Great First Lines of Novels

By Laurie Sanchez

So I was checking out The American Book Review's list of 100 Best First Lines of Novels.

It's an topic that takes up a lot of my thoughts these days, because -- although I have two manuscripts almost complete -- I'm still unhappy with the first lines. And I know I need to get them right.

A great first line can mean everything to a novel. And there certainly are some classics we never forget. Toni Morrison's first line of Beloved always stuck with me:

"124 was spiteful."

I loved that. (Who can't keep reading to the next sentence?)

Another one I always loved was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

I realize that what I love -- what stands out for me, personally, in a great first line -- is a tiny bit of the absurd, a tiny bit of something that makes you pucker your eyebrows and think, "Whaaaa?"

But it's not just the classics that can do this. There are a lot of modern novels that have great first lines, too. And literary novels don't hold all the power here, either. One of my favorite romance writers is Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and she always has great first lines -- just enough absurdity and humor to make you want to read on immediately. From It Had to Be You:

"Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral. ..."

"It wasn't every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard's larger-than-life world. ..."

What about you? What great first lines have you always remembered?

Laurie Sanchez is a writer and editor in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three kids. She is fussing with the first lines of two manuscripts that she hopes to publish in the next hundred years. She also blogs as Mizwrite.


  1. Marcia Muller and Laura Caldwell have great opening lines. For example, Laura Caldwell's "Red, White & Dead" - "When it happened, it happened at night, the way bizarre things often do."

    I love opening lines that inspire me to sit down and write my own opening lines. Great topic!

  2. Tom!
    - Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer)

    My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.
    — Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones)

    When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.
    - Cormac McCarthy (The Road)

    I could never in my life read "The Road" again, but it haunts me still. I will never watch the movie because I don't want some of those images to be real and I know it can't live up to the writing. It stands as the single most disturbing book I've ever read. I distinctly remember a line from the middle even more than the opening.

    "This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job."

    I tear up thinking of that passage.

  3. Great post Laurie! Well, my all time fave has to be the first line of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

    Love that!

    Good luck with your first lines! I'm sure they're going to be great.


  4. Kathy, Shea, and Jo -- Thanks for all the great first lines!

    Shea, I'd forgotten about The Lovely Bones, but yes, that one stayed in my memory for a long time. And your assessment of The Road makes me want to read that. (My hubby has it on a shelf here, but I've never read it.)

    I loved reading all of these faves, though, and seeing what a diverse set of novels leave words and images in our minds.

    Okay, back to work on mine -- It's "Writing Sunday"! :)

  5. Hi thегe just wanted to giνе you a quick
    heaԁѕ up. The wоrds in youг artiсle seem to
    be running off the screen іn Chrome. I'm not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I thought I'd poѕt
    to let уоu knоw. The dеsign look great though!
    Hopе you get the problem ѕolveԁ soon.

    Feel fгee to ѕurf to my site -


Post a Comment

We would love to hear from you but hope you are a real person and not a spammer. :)

Popular Posts