How to start a book Story openings

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:

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?

  1. Good story openings make us curious
  2. Strong opening sentences introduce novel themes
  3. Enticing story beginnings make bold statements
  4. Hook-driven openings set story development in motion
  5. Effective openings set fitting tone
  6. Creative first lines may play with narrative time
  7. Inviting first lines of novels orient us with context
  8. 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.

Writing good story openings infographic

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:

  1. Introduce characters on the cusp of a possible change for the worse (creating immediate suspense).
  2. 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).
  3. Establish not only place (the woods) but its morbid mood, too.
  4. 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.

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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.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

86 replies on “Good story openings: 8 lessons from famous first lines”

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.

Been there, done that, except it was by the banks of a river, and we were naked, and when the drugs kicked in we all thought our dicks had disappeared.

“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.

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.’

“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?

That’s a great opener, Elva. ‘Hook’ refers more to the function of a first line (or first few lines) – that of seizing the reader’s attention. The hook is what makes reading on irresistible (e.g. in your example, the shock factor of an eleven year old becoming a murderer – the reader wants to know why).

The primroses were over.
Watership down

Always thought this was such an odd and interesting way to start a novel. 🙂

It is an interesting setting detail to open the story with. Echoes the ephemeral element of some of the animals’ lives.

One by Nora Roberts, although I don’t remember the title: “It all started with a letter from a dead man.”
Another favorite is Charlotte’s Web: “Wherever is father going with that axe?”

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

It’s just one of those openings that really stuck out when I read it. Books that grab me right away are the ones that tend to stay with me.

The birds flew around for the hell of it, it was that kind of day.

(but I can’t remember the author – does anyone know?)

I love all of France’s Hardinge’s books, and I especially liked the beginning of ‘A Face Like Glass.’
‘On a certain murky hour about seven years after that fateful day, a skinny figure could be seen capering sideways beside Grandible as he growled and slouched his way through
the tunnels with a great white loop of braided rope-cheese over one shoulder, and a ring of keys bristling in his fist.’

It’s perhaps a little overwrought in its sentence construction but does create curiosity about Grandible and the mysterious figure. Thanks for sharing this.

Knock knock the door called; tring trying the telephone yelled, swish cried the cooker on the stove. I didn’t knew where to start from…. ( here using various sound we can create an atmosphere of panic. One of the character is seen messed in this chaos. )

I like the way you’ve personified the various objects and their demands for attention, Sania.

Pain. That is what I am feeling: pain. Every inch of my body feels like I have bolts of electricity shooting through me at the speed of lightning.

‘ “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.” –Divergent by Veronica Roth

‘ He began his new life, standing up, surrounded by cold darkness, and stale, dusty air.” – The Maze Runner.

‘ I wake with his name in my mouth. Will. Before I open my eyes, I watch him crumple to the pavement again. Dead.” – Insurgent

“It was June of 2025 and I was on my way to school when suddenly the world around me ceased to function
and turned into lifeless gray.”

I’m new to writing but I like to make a novel someday ^_^

alone. stale. rotting. fated to an eternity of solitude. under the shadow of the trees it looked remotely pleasant but when you neared then you realised the horrible truth.
made it up

There was an abandoned house that stood on a hill for over hundred years its unbelievable that the bricks are still intact, the floor is still strong, the walls haven’t moved an inch.

Interesting scene-setting, Donatella – makes one curious about who lived there and what role the house plays in the story.

It was exactly four p.m. when the swat team showed up, dressed in black with large weapons decorating their sides as they pulled me from my comfortable seat on the couch. I never expected them to catch me, let alone figure out what I did. The only thing they know is that I’m Mare Donavan and I killed the president. Let’s just hope they don’t find out about the rest.

-I just wanted to know if this sounded good

Hi Ali, this is an intriguing opening, thank you for sharing it. I’d suggest perhaps taking out ‘with large weapons decorating their sides’ as it’s assumed a swat team would be armed (and ‘decorating’ reads more innocuously than their purpose). The paragraph built well to the fact Mare has killed the president. I hope this helps!

I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end. -Twilight By Stephanie Meyer

Thank you for sharing that, Marcey. It’s interesting to start with a character referring to their own death (though Meyer’s style here is a little convoluted, perhaps, due to the many abstractions she uses). Thank you for reading our blog!

How about mine? Could you maybe check it?

Once there was a– wait no. It doesn’t seem right. Okay. Once upon a tim— no it isn’t this either. Okay, time. Well how do you open up a story?

For me, it’s this.

Just another story. No Once upon a time. Because once a upon a time always have a happy ending. While mine doesn’t. Why? Because happy ending doesn’t exist. I was once a fool to believe that i have my very own ‘Once upon a time’ that would lead to a beautiful ‘Happy Ending’. I was blinded. For a long time. Now let me show you what kind of story this is.

Hi Princess, thank you for sharing that (and Happy New Year!). I like the conversational tone you’ve created by having your narrator go back on what they’ve said and doubt it, as well as your use of short sentence fragmnets and line breaks.

It definitely conveys a sense of your narrator’s view of the world, with a sense of a slightly jaded perspective due to the ‘blinded’ state they’ve emerged from. I would say it’s intriguing and does make the reader wonder what exactly lead to the narrator’s ‘new vision’. Keep going and re-read your beginning once you’ve finished a draft – maybe by then there’ll be tweaks you want to make based on what happens throughout the story. Good luck!

Just how much can you remember about something you didn’t know happened ten years after you are told it happened? If you are like me, you’d probably say ‘Nothing at all’. And that’s what I said at the central police station.

Great article, thanks. It has given me some inspiration for my own opening paragraph:

“In the summer I turned twenty-one I sat on a rock in San Francisco Bay and listened to my grandfather tell me that people are like little jigsaw puzzle pieces made of glass. It was the summer of everything: of Jenny Mason and the promises of youth, of Bugsy Dean and the Turquoise Motel, and when all of these things converged like crashing planets along the great mother road west.”

Thanks, Matt! I’m glad you found inspiration. Great detail in your opening paragraph, good hook in how it creates curiosity about Jenny Mason and Bugsy Dean and the Turquoise Motel and how exactly all of the above will converge for your narrator. Keep going.

Standing here seeing my boy go to college, made me realise how far we have come, from that distant sunny day of 13th November, Friday.
Life is a circle. Now I know how true it is when I see my boy go to college.I remember that distant sunny day of 13th November Friday, that changed my life.

Which should I use?

Hi Drisana,

Thank you for sharing. I would suggest a combination of the two, perhaps, as the first has a strong emotional component while the second implies a life-changing event which is interesting for a hook:

‘Standing here seeing my boy leave for college, I realise how far we’ve come from that distant Friday in November that changed my life.’

Thank you for reading our blog, I hope this is helpful to you.

I think that Once upon a time is not good because it sounds BORING. I like to write suspense/action/psychopathic stories cuz that’s what I can only think of.
Eg: In the realm of hell, many people were tortured/tormented to the extent where they couldn’t bear it anymore. The people then decided to revolt the Devil himself. That would be a very difficult, but not an impossible task.

Hi Karan, thank you for sharing that. ‘Once upon a time’ isn’t the most exciting option for an opening, no, you’re right on this (though it fits stories that are fable or fairytale-like, or subvert these traditions). One creative way it’s been used is to precede situations that are nothing like fairytales, like the Hell scene you described. I would say write what you enjoy; there are so many ways to start a story.

“Odious Oats was an obnoxious little kid, mouthy and rude, safe in the shelter of his young age, knowing that no adult would dare to spank his ass.”

From my first short story about a name from the past. My sister wondered what might have become of him, so I invented a future for him.

Hi David, I’m curious to learn how he acquired the nickname ‘Odious Oats’, so it definitely piqued my curiosity, and I like the immediate sense of cheekiness in the characterization. Keep going with it and thanks for sharing your opening line.

Thank you for sharing it, David. I’ll definitely have a read. As they say, all writing is re-writing. It’s usually a useful exercise.

I have begun a short story, mainly for my own enjoyment, and took inspiration from this article for my introduction (I apologize if it’s long):

“Why is it that you idiots always try to rob me, of all people?” Looted coin purse in hand, and fresh rain in the air, the stranger kicks one of many brigands that lay around him, dark yet verdant trees loom over the blood stained scene. Their still-warm corpses ooze blood from their wounds, adding to the already damp soil. Some still alive, their groans and moans adding to the relatively calming song of the forest. The stranger then sits in a relatively dry spot and begins to count out how much coin today’s attack gifted to him. “Is it my extravagant clothes? My gentle mannerisms? Do I have a sign stuck to my back pleading to be robbed?!” Pleased with the coin he “earned”, and after kicking the corpses a few more times, he takes up his lute leaning against a particularly gnarled trunk and continues his small journey down the old cobbled path to the city.

Hi Ethan, no apologies necessary. A few thoughts/suggestions:

  • I like the fact you open with a dramatic situation (a robbery) and a character’s voice as they ask a question. It creates some intrigue from the start
  • Watch for tense drift, e.g. we go from present (‘the stranger kicks’) to past (‘that lay around him’ – though in US English ‘lay’ is also used interchangeably with ‘lie’ for the present tense verb, here it could read ambiguously as a flip into past tense). ‘That lie around him’ would be unambiguous
  • I would remove ‘Their’ in ‘Their still-warm corpses…’ since it comes right after reference to the trees, creating momentary confusion potentially (that the narration might be referring to the trees having corpses). Making it ‘Still-warm corpses ooze blood…’ thus makes it clearer that the subject focus has shifted without the ambiguous pronoun.
  • I like how the stranger’s voice and questions about why the brigands try to rob him seem so unaffected and blasé – it makes him seem unflappable, like one who is used to dispatching bandits without so much as batting an eye, so it makes me curious about how he is such a seasoned fighter (particularly if he’s a musician, as carrying a lute wouldn’t make one think by default, ‘This is an aggressive/dangerous man’)
  • Hope my feedback is helpful, keep going. And consider joining our free crit groups on Now Novel to get more feedback.

Could you give me your thoughts on this opening to a historical novel, please?

If things go on like this, Seamus can kiss any thought of profit goodbye. The fault lies entirely with the Arab in the tent next to his. Three days into the High Fair at Dhún Pádraig, and for all the scarlet and gold banners, saucy young girls in their spring attire, flying acrobats, fools and jugglers, Seamus O’Connell is unhappy. Only one of his Sheela na Gigs has sold and at half price, to boot. His finest oak carvings, displaying grinning women stretching her private parts wide open, guaranteed top sellers, were it not for his competitor Nur-ad Din.

Hi Casey, thank you for sharing your story opening. It took me down a NSFW rabbit hole of looking up Sheela Na Gigs (I was only familiar with the term from the PJ Harvey song of the same title, which makes a lot more sense now). It did create curiosity – I’m wondering what Nur-ad Din is selling that competes with these grotesques. One tiny suggestion I’d make is that the women in these carvings aren’t usually grinning so much as grimacing – their smiles do not seem joyful or mirthful to my eyes but rather almost creepy (maybe because of their wide-eyed or dead-eyed stares), and this is part of what makes them gargoyle-like I’d say (in addition to the extremely graphic element). This nitpicking aside, it is an intriguing opening as I know from reading up that the origins of these carved figures are debated. I hope this is helpful.

Best opening: Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief”

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.”

Thanks for sharing, Moe. It is interesting in suggesting a character’s hybridity and their having no say in the matter. Thanks for reading our blog.

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