Good story openings: 8 lessons from famous first lines

Good story openings are challenging to write but an inviting or catchy first sentence reels readers into your fictional world. Here are 8 famous first lines that teach us how to begin a novel in style:

1. Good story openings make us want more information

A strong story opening immediately makes you want to know more. The author tantalizes you with incomplete knowledge. Take the opening line of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for example:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

Referring to the death of a character with an unusual nickname makes us want answers to ‘who’ and ‘why’. Who’s Bunny and why’s he dead? Tartt’s use of past-perfect tense (‘Bunny had been dead for several weeks before…’) extends the sense of mystery to the events following on from Bunny’s death.

We intuit that we’ll find out not only how and why Bunny died but the aftermath, too. The first person plural in ‘our situation’ conjures a cast of shadowy characters in the background. This is a lot to compress into a first sentence. The opening teases us with unanswered questions, hinting at the narrator’s possible complicity (along with the involvement of other, not-yet-introduced characters).

2. Good opening sentences introduce a novel’s themes

Many great novels open with narration or description that doesn’t immediately suggest the themes that will run throughout. There is no absolute ‘rule’ for first lines (other than to craft a good sentence). Yet many celebrated novels do open with lines that establish theme.

The opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most famous first lines in fiction:

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 – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens’ first line is an excellent example of a catchy first sentence. The parallel construction contrasting extreme opposites is memorable due to its repetitive, poem-like structure. It also clearly establishes theme. It suggests the book’s preoccupation with historical processes (specifically the French Revolution). The societal extremes of poverty and wealth, power and powerlessness that Dickens examines are introduced by the polar opposites of his opening sentence.

3. Strong story beginnings make bold statements

The opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Constance Garnett translation) is another famous first line from classic fiction.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Tolstoy’s first line introduces the domestic strife that drives the story’s tragic events, using a bold, sweeping statement. The opening line is effective for two reasons. On one hand, it makes a claim we might argue with. ‘Happy families are just as diverse as unhappy ones,’ we might object.

Secondly, the opening sentence is well constructed. The opposition between happy and unhappy families has symmetry. The sentence structure draws our attention to this opposition. It’s clear structure makes us dwell on the statement and become curious about how this claim will be proven by the story.

4. An interesting story opening sets story development in motion

Interesting first lines of novels often begin with striking character actions that prepare the stage for further developments. The opening sentence of George Orwell’s famous novella about farm animals staging a revolt introduces the antagonist, the farmer who is the villain to the revolutionary animals:

Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.

Orwell shows his character making a mistake in the first line. Because Orwell mentions Jones’s oversight, it becomes significant – we surmise there will be consequences. Through this, an impending plot development (the animals managing to meet and organize rebellion) is shown from the start.

5. Effective openings set fitting tone

The first sentence of a novel doesn’t necessarily need to focus on your protagonist or a central character. Take the first line of the first book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Rowling begins the book with light, humorous description of Harry’s cruel aunt and uncle. This choice is effective because Rowling continues to labour the fact that the Dursleys are completely normal, and this alerts us to (and creates contrast with) anything that departs from this idea of normality (as Rowling’s magical world of wizards does).

Besides establishing a light tone fitting for a YA fantasy novel, Rowling’s opening establishes the contrasts between the fantastical world Harry discovers and the oppressively ‘normal’ muggle/non-magical world he grew up in.

6. Creative first lines take licence to play with narrative time

Gabriel Garcia Marquez portrait

A portrait of Gabrial Garcia Marquez. Source: theparisreview.tumblr.com

There’s nothing to say that your story absolutely must begin at the beginning. Many story openings cut forward to later events or recall much earlier ones than the main time-frame of the story.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant opening sentence to his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is a good example:

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.

There are many reasons why Marquez’s opening sentence works. We have a sense of the character’s future from the start, and it’s a dramatic, unusual future. Why will Buendia face the firing squad? This is something we read on to find out.

Marquez’s first line is a strong example of clever opening lines because it looks forwards and back simultaneously. We have a sense of the character’s nostalgia for the past (his excursion with his father) along with the ominous future that awaits him. We know we’ll find out more about the character’s curious past and future if we continue.

7. Inviting first lines of novels orient us with context

Inviting opening lines of novels lay down context for the events that follow. We’re introduced to a setting or a point in narrative time.

The first line of Harper Lee’s celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, establishes the teenage viewpoint of the narrator Scout’s world:

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

The line itself perhaps doesn’t rank with the greatest openings of all time: it’s simple and doesn’t tease any great mystery. Yet it’s precisely this simplicity and the family-oriented voice of Scout that leads us into the story.

Scout reports the events of the story, from the racist trial at the story’s heart to the antics of the town recluse, Boo Radley. Scout as narrator is a witness to the pain of others: Her brother’s arm, her father’s engagement with social injustice, or the trauma of Boo Radley.

As Jeff O’Neal says in his close reading of Lee’s opening line, Scout establishes her journalistic ‘position as witness and reporter’. From the opening line we start forming a sense of Scout’s young but mature, empathetic character.

8. The best first lines introduce strong narrators’ voices

A great aspect of first person narrators is the immediacy of the first person pronoun, ‘I’. Starting a story using first person means introducing a character’s worldview and psychology from the start. J.D. Salinger does this brilliantly in The Catcher in the Rye, creating a vivid impression of the cynical Holden Caulfield:

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.

Holden’s words come across as sarcastic and world-weary, creating a vivid portrait of a disaffected teen. The direct address to the reader takes the reader into the narrator’s confidence, rapidly establishing intimacy, too. This inviting voice gets us to invest emotionally in the narrator quickly.

What are your favourite famous first lines? Paste them in the comments.

If you’d like feedback on your story opening, join Now Novel and get feedback on your first line from our community.

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  • I was just thinking about first lines this week, and one of my all-time favorites is from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” by CS Lewis.

    “There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”

    Tells you theres a boy with a ridiculous name, and you just know that he’s going to be a hand full.

    • That is a great first line! It’s quite a common stylistic element in British fantasy writing (J.K. Rowling does similar) to begin with a ‘once upon a time -like’ introduction and throw in a touch of humour.

  • Barth Anderson

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

  • Barth Anderson

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

    • Great opening line! Isn’t that from Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes were Watching God’?

      • Barth Anderson

        Yes, ma’am!

  • Helaku

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    • Great example by William Gibson (had to Google the source). Thanks for the contribution.

  • Melissa Roscoe

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

  • “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    Perhaps it isn’t the first sentence for me but the first two sentences. Nabakov crafted the most repulsive and beautiful opening of a novel I’ve ever read. If I wrote an opening half as gorgeous I’d call myself a success and never write again.

    My other favorite novel has an intriguing first line as well:

    “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”
    -The Perfume by Patrick Suskind

    • Love your examples, Christina. Nabokov is so clever how he makes the reader physically feel how Humbert Humbert says Lolita’s name while reading. The Suskind is great too, thanks for sharing.

  • Greg Levin

    I’m a little late to the game here, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying your engaging and actionable post. Nice!

    My favorite first lines? I, too, dedicated an entire post to them not too long ago:
    http://greglevin.com/scrawl-space-blog/the-best-opening-lines-in-literature

    Thanks for sharing yours — along with some good advice!

    Best,

    GL

    • Hi Greg – never too late! Thanks for sharing your post, I’ll take a look.

      B

  • Liberty Henwick

    I love this from Jane Eyre : ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.’

  • Elva Cutri-Osorio

    “Joel Campbell, age eleven at the time, began his descent toward murder with a bus ride.”

    ~Elizabeth George.

    Question: Are hook and first line the same thing?

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