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Best Opening Lines in Literature

The first sentence is arguably the most important component of any literary work, be it a short story, an essay, or a novel (or even a blog post!). The opening line gives readers insight into the writer’s voice and style while simultaneously drawing them into the story, piquing their interest and making them wonder what is going on, and, more importantly, what is going to happen next. A good opening line can make a story, just like a bad one can break it; after all, if the first sentence isn’t all that great, how likely are you to keep reading the book? Probably not all that likely.

So what are some of the best opening lines in literature, the ones that send shivers down our spines, get us excited to read? Well, I’ll tell you.

Here is a compilation of just twenty of the best opening lines in literature. Obviously, there are *many* more fantastic ones out there, so rest assured, dear readers, that there will be several followups to this post. If any of your favorites didn’t make it onto this post, write me and let me know so I can make sure they are in the next one. Enjoy!

Slaughterhouse-Five~Kurt Vonnegut

All this happened, more or less.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time~Mark Haddon

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed.

The Book Thief~Markus Zusak

First the colours.

Then the humans.

That’s how I usually see things.

Or at least, how I try.


You are going to die.

1984~George Orwell

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

American Psycho~Bret Easton Ellis

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man~James Joyce

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Their Eyes Were Watching God~Zora Neale Hurston

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

The Crow Road~Iain Banks

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Middlesex~Jeffrey Eugenides

I was born twice; first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

At-Swim-Two-Birds~Flann O’Brien

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my own powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.

Perfume~Patrick Süskind

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. His story will be told here.

Neuromancer~William Gibson

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

The Great Gatsby~F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

A Visit from the Goon Squad~Jennifer Egan

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.

Life of Pi~Yann Martel

This book was born as I was hungry. Let me explain.

The Metamorphosis~Franz Kafka

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect*.

                                                                          *in some translations this is “vermin.” 

The Shadow of the Wind~Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.

Anna Karenina~Leo Tolstoy

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The End of the Affair~Graham Greene

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

The Stranger~Albert Camus

Mother died today.


8 thoughts on “Best Opening Lines in Literature

  1. Good stuff! You asked for some others, so here we go: I’m fond of the beginning of _Middlemarch_ by George Eliot, and several of Jane Austen’s and the beginning of almost anything by Tom Robbins, but especially his beginning for _Another Roadside Attraction_.

  2. Opening lines are so important. I can’t even count how many books I’ve put down after reading the opening line. If it doesn’t draw you in immediately, it’s going to be hard to capture a reader.

  3. I love openings that make me want to keep reading. The opening line in Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye is good. “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

  4. Pingback: More Best Opening Lines in Literature | The Bewildered 20-Something Writer

  5. Pingback: S. Thomas Summers | Ten Lines Not to Begin a Novel With (Student Writing)

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