Great first sentences in literature


As both a reader and a writer, I’ve come to appreciate the power of a truly excellent first sentence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most memorable and best-loved books ever written have truly amazing first sentences. In many cases, you can name the book just from the power of those all-important opening words. Think of Melville’s “Call Me Ishmael,” or Dickens’s “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Classic. Unforgettable.

Here are fifteen of my very favorites. Trust me, every single one of these books lives up to the promise of that first sentence.

14.) “Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

13.) “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Underworld: A Novel by Don DeLillo.

12.) “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.

The parody in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! is almost as good. Seriously.

11.) Tie: “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

And:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury is an absolute master of sentences, period. No surprise that a couple of his first ones should make the list.

10.) “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.

That’s simple but amazing. I can still remember vividly being eight years old, and being utterly fascinated to find out what a hobbit might be, and why one lived in a hole. The next paragraphs paint a portrait of a warm, comfortable place in the most vividly imagined other world in all of literature. Yeah, I’m going out on that limb.

9.) “A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

An amazing start to an amazing book. This is the heir to Joyce, Faulkner, and Proust, but it’s a surprisingly accessible book, and well worth the effort. This one is important.

8.) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 by George Orwell.

This is a book that seems to be more relevant as the year in its title gets smaller in the rearview mirror. It’s a terrific beginning that puts the reader instantly into the hyperreality of the story.

7.) “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Say what you want about the ending, but all of American literature begins here. Shakespeare may have invented character (as opposed to stereotype or archetype) but Twain invented the individual voice. I never claimed that this blog was a hyperbole-free zone, but I stand by that one.

6.) “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

How can you not love that? How? Can you think of a more heartbreaking, and utterly fascinating, opening? It’s a truth that echos in a hollow place deep in the gut, and it makes anxious, in more than one sense of the word, to read more.

5.) “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial by Franz Kafka.

So, what’s the book about? Just read the first sentence. And stop there. I dare you.

4.) “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to be while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.” Shantaram: A Novel by Gregory David Roberts.

As gripping as that sentence is, the rest of the first paragraph just gets better:

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”

The book is just delicious. Just delicious. Gregory David Roberts writes with the grace and fire of Pat Conroy.

3.) “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.” The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

As a book lover who adores finding those lost, dusty treasures that time has overlooked, that sentence alone was enough to make Carlos Ruiz Zafón one of my very favorite writers. This book and it’s follow up, <a href="The Angel’s Game“>The Angel’s Game, are not to be missed. Trust me.

2.) “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad, and that was his entire inheritance.” Scaramouche The King Maker by Raphael Sabatini.

What’s not to love? Swordplay, revolution, philosophy, romance, and an absolutely terrific first sentence. This one has it all. Sabatini, who also wrote The Sea-Hawk and Captain Blood, belongs on the shelf with the great Alexandre Dumas himself.

and… drum roll, please!

1.) “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.

I think that sentence alone captures all the sadness and wistful, heartbreaking, magical joy that makes Gabriel García Márquez so utterly amazing.

And because you just can’t, can’t, talk about first sentences without mentioning this one:

“It was a dark and stormy night; 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.” Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer Lytton.

So what are your favorites? Writers, how important is a first sentence to you?

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9 responses to “Great first sentences in literature

  1. #3 sounds fantastic.

  2. Trust me, mate, it is.

  3. Here are a few of mine (two from short stories):

    “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”
    -Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find

    “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.”
    -Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

    “Rainy Day says he’s been in love for a year with a woman he can’t have.”
    -Nance Van Winckel, Rainy Day Says

  4. Excellent post and I am glad to see 100 Years of Solitude at the top of the list. It was one of my favourite openings of all time as well.

  5. Pingback: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón « John Adcox Reviews Pretty Much Anything

  6. Pingback: Book Review: “The Meaning of Night” by Michael Cox « John Adcox Reviews Pretty Much Anything

  7. In a grim vein from a post apocalyptic novel: “They ate Jorgensen first.” The second sentence had a hook that guaranteed I’d read the book even though I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it: “He’d twisted his leg bad-his long white leg.” From Plague Year by Carlson.

  8. Wow … that’s … grim. And compelling.

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