The First Line in Fiction

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“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Thanks to my friend Allen at Wayne’s Journal who shared with me a list compiled by Jason Parnham “50 Best First Sentences in Fiction” found on-line at Gawker Review of Books. It included Stephen King’s thoughts about voice and how important that first line is for luring the reader to read more. King claims it’s the style or voice that captures the interest of the reader, not so much the genre or the character. Whether to mystify, show a time or place, with few words or with many, every reader is attracted to a style of writing that is clear in that first sentence.

Here are a few of my personal favorites. Can you name the author?

1. “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, 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.”

2. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

3. “All this happened, more or less.”

4. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

5. “When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around the, extending upon his countenance like the rays on a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

6. “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

7. “When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.”

8.  “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

9. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

10. “In a hole in the ground their lived a hobbit.”

Most of you know I enjoy writing. Here are some of my openers: 

A. “He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail.”

B.”The aged horse smacked a cloud of flies away from its haunches, and the tip of its tail stung Kay’s arm, waking her from her daydream.”

C. “Peeking out from behind the velvet curtain, she counted twenty-five, faceless heads in the dimmed house.”

D. “Embossed with the letters G. H., he lifted the leather glove off the hotel dresser and rubbed the soft hide with his hand and listened to the blood that gurgled from her neck.”

* * * * * * * *

1. Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

2. Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis (1915)

3. Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

4. John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)

5. Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)

6. Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

7. Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900) 

8. Stephen King: It (1986)

9. Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847) 

10. J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937) 

Many of you out there love to write. What are your personal favorites? What have you written?

52 thoughts on “The First Line in Fiction

Add yours

  1. I’d forgotten about that opening line in Stephen King’s, IT. Some great ones, for sure, Cindy. Well done.

    p.s., love yours, too. I need you to write some for my posts. 😉

  2. Nice selection Cindy. Dickens never fails to amaze me with his character descriptions.
    I have to give the opening line to Daphne Du Maurier, for ‘Rebecca’. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Because I have always remembered it, and I wanted to know more about Manderley because of it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Nice post. I got four. I really like your five too. I would have to have the opening of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I think it’s the greatest opening line in literature. 100 Years of Solitude is exceptional too.

      1. It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

        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.

      1. I have to reread the book – it is decades since I read it last time. Poor Gregor – he is getting more and more human inside, while his family – more and more vermin. That’s metamorphosis…

  4. Kafka’s line is amazing. Well, that whole story is amazing. Easily my favorite of the bunch. It’s been so many years since I’ve read “A Tale of Two Cities” I assumed that the sentence ended after “it was the worst of times.” I just look at that whole thing and want to insert some periods. But hey, that’s a classic piece of literature so what do I know? By the way, I love your own openers. D is my favorite. That just screams at me to keep reading!

    1. Hi Wendell, I love the Metamorphosis , it is a lot of fun to analyze. Opening lines are subjective. The Dickens choice I’ve had rattle about the brain for decades. Thanks for liking D. Oh, my character George is a strange, odd man to be in the mind of! Thanks for commenting.

  5. I always liked the opening line from Gone With The Wind: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

    Says it all. Attractive, but not beautiful – but her charm held men in thrall. I rather think charm is a trait many memorable women share. Charm is the great deceiver.

      1. i think your stuff looks really good. but in truth, i read little these days. are you won those who driven to write? must write? or those who view it as a necessary chore? a discipline?
        Western writers? i think the good ones have some great insights on life and the human character.
        “No memory is ever alone; it’s at the end of a trail of memories, a dozen trails that each have their own associations.” – Louis L’Amour

        1. What a great quote by the great Louis L’Amour! Yes, I must write. I enjoy it thoroughly. I love my day job, too, as a teacher. I’m a fortunate woman. Thanks, J.C., as always, for commenting.

    1. Hi Abbi, well, the classic ones like “Call me Ishmael” are usually sited. I through some personal favorites. It’s all subjective and what works for you. I know you are an avid reader. Any personal writer of yours that has a standout beginning line? Thanks for liking mine. 🙂

  6. What an excellent idea for a post Cindy! The one for A Tale Of Two Cities is so iconic that it’s been copied so many times hasn’t it? I LOVE the opening line of Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak is a wonderful character and I love that name, too. This is very thought provoking and insightful as I’m working on my narrative endeavor [that’s what I’m calling it now as I don’t know if I’ll do a novel or a script], and been thinking of a good opening line. Btw, I want to ask you a question since you are a novelist yourself, would it be ok if I email you?

    P.S. I did a tribute to James Horner for his passing, hope you’ll check it out 😉

    1. Hi Ruth! I’m on vacation in Illinois for a week, so my response time is slower than normal. Of course, you can email me. I’d be happy to talk to you personally. I was sad to hear of Horner’s passing :(. I was right in the middle of a draft of writing a post about Jerry Goldsmith. I’ll wait a bit before posting it; I’m glad you did a tribute on James Horner. He was awesome, wasn’t he? The power of scores for creating emotional ties between the audience and the filmmaker is essential. All my favorite films have great scores. I think there’s a definite connection. Here’s my address: cbruchman@yahoo.com

      1. Hope you’re enjoying your vacation in IL Cindy. It’s funny but I have a friend who just moved to Phoenix over for dinner earlier tonight 🙂

        Thanks for the offer for being my literary consultant 😉 I’ll definitely email you sometime, thanks again!

  7. Great post Cindy. I thought number 3 was Poe, he is my favourite. Him and Hunter S Thompson have had the biggest influence on me.

    Have you read the creative writing on my site Cindy? I’d certainly love to hear some tips from you!

      1. I just feels like I could learn a lot from you, having read your posts, and the way you write them, I just think we could maybe learn from each other too. Writing is what I’ve done since I was 5, its a real passion for me

        Enough from me, enjoy your vacation!

        1. Hi Jordan! I’m always happy to hear comments–they make my day. Yours was very kind. I do believe we all teach each other new angles, new thoughts, and I love sharing what I’ve discovered. Writing posts is a fun way to organize my thoughts and try to say something about what I love. The creative writing, the manuscript is an individual, isolated experience, as you very well know. I love it, but the instant gratification from posts is addicting. Looking forward to checking out your work!

          1. The second half of your post was really well said, I agree with all of it. I’m posting my creative writing on my blog to try and get feedback, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them when you have the time 🙂

          1. That would be great to have you participate! I’m gonna update the date to July 27, I’m gonna make a post about it. I want to tie it in with my real birthday 🙂

  8. I used to play this wonderful game with my kids at meal times when we’d be out for dinner and they would need to be patient after someone took our order. We’d play, Greatest Opening Lines. We’d make up lines that we were sure would make a reader turn the page.
    My son’s were always something like: He held the girl’s hand and looked at it carefully, inspecting every beautiful inch. He’d never held a girl’s hand before. Well, certainly not one that wasn’t still attached to her body.
    He always won.
    Terrific post, Cindy!

    1. Hi Paul, ahhh, but it is a similar tone, yes? So blaise and apathetic. It’s frequently listed as “best”:
      “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.”

  9. Great selections. I really admire first lines that kick off a book with a profound proverb-like sentence, like Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And let’s not forget A Wrinkle in Time: “It was a dark and stormy night,” although I guess that’s not wholly original.

  10. Here is the opening paragraph of my second novel, the Mayor is a Gringo, now in its second draft:
    From the time Jimmy Franklin started eating purple baby food out of a jar, he was told he could grow up to be president. Of which country, nobody would say. As it turned out, he never became president of anything, let alone a country, being about as far removed from the presidential loop as one could get. But even in his most unpresidential hour, he never lost sight of that promise that was made to him, first by his parents, then by his school advisors, and finally by the man who offered to be his campaign manager in a run for the mayor of Tajara, a small fishing village in a country that had recently been renamed Cordero.

  11. Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

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