Some books take a while to really get into. You slog through the first few chapters until, finally, something pulls you in and convinces you to finish it. Some books never get there at all. But a few books reach out to you from the very first words on the very first page. What is it that makes an opening line stand out?
Some opening lines are effective because they succinctly introduce some major element of the novel: maybe the hero, the villain, the conflict or all of those at once. Some opening lines linger in our minds as poetry, a melodious swan dive into a fictional world. Others are memorable for the abrupt manner in which they drop you into the very thick of it all, or for the way they manage to perfectly capture a narrator’s unique voice.
The best opening lines, though, seem to be the ones that are great because, well, they just are. Those are the lines that stick with you long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf.
Here we’ve compiled a list of the 15 best opening lines in literature. Okay, to be fair, we should say that these are 15 of the best opening lines in literature. (And we’re cheating, too—we didn’t stick to just one line per novel.)
So in no particular order, here are our favorite opening lines in classic and contemporary fiction:
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.
The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
THE TIME TRAVELLER (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
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.
In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent a long time in studying men, as it is impossible to speak a language until it has been seriously acquired.
Camille, Alexandre Dumas
It was a pleasure to burn.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
And because we can’t settle on just 15 books, here are a couple of honorable mentions from our own favorite novels:
People think blood red, but blood don’t got no color.
The Book of Night Women, Marlon James
Mr. Premier. Sir. Neither you nor I speak English, but there are some things that can only be said in English.
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Did we miss any of your favorite opening lines? For a silly take on the most famous opening lines of literature, try to crack this list of famous opening lines translated into emoji.