Drum Roll Please: Best Opening Lines of All Time

This week, we have a guest post from TheBookBlogger2014 (a.k.a. Matt). He is the very first guest blogger on this blog, and he does a terrific job of reviewing books that are both “classics” and modern texts over at his blog, The Book Blogger. Please go check out his fabulous, brilliant, and witty writing, and you can also check out the guest blog post that I did for him a while back: “The Good, the Scary, and the Scarring: 10 Creepy and/or Terrifying Classics.” So, without further ado, I present to you, TheBookBlogger2014’s take on the best first lines. Also, we’d love to hear what you think are the best first lines of all time, so make sure to comment below.   🙂

Sometimes, you can tell whether or not a text is worth your time just by its opening line. Image From: http://www.storynory.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/white-rabbit.jpg
Sometimes, you can tell whether or not a text is worth your time just by its opening line.
Image From: http://www.storynory.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/white-rabbit.jpg

There are some books that you pick up, turn to the opening page, and–nothing. It’s a dud. A failure. There’s no point reading a book if the author hasn’t got a cracking opening. First impressions are everything in this day and age, as much so with books as with people. So which books really impress, which are my favourite openings? The ones that catch the reader, the ones that jingle, the deep philosophical ones-as long as it’s not dreary or contrived, I find that nearly anything goes. Obviously, some are a cut above the rest, the polished diamonds in a sea of rough diamonds. I have here assembled my favourite polished diamond collection, ready to share with you.

10. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?” Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the first three quarters of this. I am, however, a fan of the last sentence. I can sympathise with Alice, I love a good book with pictures, and a book without conversation is like a song without sound, or a painting with no colours.

9. “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring- cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
One from the country, Grahame juxtaposes the image of spring cleaning, and a mole-a Mole, no less-the idea of animals doing the same chores as humans is odd, but strangely reassuring and pleasant, and indicative of the rest of the book.

8. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This is one of those ones that you read, and go ‘wait, what?’ The idea of a “bright cold day in April” is familiar to pretty much everyone (especially if they live in the UK), as such everyone can imagine it-the biting cold not matched by the sky, a delicate shade of blue which, at any other time, would herald the start of summer. The clocks striking thirteen is so beautifully counter-intuitive, so outlandish, that they instantly hook the reader in.

What an opening line to this book! Image From: https://everywhereonce.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/1984.jpg
What an opening line to this book!
Image From: https://everywhereonce.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/1984.jpg

7. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Beckett has leant the opening of Murphy a brilliantly dry, ironical feel. It emphasises the monotony of life, and personifies the Sun into a being that would shine elsewhere if it only could. I can just feel Beckett’s wry smile reading the line.

6. “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Sinister, eerie, creepy, scary . . . . This opening is everything science fiction should be, man’s short sightedness is emphasised and highlighted in the opening words, and the cold clinical attitude with which these other beings view man with is . . . well, akin to the manner with which man ruthlessly examines all of nature. The reader is hooked, what are these other beings, mortal yet more intelligent than us? For what could possibly be more intelligent than man?

5. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
In terms of quotes with great philosophical meaning, there is none better than Hartley’s. This is a perfect example of what is called many things: ‘Historian’s fallacy’, ‘presentism’, and so on: judging the standards of the past based on the standards of today. Obviously there are ethical problems in past eras, as there doubtless will be found in this era in the future. However, they were the norm, and utterers of such statements should not be judged as harshly as if they uttered the same statement today.

4. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
The ultimate hook, better than Plath’s from The Bell Jar, it is short, pithy, and to the point. The reader is grabbed by the lapels by the in-your-face plot, there is no escaping the fact that it is both a brilliant hook and a brilliant cliff hanger, the reader wants to find out who Hale is, why he’s in Brighton, who’s going to murder him, how he knows someone wants to murder him . . . . So many questions are raised from those 16 words.

Image From: https://frontofstore.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/brighton-rock1.jpg
Image From: https://frontofstore.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/brighton-rock1.jpg

3. “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.” Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat
I’m a big fan of rhyme, especially in a poem. Although this is quite surely not a poem, the fact that all this information has been conveyed so naturally, and so lyrically, and so beautifully by Seuss is fantastic. It has a fun, jokey sort of beauty to it that appeals to practically everyone.

2. “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
No list of opening lines would be complete without this classic. Dickens’ list of beautiful juxtapositions perfectly captures the setting, and makes me want to read the rest of the book whenever I see it. The first words especially, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is so famous now that it has slipped into common usage in its own right, though admittedly not in a big way. A fantastic and eternal classic.

Before I reveal my number one, here are some highly commended openings:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“All children, except one, grow up.” JM Barrie, Peter Pan

1. “Once upon a time . . . .”
The classic opening to all fairy tales, other tales, and even pop culture such as Star Wars. It sets the time vaguely, leaving everything to the reader’s imagination. It could be The Crusades, it could be yesterday, it all depends on who’s reading it and their interpretation-a truly magical introduction. If in doubt, a perennial classic such as this will work wonders. Unless you’re writing a completely unsuitable genre, such as… well, this can work with anything, which is a good part of its beauty. That and the classic, medieval nature that it comes with, of ages of adventure, of exploration, of victory . . . .

16 thoughts on “Drum Roll Please: Best Opening Lines of All Time

Add yours

  1. It’s interesting to look at the first sentences in separation and try to guess where they are from. However, I’m never so impatient as to put down a book due to a poor opening. I browse through, inhale, weigh it and form my impression. And then I either put it down or begin. Your (that is thebookblogger2014’s) take on poor Hardy’s Tess in your blog made me chuckle – luckily it got interesting just in time, didn’t it? 😀

  2. It’s great, isn’t it? When he first sent me the article, Microsoft Word put those red squiggly lines under some of the words, and I was like, “Nuh-huh, Word. Those words aren’t misspelled. They’re British!” 🙂

    While I don’t think that many people actually put down a book after the first line, a first line can certainly grab you and hook you for the rest of the book.

    Thank you for reading and commenting! 🙂

  3. I think that sound a great game for a literary themed party. Take a lot of first lines from the classics, type ’em up on little pieces of paper, and throw them in a big bowl. Then a person should draw one, and if they CAN’T identify where it came from correctly, they have to use it for the first line of a story and tell you the first paragraph (or some such thing). Hm… I feel a party coming on! 🙂

  4. I wouldn’t call myself impatient as such… I just feel that it’s a mark of a great author to be able to create a line so brilliant that I cannot forget it, that rings true and is just brilliant. I don’t think Hardy would mind one small blogger’s slightly negative views (though I did enjoy the last bit…), and they were my views (though I am fairly certain that I have been critical at some point of people who judge books based on their pace-ie me). Thanks for the comment!

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