They say you can’t judge a book by its cover.
A good cover may make us pick the book up and think about buying it.
But it’s the first lines are crucial in helping us decide whether we are going to keep reading or not.
For my own part, I’ve read plenty of good books whose first lines I don’t remember.
I even tore out the first three pages of one of my favorite novels – The Poisonwood Bible – when I came to re-read it. That prologue was so dreary I almost gave up on the book that first time. Thankfully, I persisted.
Now, with every one of my own books, I spend a lot of time on the first line, the first paragraph, the first page.
“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.” – A Vain and Indecent Woman, Colin Falconer
“The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.” – Cry Justice, Colin Falconer
You can never underestimate the power of a good opening line.
Here are my 43 of the best in Literature:
1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
There’s the hero, the problem and the goal in the first sentence. Brilliant.
2. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude
So many questions and all from just one sentence.
3. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Naboko v, Lolita
The best opening to a crime novel since Donald Westlake.
4. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.“ – George Orwell, 1984
They… what? What sort of world are we in?
5. “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.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Overblown, overdone, Hemingway’s eyes would have bled. But somehow it works. Even people who have never read a Dickens novel know that first line.
6. “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
I believe this is what agents mean when they use the term: ‘voice’.
7. “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” – Paul Auster, City of Glass
That started what? And who were they asking for?
8. “Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger.
Slap. Right between the eyes.
9. “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” – Ha Jin, Waiting
10. “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man”. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
And I am a man that will keep reading to find out more.
11. “They shoot the white girl first.” –Toni Morrison, Paradise
Brilliant, yet simple.
12. “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.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Protagonist, main problem and goal all in the first line. This is why he got his reputation as an economical writer.
13. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road
Hard not to be hooked after that. The day your grandmother explodes is always an important day.
At least, it was in my family.
14. “It was love at first sight.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22
And nothing like the kind of love the reader is expecting. The novel just keeps getting better, funnier and stranger from there.
15. “What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
Yes, yes, yes! What if?
16. “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” – W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
17. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
And of course we want to know what that advice is.
18. “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” – Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
Flannery was a genius. She never said more than she needed to say but it was always enough to keep the reader asking why.
19. “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.” – Günter Grass, The Tin Drum
Voice, voice, voice.
20. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Wonderful metaphor, and so many questions arise from this simple sentence. You just have to know what he means and why the past is important to him.
21. “Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” – William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own
Which tells you everything you need to know about where this novel is going
22. “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.” – J. G. Ballard, Crash
Not A car crash. His LAST one. Brilliant.
23. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”— Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
You can’t possibly not read on to find out why.
24. “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the- other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” – Robert Graves, I, Claudius
Robert Graves establishing voice and telling us the story he’s going to tell us and all in one long, meandering but somehow compelling sentence.
25. “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” – Charles Johnson, Middle Passage
No argument from me there.
26. “Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.” – Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away
Well you have to know more, don’t you?
27. “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
How many towns has two mutes? Instantly, we’re there.
28. “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” – Virginia Woolf, Orlando
This is an opening that is impossible to resist. She raises two questions that you immediately want answered – one has to do with sex, the other with death. This is why other writers were afraid of Virginia Woolf.
29. “High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.” – David Lodge, Changing Places
And then, we ask breathlessly, what happened then?
30. “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.” – Richard Stark, (Donald Westlake) The Mourner
And this is just the first line!
31. “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
The details of the ‘double green fly’ and the hanging question: what just happened?
32. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., because one morning, without his having done anything bad, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial
Listen to the narrator. ‘Without his having done anything bad.’ Really? And you believe him?
33. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” – E B White, Charlotte’s Web
Not the way you’d think a children’s book would start.
But immediately you know this is going somewhere profound.
34. “All children, except one, grow up.” – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
‘Except one.’ What a great way to introduce an immortal main character.
35. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” – Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis.
Kafka always started his stories at the very beginning, which is when Gregor changes into a cockroach. No exposition.
36. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
For me, the best first line ever written.
37. “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” – Roald Dahl, Matilda.
Another unexpected and brilliant first line to a children’s novel.
38. “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
You just have to know more about that place, don’t you?
39. “First the colours. Then the humans. That’s how I usually see things. Or at least, how I try. *** HERE IS A SMALL FACT *** You are going to die.” – Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Markus establishes voice, the unique nature of his narrator and tells you where this story is going. Cheating, I suppose, as this is more than just one line. But it’s my blog, so there.
40. “Death is only the beginning; afterward comes the hard part.” – Jed Rubenfeld, The Death Instinct
Well it’s a world we all wonder about so Rubenfeld has our attention immediately.
41. “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” – John Wyndam, The Day of the Triffids
And he leaves curious about what it is that’s wrong. We are primed.
42. “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.” – Anthony Burgess, Clockwork Orange
Burgess introduces not only his characters but the new language he uses in the novel. Compelling stuff.
43. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” – John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“Kitty O’Kane dreamed of a kind husband and a just life; what she had was haddock water for supper and a dribble of her own blood, seen at close quarters, on the toe of her father’s scuffed boot.”
Big boots he had, sturdy. Good kicking boots. She tried to raise her head from the straw, but it was too much effort. She turned her head sideways; her ma stood in the doorway, she had her apron bunched in her fist, Mary in her arms, Liam and Ann peering from behind her skirts. Sean sat in the corner, a moldy blanket over his head, sobbing. No help for her there.
It’d been a good hard punch, that took her down, and she hadn’t seen it coming. Already she couldn’t see a thing out of her left eye, but if she squinted with her other, she could see Liam shouting something at her daddy. Strange how she couldn’t hear anything. Perhaps he’d sent her deaf.
She looked up at the wall, the little pictures of Jesus with his Sacred Heart and Mother Mary beside him, a little red lamp lighting them up. Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Or maybe save me from death at all, if it’s not too much trouble.
Now her daddy was taking off his belt; Liam tried to hold on to his arm, and got a backhander for it. No point arguing with him when he was filthy drunk like this. She saw his lips moving, his face red and twisted like it got sometimes, she still couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she could smell him, smell the drink, a sour smell, and bitter like hate.
She tried to wriggle into the corner. Couldn’t move her arms much, but her legs worked well enough, and she reckoned if she could get into the corner, she’d make a smaller target for him. The strap was all right. She’d had the strap enough times; if he didn’t beat her with the buckle end, there’d be no harm done.
Just bear it, Kit. Think of something else and it will be over.
The walls were a brick color—pink distemper her ma called it, some kind of powder they’d mix in water. There was a great smell off it. The wood was buggy, and up close she could see the little brown bugs that were getting through the walls. She wondered where they came from.
The strap of the belt slashed across her hip. Her body jerked a bit; there was no controlling it. He was too drunk to aim properly, so that was a blessing then. Just stay away from my face, she thought. It’ll be bad enough having to explain away this black eye at school tomorrow.
She got tired of crawling, so she lay there and waited for the next stripe. She could hear things again now, the horn from an ocean steamer leaving the docks. Wouldn’t she love to be away on that one right now. If I ever leave the Liberties, she promised herself, I’m never coming back.
Liam and her mother were screaming now. Her daddy was yelling something too, but she couldn’t make out what it was he was saying, something about her answering back. Was that what she did? She couldn’t remember anything before he started banging on her, but answering back, that sounded like the kind of thing that she’d do.
She could smell beer and blood, that sour, copper stink of the two together. She heard the slap of the belt, realized he must still be hitting her. It didn’t hurt like it should. If he stopped now, as beatings go, well it wouldn’t be too bad.
So that was hope then. She started crawling again, inched herself further into the corner, curled up like a bug tossed in a fire. Don’t look up at him, don’t yell out, don’t provoke him. Pretend it’s not happening, pretend you’re on that ship, the sea wind is in your hair, salt and cold, and you’re headed out to the white waves and only the gulls are screaming.
“You’d be a fookin’ little devil,” he yelled at her. “Now that’ll be teaching ya some respect!”
She watched his big boots stamp away, he shoved her ma aside, little Liam was still screaming at him. Be careful, Liam, you’re not too little to get hit, boy, not in this family. She felt the sea move beneath her, not got her sea legs yet, maybe going to be sick. And there was new straw on the floor today; Ma would be cross.
“Oh God in heaven, what’s he done to you, Kitty?” her ma said and squatted down beside her.
Done what he always does, she thought. What all daddies do. And she closed her eyes and let the great sea take her, away from Dublin, away from the Liberties, and away from her daddy’s raw, red fists.
Find ‘The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane’ for audio, kindle or paperback here at Amazon.