10 Beautiful Opening Lines

Writer drawing

Beautiful opening lines arrest the attention, arouse the curiosity, and set the mood for the narrative. Sometimes they also seem to be one sentence summaries of the story. Here are some of the most beautiful opening lines I have come across in books.

  • Mother died today. — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • 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. — Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • 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. — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. — Franz Kafka, The Trial
  • 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. — J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. — Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
  • Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. — Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Opening lines can be beautiful in themselves, but it’s usually what follows them that gives them power. Do you think “Call me Ishmael,” would have been so powerful if the rest of Moby Dick was lousy? I doubt it.

Which is your favorite opening line?

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70 thoughts on “10 Beautiful Opening Lines

  1. “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick. It is not his name but what he will be called. I believe Ishmael was Jesus. And the crew of the Pequod sacrificed there lives so he may live.

          1. You are a better person than I am Gunga Din. That is one huge book. But the Bible references are in droves in that book. There is one searching for his lost son. The white whale is he pure evil or pure good. Is Ahab obsessed and therefore evil and does he not like the snake in the Adam and Eve Garden not sway his men into the darkness. Maybe i read to much into the book but Melville was a genius.

  2. I’ve read three of these books, out of which only one I truly love – ‘Anna Karenina’. Its opening line finds its place in my little blue notebook too… Indeed a very powerful opening.
    In fact, you just made me want to pick up so many of these books!

  3. These are beautiful! Thank you very much for sharing.

    I came across this one just recently. Although not from a classic piece, I found it really powerful:

    “Two weeks after my sister died, I took my dog to the doggie dermatologist” – Delia Ephron, “Sister. Mother. Husband. Dog (etc.)”

    The effect is intensified by not mentioning the sister for the whole 4 following paragraphs.

  4. “Alexander Democedes Amandinus stood at the door of death, waiting for a chance to learn about life”. From a book titled ‘An echo in the darkness’ by Francine Rivers.

  5. i’m partial, always have been, admittedly, to tolstoy’s opening in anna karenina

    2nd close favorite is marquez’s opening in one hundred years

    i’m sure i have others that aren’t up there but just cannot remember them atm

  6. Some of these lines really do get me in a certain mood, and want me to know the title. “A tale of two cities” (Dickens. No further questions!), “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Ethan Frome” & “Lolita” (the book I find especially tiring).

    I think the first chapter actually defines the book. However the end is also very crucial since it’s what we’ll remember most from the book.

    Have a lovely night, dear writer! 🙂

        1. The question is what do you do when you see a boy-moth on the wall of your room? Do you crush him? Do you open the window? Or do you pick him up and throw him into your wardrobe?

  7. “Call me Ishmael” is probably my favorite. Another that I’ve always loved is the beginning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

    “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

    Though all the rest of your book be prose, the opening line should be poetry.

  8. Your list is perfection I’ve read all of these books and I’ve remembered the first lines of many of them throughout my life. My two favorites are One Hundred Yeards of Solitude and A tale of Two cities-but they are all brilliant first lines. What a wonderful post-thank you!

  9. I love Salinger’s opening lines in “The Catcher in the Rye.” They crack me up every time. But I also love the opening lines from a certain Oliver Color’s biography… I hope you haven’t changed them!

  10. Incredible the power that authors can put into a single sentence. Of course, they need to follow that sentence with more words that form a good book. But what skill for the authors to grab you right off with that first sentence.

  11. I have a habit of reading the first page of the book. The first line will grab me, then I flip right to the end and read the ending. If the ending is just as good, I read the whole book.

    My answer is all of the above.

  12. Pride and Prejudice is one I love. I also love the whole beginning paragraph in P.G.Wodehouse’s novel Something New. It immediately sets you in the right mood for the novel. Love it!

  13. Holy crap! Thanks for that!

    How about, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

    Cannery Row is the Bible in disguise.

    jb

  14. Beautiful, indeed! I would add, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (Nabokov’s Speak, Memory)

  15. Sorry it has taken so long to reply…I love all of these lines..and loins (o; but favourites…100 years of solitude because of the contradictory images, Old Man of the Sea because of its simplicity and Catcher In The Rye because of the unapologetic honesty of the character. Thanks for sharing. I enjoy your commitment to writing and educating me..

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