In an interview in The Atlantic, Stephen King said this about opening lines of books:
There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line . . . . But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
I compiled the below list both from perusing quite a few lists as well as my own favorites. The below list contains some famous opening lines and others more obscure. I would love to know what you think the best opening lines are via the comments below. Here’s my list in no particular order:
“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 by Jane Austen
“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” – Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
“The man in black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.” – The Gunslinger, book one of The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
“Who is John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.“ – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” – Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” – The Secret History by Donna Tartt
“I’m pretty much fucked.” – The Martian by Andy Weir.
“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.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
“Mr Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he stayed up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.” – The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
“ 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.” – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other books. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – The Crow Road by Iain Banks
“This is a story of what it is to be young in a very old world.” – The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
“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 Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
“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
“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” –The Stranger by Albert Camus
“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.” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., because one morning, without his having done anything bad, he was arrested.” – The Trial by Franz Kafka
John, I’ve long collected first lines and saw many of my favorites in your list. This from a book Michael Ondaatje’s new book Warlight is a good one!
“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
OK, and then there’s this:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much
My favorite is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Hobbit one also makes me smile. Let me throw out this one:
“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. ”
Yes! It’s been missed in all the lists I’ve just read. Thanks !
This post is fabulous! My favorite from your list is Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Some of my favorites are:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
“Om! Shri Ganeshaye Namah! With that invocation made right at the beginning we make sure that everything shall turn out well. Time unravels like a dog’s tail, then it curls right back into a circle, and you start all over again.” Sudha Koul, The Tiger Ladies (A Memoir of Kashmir)
Catcher in the Rye quote sets the tone for the book!
Fun quotes. Thanks!
I want to read or re-read every one of those books.
My favorite is 100 Years of Solitude, which is also my favorite book. If that opening line doesn’t pull you in, I don’t know what will.
Iconic, but not particularly evocative: “Call me Ishmael”.
Great post, thanks.
A fantastic post. Thank you.
My favorite from your list is “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Another captivating opening line is ““Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre.” from The World According to Garp