Top Ten – Best First Lines

It’s summer. And time for a summer-vacation blog post. Summer means beaches and beaches mean books. Is there anything better than sitting down with a good book on a sunny, sandy beach with the whole day stretching out before you?


I love a book with a good first line, a line that not only draws you into the book but gives you a clue about what you’ll be reading. A good first line will not only get you and the book to the Barnes & Noble checkout line (when you were sure you were “just browsing”), but it will also capture the theme of the book in just a few words.

Here are my top ten favorites. (OK, I cheated. There are eleven. I just couldn’t bear to make the final cut down to ten.)  

11. “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
This captures the major conflict of the Harry Potter books, doesn’t it? What is it like to be a wizard in a world full of muggles like Mr. and Mrs. Dursley? Is there any teenager who doesn’t feel like a wizard in a muggle world? And as we become adults, don’t we realize that there is no such thing as “perfectly normal”?  

10. “It was a dark and stormy night” … –Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
This might be the most famous opening line of all time–but not for a good reason: it’s undoubtedly the most ridiculed opening line ever. When Snoopy was struggling to write his novel with a typewriter perched on the peak of his doghouse, he always started with those same words. San Jose State sponsors an annual bad-opening-line contest named in “honor” of Mr. Bulwer-Lytton. Betsy Dorfman won in 2014 with this stinker of an opening line: When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.

9. “It used to be Cliff and Vivian and now it isn’t.” –Jim Harrison, The English Major
Is there more poignant way to start off this novel about a 60-year-old man’s quest to find balance and meaning in his life after his 38-year marriage unexpectedly implodes?

8. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” –Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind
Yeah, the book is about war and slavery and Reconstruction, but at its heart one finds Scarlett, her resilience, her resourcefulness, her ruthlessness and her undeniable power over men.

7. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Isn’t that so, so right? Ooooohhh, if only I could write like that, to cleverly express a truth with a concise and apt metaphor! 

6. “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake–not a very big one.” –Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
I was hooked as soon as a read the opener to this Pulitzer-Prize winner. What is a blue pig? And pigs eat rattlesnakes? On the porch?? The opening line let me know that I was in for a heckuva read–something different from my daddy’s Louis L’amour westerns–with a surprise in every chapter.

5. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
What many call the greatest novel ever written is a story about the many ways in which a family can be unhappy: a rejected proposal of marriage, a proposal that would have been accepted if the gentleman had had the courage to offer it, an unfaithful wife, a cold and unforgiving husband and all sorts of other Russian complexities.

4. “All children, except one, grow up.”  –J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan
Is there a more concise, more accurate description of what this wonderful story is all about? I think not. 

3. “Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Confession: I’ve never read Moby Dick. But no list of opening lines would be complete without this one.

2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … ” –Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
This famous first line foreshadows the duality and tension of the novel’s ending when–SPOILER ALERT!–Sydney Carton arranges to go to the guillotine in Charles Darnay’s place so that his friend could be reunited with Lucie, the woman both men love.

1. “In the beginning, God … “ — God, The Bible
Could there be a more appropriate way to begin the story of God than to let us know that He was already there at the beginning? At the outset, the Bible tells us that at one level, this God thing is easy to understand–He created everything!–but it also signals us that there are deeper, more mysterious aspects to His story and His nature that will take us more than a lifetime to unravel.

This entry was posted in Top Ten.

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