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 and what they teach us about how to begin a novel in style:
What do great story introduction examples teach us?
- Good story openings make us curious
- Strong opening sentences introduce novel themes
- Enticing story beginnings make bold statements
- Hook-driven openings set story development in motion
- Effective openings set fitting tone
- Creative first lines may play with narrative time
- Inviting first lines of novels orient us with context
- The best first lines introduce strong narrative voice
Let’s dive in by examining examples of the first lines of stories that supply the above insights:
1. Good story openings make us curious
A strong story opening immediately makes you want to know more. The author tantalizes you with incomplete knowledge. When you want to submit a book to an agent and get published, your first line is probably what you’ll polish most.
Take the opening line of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), 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.Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992), p. 3.
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. Bunny hasn’t died right this moment or 5 minutes ago. It’s been weeks, and those weeks are a blank space the reader wants filled in.
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. Strong opening sentences introduce novel themes
Many great novels open with narration or description that doesn’t immediately suggest the themes of the story. There is no absolute ‘rule’ for first lines (other than to craft a good sentence) when writing a novel.
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.Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), full text available via Project Gutenberg.
Dickens’ first line is an excellent example of a catchy first sentence. The parallel construction contrasting extreme opposites is memorable due to its repetitive, epic-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.
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3. Enticing 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.Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878, trans. 1901), p. 3.
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. Its clear structure makes us dwell on the statement and become curious about how this bold claim will be proven by the story.
4. Hook-driven openings set 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.George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945), p. 3.
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 for this drunken mistake.
Through this, plot development (the conditions necessary for the animals meeting to organize their 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 this fantasy first line example from the prologue to George. R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:
“We should start back,” Gared urged, as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996), p. 13.
There is a clear, immediate tone of danger. Despite many blogs and books advising to the contrary, Martin begins with dialogue (many assume that beginning with dialogue is somehow wrong whereas here we can see how effectively it can introduce character, tone, and place rolled into one).
This fantasy opening sentence example is effective for several reasons. The two sentences:
- Introduce characters on the cusp of a possible change for the worse (creating immediate suspense).
- Lend the action a sense of urgency (the stakes of the party not turning back are implied to be mortal in the reference to the dead wildlings).
- Establish not only place (the woods) but its morbid mood, too.
- There is already a sense of GMC – Goal, Motivation and Conflict, or what characters want, why they want it, and potential drama in the works.
For a brief explanation of GMC, watch this extract from our monthly writing craft webinars where Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer explains the concept:
Opening sentence exercise:
Write a few opening sentences beginning with dialogue. Before you write these practice opening lines, jot down a:
- Character who will speak the line
- The mood of the current scenario (e.g. cheerful, ominous, celebratory, melancholic, etc.)
- The place where the dialogue is being spoken – how can you involve the setting in curiosity-building?
- The speaker’s current desire, their reason for that desire, and a potential conflict said desire might lead to further on
6. Creative first lines may play with narrative time
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 (1967) is a good example of how to create a novel with a beginning scenario that plays with place and time:
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.Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), p. 2.
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 a firing squad? This is something we read on to find out.
Marquez’s first line is a strong example of clever opening lines that play with narrative time 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 dangerous future if we continue reading the story.
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.Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), p. 3.
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 narrative voice
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 (1951), 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.J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), p. 3.
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? Share them in the comments, or tell us what the focus of the first line of your work-in-progress is.
Once you have a great opening line, you still need the rest of the scene to deliver. Go here to get your free guide to beginning, developing and ending compelling scenes.