What makes a great opening line for a novel?  I don’t know, but like the prude looking for pornography in the middle school library, I know it when I see it.

First, don’t worry about whether the book is actually “great literature.”  If it has been published as a book, it qualifies.  This is just for fun, and I’ll be the first to admit you might remember several better choices.

Second, while it would be nice if one of these opening lines motivated someone to read a new book, please keep in mind the several hundred pages between an amazing first line and a great book.   In some cases the book lives up to the promise of those first words.  In others, not so much.  Only the first line is guaranteed.


novel1“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”     -George Orwell, 1984


“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”     -Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent



novel3“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”      -Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”     -Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


novel4“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”     -Hunter S. Thompson,  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“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…..”     -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


novel5“Call me Ishmael.”     -Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“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.”     -Mark Twain,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


novel6“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


novel8“Officious little prick.”     -Stephen King, The Shining

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”      -Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice


novel11“It was a good weekend, except for the dead priest.”     -Thomas Adcock, Drown All the Dogs


“If this typewriter can’t do it, then f*** it, it can’t be done.”      -Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker


novel9“It was a pleasure to burn.”     -Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


“All of this happened, more or less.”      -Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five



“For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple- I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.”       -Janet Evanovich, Seven Up

“In our family there is no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”      -Norman Maclean,  A River Runs Through It


novel12“They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back. I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of faceless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow….”     -James Herriott,  All Creatures Great and Small


novel15 “I met the woman in the elevator of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin a few moments before the Provos sprayed us with automatic weapons.”      -Andrew M. Greeley, Happy Are The Peacemakers

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.”     –Albert Camus, The Stranger


Did your favorite opening line make the list?  If you’ve got one I forgot, or just never discovered, feel free to add on.  How about it?


  1. That was exactly what you promised: fun. It is a great list of opening lines. Thanks, Bill.

    Some more fun:

    “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.

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

    Closing lines are fun, too.

    The one I remember the most is that of The Great Gatsby:
    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”

    Hard to top that.

    1. Matt, Another favorite of mine, but maybe not a popular favorite is “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” Miguel de Cervantes, -Don Quixote
      I’m not even sure why it appeals. Just has a great sound when read aloud- even to yourself.

  2. Bill–We met at the Hearst Center some years ago. I am terribly proud to have made your list of good opening lines. Thank-you, sir. You’ve made my day.
    –Tom ADCOCK

    1. Tom- Thank you for the kind words. I’m flattered that you would have any memory of our meeting so long ago. Your visit clearly meant a lot to all of us, and your comment after all this time means more than I can express. Bill

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