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.