Here are my top first lines from books I’ve read. These books have had an impact on my maturity and growth as a writer. But they aren’t arranged in any particular order. I’ve tried to include lines that weren’t selected a while back by American Book Review, though there are one or two I couldn’t help but pick. There are also lines I’ve liked over the years but didn’t include them because I don’t have the book here with me and I can’t remember the line exactly. One is the opening from Of Mice and Men which reads something like “A few miles south of Soledad they threw me off the truck.” But since I don’t have the actual quote, I didn’t include it in this current list. It’s a great first line, though, especially when you know “Soledad” means loneliness in Spanish.
An other fun first line that got some play in the SF community a while back is from John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, which reads something like “In twenty years the male penis will be extinct.” Funny and novel, worth a grin and definitely memorable, but pretty shallow otherwise. I include mention of it only if you run across the book so you can look up the line as it was actually written.
So here are some of my personal favorites:
1. Call me Ishmael. –Herman Melville, Moby Dick
It’s really hard to ignore this opening line. Aside from the fact it’s world famous, I argue the line itself, from a lot of different perspectives, is not only well written, it’s a super grab-you line. Three words, but weighty with significance before and after you read the novel. Absolutely perfect in every sense of the word.
2. You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. –Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Another perfect first line. Evokes character, gives setting and hooks you hard all because of the dialect and the tease “You don’t know me….” A great first line from one of the greatest books ever written.
3. They’re out there. –Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
I like this a lot. Total paranoia that hits you between the eyes like a two-by-four. At first blush you might think it’s a short and pithy line. Look deeper.
4. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. –Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
I think this is a great first line. Gives place, some depth of characterization and emotional content. You can’t wait to see what is going to happen next….
5. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. –George Orwell, 1984
Wow. There’s a lot going on in this first line, isn’t there? Where to begin? You know you’re in a very different world after you read this line, and you can’t wait to find out what it’s like. Also, you know it’s not a world you would probably want to live in…if this society has clocks that strike thirteen….
6. The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. –Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
I love this line. I think it’s great. It gives you everything and is a strong hook for the reader. A great first line. Fleming had many of these; he was good at first lines.
7. He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. –Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
I really like this one. You can feel the pine needles and hear the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. You know right away this is a character and a scene worth reading about. Really well done…but then again we’re talking about Hemingway. Sadly, as good as the book is, it doesn’t live up to this opening line. However, this is what we writers call a circular line because the book ends with him lying on the pine needles, his heart thumping….so this first line provides an entrance to the book and also closure.
8. It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. –Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
Typical Bradbury, both poetic and romantic at the same time. Maybe a funny pick, but I like this one, too. Though, I admit, the first line from Fahrenheit 451 gets more play, and perhaps deservedly so.
9. “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” Joe Haldeman, The Forever War
Another winner. Gets you into the action right away and keeps you reading. Sadly, most science fiction writers don’t write great first lines. Asimov never did, Heinlein wrote a couple of memorable ones. It’s as if the focus of the genre is not on hooking the reader — SF readers don’t have to be talked into reading a novel, they’re usually happy to do it anyway, especially if they already know the writer’s work — but on the world building. But when a killer first line does come across, like this one, the book finds popularity outside the SF audience.
10. I am living at the Villa Borghese. –Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
This one is a bit of a cheat. The line itself isn’t high-powered, but that’s because it leads naturally into the next line, and that into the following. So it’s the first paragraph that is really killer. Here is the entire paragraph:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead. –Henry Miller
Now that’s a great opening. You’re totally hooked. The writing is terse and novel and Miller has put words together in a new way to make you think like “crumb of dirt….” and the shock of “we are dead” that brings the reader up short. So in that context it’s a fantastic opening line, imo.
I would be interested to see lists of your favorite opening lines if you want to share them. 🙂