I finished my second reading of the Dark Tower Series a few weeks ago and realized that Steven King must have known that he’d written one of the greatest first lines of all time. Simple, direct and yet evoking endless possibilities. It’s my humble opinion that he never quite got over that line and it haunted him through all seven books of the series. If you have read to the end of book 7 you know what I mean.
Great first lines? It doesn’t get much better than:
1) The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. – Stephen King – The Gunslinger, Book One, The Dark Tower
The experience prompted me to wander through my own library and Google’s lists of books and essays looking for other great first lines from novels. There are the classics, of course, the ones that most people name when you ask about the greatest first lines in a book:
2) Call me Ishmael – Herman Melville – Moby Dick
3) It was the best of times it was the worst of times. – Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities
4) It was a pleasure to burn. – Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
5) Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. – Daphne du Maurer – Rebecca
6) Mother died today. – The Stranger – Albert Camus
7) It was a bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking 13. – George Orwell – 1984
8) All children, except one, grow up. – J. M. Barrie – Peter Pan
Here are a few more short opening sentences that I find amazing because of the way they catch your attention.
9) A screaming comes across the sky. – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
10) You better not never tell nobody but God. – Alice Walker – The Color Purple
11) They shoot the white girl first. – Toni Morrison – Paradise
12) To start with, look at all the books. – The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides
13) “‘You are full of nightmares,’ Harriet tells me.” – James Baldwin – This Morning This Evening Too Soon.
14) Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. – Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
There are some offhand, conversational openings that can’t help but draw you in.
15) See the Child. Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian
16) I’m pretty much fucked. – Andy Weir – The Martian
17) Here’s a weird one for you. David Foster Wallace – Signifying Nothing
18) All this happened more or less. – Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five
To these tight, perfect openings I have to add openings that are just-as-classic, but are a little longer, have a little more of a message about the setting or the philosophy or the mood of the novel. But they are just as powerful:
19) All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
20) He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. – Earnest Hemmingway, – The Old Man and the Sea
21) 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
22) Someone must have slandered Joseph K., because one morning without his having done anything bad, he was arrested. – Franz Kafka – The Trial
I have a few personal favorites:
23) In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone, and he takes me to see the tigers. – Téa Obrecht – The Tiger’s wife
24) My brain is drowning in grease. – Sherman Alexie. – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
25) Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude
And what was the outcome of all this reading and searching? There was a quote on someone’s list of the great first lines that I’d never heard before, from a book I’d never heard of. It seemed so good that I felt I had to go out, buy a copy of the book, and read it just because the opening was so great. I just finished the novel, in fact, I read it twice.
26) Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them and believed them to be trustworthy. – Helen Oyeyemi, – Boy, Snow, Bird
What are your favorite first lines?