The Best First Sentence in Fiction

Scott and I recently had a conversation about how important opening sentences are to narrative. But I’d like to take this one step further and dare you all to come up with the best first sentence in a short story or a novel that you’ve ever read. We’re talking an opening sentence so utterly irresistible, something that is so unquestionably curious and so absolutely tantalizing that you, as a reader, simply must read the whole thing!

Here’s my nominee:

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” — Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers

And yours?

[UPDATE: Totally unrelated to the collaborative little quest here, Wendi is kind enough to point to Litline, the top 100 first sentences in fiction, which apparently was located by those swinging cats over at LHB.]

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58 Comments

  1. Probably not the best, but an old favorite of mine…

    “In walks these girls in nothing but bathing suits.” — John Updike, “A&P”

  2. “The hull of the submarine was lashed to the huge pilings, a behemoth strapped in silhoutte, the sweeping lines of its bow arcing into the light of the North Sea dawn”. The Holcroft Covenant
    Robert Ludlum

    of course my other choice is a wee bit biased

    “The afternoon sun baked down on Yemen’s port city of Oman, as twenty-four men gathered in a traditional ceremonial tent”.
    Sand Storm-Steve Clackson

  3. The first one that came to mind:

    “The problem is credibility.”–Ron Carlson, “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”

  4. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

  5. not sure if this counts, but “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

  6. 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

  7. Berube did this not long ago. I chimed in.

    http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/arbitrary_fun/

    But I changed my mind. Now this is the one I’d choose:

    “S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, towards evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.”
    – Bernard Malamud, A New Life.

  8. Is it wrong to suggest:

    “A screaming comes across the sky.”
    – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

  9. I have every reason to think that Flann O’Brien must start out The Third Policeman with something eye-opening, but I can’t find my copy, blast it.

    That said, The Bell Jar starts out with an arresting one:

    “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

    but there’s much to be said for this, from Woolf’s Orlando:

    “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which hung from the rafters.”

    Yes, I think that’s better. But in surveying the shelves I was also was reminded to check out Moll Flanders, and was not disappointed:

    “My True Name is so well known in the Records, or Registers at Newgate, and in the Old-Baily, and there are some things of such Consequence still depending there, relating to my particular Conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my Name, or the Account of my Family to this Work; perhaps, after my Death it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not tho’ a general Pardon should be issued, even without Exceptions and reserve of Persons or Crimes.”

    Perhaps not as pithy as some of the other suggestions, but you have to give it up to Defoe for giving us a great narrator in a nutshell, right there.

  10. “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.”
    Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

  11. Uhm…this week….it’s the opening sentence of All This Heavenly Glory, truth be told.

  12. I’d like to contribute Nabokov’s ‘Laughter in the dark’ first sentence, although it is a paragraph. But, then it is the best first paragraph of a book ever written:

    “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

  13. Two things:

    a) One that hasn’t been mentioned: Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son.” “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with burbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…

    b) that list has the first line of “Pale Fire” wrong. That is the first line of the poem inside. The novel begins with the forward by Kinbote.

  14. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” (two sentences) – The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley

  15. Almost any line beginning a Dick Francis novel: Twice Shy, “I told the boys to stay quiet while I went to fetch my gun”; Reflex, “Winded and coughing, I lay on one elbow and spat out a mouthful of grass and mud”; Bonecrack “They both wore thin rubber masks”; Break In“Blood ties can mean trouble, chains and fatal obligation”; Trial Run, “I could think of three good reasons for not going to Moscow, one of which was twenty-six, blond, and upstairs unpacking her suitcase”; Straight, “I inherited my brother’s life”; Shattered,”Four of us drove together to Cheltenham races on the day that Martin Stukely died there from a fall in a steeplechase”; and two that I genuinely like, Decider, “OK, So here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death”, and Come To Grief, “I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved”.

  16. The opening line of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle draws me in immediately: “I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my
    feeble attempts to control it.”

    Another that works for me is this one from James Kelman’s How late it was, how late: “Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”

  17. This is from Terry Gamble’s Good Family:

    “In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”

  18. “Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.”

    – William Gaddis, The Recognitions

  19. The most memorable first line, in the sense that I actually remember it without having to look it up, from a book I actually read (as opposed to some of the classics I think I read) in recent years:

    The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.
    — Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Queen of the South

  20. I’d go for… As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

    Or…I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong.

  21. terse, intriguing& shocking when it opened Last Exit To Brooklyn back in the 60,s, this five word sentence still grabs you…..”GEORGETTE WAS A HIP QUEER”

  22. Technically it’s two sentences, but…

    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfasionable end of the western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is a utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
    ~Douglas Adams: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  23. A little surprised no one has mentioned them, perhaps because they’re so obvious but special mention must always be given to Slaughterhouse Five’s “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (technically not the first sentence I guess, but cited as such by Vonnegut himself). Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” will always be a classic, as will Chuck Dicken’s “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 recieved, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
    Ponder that for a while. I know I will.

  24. Here’s a good first line, especially considering the title of the piece:
    “This is true.”
    –Tim O’Brien, How to Tell a True War Story

  25. When Keri Hart came face-to-face with love, not even her high-society mother’s wishes for her to “marry up, never down, and God forbid a Yankee” could change the way she felt about Ryan Mitchell.

  26. The best? But of course!

    It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in posession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

    Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

  27. It was to be this:
    “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”. George Orwell, England your England

  28. This one is mine;
    “My freinds who know me well have become accustomed to strange things happening to me. However, there are some occasions which are so unusual that they leave even them,shaking their heads in desbelief and wondering how I get myself into such predicaments.”
    Just Ian
    An Anthology Of Autobiographical Anecdotes
    (it opened all 13 chapters)

  29. Dodie Smith- I capture the castle:
    “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”

    or

    Daphne Du Maurier- Rebecca

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”

  30. The one I remember; I doubt I need to tell you author or title:

    In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

  31. http://www.openingsentences.com is a site where people can nominate and vote for their favorite sentence

  32. The beginning sentence that had impressed me for years is from ‘WINTER MOON’ by Dean Koontz, which starts as follows:

    Death was driving an emerald green Lexus.

  33. My favorite, which comes from Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, is: My sweat smells like peanut butter.

  34. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-le-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Le. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

  35. Whats a good first sentence?

  36. Courtney Mundhenc June 26, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    IN a novel i mean

  37. Courtney Mundhenc June 26, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for all your help, it really means a lot!

  38. “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

    -M. T. Anderson, Feed

    =D

  39. First sentence of The Walk by Robert Walser:

    ” I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know for sure any more what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street.”
    (Translation in Serpent’s Tail edition 1992, probably by Christopher Middleton.)

  40. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” ~Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger”

  41. “Sometime During your life-in fact, very soon-you may find yourself reading a book, and the book’s first sentence can often tell you what sort of story your book contains.”

    And:

    “If sometime in your life you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on earth, you would have to give it to her, Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, she’s the kind of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.”

    -Lemony Snicket, The Miserable Mill & The Austere Academy, respectively

  42. ”In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.” from My sister’s keeper by Jodi Picoult.
    OR
    ”There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

  43. Great chioce Hana Levin. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is amazing. I actually had that opening in mind whe I clicked on this page.

  44. Michael A. Kechula August 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    I know you are asking for the best openers we’ve ever read in sci-fi, but I’d like to offer one of my own from my 317-word flash fiction tale, “A Buck A Head.” The editor of a British Magazine startled me when he said it was one of the best he ever read. For what it’s worth, here it is:

    A DOLLAR A HEAD

    Fed up with goddam aliens carving my corn fields into crop circles, I lay in wait in the dark with a machine gun and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.

  45. It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”
    Douglas Adams–Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

    “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”
    Dianna Wynne Jones–Howl’s Moving Castle

  46. “Call me Ishmael.”–Moby Dick
    “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” –Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

  47. So its the last sentence, not the first….but:

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  48. Lawrence D Thompson June 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    HOW can you leave out poor Gregor Samsa? In Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.”

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
    John 1:1
    Great fiction that one.

    And sorry, but I HAVE to put in this last line:

    “Let’s go exploring!”
    Calvin and Hobbes
    Bill Watterson
    December 31, 1995

    P.S. Dear Calvin, You and Hobbes are dearly and severely missed.

  49. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

    Stephen King, The Gunslinger

  50. “The bishop was feeling rather seasick.”

    — Norman Douglas, South Wind

    “You’ve missed the point completely, Julia: There were no tigers.”

    — T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (OK, it’s a play, not a novel, but certainly fits the criteria of being utterly irresistible, something unquestionably curious, and absolutely tantalizing.)

  51. John Updike describing the home run hit by Ted Williams in Fenway Park on September 28, 1960 – his last time at bat.

    “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”

  52. “I was lying dead in the churchyard.”

    – Alan Bradley, Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag

  53. “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife” Gaiman – the graveyard book

  54. “I fell in love with the ministerʻs son the winter I turned fourteen.”

    – Amy Tan, “Fish Cheeks” (short story)

  55. Well, personally, my top favorite first sentence is from Gone with the wind…

    “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful”

    You really have to remember till the end of the book to grasp her personality and the story itself, actually.

  56. “See the boy.”

    Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

    “I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

    Jeffrey Eugeniides, Middlesex

  57. Chiliad by Simon Otius, at unhappened [dot] com, is almost wholly written in notable sentences. Here is the opening sentence:

    “To avoid giving the impression, – most particularly here at the very gatehouse of this, for the most part, linear narrating of what is believed a remarkable enough history, one that may, — making its slow but inexorable way to credit, — challenge the very tenets of traditional biography, – that words, – generally believed good-fellows, merry men nearly all, – are already right eager, – by building a labyrinth of intricable mystery, – to confound the unwary reader at the very onset : it will prove very useful if a few, simple, but important facts, concerning the family Troke, and their seat, are first supplied.”

  58. A comprehensive list of great opening sentences can be found at http://www.openingsentences.com

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