Top 9 Tuesday: Greatest Opening Lines

Greatest Opening Lines from Novels

Reading time: 3 1/2 minutes —

9First 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.


  1. “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’sRebecca

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!


  1. “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

Heart is a Lonely HunterWith 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.


  1. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, bell jarand 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.


  1. “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off bad beginningreading some other book.” The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.

Hell yes!


  1. outsiders“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.


  1. “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a in cold bloodlonesome 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?”


  1. 100 years of solitude“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.


  1. “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 Coronado storiesunreliable 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.


  1. “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

old man and the seaThe 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.






11 thoughts on “Top 9 Tuesday: Greatest Opening Lines

  1. Stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair head, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. – James Joyce, Ulysses

    In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

    A great opening line can forever seal a book to a reader’s soul. You have some doozies here. Added two that I particularly loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great additions, Elise. I would have liked to include some James Joyce (so I’d feel as smart as you!), but alas, I’ve not managed to read through any. Yet. Hello, Finnegan’s Wake!


  2. Great choices, and I agree with you about THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. I felt a bit deflated after reading. Did you notice certain things allowed decades ago with regard to writing that wouldn’t be allowed today? For instance, I thought some of her scenes came off as melodramatic, and some were preachy.

    You’re lucky to pick NINE! I could have selected nine hundred! I contained myself though and like Elise, I have two:

    “At the first gesture of morning, the flies stirred.” From COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier. I love that wording “the first gesture of morning…'” This (as you might know) is about a story set during the Civil War, and just that one simple word, gesture, to describe the time of day sets us right into the time frame of the story.

    “She hasn’t been dead four months, and I’ve already eaten to the bottom of the deep freeze.” From A VIRTUOUS WOMAN by Kaye Gibbons – one of my favorite authors. She lives (or lived) in Raleigh. She had some troubles and has sort of fell off the face of the earth. I wish she’d write more books…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have noticed so often how things were allowed back in the day and now would be shunned by agents, editors and fans. Look at the opening scene in The Great Gatsby for another example. But I suppose people will be saying this same thing in 2055, so I’ll shut up about it.

      Love your rationale for COLD MOUNTAIN. Great story, but I really love hearing your thinking behind why you chose it. That is a great word for that spot. Like morning itself is waking up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly, and the fact that I can’t imagine anyone saying “ah, the first gesture of morning,” except in those days. They had a fine grasp of the language, eloquent, and even the roughest, toughest seemed to sound almost delicate with their phrasing. Poetic is the word.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I wrote my master’s thesis on James Joyce and William Faulkner so I could make my professors believe I was smart. Fooled them well enough. I would have done better driving nails into my eyes. Not happy thematic elements. Ireland and the South seem to suffer from a common insufferable darkness.

    Give me a good ole gumshoe and straight forward whodunnit any day. A great thriller sits way better on the stomach and soul. So how’s that manuscript coming along?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gotta love the darkness that envelops Ireland and the Southern states. It has given rise to many a fine story and song.

      I’m not sure if my story is fine, but it’s finally finished. I have resubmitted it earlier in August. I’ve been told, by someone we both know and admire, that it’ll be a few months. Also, I should continue to query widely, she says, slapping a couple fins together to make her point. I’ve not taken her up on that yet because … well, why make an offer for a second house until you find out if the owners of your dream house are going to accept your initial offer? She didn’t ask for an exclusive, of course, made a point of telling me that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to offer one. On the sly.

      I made a critical error right after sending it. Instead of reading someone else’s debut novel or a mundane, middle of the road novel, I picked up Night Film by Marisha Pessl which is called a “literary mystery.” It’s also called “beautifully written and hypnotically suspenseful” by none other than Lee Child. As I read through the 600 pages, I kept thinking to myself that I can’t write this. It’s like a 600-page poem, every sentence more hypnotic than the last.

      But I know this. I’m in such a better position than I was in two years ago when I began my manuscript. I’m a completely different writer. Night and day. So I have to suck it up and get going on my next one. Look at me, blathering on. You ask a simple question, Elise, and the next thing you know I’m pouring you a glass of wine and we’re finding chairs…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, but see…this is the sign (IMO) of a good writer. The self-doubt. The angst. The comparing of one’s work to someone else and believing you could never write like them. And you can’t. You write like you – it’s like a fingerprint, like genetic coding – you write like YOU.

        Just about every time I was confident in something I wrote, I was wrong. Almost every time I wore my fingernails to a nub thinking “who am I kidding???” I was wrong. It’s going to be months? You’re right to get started on your new book. It really does help.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And I’d take you up on that glass having put one book in a desk drawer and starting fresh again. I like to hear about how folks a bit further ahead in the game than me got there. Especially if it involved a few breakdowns and feelings of despair. This is a long process. And I’d be holding out for our common regal friend as well, even if she told me not too if I made it to the full request stage. Crossing fingers and toes for you.

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