First Lines

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?



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19 responses to “First Lines

  1. What a fun post! Here’s a first line I love:
    “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Emma, by Jane Austen

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  3. e

    VERY cool post! This is one of my all time favorite first lines:
    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
    ― William Gibson, Neuromancer

  4. The Outsiders is one of my all-time favourite reads. Great choice.
    The Messanger by Markus Zusak has one of the most interesting opening lines, “The gunman is useless”. I came across the opening line as part of a match the opening line with the book activity. It was so striking that I had to read the book.

  5. This post was great to read! My favorite opening lines come from the two of my favorites –
    “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
    And, “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy first birthday with a party of special significance, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”
    I know these two are probably overused, but that’s just what I like! :-)

  6. I don’t have a favorite first line that comes to mind – actually I immediately think of “Call me Ishmael” even though I’ve never read Moby Dick – but, I do think this super profound. In my own writing, the first line is usually the last thing I write. I need to know the story and the journey before I can invite someone to take it, so it has to come last. Thanks for sharing!

    P.S. The Outsiders is one of my all time favs and that is an excellent opening line!

  7. Great post! This one is my favourite : “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.” Charles Dickens – David Copperfield

  8. lizzy

    Super idea! It’s like collecting great quotes or short poems. I worry that with the advent of technology our ability to ‘remember’ things like this is going to vanish. (How many phone numbers do you know or are they all in your phone?) A good reminder to treasure great words (ala Fahrenheit 451).

  9. Great post Irene! My favorite first line is from Richard Grant’s travelogue God’s Middle Finger: “So this is what it’s like to be hunted.”

  10. Loved the post, Irene! One of my fav first lines is from Blythe Woolston’s Freak Observer: “I got up and went to school because nobody said I couldn’t. I have a little yellow green bruise under my jaw. It’s nice piece of evidence for the physics of force. Once that energy was distributed along the rubber doohickey on the toilet plunger, the impact pressure was reduced.” It’s a little visceral, but very indicative of the book itself.

  11. I’ve often wondered do the opening lines catch us or after we fall in love do we remember those first moments with bliss for that is when it all began? Great post Irene.

  12. “Call me Ishmael.”

    “It was the best of times,
    it was the worst of times,
    it was the age of wisdom,
    it was the age of foolishness,

    E’s comment reminded me of this one (I had to search for it)

    “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

    The website I found it on unpacks the paragraph:


    Then there’s Dickens’ “David Copperfield”


    (Really a chapter title….. It makes you think, “OK, we’re in for a long one here.”)

    Chuck Jones, the great animator, had a game he’d play with his children. They,d bring him a book from his very extensive library, tell him the title, and he’d recite the first lines. Never missed one,

  13. Linda

    What a fun blog! I enjoyed reading it and all the comments and would like to add two of my favorite first lines:

    “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
    from The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

    “It began with an advertisement in the Agony column of The Times.”
    from Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

  14. Great post. My favorite is from Leon Uris’ Battle Cry.
    “They call me Mac. The name’s unimportant.”

  15. At first glance Italo Calvino’s novel “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” is nothing but great opening passages. Every other chapter introduces an all new and compelling story. Maybe gimmicky, but chock-full to say the least.

  16. Pingback: Friday Favorites | The Day Dreaming, Candy Eating, Red Headed Bookworm

  17. ‘Beware the thoughts that come at night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote sources.” from Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ from 1984 by George Orwell

  18. Cool post. Made me think hard about some of my favorite opening lines. After reading it’s entirety and going back to the beginning again, I will have to say that Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” opens up in such a powerful way.

    “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping next to him.”

    It sets you up for such a desolate tale of hopelessness and the love of a father and son. These opening lines speak into the entire rest of the novel.

  19. Pingback: Friday Favorites: Favorite Opening Lines | The Day Dreamer and Candy EaterThe Day Dreamer and Candy Eater

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