sentence draws you right in to the setting and emotional feel of the story.
“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.” Talk about plunging you into a story. Gabriel Garcia Marquez really doesn’t give you a chance to back out of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude with an opening like this: how can you not be curious about what’s going to happen?
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 starts off with this stunner of an opener; there’s a kind of implied cruelty to this sentence that adds to the dark tone of this book.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is different.” Amen to that. Anna Karenina‘s opening line is another one that hooked me from the start.
There are so many amazing opening lines; despite this being a longish list, I actually had to cull it down to my absolute favorites. (Terrible opening lines can be wonderful too, although that’s a topic for another post!). What are your favorite first lines?