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Famous First Lines

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The opening line of a story or novel is one of the most important sentences in the entire work. Opening lines have given us some of the greatest quotes in literary lore. Here is a sampling from books on my shelves–both classics and modern releases:

 All children, except one, grow up.
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

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

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
1984 by George Orwell

One size does not fit all.
Miss Invisible by Laura Jensen Walker

You better not never tell nobody but God.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant insect.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

It was a dark and stormy night.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Call me Ishmael.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

He should never have taken that shortcut.
Timeline by Michael Crichton

Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.
Patriot Games by Tom Clancy

The hunter waited patiently for his prey.
Guardian Angel by Julie Garwood

Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

My name is Toby Heydon and I am practically seventeen years old, since my sixteenth birthday was five whole months ago.
Practically Seventeen by Rosamond du Jardin

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The crack of the pistol’s report came from directly behind the courier.
Daughter of Liberty by J.M. Hochstetler

Kate O’Malley had been in the dungeon since dawn.
The Negotiator by Dee Henderson

He barely escaped with his shirt.
Happily Ever After by Susan May Warren

Growling with battle fury, Rowan of Emrys wrenched his sword from the rib cage of the tattooed barbarian.
Maire by Linda Windsor

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Pick up some novels off your shelves and post a few of your favorite first lines. Next time, we’ll look at our own first lines and talk about how choosing just the right opening line can change the entire tone of your story–and give it the pop it needs to hook potential editors and readers.

  1. Saturday, April 7, 2007 7:59 pm

    first lines, like first impressions, are pretty important. but we also know that cliché we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. i know we still do, i do judge in fact, but how pleasantly surprised i am when i go beyond judging like that and find that the book is better than i’ve expected!


  2. Sunday, April 8, 2007 12:08 am

    I stumbled upon this post and simply couldn’t resist putting in my two cents. I was surprised not to find “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” on your list as it is a truly classic first line.

    I’ve always been quite fond of “In the one hundred and eleven years since the creation of the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1881, not one person, Indian or otherwise, had ever arrived there by accident.”

    – Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.


  3. Sunday, April 8, 2007 9:07 pm

    My all time favorite first line in a book is:

    “I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”

    Alexander Kinloch in TO THE HILT by Dick Francis.


  4. Sunday, April 8, 2007 10:44 pm

    The scary part, Jack decided, was going to be driving.
    – Tom Clancy, Red Rabbit

    Big Clancy fan here. Red Rabbit is truly riveting and one of his best. A KGB plot to kill the pope! It’s set in between Patriot Games and Cardinal of the Kremlin.

    “You always have to be a hero, don’t you?”
    – Susan May Warren, Sands of Time


  5. Lorie-Ann permalink
    Sunday, September 9, 2007 7:00 pm

    When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkeness of the movie house, I had two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

    S. E. Hinton The Outsiders


  6. Sahara permalink
    Sunday, August 3, 2008 3:59 pm

    It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.


  7. Sunday, September 21, 2008 12:33 am

    I know this is late, but I just wanted to note that the line “It was a dark and stormy night” originated from the novel Paul Clifford written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830. A Wrinkle In Time used the same line, but over a hundred years later.


  8. Johnno permalink
    Wednesday, January 28, 2009 11:57 am

    Remember Rona Barrett, the 7o’s Queen of Gossip? Well, her 1974 autobiography, “Miss Rona”, begins:

    ” ‘An inch, Rona. Please just let me put it in one inch!!’ The man pleading with me was one of Hollywood’s top male sex symbols, and still is, as well as being a great actor.”

    Tacky.. well, yes, but Miss Rona makes it clear that she was observer, well, a chronicler, perhaps, of Hollywood in the 70’s, and not a “participant” in its excesses. And she comes across much better than I expected, with a lot of “chutzpah”, wit, humanity, and (dare I say) intelligence. And yes, it grabs your attention…


  9. Amanda permalink
    Thursday, February 12, 2009 12:43 pm

    I’m actually doing a “first line” activity with my Creative Writing class today (which brought me to this webiste).
    I couldn’t resist adding what I believe to be one of the greatest first lines of all time….
    “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my Daddy.” Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons.



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