If you’ve ever attended a fiction writing class or listened to a famous author talk about their craft, you’ll quickly learn the importance of opening lines. A perfect opener, the theory goes, will set up scene, character, plot, and tone. If you can do all this in the first paragraph, great. But better still if you can do it all — or at least most of it — in your opening sentence.
As Stephen King said, “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” This is the writer’s hook, the way to grab the reader and hold their attention. But not all opening lines are created equal. A Charles Dickens novel might have a first sentence that’s more than 100 words, while a classic of comparative stature might have just three: “Call me Ishmael.”
Selecting the best openers in literature is no easy task. But the 13 lines below are frequently mentioned among the very greatest, be they enigmatic, unsettling, straight to the point, or just plain beautiful.
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, 1813
Jane Austen’s ironic introduction remains one of the most famous first sentences in literature. Typical of Austen’s wry social commentary, it sets up both the theme and the tone for the novel. And the line is soon flipped on its head when we meet Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Bennet, who is very much obsessed with her daughter’s prospects: a young woman with no fortune who therefore must be in want of a wealthy husband.
Call me Ishmael.
– “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, 1851
This simple declaration establishes the first person narrative in a strange and powerful way. “Call me” is a direct command to the reader, while also leaving room for doubt. Ishmael isn’t just the book’s narrator, a lowly member of the crew on the Pequod; his Biblical name carries an implication of exiles and outcasts. With just three little words, Herman Melville draws the reader in to his seafaring epic.
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, 1859
Charles Dickens’ bold, declarative opening sentence uses antithesis to set the scene and the overarching tone of the novel. The contrasts draw the reader in, setting the time and place (London and Paris during the time of the French Revolution), while also raising the issue of comparison: Can any era be considered the best or worst of times?
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
– “Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, 1915
Franz Kafka gives the reader no time to adjust to what’s going on; Samsa has become an insect, and off we go. The tone of the opening line is strangely matter-of-fact considering the circumstances, but this fits perfectly with the absurdist nature of the novel. (It’s also worth noting that, depending on the translation, Samsa is perhaps not an insect but a “monstrous vermin” or a “monstrous cockroach.”)
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
– “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
This opening line paints a visual picture of ships out at sea while also introducing one of the central themes of the novel: gender, and the fundamental differences between men and women. It begins with the dreams of men, which are soon dashed in the following sentence, “his dreams mocked to death by Time.” But for women, as we are soon told in the same passage, “The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don’t know.
– “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, 1942
Albert Camus’ opening sentence hits hard, in large part to the unsettling nature of the statement. Is the title character, Meursault, indifferent to his mother’s death? Is he cold and uncaring? What exactly is going on? Whatever it is, it draws the reader in. (As with Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the translation of these famous opening lines has caused plenty of debate.)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
– “1984” by George Orwell, 1949
We know immediately that something is wrong in George Orwell’s classic work of dystopian fiction. The clocks are striking thirteen, placing us in a world where not even time itself is safe from manipulation.
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, 1951
Holden Caulfield comes alive in the opening sentence. The 16-year-old spills out his angst and his dissatisfaction with society with no preamble, and we quickly know where we stand with the alienated narrator, whose thought process we’ll follow throughout the novel — a novel that rejects the “David Copperfield kind of crap” established by Dickens and other literary forefathers.
I am an invisible man.
– “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, 1952
These four words carry enormous weight, despite their ambiguity. In the second sentence, the unnamed narrator — a Black man — explains that he is “not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.” He is flesh and bone, but ignored by society, a theme that runs through the novel as it deals with the social issues faced by Black Americans.
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, 1963
The Bell Jar is poet-author Sylvia Plath’s only novel, but she hit all the right notes in her opening line. In just one sentence she sets the narrative in time and place, while leaving the reader with little doubt as to the mood. It’s eerie and lyrical at the same time, made more so given that Plath died by suicide a month after the book was published.
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.
– “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, 1967
Gabriel García Márquez’s opening line is widely considered the greatest in the magical realism genre. In just one sentence he combines the present and the past, as well as juxtaposing the threat of imminent death with a memory of discovery and wonder.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
– “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson, 1971
The scene is set and the reader immediately knows that a wild ride awaits in Hunter S. Thompson’s book, the full title of which promises “a savage journey to the heart of the American dream.”
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
– “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, 1992
Any new writer can look at this opening line as a prime example of how to start a work of fiction. In her first sentence, Donna Tartt introduces scene, character, and plot, setting the novel in motion right away — with a touch of dark comedy to boot.