While I’m certainly no professional critic, I read dozens of books—both fiction and nonfiction—each year, so I’ve piled up plenty of reading experience. This week let’s take a break from some of the more spiritual themes and have some bookworm fun. What are your favorite first lines of fiction, any genre?
After a quick perusal of my overloaded Kindle and a cursory root through my shelves (which I understand would put medieval royal libraries to shame), I discovered this isn’t as easy as I thought. As I culled through literary fiction, mysteries, YA, romantic suspense, fantasy—you name it—guess what I learned? Prize-winning openers are few and far between.
Battle scenes, bomb threats, and car chases galore leap off the pages, but if you don’t yet identify with the character who’s in danger, what catches your immediate attention?
Of course, the golden-oldies still stand out, but why?
- 1. “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
- 2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” –A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Those two kick off with an intriguing tidbit of philosophy, so I’m calling this the “Thinking Out Loud” Hook. Perfect for thoughtful books in which a lot of interior drama’s going on.
What about these (somewhat) more modern nuggets?
- 3. “It is odd, how one’s ideas can change.” –The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart
- 4. “The first day my tearoom opened was wonderful—mostly. Funny how life can go swimmingly one moment, and fall apart the next.” –A Fatal Twist of Lemon by Patrice Greenwood
Here, the narrator looks back to the beginning of the tale from the viewpoint of the end. Maybe we could term it the “It All Began” Hook.
- 5. “It began with the aurochs.” –The Paradise War by Stephen Lawhead
- 6. “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.” –The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart
- 7. “Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven, I look back on that fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen as I believed it did then.” –On the Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt
- 8. “It was the first minute of my first day and my first impulse was to run.” –Blind Submission by Debra Ginsberg
Those grab me right away and make me wonder what happened and how it “all” ended. And what on earth is an auroch…? I asked myself when I first read that line.
Here’s my personal favorite first line—perhaps the oldest, boldest cliché of all time:
- 9. “It was a dark and stormy night.” –A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Go ahead, laugh. But don’t you start to imagine what mysterious event might burst onto the stage in the middle of the storm?
Sometimes these summary-statement “Nutshell” Hooks can be as lyrical and beautiful as a line of poetry:
- 10. “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” –Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Don’t you just wonder what suspends time in that story? On other first pages, we find a tantalizing but pragmatic setting of the scene, which makes you ask, Whoa, what’s this all about?…
- 11. “My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.” –Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
- 12. “I skidded to a halt in the crowded corridor, totally unprepared for a showdown with the evil witch of Bainbridge High.” –Doon by Carey Corp & Lorie Langdon
- 13. “Dreams weren’t supposed to be able to kill you. But this one was sure trying its best.” –Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland
And the Shock Effect…
Short but electrifying, these final “Shocker” Hooks will force you to sit up and take notice, whether you want to or not.
- 14. “A zero like me shouldn’t take public transportation.” –Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn
- 15. “Dear Ginger, I have never been a great follower of rules…” –13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
So What Are Your Favorite First Lines?
Do you prefer description, dialogue, action—or all three?
Do you like to jump in with both feet? Or fall in love slowly? Do you like to know where you’re headed as soon as you open a book, or figure out the destination along the road?
Would you rather think out loud, discover how it all began, crack open the nutshell, or get a sudden jolt?
Maybe what struck me, doesn’t strike you. As I stirred around my stew-pot variety, from sci-fi to romance to juvenile lit, I realized that these choices aren’t even necessarily my all-time favorite books—they just have catchy openings. And some of the best books don’t always have riveting beginnings. As a writer, I aim to hit both nails. (More on that later…)
Got any amazing favorite first lines? I’d love to hear what you love…and why. Please don’t sweat over concocting the definitive list or selecting high-brow literature. Just share for the joy of it—isn’t that what reading’s all about?