In a 150,000-word novel, perhaps no words are more important than the first ones. At its best, a novel’s opening line raises questions, piques interest, and creates intrigue. It hooks the reader completely, and forces them to devour the rest of the story because the first handful of words were so damn good.
“Once upon a time” simply doesn’t cut it anymore, as the following great opening lines prove. If your goal is to keep your reader engrossed to the very end, you’d do well to study what these stories did.
1. “Call Me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick, Herman Melville
This is perhaps the most iconic non-crappy opening line in history. While it doesn’t tell you anything about Captain Ahab and the whale, it still paints an intriguing picture. Who is this guy? What does he have to do with Moby Dick? Why does he want us to call him Ishmael? Perhaps that’s not his actual name? Already we’re hooked, and absolutely nothing has happened.
2. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — 1984, George Orwell
No clock strikes thirteen, so what’s the deal with this one? With this one line, we already know the world of 1984 is a strange one indeed, so when Orwell introduces Big Brother and Newspeak, they don’t seem terribly out of place.
3. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” — Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
And now we have an opening line that cuts right to the chase. Metamorphosis is about a guy turning into an insect, and Kafka wastes no time in telling us as much. This is the literary equivalent of somebody grabbing you by the collar and immediately launching into their tirade. You pretty much have no choice but to listen.
4. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” — The Crow Road, Iain M. Banks
If your grandmother suddenly exploded, wouldn’t you pay attention? And wouldn’t you want to learn more about what happened? This is precisely why such a first line works, even if the story itself is not about exploding grandmothers.
5. “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” — The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
Normally, admitting that you’re doubtful about your own story does little but make your audience go away. But when the author makes it clear that he has told many stories before, then one that makes him so uneasy has to be particularly disturbing.
6. “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” — The Stranger, Albert Kamus
Chances are, the death of your mother would be tattooed onto your brain the second it happened. So why does this guy not know? Was he far away and nobody told him? Did he hate his mother and not care? Is he drugged-out and unaware of how day and night works anymore? The only way to find out is to keep reading.
7. “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.” – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Long opening lines are usually a turn-off to readers. But the brutally deadpan manner of describing the Sun, Earth, and its people is so densely packed with jokes and eye-opening comic poetry that the reader has no choice but to delightfully press on. Making it clear that on a universal scale, our planet and solar system are backwards and meaningless, Adams sets the scene for the novel, and the entire series.
8. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” — A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
In the hands of an inferior writer, a grammatically incorrect line like this would bomb hard and fast. But Joyce handles it perfectly, making it clear from the get-go that the vocabulary is that of a father speaking to a very young boy at his level. Besides, “moocow” is just plain amusing. It’s enough to make us forgive “once upon a time,” but just this once.
9. “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” — Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Yep, a kid’s book kicks things off with implications of animal slaughter. But it’s not some violent depiction of gore and guts – it’s just another day on the farm. The story of a little girl and pig actively seeking to reject that life follows, with the seeds of our desire to root for them planted immediately.
10. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling
Much like with Ishmael, the first line of the first Harry Potter book makes no mention of Potter, Hogwarts, or wizardry. But while having the first scene centered on non-magical folk might seem like a curious decision, the snappy narration (“thank you very much”) both amuses us and keeps our eyes glued, as we eagerly await the arrival of the title character.
11. “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
This opening line gets straight to the point, immediately introducing us to Bilbo Baggins, mentioning his race and where he lives, and even points out that Hobbits have a distinct way of measuring the years (eleventy-first is what we would call 111.) Middle-Earth is a great big world, and Tolkien wastes no time with getting you acquainted with it.
12. “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?'” — A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
This first line does not contain any of the book’s trademark made-up slang, probably because doing so would confuse readers into thinking they stumbled upon a foreign language book. Starting the story in mid-conversation, however, thrusts you right into the narration and compels you to stick around. By the time the slang starts, you’re committed enough to both continue and translate.
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.” — Matilda, Roald Dahl
Not only is it the truth, this first line perfectly explains why kids could get away with treating Matilda poorly. No parent would think their darling child capable of cruelty, and as Matilda is an orphan, she has nobody to help her plead her case. What could easily be a stand-alone observation on rose-colored parenting is thus the perfect opening line for this tale.
14. “Not every 13-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.” — True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi
If somebody walked into a room and just blurted out this line, wouldn’t you stop whatever you were doing and listen? Of course you would, because the clear implication is that this rare occurrence just happened, and you need to learn why it happened, how it happened, and if the girl did indeed commit murder.
15. “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.” — The Bible
Regardless of whether you see The Bible as fact or fiction, you have to admit this is an amazing opening line. After all, when chronicling the history of the world, why not kick things off with immediate action? There was no introduction to who God was or why he decided to make a Universe; he just got up and did it. Considering the success of both the book and its religion, we’d say that was a damn good choice.
16. “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.” — Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
Here’s a classic case of reverse psychology, as the author tells you not to read his book. Of course, just like a child who was told to absolutely positively NEVER open the cookie jar without permission, this all but guarantees we’ll read on, especially knowing the kind of twisted tales Palahniuk loves to tell.
17. “All children, except one, grow up” — Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Except one? Tell us more! By now we all know of Peter Pan, but at one point nobody did. So to begin his story with a scientifically impossible idea got people’s attention immediately, and was a significant part of the character’s success. It’s an approach that could work just as well for an unknown character today.
18. “You better not never tell nobody but God.” — The Color Purple, Alice Walker
The Color Purple is composed entirely of letters written by a 1930’s black girl on the low end of the social and educational scale. As such, the grammar is off throughout, but perfect grammar in this case would have been a horrible idea. If a book could speak, you would want it to have a voice that fits the story within. This line gives its novel the perfect voice, triple negatives and all.
19. “Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on, I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me.” – Flowers For Algernon, Daniel Keyes
Any editor would send a novel with unintentionally horrible spelling back for immediate revision (unless it was 50 Shades Part IV.) But if it’s intentional, and spoken by a character with limited intelligence, the effect can be tremendous. Right off the bat, you learn that you are speaking the book’s language, not the other way around.
20. “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.” – Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Though it may sound like lyrics from an abandoned Korn album, this first line makes perfect sense in the context of the story, a diary of a lonely old man slowly losing his mind to boredom, isolation, and yes, liver failure. He’s brutally honest with himself, as is the case throughout the entirety of the novel.
21. “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” — Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
This vague line offers just enough detail, however, to make us to dig further to learn why October is a rare month, and what a “rare month” is in the first place. One or two detailed clues can oftentimes be the difference between grasping the reader and not letting go, and sadly waving bye-bye as they open up another, better book.
22. “True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” — The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
With a line like that, you just know that you’re quickly going to learn why anyone would call this narrator mad, as well as why he’s so nervous. And the explanation will come with the blunt force of a clearly-crazy man desperate to prove that he is not, in fact, crazy.
23. “Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.” — Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley
Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about the tobacco industry could understand this line, but many questions still arise. Who is Nick Naylor, why did he become spokesman for such an evil cause, and is he truly so supportive of tobacco that he deserves comparison to Satan?
And no, getting your answers from the movie version doesn’t count.
24. “Marley was dead, to begin with.” — A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
The questions of who “Marley” was, and the circumstances surrounding his death, engrossed readers in A Christmas Carol before they knew anything about Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and the Christmas ghosts. And it becomes an even more powerful line when you re-read it later on, and realize just how much Marley’s death contributed to Scrooge behaving the way he did throughout the story.
25. “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” — Twilight, Stephanie Meyer
Yes, Twilight. Put down your pitchforks. We were wondering why these books have done so well; after reading that opening line though, we start to get an idea. Meyer is not one of history’s great novelists, but her decision to begin her book by having the narrator discuss how she just died was a shockingly genius move. Too bad the goodness of the book begins and ends with that line.
As you can see, there’s no one set way to begin a novel. The best beginnings only have one thing in common: they all make you want to see the story through to the end, which would not be possible without that awesome first impression.
Jason Iannone is a writer and editor for hire. He despises dark and stormy nights.