Best Opening Lines of Literature

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is so captivating that you just know it’s going to be a great book.

I remember thinking that when, as an early teen, I first read: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell’s 1984 remains one of my all-time favorites.

The same was true with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“You better not never tell nobody but God.”) and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”).

You knew immediately that A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was an epic by the way it began: “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.”

Ernest Hemingway set the mood for The Old Man and the Sea with the opening line: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

Some leads make the reader laugh right at the start, such as C.S. Lewis’s delightful The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Others are humorous for a different reason, such as “It was a dark and stormy night” popularized by the “Peanuts” comic strip. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton began his novel Paul Clifford with those seven memorable words, but unfortunately didn’t use a period. Instead, the opening line continues in excess with “the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“American Book Review” recently declared the 100 best lines from novels, and all of the above are on the list. See if some of your favorites are on the list.

Explore posts in the same categories: Books, Writing

2 Comments on “Best Opening Lines of Literature”

  1. Shanna Atwood Says:

    Do you know the illustrator of that particular cover?

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