Opening Salvo

Beginnings matter. A writer in search of a way to pull readers in need look no further than a strong opening line. Not all opening lines are created equal. They come in great variety. But they typically arrest attention and set the tone for all that is to come. Here are some of my favorites:

The Dramatic Opening

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“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
By the last word we know something is terribly wrong in this world of Orwell’s.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
The sinister, almost sadistic, quality of this dystopia glows through this deceptively simple sentence.

“Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Foreboding and uncertain (Is there another name we should use instead, and if so, why?), these three words invite us to hear a story from a man with a name full of biblical resonance.

The Humorous

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“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The main character is introduced, as is the gist of his quest, with wry wit.

The Thesis Opening
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Because no self-respecting novelist would write a story like many others, we know this will be a story of one of those unique, unhappy families.

“Life is difficult.”

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M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled
Peck flings a bucketful of cold realism into our overly optimistic faces, waking us from our self-help stupor.

“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
And we know just the woman for such a man–or at least we will shortly!

“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.” Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
Not surprisingly, Dickens gets the prize for the best, longest run-on opening line.

The Ultimate Cosmic Opening
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible
Starts with the biggest bang of all.

What are your favorite opening lines?

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

5 thoughts on “Opening Salvo”

  1. Like your choices!
    Here are a couple of my favorites!

    THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951), J.D. Salinger
    ”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.”

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Scarmouche (Raphael Sabatini)

    Last one!
    On an exceptionally hot evening in early July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K bridge.
    Crime and Punishment (F.Dostoyevsky)

    Thanks for your blog!!!! I enjoy reading it!!!!!

  2. Lou, yours are good choices too. Salinger does such a great job of putting us immediately into the frame of mind and heart of the narrator. You know exactly what you’re getting and where it will go. So while Salinger is anything but romantic and sentimental in a Dickensian sort of way, ironically (as no doubt Salinger intended) there are parallels between Copperfield and Caulfield, as even their names suggest!

  3. The older I get, the more loudly Chesterton’s beginning to The Napoleon of Notting Hill rings true:

    “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.”

    My forever favorite first line is from The Gospel according to John:

    Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

  4. These lines are so evocative. I experience their effectiveness in the emotional tug I feel after reading every one. Each brings a flood of memories from the whole rest of the narrative. Thanks for this post!

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