What Makes A Brilliant Opening Line To A Novel?
A great opening line cannot make a great novel but it at least takes the first step in that direction. It opens the door to the new world into which one is stepping. The first line of a novel often hints, however subtly, at what is in store for the reader and the best of them grab you, dig their claws in and give you little choice but to read on.
Here are some of our favourite opening lines to novels.
“Call me Ishmael.”
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
We begin with one of the most famous first lines in literature (of the book-proper: pedants might wish to point out there are two introductory prologues) from what many believe is one of the greatest novels ever written. The brevity and intrigue provided by the opening line give little away about the depth and density of the novel to come but it gives the reader enough to form several questions, if only in the subconscious: who is this Ishmael? Is he even called Ishmael or does he just want us to call him that while protecting his true identity? Why is he talking to us at all?
The second line gives the reader some answers: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
Banished is the sparsity of the opening line and instead we get a taste of the narrator’s more expansive style, and indeed we witness the potential for Ishmael’s lack of reliability as a narrator and the possibility of evasion (“never mind how long precisely”).
If you haven’t read Moby Dick, we would thoroughly recommend it… especially if you have even a passing interest in whales.
“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 (1971)
There’s not so much intrigue in this opening line but it certainly urges and dares the reader to continue to find out what’s about to happen as the narcotics take hold. Thompson is telling it how it is from the start here and it bodes well for those seeking the truth – however vague or warped – about the narrator’s subsequent experiences.
“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 (1813)
Another classic first line from one of the classics of western literature, this opening gives a fair indication of what is to come in this novel that has been cherished by millions of people across the decades. One of the best-loved novels of all time, Austen’s character development of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet is enjoyable and impressive. The novel and indeed the first line itself have been imitated, adapted and parodied numerous times,
“The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.”
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Many great opening lines of novels present the reader with questions. Here we immediately want to find out why Sick Boy is sweating and trembling, but more than that: any character called “Sick Boy” must have a story worth telling. Then there is the use of Scots dialect that brings the voice of the narrator to the fore and gives the impression that you are there, witnessing this trembling, sweating person, which is rather unsettling. A fine first line and a brilliant novel.
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
A common property of many first lines that have become recognised as “great” is their brevity. Here Ray Bradbury is sparing with words but big on intrigue. “Pleasure” and “burn” are the key words here and their juxtaposition (few would immediately associate burning with pleasure) pique the interest of the reader. This dystopian novel about a book-burning society is brilliantly written and has relevance today, many decades after it was written. Incidentally, Bradbury co-wrote the screenplay to the 1956 film version of another book on this list, Moby Dick.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Despite no explanation about how the dream made the narrator feel, the open line gives a strong sense of melancholy, a longing for a time and place that is now out of reach. The reader is sucked in and wants to know what and where “Manderley” is, what happened there, whether the protagonist will return and what will happen if that’s the case. This is a perfect example of how to encourage the reader to continue by giving them just enough information without having to spell anything out.
“I climbed Mount Everest eighty thousand years ago.”
Scepticism Inc by Bo Fowler
Bo Fowler is derided by some as a Kurt Vonnegut wannabe whose style is purely copycat, whilst others accept the obvious Vonnegut influence whilst praising his humour and originality. He divides opinion to a degree but there is no doubting that this opening line to his 1998 surrealist take on religion and faith sets the tone perfectly for what is a funny, witty and often rather bizarre satire.
The obvious question posed by this gambit is: just who is the narrator and how is it possible that they scaled the planet’s loftiest peak 80,000 years ago? The second line is even more surreal, creating confusion and masses of intrigue: “I am the last supermarket trolley alive.” These two short sentences hit the reader like a perfect one-two combination from the heavyweight champion of the world. How could you not want to find out more?
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (1937)
Here is an opening line that invites the reader to suspend their notion of everyday reality, to enter another world, one in which there live things called “hobbits”. Despite the wide-reaching and ambitiously creative world Tolkien creates in The Hobbit, once again we have an opening line that is sparse and somewhat understated. Having said that, it sows a seed of intrigue in the reader’s mind, a seed that will grow over the following lines and flourish in the chapters to come. The second line helps set the tone: “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.” Doesn’t it just make you want to wander right in and enjoy the hobbit-hole for yourself?
“All this happened, more or less.”
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
The perfect opening to indicate an unreliable narrator, Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical anti-war novel packs a real punch as flashbacks of war mix with experiences of time travel to weave a disorientating but morally exquisite novel. The unreliability of the narrator implied by the opening line is indicative of the confusing nature of the experiences remembered or imagined by the protagonist Billy Pilgrim. A thought-provoking and important novel.
“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 (1967)
The opening line of this classic of magical realism gets its hooks into the reader by contrasting the horror of facing a firing squad with a potentially very fond memory of a father taking a son on a journey of discovery. That the discovery was of something seemingly so normal, ice, makes it all the more intriguing, giving the Colonel an implied innocence (or past innocence) that puts the reader in his corner and urges them to read on to find out whether he avoids getting shot. The poeticism exhibited throughout the novel and the intricate weaving of symbolism into the narrative make this novel stand out as one of the great literary works of the 20th century.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
Another classic opening line and one that causes the first-time reader to do a double-take. Clocks striking thirteen, you say? What in God’s good name are you suggesting? As it turns out, what Orwell is hinting at is a society that has taken a dark and troubling turn. A society in which individuals live under constant surveillance, in which people are manipulated and controlled by totalitarian masters. But that could only happen within the realms of fiction, right?
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Here we have a profound and beautiful opening line that dissects the human condition of unattainable dreams. Written by Zora Neale Hurston, who was also a filmmaker and anthropologist and part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, the novel explores the protagonist Janie Crawford’s journey to womanhood and tackles issues of gender roles and women’s liberation and, to a lesser extent, race, in a way that puts you firmly on Janie’s side. But it’s the thought-provoking first line that grabs us and sets the tone.
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?’”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
There’s no attempt at brevity from Lewis Carroll in the opening line of his children’s classic novel, and given the fantastical nature of the adventures to follow, nor should there be. This opening line is both playful and enticing and hints that this book won’t be anything like her sister’s. Indeed, Carroll illustrated the initial manuscript himself, and of course there are plenty of very memorable conversations with all manner of interesting characters from the hookah-smoking caterpillar to the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. A tour de force of the imagination, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been influential across the cultural spectrum for more than a century and a half, and it still captivates readers young and old.
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)
Anyone who’s ever read any Roald Dahl (or indeed anyone who didn’t get on with their grandmother) might immediately be drawn to the image portrayed in the opening line of Iain Banks’ brilliant novel. The inventiveness, ingenuity and humour of Banks’ writing take the reader on a challenging but satisfying journey as the protagonist’s life is dissected and presented.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
A dark but wise opening to Leo Tolstoy’s complex and thematically diverse novel that tells the story of socialite Anna Karenina’s extra-marital affair with the rich bachelor Count Vronsky. But that is but one of the stories presented in the novel as it takes the reader through a broad range of topics. Widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written (in any language), this challenging masterpiece should be on the reading list of anyone aspiring to produce great fiction.
“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.”
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Right from the get-go of this classic American novel, the voice of the protagonist and narrator Huckleberry “Huck” Finn bursts off the page and lets the reader get inside his psyche in a way third-person narratives – or indeed most first-person narratives – do not. Plagued by years of controversy due to the row about whether the novel is racist or anti-racist, and indeed the frequency of the N-word, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still has plenty of admirers from across the generations.
“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 JD Salinger (1951)
As first lines go, this opening to JD Salinger’s much-loved novel is rather rambling, but it is also brilliant. It toys with expectations about what the opening line to a novel should be and puts the boot into Dickens (who has some pretty fine first lines of his own) for good measure. Protagonist Holden Caulfield’s angst and sense of rebellion are perfectly introduced in the opening line and the insight the reader gains into his character as the novel develops is, for many, akin to building a great friendship.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
The kind of opening line that might make some readers consider stopping right then and there, but curiosity will get the better of most as the allure of “the saddest story” counteracts any fear of encountering such a thing. The novel presents the disintegrating relationships of narrator and protagonist John Dowell through a series of non-chronological flashbacks. This literary device, along with the use of an apparently unreliable narrator, means the reader must keep their wits about them as they attempt to discern whether the story really is as sad as the opening line suggests.
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Another great opening from a literary behemoth, James Joyce’s masterpiece begins in an understated yet beautiful manner. It is an example of a classic third-person introduction to character, place and object that has been used over the decades in various guises, but in this instance, the line is less a standalone gem as something that merely hints at the treasures to follow. Certainly compared to some of the opening lines mentioned here, it has less wallop than something like Melville or Banks exhibit and it doesn’t get its hooks into you in the same way that Orwell or Morrison do. But it has an elegance and a confidence that allow it to compete well in this battle of the first lines. And certainly, if we were to assess the complete novels from which these openings were unceremoniously plucked, Ulysses would be up there at – or near to – the top of the pile.
“They shoot the white girl first.”
Paradise by Toni Morrison (1998)
The opening to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s 1998 novel is both brutal and simple, so much so that it’s as if the reader had witnessed the incident and everything other than the brutality and simplicity has been stripped away. That it is the white girl that gets shot, and that the author draws attention to this, opens up many avenues of intrigue and begs numerous questions in the mind of the reader, making it essential to find out what’s going on in the scene.
“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.”
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Hemingway won his Nobel Prize in Literature just a couple of years after the publication of this novel (or novella really) and it was widely considered the icing on the cake for one of the greats of American literature. The opening line, in a similar manner to that of Ulysses, is deliberately devoid of bells and whistles, and its simplicity (and indeed of the full novel) is sometimes considered something of a self-parody of Hemingway’s sparse, direct style. It could be seen as Hemingway’s Moby Dick, but shorn of the poetry and description that ooze from every page of that great work. Whatever your views on it, this opening line deserves its place here because it achieves in a few words what takes some novels fifty pages: setting up the story perfectly. The reader knows what is coming and Hemingway delivers with the minimum of fuss or digression.
“You better not never tell nobody but God.”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
The opening line of the 1982 epistolary novel The Color Purple is brilliant on many levels. First of all, it contains the distinctive voice of the narrator that hints at a lack of education, but not of conviction, religious and otherwise. It also delivers on the “hook” factor: suggesting “nobody but God” should be told the story but then letting the reader into that divine privilege is a powerful mechanism to make sure people feel the urge to discover what’s happened, or what’s going to happen.
“It was love at first sight.”
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
A beautiful opening with hints of fairy tales or deep romances before it swiftly turns into a tale of the madness of humans and war. Joseph Heller’s classic satire has touched the hearts and minds of millions since its publication in the early 1960s, to such an extent that its title has become a common phrase. The characterisation of protagonist Yossarian, along with a supporting cast of amusing, troubling and troubled characters, strike a chord with most who read it as well as nailing home the insanity of war.
“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 Life, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far the like present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
Although rather rambling and long-winded, there is no doubt that the opening line to one of Dickens’ best-loved novels is worthy of being highlighted. Swinging like a pendulum with a languid tempo, this opening encouraged the reader to seek out both sides of the events that will follow, and indeed events in general. Although modern novels are unlikely to take such a meandering approach to an opening line (at least if they want to get it past their editor), it has a timeless elegance and charm and poetry to it that some of the brusquer openings could be said to lack.