The Best First Lines of Books (And How to Write Your Own)
I could spend all day reading lists of the best first lines of books. In fact, I took longer than I should have to write this article for that very reason.
When you study excellent openers, you don’t just learn how to give your novel a strong start. You explore the full potential of stellar prose. You discover strategies for sparking curiosity, painting a vivid world, and introducing intriguing characters in only a few words.
What I mean to say is, this article is well worth your time. So are all the other articles like it. So is copying down your favorite first sentences, speaking them out loud, memorizing them, and keeping them close for future reference.
But one thing at a time. Let’s look at some of the best first lines, what makes them so great, and how to nail your own first line.
Best First Lines of Books and Why They Work
We learn how to be great by observing greatness. So here it is: the best first lines of books and what makes them shine.
It’s always a surprising delight when the narrator levels with you about the story they’re about to tell, like this:
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. –The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
What makes this such a brilliant opening line is that it’s a promise pretending to be a warning. Anyone picking up the first book of something called “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is in it for the unending woe.
Transparent opening lines also tend bring the humor, like this:
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it. –The Princess Bride by William Goldman
This line also sets up the unconventional and meta nature of The Princess Bride. We come to understand that the narrator is about to give us the abridged version of a (fictional) novel from his childhood.
Now, the whole “I’m about to tell you a story” approach doesn’t work for every novel. There needs to be a reason to use it. But when there is a reason, it’s a fun way to draw readers in.
A Clear and Engaging Voice
Check this out. This dude named Andrew Dahl holds the world record for blowing up the most balloons… with his nose. –Ghost by Jason Reynolds
This is how Reynolds introduces you to his protagonist, Ghost. This first line immediately tells you that you’re about to hear this story from a kid with a humorous, energetic voice. And if you’re anything like me, it also makes you want to learn why this nose-ballooning accomplishment is relevant.
You can also use a character’s voice to present their perspective, like this:
The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. –Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
With this opener, we get acquainted with Bee. She’s not the only first-person narrator in the book, but she’s the heart and soul of the story. In these two sentences, we get a sense of Bee’s voice, perspective, and family dynamics, not to mention a teaser of the mystery to come.
The Ol’ “Sorry, What?”
The best first lines of books tend to spark curiosity. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one is to offer the reader something unexpected—something that demands further explanation.
Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it. –Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Who’s screaming? Why are they screaming? Why is Sam Vimes so chill about it? Was he expecting the scream? Did he somehow cause it? I have questions.
Then there’s this:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. –Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
You find this one included on pretty much every list of the best first lines of books. It’s masterful in its ordinariness. In fact, this would be a dull sentence if it weren’t for the word “thirteen.”
That number puts us only one stroke beyond the clock functionality we’re familiar with. We find ourselves in a world where something is definitely off, but maybe not as removed from our current reality as we’d like to believe.
The Promise of a Good Story
Some authors immediately assure their readers that this story is gonna be good.
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. –One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
How could you not want to read that? What happens between that first encounter with ice and an eventual execution?
Then there’s this:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. –The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Not only does this single sentence provide a setting, character (albeit a dead one), and dire conflict, it also plunks us right in the middle of the disaster. This opening line doesn’t just suggest a good story is coming; it suggests we won’t have to wade through a bunch of exposition to get to it.
A Li’l Context
The physical, cultural, and historical setting of a novel can give the reader an idea of what to expect in terms of character and conflict. This context also can also set the tone, especially if you choose vivid, specific details, like Plath does.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes came out the same summer, by the way. Imagine how the tone would shift if that was the detail Plath’s narrator included.
Here’s another classic:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. –Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
With this opening line, Austen lets us know we’ve entered a world where marriage and money are matters of great urgency. We also get the sense she’ll be making fun of that world.
Some of the best first lines of books are statements of theme. But, like, beautifully written statements of them. Not just “Love conquers all.”
Here’s the opener to one of my all-time faves:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. –Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Vivid and devastating. I’d forgotten about this line and will be haunted by it for at least the next week.
Here’s another great one:
If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. –The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
It’s one of those lines that feels true, and now I want to read the story she wrote to back up this claim.
How to Nail Your First Line
Now it’s time to write the opener that’ll put you on the list of the best first lines of books.
Here are some tips to help you compose a winner.
Highlight Your Novel’s Best Feature
A great book is one that’s mastered every aspect of storytelling. Nevertheless, I believe most authors are well-aware of which aspect of their story is the “hookiest.” I’m talking about things like:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. –The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The standout aspect of this book about a Vietnamese refugee resettling in the U.S. is definitely the fact that it’s told from the point of view of a communist double agent.
Is your character intriguing beyond reason? See if there’s a way to bring that out in your first line.
Your narrator’s voice should come through in your first line no matter what. But if that voice happens to be a wildly entertaining one, let the reader see that from the beginning. Here’s a great example:
The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. –The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
If your setting is particularly unique, magical, or significant to the story, consider starting there. Zoom in on a few key details as Jess Walter does in this example:
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly – in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. –Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
From the setting he describes to the verbs he uses, Walter makes it clear that we’re in a location defined by obscurity and inconvenience.
Get to the Good Stuff
Jump ahead to the action. No one cares about watching your protagonist wake up, unless they wake up like this:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. –Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
So, sure. If the conflict happens to begin when the protagonist wakes up, go for it. Otherwise, skip the teeth-brushing and fast forward to the fun.
Establish the Voice
One thing you’ll notice about all the best first lines of books is that the narrator’s voice is immediately clear.
You know how you’ve got that one friend who has your rapt attention every time they tell a story? Their personality and perspective colors the story they tell, and that one-of-a-kind tint makes their tale that much more enjoyable.
Get your reader to feel that way when you start “talking.”
If you could use help nailing down the voice of your novel, Nisha’s got a great article for you.
Establish the Tone
Your tone conveys the narrator’s attitude toward the story being told. Is it eerie? Defiant? Snarky? Romantic?
Whatever it is, nail it down and make it obvious with your first line.
Excellent prose is all about specificity. Even the three-word first line of Beloved—”124 was spiteful”—gives us an exact address. Vivid details are what make the world of your story real to the reader.
Now, if you open on the maid vacuuming the hotel room, you don’t have to name the hotel and the maid and the brand of vacuum and the kind of crumbs that are on the floor. Just offer one or two concrete details that feel too exact to be made up.
Whatever information you choose to highlight in your opening line, make it something that sparks your reader’s curiosity. And it doesn’t take a lot of blabbering to do that. Take it from Ray Bradbury.
It was a pleasure to burn. –Fahrenheit 451
That’s chilling and demands context.
Try to inspire questions like:
- What’s going to happen?
- Who is this person?
- Why are they doing that?
- Are they going to be okay?
- What’s it like to live in this world?
- What’s even going on right now?
After all, the first line should compel your audience to read the next line and the next and the next until oops! It’s two in the morning and they accidentally finished their new favorite novel.
On that note:
Beyond the Stunning First Line
Your opener is just the beginning. If you could use some help making sure every line shines, check out our free ebook, Let’s Write a Book.
You can also find loads more writing advice in the DabbleU library. From genre-specific tips to career guidance, we’ve got everything you need to write books your readers won’t forget.
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