Are You Hooked On These Phenomenal First Lines From Books?

One of the biggest challenges for writers is crafting the first line of a story. An opening line has to accomplish a lot. A powerful opening line introduces the characters or setting, sets the tone of the story, and lets the reader know what kind of language they can expect in the story overall. Most importantly, the opening line has to grab the reader’s attention and make them want to keep reading. To riff on the classic opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859), they are the best of lines, they are the worst of lines.

Whether you are an aspiring novelist or simply a passionate reader, you will get something out of these incredible first lines. If you think you know what to expect, think again—we aren’t interested only in the classic first lines you may already be familiar with. (There is a lot of strong writing out there that hasn’t made it into the canon … yet.) We are going to take a look at a dozen or so dazzling opening lines and see what makes them tick.

Moby Dick — Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael.” — Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

One of the most famous opening lines in the English-language canon is this one from Melville’s tome about whale hunting. Ishmael is the name of the first-person narrator of the story, although he is a relatively minor character in the story itself. You might wonder, if Ishmael isn’t an important character, why start here? The name itself is part of the story. In Genesis, Ishmael is banished to wander the wilderness. By using this name, Melville is letting us know that his narrator will also wander.

Part of the power of this line is how succinct it is. With only three words, it is catchy and easy to remember.

 

Read about how some authors came up with the names of some of your favorite characters.

The Other Black Girl — Zakiya Dalila Harris

“The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.” — The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (2021)

Writers draw readers into the story by highlighting the senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, and … smell. Here, the first line of Harris’s debut novel uses the surprising evocation of “the smell of cocoa butter” to introduce the reader to the world she is creating. Cocoa butter is a smell that is alluring, specific, and bound to Black American culture. With this simple gesture, you learn a lot about the main character: they are someone who picks up on these subtle, but important, cultural and physical elements of the world around them.

Not only that, this strong opening sentence also raises something of a mystery. You almost can’t help but wonder, “the first sign of what?” You will have to read on to find out.

The Awakening — Kate Chopin

“A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!” — The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

Did you notice what senses Chopin is drawing your attention to here in this opening line of her most famous novel? Sight (the colorful parrot) and sound (its frenetic calls). Unlike the other examples we have seen so far, this opening line does not introduce us to the characters or the intrigue of the story, but instead it powerfully brings us into the setting and the tone of the novel. It is somewhat similar to the opening shot of a film, showing us the sights and sounds of the world of the story before we zoom into the characters. Here, the images and sounds are chaotic and impressionistic, suggesting the story will be as well (it is).

By the way, you may have noticed the parrot is speaking French and English. This is a nod to the bilingualism of the setting—postbellum New Orleans.

The Lathe of Heaven — Ursula K. Le Guin

“Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.” — The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)

In the essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” the writer Ursula K. Le Guin notes that “first sentences are the doors to worlds,” so it is fitting that this is exactly what the opening line of The Lathe of Heaven accomplishes.

Where Chopin used a parrot to evoke chaos and color, Le Guin here uses a jellyfish being tossed about in the waves to evoke a watery, oscillating world. We do not yet have a sense of the plot or the characters, but we have a powerful idea of the themes Le Guin explores in the story: transition, fate, and the natural world.

This line also uses unexpected, poetic language, such as “tugged hugely,” which makes it particularly beautiful.

 

Are you aware of how many contemporary movies are based on classic literature? Discover some of them here.

The Secret History — Donna Tartt

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” — The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

This is the opening line of the moody mystery The Secret History. Unlike some mysteries, this one gets straight to the point. We are introduced immediately to the setting (somewhere in the mountains), the characters (the unnamed “we” and Bunny), and the stakes of the situation—Bunny has died. You are encouraged to immediately start asking questions as a reader: Who is Bunny? How did he die? And why did it take them so long to notice the “gravity of the situation”?

A slightly closer reading of this first sentence also reveals something of the personality of our narrator(s): they are self-absorbed and a bit naive. After all, they mention the weather before they tell us about their friend Bunny. It’s a concise and compelling opening line.

Milkman — Anna Burns

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” — Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

You may have noticed that this line shares a lot of similar elements to the first line of The Secret History. It likewise introduces the setting (somewhere that still has milkmen), characters (the narrator and Somebody McSomebody), and the stakes (“threatened to shoot me”). But this line also uses language in a surprising and unique way that lets you know this isn’t a typical mystery or thriller.

Milkman is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and one of its key themes is the difficulty the narrator has in talking directly about things due to the nature of the violence there at the time. This opening line plunges us right off the bat into this world of maddening obfuscation and double-speak. For example, “called me a cat” is an unusual way of putting what was undoubtedly saltier language.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler — Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” — If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italian: Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore) by Italo Calvino and translated by William Weaver (1979)

Italo Calvino’s playful postmodernist novel about reading novels (yes, you read that right) begins by directly drawing the reader’s attention to their actions. It’s a unique way to begin a story, to say the least. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Calvino variously addresses the reader directly using the second person as well as more conventional literary voices. When you read it, you get the impression that you are an important character in the novel.

If you find this opening line funny, strange, and off-beat, well, that was the goal. But it should also make you really think about what it means to read a novel.

Middlemarch — George Eliot

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” — Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)

The author Mary Anne Evans, under the pen name George Eliot, wrote some of the finest novels of the 19th century. She often focused on themes of marriage, religion, and English life. Perhaps the most famous of these is Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life. One of Eliot’s biggest strengths as a writer was the deftness with which she drew her characters, and that strength is in full view in the opening line to this novel.

We are introduced immediately to the main character of the novel, Miss Brooke. Her title “Miss” is an indication of her youth and establishes her as unmarried. However, unlike a more conventional novel from the time that might sing the praises of its heroine’s looks from the beginning, Eliot takes a more subtle approach. She notes that Miss Brooke is beautiful, but especially because she is poorly dressed. You might wonder about how this seeming contradiction could be true, and that’s the point. You will have to read the rest of the novel to learn about how someone seemingly so humble could shine so brightly.

Mrs. Dalloway — Virginia Woolf

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” — Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

Like Eliot, Virginia Woolf opens the novel Mrs. Dalloway with a character sketch that introduces us immediately to the protagonist. Unlike Eliot, Woolf does not bother to tell us much about what she looks like. Instead, she drops the reader in the middle of the scene—or perhaps more accurately, in the middle of Mrs. Dalloway’s train of thought. This is surprising and unusual, and it prefigures the stream-of-consciousness aspects of the rest of the novel.

We know from this opening line that Mrs. Dalloway is well-off, because she is buying flowers. In fact, she is so well-off that she is used to someone else (such as a maid) buying flowers for her. You get the sense she is often a passive participant in her life. But here, we meet her at the moment when she has decided to make and act on a decision all her own. Where will it lead?

 

If you want to read about another famed work, take this journey into the origin of Dracula.

Open City — Teju Cole

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” — Open City by Teju Cole (2011)

Like Mrs. Dalloway, this opening line from Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City also sets the reader down in a stream of consciousness. The narrator here is, like the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway, making a decision on their own and setting off into the world, not knowing where things will lead. The trope of setting out into the great unknown is a classic in literature and myth, but Cole does something interesting with it in this opening line.

He begins with the conjunction And, making the reader feel as if they have missed whatever came before. It’s a familiar tone that is also intriguing. It is as if the narrator is a friend telling you a rambling story, one that doesn’t have a clear beginning or a clear end.

Freshwater — Akwaeke Emezi

“The first time our mother came for us, we screamed.” — Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (2018)

The opening line of Emezi’s debut novel Freshwater is deliberately disorienting. It upends all sorts of conventions. For starters, we are given no indication who “we” are, where we are, or even really where we are in time. The use of “the first time” suggests that this frightful visit was repeated a few times before the narrator(s) began to tell their story, but we don’t know how long ago in the past this occurred.

More importantly, it creates intrigue because of the unusual way these children are responding to their monstrous mother. It calls to mind other terrifying mothers in literature, such as Grendel’s mother from “Beowulf.” The reader almost can’t help but wonder what is going on in this unusual family dynamic, along with the early hint that perhaps not all the characters in this fantastical novel are entirely human.

Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy

“Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and translated by Constance Garnett (1878)

In a way, the first line of Freshwater is a perfect example of this hotly debated opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Unlike the other examples of opening lines we have looked at so far, which seek to ground the tone, characters, and setting of the novels, Anna Karenina opens with a line more akin to a thesis statement. Tolstoy is setting out here his philosophy of life and human relationships which he will then develop throughout the novel (particularly the second half of this line).

The parallel structure of each clause in this sentence is part of what makes it so memorable.

Pachinko — Min Jin Lee

“History has failed us, but no matter.” — Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

Like Tolstoy, Lee opens her novel about three generations of a Korean family living in Japan with a statement that is similar to a challenge or an argument. Lee’s novel, like Tolstoy’s works, covers hundreds of years of history, family dynamics, and socio-political life. However, she does not merely borrow from Tolstoy’s approach—she puts her own twist on it.

Lee is planting a stake down to assert a claim to writing her own history (her own story). The dismissive “but no matter” is audacious. In a world where histories are often told with an “objective” view from nowhere, the narrator begins with a provocation that her history will be subjective (“us”) and told in her own words.

The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath

“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 (1963)

This is one of the most startling and interesting opening lines in English-language literature. The Bell Jar, Plath’s posthumously published novel, tells the story of a semi-autobiographical Esther Greenwood, a writer newly arrived to the city. Struggling with mental illness, she finds the whole experience strange (once a common meaning of queer, among other senses of the word perhaps suggested here), disorienting, and overwhelming. This opening line draws together all of those threads while simultaneously giving the reader a taste of how Esther feels. She pings from the claustrophobic weather to ominous news to her own sense of alienation from the world around her.

In this strong opening line, as in all of the others we have looked at, we can see how important economy of language, strong word choice, and intentionality are to introducing the reader to the world of the novel .. .and making them want to keep reading. If any one of these lines spoke to you, you may be inspired to crack open the rest of the book.

Now prove how well-read you are by testing yourself on which author wrote these famous first lines.

 

Don’t let the inspiration from these captivating first lines wither away, harness it to enter our Scary Story Opener Writing Contest!