What are the best first lines in fiction?

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Tropes v cliches

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
@Rainbird recently started a thread about the best 100 opening lines in children’s literature. Along the same lines, this article on the BBC website takes a stance common among journalists and writing gurus...that a memorable first line is crucial to a book’s success.

What are the best first lines in fiction?

I’m not sure that it is. It’s a wonderful thing that readers recall an opening line, for books need all the publicity they deserve. Some of these phrases enter common usage without the source being known.

My objection to overpraising first lines makes me sound grumpy but think about it. Does a film begin with the most memorable scene? Do stand-up comedians tell their funniest joke first? Musicians don’t play their greatest hit to begin a concert. A gymnast doesn’t perform their most difficult manoeuvre at the start of their routine.

Also, it’s a bit insulting to imply that readers will only continue reading if you hook them with the first sentence. None of the five novels I’m currently reading has a dynamite first sentence, though all have intriguing opening paragraphs that make me wonder about the protagonist. I try to do the same thing with my writing.

Perhaps a notable first line is like a mascot on the bonnet of a car. There to catch the eye and create an image, but no guarantee of the performance of a book.

Having said that, I have my favourite first lines, including:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy.

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

It began as a mistake.
Post Office by Charles Bukowski.

What are your favourite first lines?

Have you written any great ones?

There are so many, it's hard to choose. Love that Tolstoy one. Just off the top of my Kindle...

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

Martin, George R. R. (2010-12-22T23:58:59). A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) . HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Novik, Naomi. Uprooted . Pan Macmillan UK. Kindle Edition.

MOON. GLORIOUS MOON. FULL, FAT, REDDISH moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy.

(2009-03-18T23:58:59). Darkly Dreaming Dexter . Orion. Kindle Edition.

All children, except one, grow up.

Barrie, J. M.. Peter Pan . HarperPerennial Classics. Kindle Edition.
The House The Sailed Away by Pat Hutchins has a great opening, but the best line is the third:

"It had rained every day since Grandma arrived in London. Every single day. Not the nice sort of fat rain than makes gentle plopping noises on your rain hat or umbrella, if you happened to have one (which Grandma didn't, because she left it on the overnight bus from Yorkshire), but the nasty thin sort that runs down your nose and the tops of your Wellington boots and makes your hair stick out all over the place, especially if it was curly and Grandma's was."
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Little Treats

Tropes v cliches