Hot Scribble: 10 Greatest First Lines of Literature

by Katie Fetting-Schlerf on December 8, 2011


Whenever I’m on the fence about buying a book, I turn to page 1 and read its opening line. Considering the amount of time authors spend obsessing over the first words of their tome, you’d think all openings would be amazing. And yet, they’re not.

Constructing an original, provocative opening sentence is eons harder than one might expect. (I was lost after my six-grade teacher banned the class from using “It was a dark and stormy night”…)

I chose the lines below based on their creativity and ability to establish the tone of the novel that follows. For example, Sylvia Plath’s evocative opening of The Bell Jar effectively transports the reader to New York’s hot summer of 1953. The Rosenberg metaphor continues into the novel, mirroring the “stranger in a strange land” emotional disconnect of main character Esther Greenwood. That’s a damn effective lede.

As always, feel free to dissect and discuss in the comments section below.

The List

10. “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

9. “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus – This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” – I, Claudius by Robert Graves

8. “All this happened, more or less.” – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

7. “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

6. “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

5. “All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

4. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

3. “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 by J.D. Salinger

2. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

1.“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

Most overrated:
“Call me Ismael.” – Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Honorable mention for a non-fiction memoir:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” – The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

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Welles December 8, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Awesome post. I would have to add:

“They’re out there.” – The opening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is narrated in the first person by a mentally insane character. Perfect opening.

Michael W. December 9, 2011 at 1:06 am

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

– Orwell, 1984

Jefferson B. December 9, 2011 at 4:56 am

I always liked the opening to Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, which is a novel many people take waaaaaay too seriously thanks to the uber-dark tone of Fight Club, his previous novel. It’s goofy, silly, over the top, and a huge amount of fun.

“Where you’re supposed to be is some big West Hills wedding reception in a big manor house with flower arrangements and stuffed mushrooms all over the house. This is called scene setting: where everybody is, who’s alive, who’s dead. This is Evie Cottrell’s big wedding reception moment. Evie is standing halfway down the big staircase in the manor house foyer, naked inside what’s left of her wedding dress, still holding her rifle.”

Good stuff.

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