Top Ten Best Opening Lines: Books Edition

Christopher Falcioni ’16/ Emertainment Monthly Writer

Books have the ability to transport a reader to different worlds, but few have the ability to instantly transport without the help of a good hook, that very first line that grabs you and pushes you into the novel’s world. While these books have little to do with each other, they all grab your attention and instantly place you in the mindset of their worlds within seconds, due mainly to their first lines. Here are 10 good ones, not necessarily in order of best or worst – I’m sure I’ve missed some glaringly obvious ones, so leave your favorites in the comments below!

10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“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’s beloved novel was one of the first popular novels published without the grandiose promise of a fantastical voyage or a terrible monster or even kings or “worthy novel fodder” – it’s a novel that was about love and about the rules of love. It’s hard to bypass this as one of the most iconic first lines of all time, especially because of its shocking forwardness –from a woman, no less! – and it’s ability to set a mood of manners with just a few words.

9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

While perhaps not the best novel in the world, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies nails the first line just by taking the same concept that Ms. Austen used and placing you into a slightly different world… a world that operates on slightly different rules.

8. Peter Pan by James M. Barrie

 “All children, except one strange little boy, grow up one day.”

One of the most quintessential fairy-stories of all time begins with not only the entire thesis of the novel on a silver platter, but also a certain air of magic that is constantly present in the novel. It has a sound, to me, that is almost like the start of an incantation.

7. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

If anyone has read the saga of 13 stories based on the Baudelaire children, they’ll know that there is no truly satisfying happy ending for them – or at least we are constantly led to believe this, as our narrator will repeat the sentiment until we can’t stand it. We don’t just get the first taste of mystery from this opener, but also the first glimpse into the character of our overly pessimistic author character that will flavor our journeys of the unfortunate orphans.

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

The opening line to the newly classic Harry Potter franchise starts much like any other British children’s novel, in that the tone is conversational and cheekily alludes to the novel’s “big switcheroo” in a not-so-subtle way. But Rowling somehow makes boring and ugly just as – or even more – interesting than the magic, as evidenced in this grabbing opener.

5. Genesis/The Bible

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The author of Genesis did not have subtle in their vocabulary when they came up with this one! But that’s a part of the draw – in order to establish the sheer awesomeness that is to come, there is no better way to start a story than to begin bluntly – and from the beginning. And if you think about it, do you think there’s any better way to start this epic adventure? I didn’t think so.

4.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.”

One of the most iconic lines of page and screen, the opening lines of this acclaimed suspense novel not only hook the audience, but also begin the story on a foggy note, slowly introducing our unnamed female protagonist, the mystery of Manderlay, why it’s gone, and how very important the in-between/dream state is to all of the novel’s characters – especially Rebecca herself. If a novel begins with a reference to dreams, you can almost be assured that not all is what it seems.

3. Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

“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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

The best/worst opening line ever, perhaps more well known as being written by Peanuts’ Snoopy in his magnum opus “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night”. It definitely conveys a mood… but perhaps the unintentional comedy and sheer horror of this opening has something to do with the staying power of Bulwer-Lytton’s line. I wondered who Paul Clifford was, anyway…

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“Call Me Ishmael.”

It would be easy enough for Melville to begin his novel in the way many classic adventure stories beat around the bush to find an opening – often starting with something like “Dear reader, I swore I would write this information down because a curious occurrence happened to BLAH BLAH BLAH”. The line punches you and the story simply begins without fuss and plenty of feeling and characterization – something that some older novels of this genre forgo, as their “characters” merely serve to advance the scenery. Not here – this first line shows us that we’re in for a different kind of novel.

1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“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.”

Note that this is only one sentence! I’ve never read this novel but I’m already convinced that it is one of the greatest in existence. We’ve already packed so much rhetoric on the human condition in there that it hurts my brain. Along with a very close struggle between elements and a great sound, this line wins simply because it’s just so long yet so incredibly engaging. A Plus, Dickens!

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