What’s Your Favorite Opening Line to a Book? (& Win a Free Copy of Novel Writing)

Over on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, Merry Jones’s looks at How to Write a Great Opening Line. In her analysis, she shares what she considers eight of the best opening lines in fiction. My favorite from her list is “It was a slow Sunday afternoon, the kind Walden loved,” from Ken Follet’s The Man from St. Petersburg. It immediately sets the scene and gives you a glimpse of the main character’s personality.

My favorite opening line of all-time, though, comes from a book that really helped shape my adolescent years (for the better). It hooked me in and I wasn’t able to put it down until I had finished it, which is the No. 1 key to any great opening line. Here the line that pulled me in:

—J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

If all opening lines were as captivating as Salinger’s, I’m not sure I’d ever get anything accomplished around my house—much to the chagrin of my wife.

Now that you’ve seen mine (and possibly Merry Jones’s), what I want to know is: What’s your favorite opening line to a book? Post it below in the comments section for a chance to win a free copy of Novel Writing, a 128-page magazine packed with advice on how to hook readers from chapter one, create unforgettable characters, get published and more. I’ll pick one commenter at random from my trusty hat. Plus, get an additional chance to win a free issue just by tweeting this:

What’s Your Favorite Opening Line to a Book? (& Win a Free Copy of @WritersDigest’s Novel Writing) – http://bit.ly/QhuJSS (via @BrianKlems)

Deadline to enter for a chance to win: September 24.

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243 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Opening Line to a Book? (& Win a Free Copy of Novel Writing)

  1. Leigh Smith

    First, Brian, thanks for the stroll down literary memory lane! There are many favorites already mentioned. Thinking critically and choosing the “best,” however, would be an impossible task. I particularly like the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Tolkien’s Hobbit, Salinger’s Catcher (which you mentioned), and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Here are another handful I haven’t seen cited, but I could have overlooked them among the many comments.

    1. Technically the first is a short story: Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” –“The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese.”
    2. Another is The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel: “The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river.”
    3. Another is Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
    4. Another short story, by form-master Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
    5. Jonathan Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal.” –“It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.”

    I could go on even more longwindedly (for instance, the openings to a couple brilliant poems, plays, or nonfiction pieces), but I’ll leave it at this.

  2. livvyrose8

    I hope I didn’t miss the deadline. My favorite opening line is simple, yet it struck me funny.
    Dan Wells “I am Not a Serial Killer” “Mrs. Anderson was dead.”
    Considering the book title it struck me as funny.

  3. AllisonPlato

    From Wally Lamb’s ‘I Know This Much Is True’…

    “On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”

    With so many unanswered questions, how could one possibly not keep reading? My favorite first line.

  4. pililiaki03

    “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.”

  5. dieslaughing

    “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, Donna Tartt

  6. kccamp1

    “Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.”
    The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
    Perfect thing for a dog to say when starting his story. LOVED this book!

  7. Kris Boss

    My favorite line has been a difficult thing to consider. I’ve come back to this page about six times, thinking I’d picked The One, and realizing, nope, it really wasn’t my favorite. What it comes down to is the first “grown-up” book I was given when I was in the 8th grade. I’d read every R.L. Stine book available to me. I’d read all the assigned reading. So my teacher gave me her copy of ‘The Talisman’ by Stephen King and Peter Straub. It was the first book that got a truly emotional response out of me. (I cried in class over Wolfie.) Anyway, the first line(s) are:

    “On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic. He was twelve years old and tall for his age.”

  8. Anya Azrael

    “During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singular dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
    – The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allen Poe

  9. tiffanybiagas

    My absolute favorite book as a child was Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I had the first couple of chapters memorized and I loved the beginning:

    “That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me; she meant to bestow a gift.”

  10. addiebees

    There are so many great lines already posted so I decided to post from one of my favorite books.

    “Before time began, before the Creator was born, pregnant Sky Woman fell out of heaven when she got too close to an uprooted tree growing from a cloud.”

    Picture Maker by Penina Keen Spinka

  11. elle_staz

    I see several others share my favourite first line (which goes to show how great it truly is.)

    “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

  12. reedz

    My favorite opening line is merely this – “Call me Ishmael.” from “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.

    Such a simple line that starts such a wonderful book that is a true American classic.

  13. michelle hoffman

    “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

    Direct quote (notice the spelling of ‘any one’) from my copy of THE GREAT GATSBY. Wasn’t more than 15 when I read that line and it sounded like something my father would say as well. That was the draw of the protagonist, the moral compass he threaded throughout the book.

  14. russgeo

    When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-concious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb paralled to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt. “To Kill A Mockingbird”—-Harper Lee who actually cheated the world out of much more fantastic literature.

  15. Patricia A. Hawkenson

    The Eau Claire Leader said they blamed it on the heat.
    ‘Natalie Woodright, aged thirty-four, wife of Theadore Woodright, has been arrested after throwing her children, Lewis – aged 6, Nathaniel – aged 5, and infant Lucy, over the Lake Street Bridge and into the Chippewa River. ~ These are the first lines of MY new novel: Baby Road. 🙂 I’m am finished with the draft, and I will be looking for a historical fiction publisher!

  16. Squizzygal

    “The night that Max wore his wolf-suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his Mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.”

    Where the Wild things are – Maurice Sendak (my favourite children’s book of all time)

  17. Wangyal

    One of the very catching opening line, which glued me with the novel till last word, is the one from Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden. The line is cleverly written, which in the beginning engage readers establishing fictional relationship between the protagonist and the readers. Also, it gives the clear notion to proceed further.
    The line goes as… Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we walked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and so… was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”

  18. Lisa

    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

    An oldie but still my favorite first line.

  19. moiradane

    “The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-burried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compunded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber.”

    Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

    Completely captures the dreadfull and morose atmostphere of the paranoia that is to come. Also expertly executed in one of my favorite movies of all time, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

  20. Rachel Seine

    “Camelot – Camelot,” said i to myself. “I don’t seem to remember hearing it before.
    Name of an asylum most likely.”

    – A Connecticut Yankee In King Aurthors Court, Mark Twain

  21. Becky

    In a vast and sparkling city, a city at the centre of the universe, one little man remembered something big.
    -The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby (My favorite book of all time. This book made me realize I wanted to become a writer)

  22. Silverlore

    Someone has already listed The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton. One of my all-time favorites. A more current favorite would have to be Vampire Academy by Richell Mead.

    I felt her fear before I heard her screams.

  23. Egg

    “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.

  24. Anatum

    “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” The Shining by Stephen King

    Throughout the years, that one line has stayed with me. I believe it was out of shock that it stuck, but when I read it I thought, “Now, when I write a book, I want to have an opening line like that.”

    Another great first line… well, more so a “dedication” than an opening line, but I thought I would include it anyhow:

    “Not for you.” House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

  25. SarahJ

    “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anythign he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

    Now I’m going to get a cup of hot cocoa. Nevermind that it’s 90 degrees outside.

  26. Ardent Muse

    FROM: Alice Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

    “One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: — it was the black kitten’s fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn’t have had any hand in the mischief.”

    I got the Book & 4-Record Set (the audio of the book being read) for Christmas when I was 10 years old and LOVED it so much! (and I wasn’t big on reading because I had such a hard time with it, so for me to find a book that really got me cought up in it, was a rarity!) The really ODD thing was, I didn’t like Alice in Wonderland A T A L L ! I don’t know why exactly – not that it wasn’t well-written, it most certainly was, and it was just as quirky as A.T.L.G., … Maybe because it just didn’t have the same feeling? I didn’t like the story line & charachters as much, and even weirder, It just didn’t feel like “MY” book for some reason ~ (i.e., like the story wasn’t written for me specifically.) But I like(d) Carroll’s writing style – his vivid description of the scenes, charaters, wacky things they do – seemingly just as you’d witness all of the same in a dream or nightmare…and at that age, (10), those things are COOL ~ a lil weird, a lil spooky, and SO adventurous.. you just craved to know what was going to happen next and enjoyed being entertained that way ~ 😀

  27. tb2279

    My favorite opening line is from This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.”

  28. Bonnie Terry

    “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni and cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”
    Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

  29. avdutson

    I love Jonathan Maberry’s opening line to Patient Zero:

    “When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world… and there’s nothing wrong with my skills.”

    It’s so awesome… it’s also the entire first chapter.

  30. bdaniels119

    “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.” Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. With a line like that how could I not keep reading?

  31. lcarroll

    “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”
    –The Call of the Wild, Jack London

  32. darlene1112

    With frustration and some regret, she studied murder. The opening line to J.D. Robb’s Celebrity in Death. Nora Robert’s, J.D. Robb novels are never a disappointment your captivated until The End.

  33. patkins

    From WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy

    “How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.”

    This book captured me from this first line and it held me through the rest of the 541 pages!

  34. jimdens

    Salinger’s first line is classic, isn’t it? My favorite is from Flannery O’Conner’s The Violent Bear It Away:

    “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”
    This is great fun Brian and, (probably unfortunately), adds to my already huge reading list. Thanks! 🙂

  35. alfietta

    Jessie could hear the back door banging lightly, randomly, in the October breeze blowing around the house. The jamb always swelled in the fall and you really had to give the door a yank to shut it. This time they had forgotten. She thought of telling Gerald to go back and shut the door before they got too involved or that banging would drive her nuts. Then she thought how ridiculous that would be, given the current circumstances. It would ruin the whole mood.
    (GERALD’S GAME by Stephen King)

  36. winnieash9@gmail.com

    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.
    From Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The second line summarises the book, lies and imaginings.

  37. Leah Bella

    I love thee entire opening….it’s soooo true! We all must grow up 🙁

    “All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”

    Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

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