100 Best First Lines from Novels

There's a great compendium of some of the most pithy and engaging words ever written on American Book Review: the 100 best first lines from novels. I love the art of the great first line - there's a lot to be learned from these for us ad hacks. Especially in terms of writing good headlines. How to make something compelling enough for you to need to read on, yet not give so much away that you feel you don't have to. Or, how to demand attention between a capital and a full-stop. Have a look at the full list here.

Some of my favourites:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.
—J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

It was the day my grandmother exploded.
—Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
—Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

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.
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Some good ones nominated by our well read readers:

Marley was dead, to begin with.
—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
(ta John W)

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure.
—Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942)
(thanks John A)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
—Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)
(ta Vue)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1875)
(ta Milos)

The stripped-down jeep rattled, hopped and bumped its way across the rocky sands of the Koh-e-Sufaid.
—Ben Kay, Instinct (2010)
(from George)

Any more for any more?

VIA  @brainpicker


  1. Totally agree with The Crow Road, poss one of the best 1st Chapters ever.

    But Dickens gets on my wick. It's a fantastic book but the rest of the first chapter gets tiresome, he might have just ended with it was a rabbit, it was a carrot.
    Great first line but let down by the ramble afterwards.

    How about some Auster . . .

    'It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.' - City of Glass

    Great graphic comic version http://tiny.cc/y626v

  2. Marley was dead, to begin with.

  3. Maybe the most famous first sentence is the one in Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy:
    "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

  4. I always like Hemingway's six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Not so much of an opening line, as a whole story.

  5. I looked it up because I didn't know it by heart. But I remember reading it well. Tibor Fischer - The Thought Gang.

    The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any of your clothing, without any recollection of how you got there, with the police sledgehammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer you is to try to be good-humoured and polite.

    It's hardly short and snappy though is it?

  6. "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

    The simple, beautiful opening line to Steven King's epic Dark Tower series, which also happens to be the synopsis of the first book. Love it.

    MASSIVE list here too: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Opening_lines

  7. Oh, and this brilliant one from One Of Us, by my favourite author:

    "I was in a bar in Ensenada, drinking a warm beer quickly and trying to remind myself that I hadn't murdered anyone, when my alarm clock caught up with me. Little bastard."

    (technically, it's two lines, but I love it anyway)

    P.S. The captcha is "prostic" for this post - what the hell is prostic?

  8. Everyone loves the first line of 'Pride and Prejudice'. But for my money, Austen's Emma is a much better book with a great opener.

    "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home
    and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of
    existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."

  9. I am partial to #38

    "All this happened, more or less."
    - Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five

  10. Call me Ishmael

  11. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

    - Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  12. "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."

    – 100 Years of Solitude

    It's a wonder: the expanse over time, the odd verb tense, the coincidence of the remarkable and simple nature of frozen water. My favourite.


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