Can You Identify These 15 Opening Lines from 15 Famous Authors?
Opening lines—the first sentence or maybe the first paragraph of a book—have a lot of work to do. They have to set the scene, perhaps introduce a character, and more than anything, get us to want to keep reading on.
We all know the famous first lines like…
Opening lines—the first sentence or maybe the first paragraph of a book—have a lot of work to do. They have to set the scene, perhaps introduce a character, and more than anything, get us to want to keep reading on. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Pride and Prejudice (the original, not the one with the zombies), or Moby-Dick’s “Call me Ishmael.” Here’s a few below, most of them not so well-known, but maybe they should be. See if you can identify them. (By the way, here’s the correct way to pronounce these famous author’s names.)
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”
This one is the perfect scene-setter. Recognize it? It’s from the first novel that launched one of the most beloved spies ever: Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. James Bond is mentioned at the beginning of the second paragraph. Check out 30 of the most quotable books of ever written.
“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.”
Here’s another first few lines that launched a series. There’s one word in it that’s a dead giveaway. In other words, Jack Reacher was already pinned a big coffee drinker in Lee Child’s first novel, Killing Floor. He was also on the wrong side of the law. Can you guess these famous LAST lines from these books?
“It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one. The angel of the Eastern Gate put his wings over his head to shield himself from the first drops.”
This one comes from two writers, a collaboration between an old pro and a newcomer with some comic books to his credit: Starting, sort of, where Genesis leaves off, the book is Good Omens. The old-timer is Terry Pratchett, working with newcomer Neil Gaiman. Here are 18 classic books you can read in a day.
“The year he and Ben Toy left Claude, Texas—1962—Thomas Berryman had been in the habit of wearing black cowboy boots with distinctive red stars on the ankles. He’d also been stuffing four twenty-dollar bills in each boot sole. By mid-July the money had begun to shred and smell like feet.”
The Thomas Berryman Number won an Edgar for Best First Novel by an American Author. That author has written a few books since then. Considering that he’s James Patterson, he’s probably written a few books already this morning. These are the most iconic books set in every state.
“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.”
Ring a bell? How about: “She’s buried beneath a sliver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.” Did those trains give it away? The first quote is Nick lovingly comparing his wife’s head to a riverbed fossil in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The second speaker is probably only clear to the reader after they’ve put down The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, so we won’t put any spoilers here. (Did you know there’s a reason you love the smell of old books?)
“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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them.”
And finally, one of the best kickoffs for a book ever, capturing the main character and definitely making you want to read on. You’ll probably recognize this one right away, but you probably haven’t thought about it in a while. These lines might make you want to read it all over again. That’s a lot of words for two sentences, but J. D. Salinger never really has Holden Caulfield shut up for a second in The Catcher in the Rye. These are the nine books that will change your life this year.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
Pretty evocative for a 17-year-old first-time novelist, as S.E. Hinton was when The Outsiders was published in 1967. Those opening words were uttered by the book’s 14-year-old narrator, Ponyboy Curtis. Incredibly, Susie, as the author is known (her editor suggested using the gender-neutral initials), failed creative writing in high school before writing the book. A must-read for tweens and teens, The Outsiders, which just turned 50, has sold more than 15 million copies and been translated into 30 languages. These are the 10 surprising books every teen should read before graduating high school.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
A surprising first note for a children’s story—and not a promising way to start the day—though in Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White doesn’t shy away from the sadness that comes with befriending a pet, whose life is, sadly, sure to be shorter than ones’ own. These are the books that will help your child fall asleep.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
With that confusing, though-provoking first line in 1984 by George Orwell, you know you’re in for a head-spinning, wild ride.
“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 house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
You’ve certainly quoted this line before—at least the first part of it—even if you’ve never read Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, an 1830 tale of a man who leads a double life.
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
This timeless truism kicks off the classic novel Ethan Frome, published in 1911 by the very prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton, whose rhythmic prose began as poetry before progressing to short stories, plays, nonfiction, and of course, novels.
“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 and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, ‘Be My Baby’ on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
With this massive run-on sentence, Bret Eason Ellis sets the scene for American Psycho, his 1991 novel that lives in his oft-chosen world of Wall Street in its 1980s heyday. The book continues in rambling, stream-of-consciousness style, as overwhelming, yet engaging as its backdrop, New York City,
“If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.”
Great fiction writers take great care in naming their characters, and Lemony Snicket is a master of the evocative moniker, as well as creating eek-inducing modern villains. With this first line in The Austere Academy, you know exactly who Carmelita Spats is, and you may already have a mental picture—an unflattering one—of her as well. And if you are under the misguided notion that you are in for a delightful romp, the author soon sets you straight: “If you are looking for a story about cheerful youngsters spending a jolly time at boarding school, look elsewhere.”
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
Nobody sets a spooky scene better than Edgar Allan Poe. He opens his 1839 novel The Fall of the House of Usher with a dismal scene (a mood he also memorably sets in the opening line of his epic poem The Raven: “Once upon a midnight dreary…”).
“’We should start back,’ Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.”
And so the reader begins George R. R. Martin’s novel Game of Thrones with trepidation. Now on the edge of their seats, readers wonder: What will happen in those darkening woods? Will they turn back? What am I getting myself into?