20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your StoryBy Mark Nichol
As Glinda the Good Witch says in The Wizard of Oz, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” That’s where editors and literary agents generally get going, so perhaps you should, too. Here are some strategies, accompanied by exemplars from literature, for making the first line of your novel or short story stand out so that the reader can’t help but go on to the second and the third and so on to see what else you have to say:
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” — Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond
Are you in the mood for amusement? This opening line makes it clear that farce is in force.
“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.” — G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Astute observations accompanied by a implied sigh of disgust are tricky to master, but Chesterton, one of the most multifaceted men of letters, lights the way for you with this sample of the form.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, Neuromancer
Oh, by the way, just in case you missed the forecast? Don’t expect any fluffy bunnies or fragrant blossoms or dulcet giggles to show up in this seminal cyberpunk story. A spot-on metaphor expresses the story’s nihilism, letting you know what you’re in for and lugubriously inviting you in.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The author of the Chronicles of Narnia no sooner introduces by name a new character in the latest installment than, in just five more words, he succeeds in telling you everything you need to know about him. Well, got that out of the way.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” — William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own
Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning — and maybe the bed’s shoved up against the wall, and that attitude is a permanent condition. The stage is set for an unhappy beginning, middle, and ending.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
Ho-hum — huh? Orwell’s opening line creates a slight but immediate discordance that sets you up for an unsettling experience.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” — Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
It will not surprise you to learn that the protagonist sets about retracing her steps and striving to correct the error, but after reading this subtle but striking first line, can you resist finding out how she does it?
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” — L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
This offbeat observation from Hartley’s novel of painful reminiscence is a blindsidingly original statement that one will feel compelled to read about just how the writer acquired this wisdom.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” — Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It
By the end of this paragraph, you already know a great deal about the narrator’s family (especially the father) — but thanks to the introduction, as clear as a snow-fed mountain river, you want to know more.
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” — W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
The author is a bit intrusive here, true enough, but it is kind of him to let us know that we’re in for a bit of unpleasantness. But if he can express such profound reluctance, it must be quite a story.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” — Raymond Chandler, Red Wind
Chandler, the master of hard-bitten crime noir, makes it obvious that this story is not going to end well. You can almost hear the smoky, whiskey-soured, world-weary narration in your head. And this quote comes from one of Chandler’s half-forgotten short stories.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Dickens extends his arm toward the passageway within, welcoming you to enter what promises to be an entertaining story.
“In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.” — John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
Oh, but you know this novel is going to be juicy. This snide introduction to the main character conveys a promise of a continuous feed of schadenfreude.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” — Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Every once in a while there comes an opening line that seems to have an entire story folded up inside it. But it’s just the label on the envelope. And I challenge you to withstand the urge to open it up and read the message.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, Tracks
A somber, stately metaphor draws us in despite the pervasively gloomy imagery.
“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
Many people associate Dickens with whimsy and eccentricity, but A Tale of Two Cities is a stern study of the insanity of mob rule, and this floridly eloquent prologue sets the stage like the presenter of a Shakespearean prologue: “Epic Ahead.”
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” — Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche
Romantic, that is, in the sense of lust for life, not love for another. This author of swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood (and, of course, Scaramouche) lets you know right away that you are about to meet someone larger than life.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Austen didn’t invent the word snark — but she certainly refined the application of the quality. Notice, though, how subtle this line is. It’s a bon mot — understated, yet with teeth behind that prim smile.
“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.” — J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Can you find it in your heart to forgive this young man his grievously bad attitude? More likely, you’ll be impressed by — and want to immerse yourself in more of — his insolence.
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, Waiting
This seemingly pedestrian introduction upends itself with an intriguing premise that raises a question in the reader’s mind that must be answered.Recommended for you: « 5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice »
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19 Responses to “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story”
The opening line of a book I read freshman year of high school still sticks with me.
“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.” -Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
I still think that to this day that line motivated me to read the book in half an afternoon.
- Dante Morose
Although the lines are intriguing, and certainly I am appreciative of this post, I am more impressed by the one who compiled it. Your comments and labels were as educational to read as the quotes themselves. Thank you for sparing the time to educate us both with the wit of others and your own unique style of narration to spur us onward to the end.
- Ted Green
All seem to have missed Snoopy’s classic: “It was a dark and stormy night.” One of my favourites.
These are all good lines. Good lines are what matter, not their location in the book. Go back and look at your favorite literature. Most of mine begin with ordinary lines. The opening sentence and paragraph do not truly need to stand out. All the better if they do, but it is not necessary.
Great post! I’ve read some of these books and never really gave any thought to the reason why. Now I know.
That’s the subject I’ve been researching today – one spot of advice I read was to leave the first and last lines until the novel was complete – I think it’s a useful excuse for procrastinators like me.
Well unless someones already done it I think it would be not only right but, satisfying to have endings as well.
Great post! I’ve been testing out story ideas at the Creative Copy Challenge and received favorable feedback. I think it’s time for me to write a novel.
Personally, I like the way I have started all my stories. I love getting right to the action, and explaining later or in different, unique ways. I am only 14 and on my 3rd story.
- Terry A McNeil
Superb! This is a charming, outstanding and quite practical posting. These devices are such wonderful tools to be used to enchant readers, create flows, spark drama, awaken minds… and so much more.
Practice is key. What I deeply love about such tools is they may be applied to so many forms of writing such as fiction, poetry and most other types of narrative. Even “tweets”!
With “tweets” in mind I will have a least 20 new tweets to apply and practice these ideas on today. I am cheating here a wee bit.
Creating tweets for “bestdeedswords”, helps understand how to apply these tools and also selfishly carves them into the dark caverns of my eclectic memory facilities. This is a simple personal way to store them for later use.
Mark, these great posts are very useful. Thanks for your hard work and research. Thanks so very much.
- David Chester
I like the openner which is something like this:
“Well unlike last time when I got too involved and gave you the run arround, this time I’m going straight for the jugular and cut out all that crap about my private life”.
of course he doesn’t.
The author is Don von Elsner.
- Lauren I. Ruiz
Phew! I’m glad I didn’t bypass this e-mail. By the title, I thought this article was going to offer 20 sentences that subscribers could expand upon.
I love the format this article is in, though. 🙂 I knew these different types of beginnings existed, just not consciously.
- Jewel Atkins
I will always love “Once upon a time, ” the best.
- Allure Van Sanz
What a great list of opening lines!
4, 5, 12, 17 & 20 are my favorites.
Thank you for compiling this list. I thought a lot about my own style and strategies while reading it, and I’m pretty much all over the place. I do notice my tendency to start each book with dialogue, whether the style is sarcastic, foreboding, or bleak etc. Most often, the dialogue is pushed behind a beginning paragraph during edits, changing the feel of the opening.
Thanks for the great read,
Allure Van Sanz
I’m simultaneously inspired and intimidated. I can hardly imagine writing anything that draws readers in the way these introductions do. Must keep practicing!
Well I have to share my favourite opening lines now:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded!” – The Crow Road, Iain Banks
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” – I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
In fact the full opening from the Crow Road is even better:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”
- Beverly Diehl
This is fabulous – thanks for sharing!
Thank you for sharing these fabulous opening lines! I love Jane Austen — Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books.
- Bella Street
Thanks for posting this list. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to start a writing day 🙂
Many thanks to author and writing teacher Laura Davis for this outstanding post on how to write great opening lines.
Lots of people ask me about the ideal first line for a book, story, essay or memoir. There is no single answer to this question, although it’s essential to understand that the first line exists for one reason and one reason only: to compel the reader to read the second line. You want to hook the reader and keep him reading.
A great opening line does one or more of the following:
- Begins right in the middle of the story, putting the reader immediately into the dramatic action
- Takes us immediately into another world that we feel we must know more about
- Immediately gives us the opportunity to escape from our own thoughts, obsessions and concerns
- Let’s us know instantly that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller
- Presents us with something unusual, quirky, amazing, shocking or emotionally gripping
- Introduces us to a fascinating, funny or idiosyncratic character
- Introduces us to an adventure, dilemma or person we simply must know more about
- Establishes a mystery that we want to solve
- Sets a compelling emotional mood or tone
- Builds suspense and tension that makes us want to know more
I’ve been collecting great first lines for years and I often have my writing students do the same. Here are some of my all time favorites. See if you can identify which of the qualities I just mentioned are achieved by each of the following lines:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
—The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
–-Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides”When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”
–-The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
“I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison.”
–A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca
“When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.”
–The History of Love by Nicole Kraus
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
— The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
“The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. ‘The fuel gauges on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable.”
–Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
–Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
“Women on their own run in Alice’s family.”
–Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”
–Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
“Every year I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople.”
–Undertaking: Life studies from the dismal trade by Thomas Lynch
“Mavis McPherson is locked in the bathroom and will not come out.”
–Ordinary Life by Elizabeth Berg
“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”
–I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
“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.”
–Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
“The first accident wasn’t my fault.”
–“Wheels of Fortune,” Peter Hessler, The New Yorker
“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
–Nineteen Eight Four by George Orwell
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and charred.”
–Farhenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“Do you want a big rat or a small rat?” the waitress asked.
–“A Rat in My Soup,” Peter Hessler, The New Yorker
“On a Sunday morning in the June of my thirty-first year I open the front door of our house looking for the newspaper and find a man standing out there: stoop-shouldered, bent, blotch-skinned, his hair and beard tangled, staring with the big, wet eyes of an animal.”
–Blue River, by Ethan Canin
“It is a relatively little-known fact that, over the course of a single year, about 20 million letters are delivered to the dead. ”
–Girl with No Shadow by J. Harris
“Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far.”
— A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
“They shot the white girl first.”
–Paradise by Toni Morrison
“In the moments before, she laid a hand on his arm. ‘No matter what,’ he said, giving him a look, ‘you cannot stop.'” –Mercy by Jodi Picoult
Now see if you can find–and write–some of your own!
Laura Davis is the author of seven non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. Laura’s groundbreaking books have sold more than 1.8 million copies around the world. Laura leads weekly writing groups and writing retreats in Santa Cruz, CA, as well as internationally. The Writing Retreat of Your Dreams, held in July on the cliffs of Bolinas on the wild northern California coast, is open for registration now, http://www.lauradavis.net/retreat. Each week, Laura sends out The Writer’s Journey Roadmap–a free inspirational quote and writing prompt, direct to your inbox, http://www.lauradavis.net/prompts.
The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / Keynoters: bestselling novelist Lolly Winston and editor Alan Rinzler on his fifty years in publishing / www.sfwriters.org / blog: http: //sfwriters.info/blog / To receive free MKP3s, visit www.sfwriters.info / Twitter: @SFWC / San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the SFWC / Join its more than 500 members for free feedback on your work / Laurie McLean, Dean / www.sfwritersu.com