50 of the Best Opening Lines in Fiction Books

Despite the warning not to ‘judge a book by its cover’, I’d bet we’ve all been guilty of it more than a few times. A cover is a window of sorts into the book. It’s a test as to whether or not the book is worth our precious bookworm hours. Having passed that test though, there’s another favourite way to measure a potential new book: the opening lines.

You know you’ve discovered a gem of a book when you open it and find yourself hooked in a single sentence. You want to continue reading. Immediately. Opening lines are often the stuff of writers’ nightmares and rightly so, since for readers, those all-important first words are the deciding vote when it comes to adding a book to the read pile or not.

Show of hands for those with To-Be-Read piles taller than the average human…

It’s about to get a little taller.

Here are fifty memorable opening lines from literature. The kind that will have you running to the bookstore. (Or you know, hitting up Amazon. 21st-century perks don’t come any better than that.)

Opening Lines from some of my Favourite Books

 

1. ‘Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria.’ — Eleven Minutes, Paulo Coelho

 

2. ‘Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.’ — Uprooted, Naomi Novik

 

3. ‘You better not never tell nobody but God.’ — The Color Purple, Alice Walker

 

4. ‘It was no accident.’ — Ferney, James Long

 

5. ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ — The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

 

6. ‘People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It’s easy.’ — Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

 

7. ‘I stiffened at the red and blue lights flashing behind me, because there was no way I could explain what was in the back of my truck.’ — Halfway to the Grave, Jeaniene Frost

 

8. ‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.’— The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

 

9. ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ — Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

 

10. ‘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 by Jane Austen

 

Classic Opening Lines

 

11. ‘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 all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’ — The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

 

12. ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’ — Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

 

13. ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ — Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

 

14. ‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…’ — A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

 

15. ‘Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.’ — Moby Dick, Herman Melville

 

16. ‘When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’ — Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

 

17. ‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’ — Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

 

18. ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticising any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ — The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

19. ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ — I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

 

20. ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ — 1984, George Orwell

 

21. ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.’ — The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

 

22. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’ — A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

 

23. ‘We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.’ — The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

 

24. ‘Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.’ — Middlemarch, George Eliot

 

25. ‘Mother died today.’ — The Stranger, Albert Camus

 

26. ‘All this happened, more or less.’ — Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

 

27. ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.’ — Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

 

Modern Gems (and I use the term ‘modern’ loosely)

 

28. ‘Late in the winter 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.’ — The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

 

29. ‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’ — It, Stephen King

 

30. ‘124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.’ – Beloved, Toni Morrison

 

31. ‘A mile above Oz, the witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself…’ — Wicked, Gregory Maguire

 

32. ‘Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.’ — At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien

 

33. ‘The darkness behind my eyelids was thick and stank of chemicals, as though someone has poured black oil inside my head.’ — Ultraviolet, R J Anderson

 

34. ‘The night breathed through the apartment like a dark animal.’ — Reckless, Cornelia Funke

 

35. ‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.’ — Room, Emma Donoghue

 

36. ‘In the afterlife you relive all your experiences but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant.’ — Sum, David Eagleman

 

37. ‘For the better part of my childhood, my professional aspirations were simple–I wanted to be an intergalactic princess.’ — Seven Up, Janet Evanovich

 

38. ‘I have lived more than a thousand years. I have died countless times.’ — My Name is Memory, Ann Brashares

 

39. ‘I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without doubt Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided—oo-la-la!—to tell all.’ — I, Lucifer, Glen Duncan

 

40. ‘The circus arrives without warning.’ — The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

 

41. ‘I’ve been locked up for 264 days.’ — Shatter Me, Tahereh Mafi

 

42. ‘First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. HERE IS A SMALL FACT: You are going to die.’ — The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

 

43. ‘Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead.’ — Rant, Chuck Palahniuk

 

44. ‘The small boys came early to the hanging.’ — Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

 

45. ‘I’m pretty much fucked.’ — The Martian, Andy Weir

 

46. ‘There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.’ — The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

 

47. ‘They say the world is flat and supported on the back of four elephants who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle.’ — The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett

 

48. ‘It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.’ — Matilda, Roald Dahl

 

49. ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ — The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

 

And finally, the quintessential sentence that has stood the test of time…

 

 once upon a time | 50 of the best opening lines in fiction books

50. ‘Once upon a time…’ Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

 

What makes a good first sentence? What are some of your favourite opening lines? Share them with me in the comments section below so I can add a few more books to my ridiculous ambitious TBR pile.