What does the first line of a novel tell us about the book we are reading? If it’s good, it can tell us quite a lot about the journey we are about to embark upon. It can establish the unique voice of the narrator and give us a hint of tone, theme, characters, and plot. If it’s well done, a good first line can really hook you!
So let’s take a look at the first lines of some novels I’ve read, from classic literature to recent contemporary novels.
Note: You will notice that sometimes I quote more than a single line of writing. That is because some first lines really only work in connection with the line or lines that follow. So when I say the “first line” of a novel, I’m taking some liberties here and quoting anywhere from one to several lines.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009), literary thriller
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at the belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.”
This dark and visceral opening tells us that the book will be all of these things: dark, graphic, visual, poetic, and disturbing. And the tone of the narrator tells us that our main character is an unhappy person who owns her meanness. This opening is spot on for capturing the tone of this book. It’s also daring in its syntax with the second sentence: Do you mentally trip between the words “dark” and “drop”? I do. It’s actually a little unsettling. But guess what, so is this book!
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014), literary fiction
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”
This opening fits this book so well. A few sentences convey so much from a story point (Lydia is dead, the family doesn’t know, and the story is set in 1977). And it tells us that this is told with a classic storyteller’s voice, that omniscient point of view in which the third-person narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story.
The title of the book – Everything I Never Told You – very much conveys one of the story’s central themes, and the opening sentence highlights that even further: The narrator knows and shares with the reader the all-important fact that Lydia is dead before her own family even discovers that she is missing. And as the book continues, there will be more misunderstandings, missed signals, and secrets amongst the surviving family members.
The Fountainhead by Any Rand (1943), classic literature
“Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of the cliff. The lake lay far below him.”
This is an interesting opening in that it doesn’t tell you a whole lot the first time that you read it. The main character is laughing and he is naked, about to dive into a lake. Perhaps he is happy. Is it summer at a swimming hole, maybe? His nakedness certainly brings to mind confidence. But really, it’s hard to tell much of anything thematically, tonally, or story-wise. Stylistically, the sentences are short and succinct, and this is indeed a book with direct language (though, there are often long, descriptive sentences too).
I think that the opening of this book is more interesting in retrospect than in the moment of first reading it, because you will discover as you read that the character of Howard is generally serious. His laughter at the edge of that cliff is not so much a good-natured laugh as it is a laugh of freedom, which you will come to understand in the next dozen pages as the story begins to unfold. The other thing that strikes me about this opening is that it’s bold in its simplicity. And indeed, this is a book full of bold ideas.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (2005), historical literary fiction/young adult
“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s how I usually see things.
Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.”
This book is narrated by Death. If you went into this book knowing absolutely nothing, these opening lines would tell you that the style of this book will be unique, and the fourth wall will be broken with the narrator speaking directly to you. You can also tell from the opening lines that the writing will be visual and lovely, but it will also be sad. All true things about this wonderful World War II novel. The story is told from Death’s point of view, which means that it reads in a traditional storytelling manner (an omniscient point of view in which the third-person narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story). But throughout the story, death will pop in to speak directly to you, the reader, (as it does in the opening lines), imparting wisdom and philosophy about life and humans.
Special note: This book holds the prize for my favorite last line of a book ever.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951), classic literature
“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.”
Holden’s voice and perspectives about the world and society are clearly established in this book’s opening. We can tell from this first sentence that we are in for a literary ride of Holden’s unfiltered teenage thoughts (practically a stream of consciousness) all in a conversational, sarcastic, funny, and bitter manner. I almost feel like I have nothing more to add about this opening, because it’s effective enough that it needs no explanation. The entire explanation is right there, in those sixty-three words.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012), young adult fiction
“Late in the summer of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death. ”
This opening line gives the reader a clear impression of the main character. She is a teenage girl struggling in life (in the next sentence, you’ll find out she has cancer), but she has a straight-forward self-deprecating way of looking at things. We can tell that we are going to get inside her head, and that we will love her real and raw and witty personality.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963), classic literature
“It was a queer, sultry summer; the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being executed makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”
This opening lets you know that this is a story about a woman whose mind goes to the most terrible and wonderful places. She ponders everything around her, to the point of her own detriment. It’s sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, but always fresh and interesting. And she writes with all her senses engaged – taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound. I love this opening.
Harry Potter #1 The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997), young adult/children’s fantasy
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
What a fun opening to a fun book! First off, the name “Dursley” sets a particular tone in that “Dursley” is phonetically a fun name with the hard “d” sound and the drawn out “s” sound. Ending the first sentence with “thank you very much” tells us that this will be a story that is whimsical yet snappy. And the opening whisks us right into the story, because immediately we wonder what the strange and mysterious occurrence could be.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960), classic literature
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.”
As you may know, To Kill A Mockingbird is a book that deals with topics such as racism and rape, all through the eyes of a six-year-old girl named Scout. Within a few more sentences of this opening, you will discover that the mention of Jem’s broken arm is actually a setup for what will happen near the end of the story. While the opening doesn’t spoil anything, it does set the stage for the violent events that will eventually unfold.
The opening lines also underscore that this story of adult topics will be told through Scout’s childlike eyes. So it makes sense that she’s talking about someone other than herself in the opening. At the age of six, the things that happen to the older people in your life – especially those you look up to, like a big brother – are often the most interesting, important things happening in your life at that time. You’re a sponge, soaking it all in, and sometimes living vicariously through adults and bigger kids. In this book, Scout will share her memories and observations of this time, and you will always be in her point of view. This opening establishes that.
So there you have it! The opening lines of nine different novels. Which of these nine openings pulled you in the most? Do you have a favorite opening line from a novel that’s not mentioned here? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading and writing!
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.