You only get one chance to grab a reader’s attention, so getting the first lines of a book right is one of the most important things an author must do.
From George Orwell to Stephen King, great novels are filled with memorable opening lines — and here are a few of our favorites.
Whether they set the scene with perfection or pull you into their world within a few words, all lay the foundations for what are extraordinary works of fiction.
1 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859 and takes place in London and Paris during the lead up to and early days of the French Revolution.
It follows various characters through the revolutionary events in France from the oppressed peasants to the merciless revolutionaries. It also highlights the impact this has on London.
The book has sold over 200 million copies and the opening paragraph — specifically the opening line —is among the most famous and most quoted of any any book in history.
It sets the scene for the novel, depicting an age of stark contrasts between what was happening in France and the United Kingdom during the French revolution.
Here it is in full: “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.”
2 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clicks were striking thirteen.
Written in 1948, this classic novel presented Orwell’s powerful vision of the future and his warning about the police state. The world is dominated by three totalitarian regimes who are constantly fighting.
One man rebels but the Thought Police arrest him and try to break his spirit through detention, torture an and re-education.
The book had a profound impact on many who read it and still finds relevance today.
The first line gives away more than at first meets the eye. It has several possible interpretations, but the clock striking 13 suggests, as is the case in the book, a place under military rule (the 24hr clock is used by the armed forces).
It also suggests, being April, that some sort of change is coming.
3 Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael.
Moby Dick follows the exploits of Captain Ahab and his whaling ship, the Pequod, as he seeks vengeance on the whale that took his leg.
It is a study on how an obsession can lead to a man becoming a fanatic who will sacrifice the lives of his men to attain his goal. But also a fantastic insight into the world of 19th Century whaling.
The story is narrated by Ishmael, who is the only survivor from the crew.
The first sentence is him introducing himself to the reader, as a stranger – basically saying, ‘this is who I am, and I’m going to tell you my story’.
Some critics have also drawn meaning from the fact he’s called Ishmael, drawing comparisons with his namesake in the Book of Genesis.
4 The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1) by Stephen King
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Stephen King’s epic fantasy follows the mysterious gunslinger Roland of Gilead and his travels in a dark world that has some reflections in our own.
As he pursues the Man in Black he has some very difficult choices to make.
The opening line immediately pulls the reader in with the intrigue of this dark character, and why the gunslinger is following him.
The Dark Tower has been made into a film starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.
5 The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The small boys came early for the hanging.
Pillars of the Earth is Ken Follet’s historical epic which follows the construction of a cathedral and the characters who help build it over a generation.
Lust for power, tormented geniuses and the struggle between the church and state are all features of this sprawling tale.
It paints a vivid picture of medieval England by mixing grand scale with attention to detail.
You don’t need us to tell you why “the small boys came early for the hanging” is an attention-grabbing opening line.
6 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
Tolkien’s classic children’s tale has bewitched generations of children with its tales of hobbits, dwarves, gold and of course the dragon.
The author, who was also a university professor, once recounted how he wrote down the first line of The Hobbit while he was marking exam papers.
It continues: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
Tolkien was advising the book’s publishers on a translation of the poem Beowulf when one of the editors read a manuscript of The Hobbit and advised them to put it into print.
The novel went on to sell millions of copies, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time.
But the first line did not just set the scene for The Hobbit alone — with Tolkien later continuing the story and its themes in his epic The Lord of The Rings.
7 Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
A screaming comes across the sky. It happened before, but there is nothing to compare to it now.
Published in 1973, Thomas Pynchon’s most famous work has been hailed as the most profound American novel since the end of WWII.
An outlandish tale, it is set shortly after German V-2 rockets — referenced in the “screaming across the sky” of the opening line — starting hitting London.
UK spies discover that the impact sites of the rockets match up with the sexual conquests of one Lieutenant Slothrop.
This leads him on a wild ride across WWII Europe as he is chased by forces intent on relieving him of his manhood!
Funny, serious and rather brilliant.
8 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
It was a pleasure to burn.
Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s prophetic look at a near dystopian future where books are forbidden and burned by a special team of “firemen”.
Their pages are said to be the source of unhappiness and disorder, and one of the firemen who burns them is the novel’s protagonist Guy Montag.
The book’s opening line, “It was a pleasure to burn”, is him talking about the enjoyment he experiences setting books on fire.
Yet he himself is unhappy at home…does he have books hidden?
Farenheit 451 — the title a reference to what Bradbury believed to be the temperature at which paper bursts into flames — is a warning on the dangers of conforming, and the power of the media.
9 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Written by Jane Austen and published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is still hugely popular today and has sold more than 20 million copies.
The witty story of manners and social observation features a strong female — Elizabeth Bennet — as the main character, and has spawned numerous plays and movies.
The iconic opening line reveals that this is a story set in a time and a place where social expectations and standing are key — two themes which are explored at great depth in the novel.
10 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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.
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, two years after John Steinbeck’s other classic Of Mice and Men.
The story follows the trials and tribulations of the Joad family, who head west from the Dust Bowl that Oklahoma has become in the hope of a better life.
They find mostly broken dreams, hopes that fade and a tangible sense of powerlessness.
The opening lines set a panoramic scene which remind the reader that as the events in the story unfold — of human hardships and sorrow — life, in mother nature, goes on.
Steinbeck won a Pultizer prize for this classic novel.