Where do you begin?
Writing the first line, whether it's in a novel, an essay or an article, is one of the hardest things to write. The first thing your audience reads needs to be a hook, a declaration and an invitation all in one. Opening lines can make or break a piece of work and mastering this skill is essential for any writer.
But how do you learn how to write the perfect opening line? One way is to study some of the most iconic opening lines in literature and think about what it is about lines like "Call me Ishmael." and "It was a pleasure to burn." are so powerful that they linger in the mind.
So, here are 50 of the most iconic lines in literature!
- All this happened. More or less. – Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. – Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austin
- 124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. – Beloved, Toni Morrison
- It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking Thirteen. – 1984, George Orwell
- A screaming comes across the sky. – Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- You better not never tell nobody but God. – The Color Purple, Alice Walker
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. - A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
- It was love at first sight. – Catch-22, Joseph Heller
- I am an invisible man. – Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
- For a long time, I went to bed early. - In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
- As Gregor Samsa awoke one from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. – The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
- Call me Ishmael. – Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. – Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
- You don't know about me without you have read a by name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
- I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. – On the Road, Jack Kerouac
- Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. – Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolfe
- Marley was dead: to begin with. – A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
- I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. – Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
- True! – nervous – very, very, dreadfully nervous I had been and am; But why will you say that I am mad? – The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
- It was a pleasure to burn. – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
- 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. – The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
- 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, Gabriel García Márquez
- In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. – The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald
- Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. – The Stranger, Albert Camus
- Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. – Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling
- If you're going to read this, don't bother. – Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
- ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First… – American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
- 1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. – Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
- Where now? Who now? When now? – The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
- There was a man and he had eight sons. Apart from that, he was nothing more than a comma on the page of History. – Sourcery, Terry Pratchett
- Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
- The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. – The Princess Bride, William Goldman
- The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself. – Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
- People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. – True Grit, Charles Portis
- To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. – A Scandal in Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle
- When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out and touch the child sleeping beside him. – The Road, Cormac McCarthy
- All children, except one, grow up. – Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
- He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
- When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton – The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
- The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years - if it ever did end - began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. – IT, Stephen King
- On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. – I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
- "Who is John Galt?" – Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
- The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. – The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft
- It was 7 minutes after midnight. – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
- The Primroses were over. – Watership Down, Richard Adams
- There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
- I looked at my notes and I didn't like them. – I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
- First the colours. – The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
- You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
How to Write Good Opening Sentences
The trick to writing the perfect opening line is knowing what you're saying and how you're going about saying it.
Imagine you're writing a critical essay. You know that your discourse is going to involve comparisons and conflict, and that you're going to be going back and forth. In this instance, you want an opening sentence that clearly sets the scene. It gives the reader a grounding for all that is about to follow.
If you're writing a novel, the opening line might be the last thing you write. There are many ways to write an opening line in a novel, but they all have one common element: They are all hooks.
Hooks are exactly what they sound like. They are a means to grab the reader and reel them into the story. This can be done by sparkling curiosity…
"It was a pleasure to burn." Burn what? Is the narrator burning something, or are they themselves burning?
… evoking an emotional response…
Again, "It was a pleasure to burn." The words pleasure and burn stimulate the reader. Read that sentence a few times and you start to feel it and even believe it.
… by setting the scene…
"Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." This sentence sets a perfectly normal scene, ripe for being explored or perhaps, turned on its head by magic.
… or presenting a loaded statement.
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." This sentence is very loaded. It gives us functional information in the use of "I", telling us that this is a first person narrative. It poses a curious thought: why would the ability to not remember something be a blessing? Finally, it alludes to the subject matter in the use of "human mind".
All of these opening lines have hooks that tell you what is about to come and how it is going to arrive. This is why, generally, it is easier to write your first line after you've written all the others.
If you're having trouble pinning down your opening sentences, we're here to help. We provide academic support services to students of higher education for essays, reports, proposals and more. Contact us today for more information.