Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

What's Your Favorite First Line?

Before we get to this week's You Tell Me, I have a request, nay, a plea. Please please please don't forget about the blog archives -- they are down on the right side of the page, just itching to be clicked on. The older posts get lonely and they need friends, and then they start getting depressed and they turn to the drinking, and pretty soon I have a bunch of drunken old blog posts blathering about how people have forgotten all about them and confuse them with old Miss Snark posts and that gets them to fighting and I really don't need a riot on my hands. (Those of you wondering about how to query trilogies and series, please visit this post from July). Thanks for your understanding. They're crazy, I know.

So for this week's You Tell Me, I've been wondering: What is your favorite first line in a novel? And why did it hook you?

I'd have to go with the old standby: "Call me Ishmael." So simple, so awesome. Also because MOBY DICK happens to be my favorite novel.

What's yours?


Anonymous said...

Favorite first line is, "He carried his girl tied to his front, the trapsack on his back, the rifle balanced like a yoke along his shoulders." -- A Sudden Country

Favorite names? Ishmael, Fenno, & Parsifal. You already know one of the novels. Can you remember the others?

Topher1961 said...

"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 s the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Topher1961 said...

It hooked me because it was haunting and compelling and the first person drew me in.

getitwritten_guy said...

"All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights, waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears."
- - - Mickey Spillane, 'Kiss Me Deadly'

The story isn't literary fiction by any means, but it's tighly written and moves in a brisk fashion.

Spillane really set a scene with that line. It stays with you through the entire story, informing perceptions as you read.

It's what a hook should be.

Niteowl said...

Well, favorite is hard for me to pick, but certainly in the my top 10, "Going Postal", by Terry Pratchett:

"They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged."

And have to agree with you on Moby Dick. Well, not the part in the motel... boarding house, but out on the sea, with all the whaling and such. So rich, so full of blood and death.

Lawrence said...

"We were somewhere near Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold."

It gives an immediate sense of place, of vernacular, and most importantly a need to know both "What's happening?" and "What's going to happen next?"

Brian said...

"They murdered him."
--Robert Cormier, THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Great because, when you're in high school and you're being forced to read this, a "murder" is a wonderful place to start. But then, when you finish the book and love it and revisit it from time to time, you understand not only how powerful it is but also how prophetic.

Runner up: "When Gregor Samsa awoke from a night of unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin."

Because when you're in high school and you're forced to read this and it starts with somebody turning into a bug....

Dave said...

"My wound is geography." Pat Conroy, in Prince of Tides.

I'm not normally a mainstream fiction kind of guy, but that line hooked me. When I worked in a bookstore, there was one man in a wheelchair who came in regularly and sang the praises of that book with almost religious fervor. I shouldn't say almost, he did remind me of door to door missionaries. A couple of years later I tried the book. He was right. This coming from someone who much prefers SF or Fantasy to mainstream fiction.

Luc2 said...

From The Gunslinger (Book 1 of The Dark Tower) by S. King, "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

It has suspense, raises questions that makes you read on, and most importantly sets the tone of the story perfectly, IMO.

claud said...

"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."

from Jane Eyre.

I guess I love it because of its immediate closeness and...hmmm...assumed trust? We fall right into the lap of her life and perceptions, I guess.

But it's hard to say what makes it so magical -- which probably has something to do with why it is.

Marti said...

I visit your old blog posts regularly, wiping the droll off their chins and covering their bits back up with a blanket - LOL

One of my favorite first lines (I have many, including one of my own, "The naked man ran screaming down the hallway.") is from Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" = "The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life."

Cheers to my future agent.

WendyNYC said...

Two come to mind:

"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."

Not only does it draw me in, it makes me want to languish on the word "Lolita" as he does.

My other favorite is from The Bell Jar:

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."

It sets the scene, the tone and the narrator's frame of mind in just a few words.

amanda h said...

"It was a dark and stormy night." --A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

This was my all-time favorite book in elementary school. I always thought that Snoopy (in Peanuts) was quoting L'Engle. In high school, I finally learned about Bulwer-Lytton's infamous run-ons. And suddenly years of comics made much more sense.

Chiron O'Keefe said...

"He's a Mad Scientist and I'm his Beautiful Daughter."

The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein.

Who describes themselves like that? One line of dialogue and a clever referral to one of the oldest cliches in pulp history.

Who is this woman? Who is her 'Mad Scientist' father? And WHO is she telling this to?

I had to know more...

Tom Burchfield said...

I've got tons of 'em, but hre are two:

"What was the worst thing you've ever done?"

"I won't tell you that. But I'll yell you the worst thing that ever happened to me . . . the most dreadful thing."

"Ghost Story" by Peter Straub (for which I just posted a review in my blog "A Curious Man."

No. 2: "When the fresh-faced guy in the Chevy offered him a ride, Parker told him to go to hell."-- "The Hunter" by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)

and one more . . . .

"A screaming comes across the sky."-- "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

C.J. said...

good call lawrence on the fear and loathing line. i like the openers that make you go 'what the heck am in for?' so the opener for Finnegans Wake and Tarantula definitely fit that bill.

best opener though in terms of setting up a character is 'the catcher in the rye': "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."

Annalee said...

"I did two things on my 75th birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army." -John Scalzi's Old Man's War.

And my second favorite: "Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out." -John Scalzi's The Android's Dream.

Where first lines are concerned, John Scalzi reigns king amongst modern SF writers.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

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 scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

Anonymous said...

Maybe because I'm reading to children right now, here are a few YA entries:

The classic - "Where's Papa going with that ax?" from Charlotte's Web. Talk about getting the reader's attention.

"On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." You just love that girl from the get-go. That's from A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz.

I love lists like this. I always get plenty of new book ideas to add to the pile.

Am I exposing my ignorance when I say that "Call Me Ishmael" never struck me as an awe-inspiringly wonderful opening?

dramabird said...

"This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." -- "The Princess Bride" (prologue)

I love the contrasting sentiments of this statement. How can you claim a book as your favorite if you've never read it? (Ah, we learn that *reading* and *experiencing* are two different things). I read on to learn more.

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful ..." -- "Gone With the Wind"

She may not be beautiful, but try telling that to all of the men whom she ensnares. She overcomes poverty, war, death and more -- what is there to overcoming a little lack of beauty?

Gina Black said...

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

Brilliant first line. Sets up the story, the voice, the tone, and the time period.

David said...

dwight, not only is that first line from Wells a great one, it's also far longer than the first lines in modern novels. And it's one sentence!

Admittedly, modern writers tend not to use semicolons, which makes a difference.

Gary James said...

It will be interesting to see if first-person narratives score higher than third-person. I think the first person is more immediately seductive. It's like someone putting an arm around you and saying, "Listen..." And of course you usually do.

My favourite is this: Not long ago, there lived in London a young married couple of Dalmatian dogs named Pongo and Misses Pongo.

It's from Dodie Smith's One Hundred and One Dalmations, the first book I ever owned, the first book I bought with my own money. I was only 34. I lie, I was 9. I can think of more dazzling opening lines of course, but first love is first love, regardless of what comes later.

By the way, am I the only one here who has tried to call in sick at work with Moby Dick?

Becky said...

I too love the first lines of A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Catcher in the Rye! But I also love the one from Ellen Foster:
"When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this way or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy." (Okay, it's the first two lines.)
Three of my favorites!

sex scenes at starbucks said...

It started in mud, as many things do.

Tad Williams

Kadi Easley said...

Ooh, my favorite first line. Actually mines a favorite first two lines, or favorite paragraph if you will. It's from the Dick Francis novel, To The Hilt.

"I don't think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn't really his fault."

It's a terrific opening. His stepfather's dead. Why? How? Who? The narrator was almost killed. Why? How? Who? I had to read this book. I had to have the answers.

Of course, it was Dick Francis, so I'd have read it even if the opening sucked, but his seldom did. Great first lines are kind of his hallmark.

Nittanylizard said...

"When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home."

The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton

You know that he daydreams about being somebody else, but at the same time, the life in which he is immersed is always at the back of his mind.

Other Lisa said...

How do you guys remember these things? It's terrible, you ask me what my favorite books are or top 10 films, I sort of shrug helplessly. I can't remember lists at all. Needless to say, first lines don't stick either.

Songs & lyrics, on the other hand...the Spiderman theme song...

original bran fan said...

Annalee, you have convinced me to move John Scalzi from the bottom of my TBR pile to the top. Those opening lines sound great.

Gary James said...

> How do you guys remember these

Shhh, we don't. Google does. Google is like smoking in High School. It makes you look good in front of girls!

original bran fan said...

"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."

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This line is so evocative and practically forces one to read on. Also, it plays with time and gives a hint of the magical realism of the book, so it works with the book as a whole.

Kimber An said...

War of the Worlds by H.G. Welles

Anonymous said...

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
Anthony Burgess-Earthly Powers

I cannot honestly say that the book itself lived up to the promise of that first line.

cynjay said...

I was going for the Charlotte's Web opener so I'll have to go with my second: "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." - Holes by Louis Sachar.

Jenny said...

Someone scooped me on Jane Austen's delectable first line, so I thought I'd add luster to her greatness by posting the first line of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, which is often considered the first real English novel to show how far she had come.

"I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him: and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues; there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention."

At least it wasn't a rhetorical question.

Katie said...

I was going to post Pride & Predjudice's, but Gina beat me to it. It's just so tongue in cheek, and a perfect indicator of what's to come!

Another favorite? Well... I went to look, and it's actually three sentences, not one. But just in case you all can tolerate my bending of the rules, here they are:

Harold needed an adventure...
Now, if he had been a man of five-and-twenty, well-armored, well-horsed, and well-trained in the arts of war, he might have commanded the adventure himself. Unfortunately, he was just an eight-year-old boy who found himself quite generally being swept out from underfoot by those more suited to the doing of mighty deeds than he.

- from Lynn Kurland's "The Tale of Two Swords", found in the To Weave A Web Of Magic anthology.

Scott said...

It's so hard to choose. Original Bran Fan picked the one I was going to say. That's a great opening.

This one says a lot to me too, though:

"The high grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world."

And another hard-to-beat first line:

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

Scott said...

OK, I confess. I knowingly cheated and broke the rules by not taking my favorite first lines from novels. But still.

As a well-meaning preschool teacher once said about one of my kids, "She thinks rules are for other people."

Scott said...

One more, this time actually from a novel, and then it's back to work.

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression "As pretty as an airport."

Elena said...

"You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings."
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
I like this first sentence, because even if you didn't read the book, you still know enough about it to know that it really goes down the hill from there.

Jess said...

I was just culling the archives earlier meself.

My favorite first line is "Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which I really need to attempt reading again. It's stated so squarely you can't help believe it, and it makes me wonder what sort of unhappy family we're going to read about.

Jess said...

And of course I manage to mangle a simple copy/paste job. Y'all know that should read "happy families are ALL alike...." but for my own peace of mind, I'll correct it.

Casey said...

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." --David Copperfield

Because Charles Dickens is God's gift to literature.

Spartezda said...

"There is a similarity, if I may be permitted an excursion into tenuous metaphor, between the feel of a chilly breeze and the feel of a knife's blade, as either is laid across the back of the neck."--Jhereg, by Steven Brust.

Runner-up is a Harry Dresden opener: "The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault."

Carradee said...

Ooo, niteowl! I read that ("Going Postal") just last week, and also liked the opening. And Claud, "Jane Eyre" likewise riveted me from the start.

But my favorite that comes to mind and flows off my tongue so easily comes from Kathy Tyers, one of the few Christian sci-fi writers in her newer version of "Firebird":

"Lady Firebird Angelo was trespassing."

It sets up so much, and ultimately opens the book with the danger of death that tracks Firebird for much of her life.

Welshcake said...

Oh, I love the opening to Lolita but someone's already nabbed that.

I read a lot of children's books and these two openings are superb. With both you know you are in the hands of a storyteller who's going to take you somewhere fabulous and new:

"It was a dark, blustery afternoon and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

"Lyra and her daemon..." Nothern Lights by Phillip Pullman.

Sandra Gail said...

My favorite first line (meaning that I'm envious of it and have spent time telling myself that I may not steal it) is
"Jesus would not say fag, she knew that much." from In the River Sweet by Patricia Henley.
Right away, you have information about the plot and especially about the personality of the character.

Gerri said...

"My mother was the town whore, and I loved her very much." Pigs Don't Fly Mary Brown

Gerri said...


Replace "town" with "village". Oops.

2readornot said...

"The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced East."

The Westing Game.

I loved plays on words when I was a kid, and this hooked me right off the bat.

Jenna Krumlauf said...

I'm with topher1961. Favorite first line...

"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's the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Anonymous said...

My favorite: "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write." A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell

This breaks all the rules -- tells the reader who committed the murders and why -- and sucks the reader into the madness because of it.

Wish I'd written it!

Linnea said...

This is off topic as it's my first visit to your site. I was cruising down your 'Books by My Clients' and stopped dead in my tracks when I came to 'The Philadelphian'. Richard Powell couldn't possibly be your client (he wrote The Philadelphian in 1956) unless - a) your photo has had some major retouches, b) you have a terrific plastic surgeon or c) you've discovered the fountain of youth!

Marva said...

Call me, Ishmael. I'm not totally sold on the entire novel, but that first line is killer.

liquidambar said...

I would always vote for the way JD Salinger introduces us to Holden Caulfield, and the way Nabokov brings us Humbert Humbert, but they've already been mentioned so I'll add:

For a children's classic, how about, "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" (Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN)

For a more adult adventure: "Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night . . ."
(Kerouac, THE DHARMA BUMS, a book I have always preferred to ON THE ROAD).

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes so! Yes so!

Richard Powell has passed away, but I proudly represent his works. Representation does not usually end at the grave -- Curtis Brown represents many literary estates, and I look after Richard Powell's works, make sure they are in print, and try to find new audiences for them. I sold the edition of THE PHILADELPHIAN that I link to on my site.

I definitely sell bottles of Fountain of Youth water, but that's another story entirely.

getitwritten_guy said...


You missed the Winston Churchill volume shown immediately above Richard Powell's book. Churchill died in 1965.

My guess is that Curtis, Brown represents these writers' estates and that Mr. Bransford handles these accounts on a day-to-day basis. If so, it's an interesting aspect of the business.

getitwritten_guy said...

Nathan has a faster finger on the 'enter' key than I do.

Nathan Bransford said...


Correct. Representing literary estates is one of my favorite things about this job -- I represented the Churchill estate on the recent new edition of THE WORLD CRISIS and on an upcoming new collection of quotes (which I will be able to speak more about in the future).

Danette Haworth said...

"At fifteen minutes after midnight on January sixth, when Merrill Liberty took a phone call at her table in Liberty's Restaurant, she had thirty minutes to live."

Judging Time, Leslie Glass

Actually, I love the way all the April Woo mysteries start--right away, someone doesn't know they're about to die!

Michele Lee said...

“The moment the door opened I knew an ass-kicking was inevitable. Whether I'd be giving it or receiving it was still a bit of a mystery.” ~Rachel Vincent, Stray

Okay, so it's two lines, but the first is fun on it's own, just better with the second.

Anonymous said...

"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress."

Brilliant, no?

AmyB said...

The Pride and Prejudice one. It's already been posted, and looks like it's a favorite of many. Best first line ever!

Jordyn said...

I'm not much for first lines... I usually like last lines much better. That being said, the only first line I can remember off the top of my head has got to be one of the greatest ever...

"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit." UGLIES, Scott Westerfeld. I don't know why, but I love that line. It's actually the whole reason I bought and read the book in the first place.

A Paperback Writer said...

Amanda h, I, too, think of Snoopy when I read "It was a dark and stormy night.'
Branfan -- oh! Awesome choice! I'd forgotten that one, but only 5 words into it, I knew exactly what it was!!! chills.
Scott, you really did cheat. You used Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," which is a short story, not a novel. (And no, I didn't google it. I've read that story a hundred times at least while teaching 9th grade English.)

Some of my favorites include:
In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.
(Uh, do I have to tell you where that's from?)
Marley was dead, to begin with.
(That's another obvious one, I think.)

Now, as for LAST lines, my all-time favorite is also Dickens:
It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far greater rest that I go to than I have ever known. (Tale of 2 Cities -- hope I didn't mess up, as I was going from memory.)

But the best back-of-the-book-blurb EVER WRITTEN (in my humble opinion) has to be from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

About the end of the world and the happy-go-lucky days that follow... About the worst Thursday that ever happened, and why the Universe is a lot safer if you bring a towel....

There has never been anything that ever made me want to read a book right that second more than those words. Wow.

Nathan Jendrick said...

"All this happened, more of less." - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Ah, ever the cynic. R.I.P.

Nathan said...

Make that, "..more OR less..."

mistype ;)

Linnea said...

Okay, now that you guys have put me in my place, I'll play the game. My all time favorite first line is "Marley was dead, to begin with." Why? Because how could you help but read on with a statement like that. What a hook. I aspire to such a hook!

Ryan said...

"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians." -Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

As soon as I read that line I knew I would love that book. But then, I tend to shower that book with a lot of well deserved love...

Dave said...

Two first lines:
When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold, In slender Book his vast Design unfold, Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree, Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree, Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All;
which is Paradise Lost by Milton.

And number two:
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." which is from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

David L. McAfee said...

I have a new favorite, from a very recent read:

"My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded."

Lottery, by Patricia Wood.

Close Second:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination."

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Miri said...

"The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit."

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

It's the first one I can remember off the top of my head. The picture might not be pleasant, but it's oh so vivid and descriptive.

On a softer note, I had to look up the exact wording of this, but I did remember most of it:

"Out of a land laid waste
To a land untamed,
Monster ridden,
The lad Drualt led
A ruined, ragtag band.
In his arms, tenderly,
He carried Bruce,
The child king,
First ruler of Bamarre.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine. I never get tired of quoting that book. It's what got me hooked on the bittersweet ending. As for the beginning, the snippet of epic poem sets the tone for the rest of the book. It's gorgeous.

And, of course, one of the greats:

"Marley was dead to begin with."

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Succinct and to the point. I think that's the only time he ever pulled that off, and consequently it's the best line he ever wrote.

Miri said...

Oh, forgot one. (As if my post wasn't already long enough.)

It's technically the first full sentence from a manga, but SO WHAT. It's probably my all time favorite. I quote it in real life all the time.

"Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning...

...for humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return."

Hiromu Arakawa, [i]Fullmetal Alchemist[/i] (vol. 1)

Tell me that doesn't send just a little shiver down your spine.

Southern Writer said...

I love "Harriet thinks it was William Faulkner who said that Mississippi begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel," from Lee Smith's The Last Girls. (It does, but it wasn't Faulkner who said it.)

Also caught by "The first time we were in bed together he held my hands pinned down above my head," from Elizabeth McNeill in Nine and a Half Weeks.

And Mr. Bransford, may I suggest you change "old Miss Snark posts" to "Miss Snark's old posts" before old Miss Snark gets wind of it? She may be retired, but she can still get quite snarky. You don't want to be on the wrong end of her clue gun.

Helen Hill /email; said...

My favorite all time 'FIRST LINE is really quite simple,there is almost a Zen quality about it and it always makes me GIGGLE. It is from a gangster style novel (not my type of book at all but I had seen the 60's film with Michael Caine 'GET CARTER' and adored it to the point of having to search the author out / The book title: Jack Returns Home
by T ed Lewis and the line .......

The rain rained.

skipperZ said...

I definitely second The Princess Bride. B-)

My favorites that have yet to be mentioned:

Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit

"Of arms and a man I sing, [a man] who first from the edges of Troi
fleeing by fate, came to Italy, and Lavinian shores"
-- Vergil's Aeneid

Because dactyllic hexameter never gets old for me, and it really is a beautiful opening. Also gives you a very clear snapshot of what's going on, and the tone of the story.

and, just to be predictable,

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
-- Homer's Odyssey

Because isn't that what we all try to do. *sighs*

And I'm surprised this one hasn't been mentioned:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
-- Joseph Heller, Catch 22

LindaBudz said...

Lots of great ones here already. Let me add:

"If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book." (A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket)

Breaks all the rules: Gives away something about the ending ... addresses the reader in second person ... even invites the reader to put the book down! Gotta love it!

Scott said...

So, Nathan,

Now that we've read all of these amazing classic openings--how many of them would work today? So much great writing of the past breaks today's rules. I think it was one of Noah Lukeman's books (wait, maybe it was Stein on Writing) that takes Gatsby and rewrites sections for modern styles.

So what makes an opening great today, and which of the great openings would fail today if it showed up in your slush pile?

Jen said...

Glad somebody else mentioned A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stephen King's The Gunslinger. But I don't see this gem anywhere:

"Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

--The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, by one R.L. Stevenson, circa 1886.

"Lovable" and "lawyer" in the same sentence. What's not to like? Besides, it introduces the scariest story EVER. (Sorry, Big Steve.)

Jen said...

Glad somebody mentioned Irving's Owen Meany and King's The Gunslinger. Now for my favorite:

"Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable."

--The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, by one R.L. Stevenson, circa 1886.

"Lovable" and "lawyer" in the same sentence? I'm hooked. Besides, it introduces the scariest story EVER. (Sorry, Big Steve.)

Jen in Dallas

Anonymous said...

I even love just typing this:

"They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did."

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Thanks for the blog, NB.

Cheers, Erica

ScaramoucheX said...

"It was somewhere near Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold."

'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'

Haven't read the book for years, but the line has stuck in my head.

Love that line because first, where the f*** is Barstow? And, 'on the edge of the desert' has that sense of the precipitous, the opening of an adventure...and,'when the drugs began to take hold' - definitely spoke to me, saying that this author was intending to take his reader where no reader had been before,into Hunter's own, intentionally and obviously,drug-addled brain.
How delicious.

Sure, I could refer to more classically literary opening lines, like that from 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', or, 'Tropic of Cancer' (also faves), but, in all honesty, this was my first thought.

Kristen said...

"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."

--The Catcher in the Rye

Kristen said...

Oh. Whoops - didn't see someone had already written that.

Steve Axelrod said...

I wasn't going to add anything, but some of the best ones ever haven't gotten a shout-out yet. These three for instance:
"It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."
1984, George Orwell

"Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of princeton."
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

"In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Lanisse said...

"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." -- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

150+ years have passed since he wrote this, and its as true today as it was then.

Josephine Damian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josephine Damian said...

Ok, my main man, Dave, beat me to the punch with the opening line from Rebecca, so I'll just add the opening from Toni Morrison's "Paradise" - "They shoot the white girl first."

Welcome to the blogosphere, Linnea!

Alison said...

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck."

From MT Anderson's Feed. I love this novel, and I love this first line. Right away you know that you're in the future and you know that teenagers haven't changed a whole lot -- but you want to find out more about the world, and more about why the moon is so sucky.

John said...

"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him."

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

And a bit longer, but too long to quote in entirety here I think, is the expansive first paragraph of Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King. It begins, "Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened," and ends rather later with "These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Samsum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur."

That paragraph tells you everything there is to know about the stories Cornwell will tell of Arthur, his potential, his greatness, the ultimate failure and loss of his reign. Brilliant.

Eric said...

"Marley was dead, to begin with."

What a line.

Dave Wood said...

Durn it, dramabird beat me to the line from Princess Bride, but another I like is, "The Universal soil is not uniformly fertile." That's from Starwell, by Alexei Panshin. I think the reason I like both of these so much is because I like narrators who stand outside the narration yet are strong characters in their own right. The narrators in both books lend their own extra layer of humor and interest.

Seems that, for a first line to be great, it has to be backed up by a great book.

anotherkatie said...

A great opening line is like an amuse-bouche, isn't it? Makes you want to devour what's coming next.

Anon - I love the Middlemarch quote.

Scott - I wonder, too, how many of these would fly today. Would a literary agent swim through that first line of Tale of Two Cities without tossing it into the recycle pile?

Crystal Jordan said...

I have to agree with Gina, that the opener for P&P is awesome. I love that line.

Another favorite:

"It was a pleasure to burn."
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Matthew Buckley said...

I've always like the first line, "In the beginning..." from the bible. It's nice because sometimes you're not sure if you're really at the beginning, or if you're still reading an introduction, or a title page, or maybe a few pages stuck together and you're 2 pages in. Just in case you're insecure, it reassures you by telling you where you are. You're at the beginning.

My only complaint is that there isn't a similar passage somewhere that says, "In the middle..." or "...and that's the end."

Anonymous said...

"Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel."

Anonymous said...

"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 peep-hole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me."

This is the first sentence of Gunter Grass' THE TIN DRUM, so of course it's a translation, and it's no doubt even better in the original German.

Isak said...

It's funny how my favorite books don't have awe-inspiring first lines... Brave New World starts out with: "A squat grey building of one thrity-four stories."

And Grapes of Wrath starts out with another grey reference.

I guess, if I had to pick one, the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

'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.'

It does everything. It sums up the whole book as a family history and a parallel of South American history and still adds the peculiar element of magical realism by the fact that ice had to be "discovered", and then you begin to wonder, 'Where is this taking place?'

Anonymous said...

"There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, bit tits, and also Jesus." - from gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

The next line is: "I left one back there myself, in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches."

Mike said...

"The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new."
from Murphy, by Samuel Beckett.

I like it because it's funny, spare, and confounds your expectations about what a first line should do. And it's an accurate forecast of the brilliant whimsy that will pervade the rest of the book.

Eliza said...

From a short story, not a novel:

"I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron."

I think it's a pretty good hook. The narrator takes shape immediately, and you want to know who asked her the question, what the question was, and what's so tormenting about it.

Anonymous said...

I've always liked the first line of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, though I never read the book (and I hope I am remembering it correctly):

"He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Stephanie Zvan said...

My current favorite opening is:

The red leather chair was four feet away from the end of Nero Wolfe's desk, so when she got the gun from her handbag she had to get up and take a step to put it on the desk. Then she returned to the chair, closed the bag, and told Wolfe, "That's the gun I'm not going to shoot my husband with."

ChadGramling said...

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut: “This is the tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

True to Vonnegut form, he says so much yet he does it so simply. Sets a great pace for the rest of the book, which is equally great!

Agnieszka said...

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

Neuromancer, William Gibson.

It's a great first line, but the novel - not as good.

Zen of Writing said...

Three favorites already listed:
Tale of Two Cities
Pride and Prejudice

Also -- "In the Oakland Greyhound, all the people were dwarfs, and they pushed and shoved to get on the bus, even cutting in ahead of the two nuns, who were there first." Denis Johnson, Angels.

Bryan D. Catherman said...

"My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in the newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion."

From Chaim Potok's, MY NAME IS ASHER LEV

Miles Aller said...

"Who is John Galt?" ~ Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)

and of course

Mother died today. ~ The Stranger (Albert camus)

NM Smith said...

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."--Great Expectations

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one else picked this one, which is my favorite:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

For me, it was the "thank you very much" that made the sentence. So British.

For those who haven't read the book, it's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the U.S. version), by J.K. Rowling.

Stephanie said...

Who wrote that "Nuns go by as quiet as lust" line? That was really great.

P.G said...

"A great grey storm swept its pelting rain up the pastures of Duncton Hill and then on into the depths of the oaks and beeches of Ducton wood itself."

Duncton Wood by William Horwood.
One of my favorite books in my tween years. I'd never thought much about storms until this point.

Eileen said...

I see a lot of my favorites..recently, one first line stuck in my mind, so I pulled it out. I remember reading it over twice, always the mark of a great first line. I like to read my kids' required reading along with them, so from The Scarlet Letter: (it's a long one!)

"A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and gray,steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded
with iron spikes.

As an artist, this line is very satisfying!

Eileen said...

Are we allowed to go twice? This is fun!
Two I know from MEMORY so I must love them right?

"Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town"

Because playing Town and Harriet sparked my imagination and made me know I loved to tell stories.


"The star bellied sneetches had bellies with stars and the plain belly sneetches had none upon thars".

Because it's the best Dr. Suess story ever and what's not to love about that sentence!

Jonathan Janz said...

Crystal took mine (Bradbury), but here's one from a short story by Ramsey Campbell:

"Last night I put ground glass in my wife's eyes."

Terrible, but unforgettable.

Shauna said...

Favorite first line from Laura Jensen Walker's Reconstructing Natalie:

I'm obsessed with breasts.

I busted out laughing in a room full of people. It continued on:

Not in the lesbian sense. I'm a card-carrying heterosexual with a serious crush on Johnny Depp.

I just had to read the book. Anything that opens with a line like that is practically begging you to keep turning the pages. LOL!

Anonymous said...

"There are times, when the drugs are flowing and the emotions are running high, the lights and music can make you dizzy-and the world slips out of control."

How could you not be interested in that first line...let alone the fact that the title of the book is 'Disco Bloodbath-A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland,' written so honestly its almost scary, by James St. James.

Peggy R. said...

Today at dinner members of my family were talking about our favorite first lines from novels, and my daughter, an avid fan of this blog, said I should see if there was a discussion on it -- and sure enough, here it is! So I add to this discussion (3 years too late) this offering, from "100 Years of Solitude": "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."
I just don't see how anyone will ever top that!

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