Greatest Opening Lines from Novels
Reading time: 3 1/2 minutes —
First of all, only getting to select nine is ridiculous. There are so many great opening lines in literature. So, a rule for my list: the selection must be from a book I’ve read. Hence, “Call me Ishmael” doesn’t make my list.
For me, the best opening line compels you to read on, calling out to you, hey cuddle up, you’re gonna want to hear about this. Also, it should be noted that I’m trying hard to only think about opening lines and not the entire book. Otherwise, what possible reason would there be for not including the twentieth century’s best book, John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?
Don’t argue with me on that. I respect that your opinion is different, but you won’t change mine, so an argument is futile. You are welcome, however, to leave your favorite opening line in the comments. That should be fun.
- “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
There was a 16-way tie for ninth place on the list, so I broke it with this because my mom’s
reading it for Book Club right now. But what a great line anyway. So much packed into 9 words. Sets up the eerie tone of the book. And don’t you read this line in the tone of the voiceover guy for movie trailers? Of course you do!
- “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
With apologies to McCullers and much of the world, the rest of the book didn’t live up to the opening line for me. But c’mon, what a way to snap your reader to attention – culling up a couple mutes and putting them side by side in what must be an interesting town.
- “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Feel free to put this higher on your list. It has everything in it and it’s wonderfully lyrical.
- “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.” The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.
- “As I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had two things on my mind; Paul Newman and a ride home.” The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.
One, but only one of the things that makes this line so attractive is the fact that it is both the opening line AND the closing line of her book. Doesn’t hurt that the lines between those have withstood the test of time.
- “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
You never see this on a list of classic opening lines, but it sets the story so well. Is there a place more desolate than a village that people from Kansas think is “out there?”
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Settle in for the read of your life. After all, it covers seven generations of the Buendia family. But with an opening line that hooks you like a prized trophy, you’ll go willingly and enjoy the journey.
- “Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Until Gwen by Dennis Lehane
The definitive Dennis Lehane narrative is, of course, the brilliant Shutter Island with its unreliable narrator. (Oops, sorry if you haven’t read it.) But you could ride this opening line like Secretariat and finish almost as quickly because this story headlines a book of short stories (Coronado Stories) after first appearing in The Atlantic.
- “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
The classic tale of man versus nature opens with this gnarly, independent Old Man on a hellacious losing streak. Can he prove his life still has meaning? You don’t have to love fishing to cheer on this old seadog.