20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your StoryBy Mark Nichol
As Glinda the Good Witch says in The Wizard of Oz, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” That’s where editors and literary agents generally get going, so perhaps you should, too. Here are some strategies, accompanied by exemplars from literature, for making the first line of your novel or short story stand out so that the reader can’t help but go on to the second and the third and so on to see what else you have to say:
“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” — Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond
Are you in the mood for amusement? This opening line makes it clear that farce is in force.
“The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.” — G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Astute observations accompanied by a implied sigh of disgust are tricky to master, but Chesterton, one of the most multifaceted men of letters, lights the way for you with this sample of the form.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — William Gibson, Neuromancer
Oh, by the way, just in case you missed the forecast? Don’t expect any fluffy bunnies or fragrant blossoms or dulcet giggles to show up in this seminal cyberpunk story. A spot-on metaphor expresses the story’s nihilism, letting you know what you’re in for and lugubriously inviting you in.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The author of the Chronicles of Narnia no sooner introduces by name a new character in the latest installment than, in just five more words, he succeeds in telling you everything you need to know about him. Well, got that out of the way.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” — William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own
Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning — and maybe the bed’s shoved up against the wall, and that attitude is a permanent condition. The stage is set for an unhappy beginning, middle, and ending.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
Ho-hum — huh? Orwell’s opening line creates a slight but immediate discordance that sets you up for an unsettling experience.
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” — Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
It will not surprise you to learn that the protagonist sets about retracing her steps and striving to correct the error, but after reading this subtle but striking first line, can you resist finding out how she does it?
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” — L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
This offbeat observation from Hartley’s novel of painful reminiscence is a blindsidingly original statement that one will feel compelled to read about just how the writer acquired this wisdom.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” — Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It
By the end of this paragraph, you already know a great deal about the narrator’s family (especially the father) — but thanks to the introduction, as clear as a snow-fed mountain river, you want to know more.
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” — W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
The author is a bit intrusive here, true enough, but it is kind of him to let us know that we’re in for a bit of unpleasantness. But if he can express such profound reluctance, it must be quite a story.
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” — Raymond Chandler, Red Wind
Chandler, the master of hard-bitten crime noir, makes it obvious that this story is not going to end well. You can almost hear the smoky, whiskey-soured, world-weary narration in your head. And this quote comes from one of Chandler’s half-forgotten short stories.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” — Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Dickens extends his arm toward the passageway within, welcoming you to enter what promises to be an entertaining story.
“In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.” — John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
Oh, but you know this novel is going to be juicy. This snide introduction to the main character conveys a promise of a continuous feed of schadenfreude.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” — Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Every once in a while there comes an opening line that seems to have an entire story folded up inside it. But it’s just the label on the envelope. And I challenge you to withstand the urge to open it up and read the message.
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, Tracks
A somber, stately metaphor draws us in despite the pervasively gloomy imagery.
“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.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Many people associate Dickens with whimsy and eccentricity, but A Tale of Two Cities is a stern study of the insanity of mob rule, and this floridly eloquent prologue sets the stage like the presenter of a Shakespearean prologue: “Epic Ahead.”
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” — Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche
Romantic, that is, in the sense of lust for life, not love for another. This author of swashbucklers like The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood (and, of course, Scaramouche) lets you know right away that you are about to meet someone larger than life.
“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
Austen didn’t invent the word snark — but she certainly refined the application of the quality. Notice, though, how subtle this line is. It’s a bon mot — understated, yet with teeth behind that prim smile.
“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.” — J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Can you find it in your heart to forgive this young man his grievously bad attitude? More likely, you’ll be impressed by — and want to immerse yourself in more of — his insolence.
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, Waiting
This seemingly pedestrian introduction upends itself with an intriguing premise that raises a question in the reader’s mind that must be answered.Recommended for you: « 5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice »
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19 Responses to “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story”
The opening line of a book I read freshman year of high school still sticks with me.
“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.” -Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
I still think that to this day that line motivated me to read the book in half an afternoon.
- Dante Morose
Although the lines are intriguing, and certainly I am appreciative of this post, I am more impressed by the one who compiled it. Your comments and labels were as educational to read as the quotes themselves. Thank you for sparing the time to educate us both with the wit of others and your own unique style of narration to spur us onward to the end.
- Ted Green
All seem to have missed Snoopy’s classic: “It was a dark and stormy night.” One of my favourites.
These are all good lines. Good lines are what matter, not their location in the book. Go back and look at your favorite literature. Most of mine begin with ordinary lines. The opening sentence and paragraph do not truly need to stand out. All the better if they do, but it is not necessary.
Great post! I’ve read some of these books and never really gave any thought to the reason why. Now I know.
That’s the subject I’ve been researching today – one spot of advice I read was to leave the first and last lines until the novel was complete – I think it’s a useful excuse for procrastinators like me.
Well unless someones already done it I think it would be not only right but, satisfying to have endings as well.
Great post! I’ve been testing out story ideas at the Creative Copy Challenge and received favorable feedback. I think it’s time for me to write a novel.
Personally, I like the way I have started all my stories. I love getting right to the action, and explaining later or in different, unique ways. I am only 14 and on my 3rd story.
- Terry A McNeil
Superb! This is a charming, outstanding and quite practical posting. These devices are such wonderful tools to be used to enchant readers, create flows, spark drama, awaken minds… and so much more.
Practice is key. What I deeply love about such tools is they may be applied to so many forms of writing such as fiction, poetry and most other types of narrative. Even “tweets”!
With “tweets” in mind I will have a least 20 new tweets to apply and practice these ideas on today. I am cheating here a wee bit.
Creating tweets for “bestdeedswords”, helps understand how to apply these tools and also selfishly carves them into the dark caverns of my eclectic memory facilities. This is a simple personal way to store them for later use.
Mark, these great posts are very useful. Thanks for your hard work and research. Thanks so very much.
- David Chester
I like the openner which is something like this:
“Well unlike last time when I got too involved and gave you the run arround, this time I’m going straight for the jugular and cut out all that crap about my private life”.
of course he doesn’t.
The author is Don von Elsner.
- Lauren I. Ruiz
Phew! I’m glad I didn’t bypass this e-mail. By the title, I thought this article was going to offer 20 sentences that subscribers could expand upon.
I love the format this article is in, though. 🙂 I knew these different types of beginnings existed, just not consciously.
- Jewel Atkins
I will always love “Once upon a time, ” the best.
- Allure Van Sanz
What a great list of opening lines!
4, 5, 12, 17 & 20 are my favorites.
Thank you for compiling this list. I thought a lot about my own style and strategies while reading it, and I’m pretty much all over the place. I do notice my tendency to start each book with dialogue, whether the style is sarcastic, foreboding, or bleak etc. Most often, the dialogue is pushed behind a beginning paragraph during edits, changing the feel of the opening.
Thanks for the great read,
Allure Van Sanz
I’m simultaneously inspired and intimidated. I can hardly imagine writing anything that draws readers in the way these introductions do. Must keep practicing!
Well I have to share my favourite opening lines now:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded!” – The Crow Road, Iain Banks
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” – I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
In fact the full opening from the Crow Road is even better:
“It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”
- Beverly Diehl
This is fabulous – thanks for sharing!
Thank you for sharing these fabulous opening lines! I love Jane Austen — Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books.
- Bella Street
Thanks for posting this list. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to start a writing day 🙂
Your father is like your true friend. You always receive so much love and affection from him. He looks after you and cares for you like no other. Your father will always be strict with you because he wants the best for you. It is because he loves you that he wants you to be a good person with all the good values and high morals. You share a very special bond with your father. Try to reciprocate the love he has for you. You can never repay a father for all that he does for you but you can definitely show your love and care for him.
You will find below a number of short paragraphs on the topic My Father of varying word lengths. We hope these “paragraphs on My Father” will help students in completing their school assignments. These will also help children to write and read out paragraphs in simple words and with small sentences. Students can select any My Father paragraph according to their particular requirement.
Short and Long Paragraphs on My Father
My Father Paragraph – 1 (100 Words)
- My father is my role model. He is the person who I wish to become like.
- My father has all the qualities that I find are the ideal qualities in a person.
- He is honest, and he is also courageous to be that way. He always seeks the truth and abides by it. He will do all he can for this.
- He is helpful to people who may need his help. But he is never proud of all his good qualities.
- That is how I wish to be. And so I see him as my role model at all times.
My Father Paragraph – 2 (150 Words)
My father is like a friend to me. He loves me at all times. He teaches me all the values and morals I must live by. And he himself lives by all the values. He believes in practicing what he preaches. So I find my father very honest. And he never finds it difficult to be that way.
My father is kind and generous. If anyone approaches him with a genuine need he helps them to whatever extent he can. And he never grudges any help he offers. My father is time conscious and punctual. He is strict with me because he wants me to be disciplined. Being disciplined is tough, but I know it is for my good. And so I always try my best to follow what my father tells me to do. Whenever I am in a difficulty my father helps me out with love and affection.
My Father Paragraph – 3 (200 Words)
My father is my teacher and my friend. He teaches me to do many interesting things. He loves to make pottery and I enjoy learning to make pottery from him.
My father also enjoys gardening. I too find it very interesting to help him in the many little tasks so we can have a beautiful garden. He takes care of the garden with a great deal of attention. My father enjoys learning new things and always shares it with me. It is interesting to learn when my father teaches me. He teaches me with love and patience.
My father is kind and helpful. He is happy when he can help the poor to bring a smile on their faces. My father is hard working and a perfectionist. I always try to obey what he tells me to do. When he scolds me for the mistakes I do I know it is for my good, and I try to correct myself. I want to be like my father and be successful in achieving my goals. My father loves me. He encourages me to do my best. He wants me to develop good values and morals and be a good human being.
My Father Paragraph – 4 (250 Words)
My father is my role model and I try hard to be like him. My father is punctual. He does not like to be late for any appointment or for the completion of any task. He is strict with me because he wants me also to be on time and not to be late in completing my work. I too have learnt to be punctual, and I am appreciated for this by my teachers and my friends.
My father is particular about being neat and clean. He also does his work systematically and is fastidious. He keeps his books and papers in a neat and organized way. He insists I should keep my books and note books neat and tidy. He does not like me to dog ear the pages in a book. He also does not let me scribble in my text books. My books are therefore always like new.
My father is my best friend. He is a happy person and always tries to make those around him happy. I am happy when I am with him. He also has many friends because they like to enjoy his company. My father loves me. When I have any difficulty I turn to him and he is always willing to give me a helping hand. He always has a knack to solve my problems. I love my father and admire him for his many good qualities. I am grateful to my father and hope to make him proud of me.
My Father Paragraph – 5 (300 Words)
My father is hard working and disciplined. He is my teacher and guide. I look up to him for his advice and guidance. He teaches me with much love and patience. Even when I am slow to learn and understand he does not lose his temper. Instead, he teaches me patiently till I am able to understand.
My father is a loving and kind person. He is very soft-hearted. He is ready to help anyone who may stand in need of his help at any time, in whatever way he can, with no expectations.
My father is a nature lover. He loves to take us on picnics and trips to parks and forests and other scenic places. He is an artist and enjoys making paintings of natural scenery and landscapes when we go out on holidays. I too love to draw, and my father shares with me many interesting techniques of drawing and sketching.
Being conscious of environment issues and particular about not wasting natural resources, my father makes sure all of us at home are also aware of these issues. He believes in reducing, reusing and recycling the resources that we use in our everyday life. He comes up with many novel ways to practice this.
My father is disciplined and punctual. He is always on time for his work and is never late for an appointment. He expects me also to be that way. He is strict with me and wants me to be on time at school and punctual with my school work.
I learn a great deal from my father. I love him and am grateful to him for everything he does for me and all that he teaches me. But I know I can never repay him for all the love he has for me.
My Father Paragraph – 6 (350 Words)
My father is very special to me. He is the one person who loves me at all times. Even when he scolds me I know it is in my best interest that he does that. So I do not grudge his scolding. I always sincerely try to follow what my father tells me to do. When I obey my father I am happy and meet with a great deal of success.
I love my father and am very grateful to him for all that he does for me. When I fall sick it is my father who helps me get well. He takes care of me with so much love and affection, and so I get well soon.
I cannot repay all that my father does for me. But I can make my father happy by following what he tells me to do and becoming the person he wants me to become. This will mean so much to me.
My father wants me to develop good qualities and high morals. He is particular on my being honest. He always insists that I should be courteous and humble. My father says: “Pride goes before a fall.” And he cautions me against having pride.
Showing respect for elders is a quality my father says will always stand one in good stead. He tells me to respect my elders both at home and at school, and I always try to obey him. My teachers commend me for this, and I owe it all to my father.
My father is a cheerful and jovial person. He likes to make the people around him happy. So he has a number of good friends, and they all love and respect him. My father is a generous and kind person. He helps people in our neighbourhood. When anyone in our locality has a problem they seek his counsel.
My father also teaches the poor children in a slum nearby. The children love him and are delighted to be with him and learn from him. My father is my role model and I want to be like him.
My Father Paragraph – 7 (400 Words)
My father stands tall among men. He lives by great principles and I am proud of him. He is very honest and courageous. He will not grudge any trouble he may have to undergo to be on the side of truth.
My father is my ideal. He is a hard working person. He always completes his work on time. He believes that the busiest man has the greatest leisure. He proves it in his own life. Though he is a very busy person, he makes sure to take time out to take us on outings to interesting places. He loves to write, and he pens travelogues and poems. When we go on an excursion or a holiday he enjoys writing about the different places that we visit. His travel writing makes pleasurable reading.
My father also loves reading. He is a voracious reader, and has an enviable collection of books in his library. He is particular about keeping the books neat and tidy. His books look like new. He is strict with me and lets me read his books only if I can keep them neat and clean. My father is disciplined. He sticks to his schedule and is always punctual. He insists that I should be on time. He is very strict about this and so I try my best to be punctual.
My father is good natured and very friendly. He is peaceable. He does not like to quarrel with anyone. He not only likes to stay happy, he also makes people around him happy. He is helpful to anyone who may need his help. If he is unable to help, he is courteous to say so. He is always polite. He believes in the power of words, and makes sure his words do not hurt anyone.
My father likes to play different sports. He also encourages his friends to play any sport of their choice to stay fit and healthy. He wakes up early in the morning and does not stay up late at night. Early to bed and early to rise is a maxim he follows for good health. He uses the early morning hours to practice meditation and brisk exercise. My father wants me to be a good human being with high morals. I love my father. I want to make my father proud of me, and I am willing to work hard for this.
——– Written by N. KALYANI