Famous novel opening lines

(image credit: Lin Pernille Photography)

How important is the first sentence of a novel? There aren’t too many famous opening sentences. Here’s a few that are often mentioned…

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” –Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

“Call me Ishmael.” –Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” –The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” –A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“It was a dark and stormy night…” –Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton

These lines start out books that are now considered classics. One of them even has an award named after the author (though not many writers are thrilled to win the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for worst opening sentence). So, does a great and memorable opening line help to create a classic — or do classic opening lines simply get remembered more often?

Here are some opening lines that are memorable to me:

“If the room were any smaller, Maggie could have worn it as a dress.” –Found: One Wife by Judith Arnold (an original Harlequin romance, now available directly from the author)

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” –The Gunslinger, Stephen King (whose books will probably never go out of print)

“In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon, and a picture of…the cow jumping over the moon.” –Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown (a classic children’s book, from which I remember not just the opening line, but the ENTIRE BOOK because I read it to my son about 50 times a week when he was little)

Are these books likely to stand the “test of time”? Goodnight Moon probably will, and possibly Stephen King. I don’t know if Judith Arnold will be considered classic literature in 100 years… but she’s certainly memorable to me.

Of course, I wonder if my opening line will be remembered:

“Beneath the glimmering surface of New York City, the night had teeth.” –Broken Angel, S.W. Vaughn

Hm. It’s not terribly literary, or particularly clever. I’d love to have an opening that people can call to mind years later… but mostly, I want the story and the characters to be remembered. So I won’t be too disappointed when, 100 years from now, I don’t have a Wikipedia entry dedicated to that one sentence.

What’s your most memorable opening line from a novel?

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4 thoughts on “Famous novel opening lines

  1. I just read Rebecca, so that one is definitely a favorite; I also love “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” from Pride and Prejudice. As much of a Stephen King fan as I am, though, I didn’t really like The Gunslinger, so I don’t particularly care if that line stays famous or not. I do love the opening line from It, though:

    “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

    Not exactly an easy line to memorize or say in one breath, so I don’t know how famous it is or will be. But I like it 🙂

  2. Ah, yes, IT was a great one! That opening line really creates an intriguing image, too.

    As for The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower series, I read up to the fourth book (Wizard and Glass), threw that one across the room and didn’t ever pick up the rest of the series. I’ve read enough about what happened during the last 3 books that I have no interest in them… I love Stephen King too, but sometimes he just misses. 🙂

    Right now, I think Duma Key might be my favorite from him so far. Fantastic read right there.

    • I haven’t read Duma Key yet. I just bought Night Shift, Everything’s Eventual, and The Green Mile, so I’ve gotta get through those first! (Plus I’m also rereading It right now, which is what made me think of that particular opening line.) I also really want to read Under The Dome. Have you read that one?

      • Yep, and I loved Under the Dome! The Green Mile is also fantastic — and I’d definitely recommend watching the movie with Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan (RIP *sniff*). It’s incredibly faithful to the book.

        Enjoy… you’ve got some good reads lined up! 🙂

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