Famous First Lines of Novels

 According to Writer’s Almanac, one day, while grading exams, J.R.R. Tolkien discovered that a student had left one whole page in his examination booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This single line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and from there, a book: The Hobbit (1937).

Other famous first lines in novels:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. -Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

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. – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

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 (1813)

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.- Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

They shoot the white girl first. – Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

And then there’s the not-in-any-way-famous three lines that became my second novel: There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe.- The Secret Sense of Wildflower (2012)

If you’ve written a book, short story or a poem, I invite you to use the comment section to share your first line. Or feel free to share your favorite first lines from any book, whether famous or not. As always, I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. To help support my habit of writing fiction at every opportunity (and my quest to come up with dazzling first lines), I also edit manuscripts. Go here to check out my editing services.

 

 

15 Comments

  1. From Linked-in where I also shared this post:
    ————
    I always thought this was a rather creative first (and second)! line from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy : ‘Far out in the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly 98 million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea’ ~ Douglas Adams.
    By Shirlene Corcoran

    ——————
    John Noble • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
    ‘Twasn’t me that wrote that.
    Surely next to the Jane Austen quote, that must be the most famous first line.
    ———
    Jackson Arthur • My novelette PDA opens with “The drive to work was never peaceful anymore,” but my favorite opening line remains “Call me Ishmael.”
    ——–
    Larry Constantine • I have always been partial to the very short, punchy opener (“Call me Ishmael”), but in the genre in which I write feel compelled to provide a little more. The first two lines of my first novel, Bashert (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004774OGS/), are a good example:

    “The door was unmarked. Every other door along the gray-green basement corridor had a number, as did, to the best of Mitchell Rossing’s knowledge, every door to every office, lecture hall, bathroom, or storage closet anywhere on campus.”
    —————–
    Barry E. Gaines • Interesting thought. I hope to capture my reader with the first page. Now looking at the opening lines of my first sci-fi sex comedy, I began with a thematic rhyme, then actually started the narrative with the first pros of my prologue. I’m going to brave this rule and stretch to three lines. First the opening rhyme line:

    “At the start the plan was populate your races.” Now the first two in my narrative: “My name is Evan Wallace Simon. I made contact with an extraterrestrial from the undiscovered planet, Vi Kal Dere.”

    I hope this won’t spoil it for you. Maybe encourage some curiosity to venture further into seeking out the contents of “The Genitalia Scrolls: The Bottom Line From Upper Space”.
    ——————-
    Me: • Good thoughts, one and all, and some intriguing first lines. Thanks for sharing.
    —————

  2. Ooh, great topic! I’ve been thinking about this since I just started reading a novel with a first line that wowed me.

    “God wasn’t answering tonight.” – Max Gladstone’s THREE PARTS DEAD, published by TOR.

    I also really loved the first line of WITHER by Lauren DeStefano: “I wait. They keep us in the dark for so long we lose sense of our eyelids.”

    THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner: “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air.”

    IF I STAY by Gayle Forman: “Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.”

    And this one may not count because it’s more like a first paragraph, but really got me from the start in a good way: Kiersten White’s Paranormalcy: “‘Wait – did you – You just yawned!” The vampire’s arms, raised over his head in the classic Dracula pose, dropped to his sides. He pulled his exaggerated white fangs back behind his lips. ‘What, imminent death isn’t exciting enough for you?'”

    My own first line right now is for an MG adventure novel: The feud doesn’t end until everyone dies.

  3. Not officially a novel, but some people say it’s exaggerated to the point of semi-fiction: Billie Holiday’s autobiography: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.”

    Welsey Shaw (well you got in a little self-promo, so can I, right? :-)) begins with a line of dialogue that’s not really remarkable,

    “I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier. It was rude, and I’m sorry.”

    Except the hook is that this is a famous celebrity known for her brashness and egomania, sincerely apologizing to our narrator, an ordinary guy normally ignored by the rich and famous.

    A great opening line to a short story by William Trevor goes, “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man; Belle married him when he was old.” (The Piano Tuner’s Wives)

    Of course, even an atheist could (should) appreciate something as succinct and well-sculpted as, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

  4. I love readers and writers, and I love a good first line. I also love hearing about the stories you are working on. Good job, everyone! Thanks for sharing and keep ‘em coming. Self-promo is not only allowed, it is encouraged!

  5. Since I’m delivering a copy to my baby grandson today, I’ll choose:
    In the great green room
    There was a telephone
    And a red balloon
    And a picture of
    The cow jumping over the moon.

    From, of course, Margaret Wise Browns’ Goodnight Moon

  6. More writers from Linked-In are weighing in:

    Martin C. Shapiro •C’mon now? Once upon a time….
    —————
    John Noble •Good Martin! How about “It was a dark and stormy night and…”
    ————————–
    Robert Crawford •My personal fave? “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, NEUROMANCER.

    My opening line for AMERICAN ZEN: “Like water, failure, tragedy and loss seek the path of least resistance.”

    ———————–
    Jennifer Pillowtaylor •Tolkien was called ‘the death of literature’ by publishers. He wasn’t at all considered good until the ’60’s.

    I don’t think putting his stuff forward as an admirable quote works in such a discussion in terms of craft.

  7. They are going crazy over on Linked-In on this post. There are so many I can’t keep up. Here’s another one that just came in today:

    Favorite 1st line: “The primroses were over.” From Watership Down by Richard Adams (It’s hard not to just pick the first line from your favorite book)

    1st line from my novel Raising Ebenezer: “On the day of my emancipation the heavens took on a hardness, as though the sky had been cast in iron and come down under its own weight, down to the treetops.”
    By Brad Beals

  8. not novels but–
    “Gregor Samsa awoke from a night of troubled dreams . . .” (Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”)
    “I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man” (Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground–novella)

  9. More from Linked-In:
    ———————–
    Writing a science fiction novel that currently begins with:
    “The Universe seemed a tad nervous. Magnify the anomalies leading to this condition, and you would zero in on an unexceptional planet, in an unexceptional galaxy, and find yourself smack dab in the middle of Harold Hummer’s rented room.”

    I like and write humor, so one of my favorite openings is:
    PG Wodehouse The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
    “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
    By John Philipp
    ———————-
    From Neveryona or: The Tale of Signs and Cities, by Samuel R. Delany:

    She was fifteen and she flew.

    Her name was pryn—because she knew something of writing but not of capital letters

    She shrieked at clouds, knees clutching scaly flanks, head flung forward. Another peak floated back under veined wings around whose flexing joints her knees bent.

    From one of my own novels, January’s Thaw:

    Many people obsess over their past, but no one more than I. Perchance it’s because, as a man out of time, I left behind so much of it unlived. If that makes little sense, consider that I’m a time traveler.
    By J. Conrad Guest (j.c.guest@att.net)
    ————————–
    I’m partial to one of Dickens’ other opening lines: Marley was dead: to begin with.
    By Scott Gold
    —————————-
    The original post asked writers to contribute a first line from one of their works, so here’s mine: Nobody noticed the disappearances at first.

    My style is to avoid a long discourse about the story as introduction, and get the action started. As I focus on the YA market, I want to raise the curtain (for the audience) in the middle of the action, and have them read to find out what’s happening as every teenager endlessly discusses the drama in the school hallway of which they have only seen a part. By the time they get the action, the hook is set. So most of my first lines don’t ring with the resonance of what appears in these comments.

    My gold standard for an opening line would be Dickens: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. After 55 years of reading, that’s the one I can cite with certainty.
    By Greg Sampson
    —————————
    A friend of mine, who loves Wodehouse, recently became a fanatic of Patrick O’brian, my favorite author. Your comment is yet one more nudge that I should just jump in and try me some PG.
    By Brad Beals
    —————————

  10. From my novel DEAREST – By late October Grandpa Toby had taken to peeing in the oven.

  11. Hi Carole,
    This opening line is definitely intriguing! Thanks for commenting. :)

  12. From my novel READING TO JANE. Win read to her everyday. It started when a baseball flew through the open window of the car, hit the side of her face, shattered her bifocals, and spewed shards of glass in both of her eyes.

  13. More from Linked-In:
    ————–
    First lines are often a good hook, but the story must then back it up. Stephen King doesn’t have the most memorable first lines, but in context to his body of work, he doesn’t need them ~ A Good Story Will Always Beat A Good Hook.
    By Todd Folstad, CPRW, CPO, {LION}
    ————————
    I agree, Todd; yet the industry puts a lot of emphasis on novel openings. “Must hook the reader early,” they claim, or you’ll lose the reader. Frankly, I’ve read many novels that started strongly and fizzled at the end, and many others that started slowly and finished strongly. Guess which ones I remember best, and for the right reasons?
    By J. Conrad Guest (j.c.guest@att.net)
    ————————–
    Todd and Conrad, I agree with your points.

    There is another reason for a great opening as well, perhaps the reason behind the industry interest. Marketing. Many people look at the cover, the back and then open to the first page. A well-crafted hook may help sales.
    By John Philipp
    ———————–

  14. The first (and last) line of “Sweet Sorrow, Bitter Joy” (my version of the Romeo and Juliet story) is “I AM her mother.”

    Lesley Robinson

  15. From my novel “The Consequences of Playing God: Tales from Lingor High”: “There he stands, four feet, three inches tall, my son with soul-searching, plangent eyes and a voice, that when he vocalies, ravishes.”

    Personal favorites. For economy, “Who is John Galt?” (Atlas Shrugged)
    For setting up character and setting: “Setting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, “I have come from Alabama: a fur piece.'” (Light in August)

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