Saturday, November 13, 2010


As a follow-up to my article on grabbing the reader with a compelling first page, entitled "Act First, Explain Later", here are some memorable first lines (and first paragraphs) of novels, starting with a few recent bestsellers, then going back to some classics:

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” – Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

“Nat Greco felt like an A cup in a double-D bra.” – Lisa Scottoline, Daddy’s Girl

“Cooper Sullivan’s life, as he’d known it, was over.” – Nora Roberts, Black Hills

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news.” – Anthony Horowitz, Storm Breaker

“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander

“Happily unaware that he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes, Henry W. Wyley imagined pinching the nicely rounded rump of the young blonde who was directly in his line of sight.” – Nora Roberts, Three Fates

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.” – J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

“You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.” – Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

“Inspector Salvo Montalbano could immediately tell that it was not going to be his day the moment he opened the shutters of his bedroom window.” – Andrea Camilleri, The Voice of the Violin

“If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” – Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

“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 (1951)

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” – Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

“Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” – James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

"They're out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them." – Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man, I think my liver hurts.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From The Underground

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madam Francoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes.” – Lalita Tademy, Cane River

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
– Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone

“They shoot the white girl first.” – Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” – C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

“He should never have taken that shortcut.” – Michael Crichton, Timeline

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.” – Dick Francis, To the Hilt

“The second time Ian Dunne came into my life, I was trapped under a pile of bodies, behind a sheet of plate glass.” –Lee Nichols, Hand Me Down

“The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.” – Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood

“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 (1952)

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“Three days ago Emily Thompson had been Southside’s heir apparent. Every soldier in the city had been hers to command. Now the guards outside her door were the only people she had seen since her arrest.” – Sean Stewart, The Night Watch

“He hardly felt the hit, but he heard it. The muffled roar shook the stick slightly, and he looked out to see the end of his right wing shatter and flake away.” – William Diehl, Thai Horse

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” – Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

“The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. Too many deaths on this voyage, he thought, I’m Pilot-Major of a dead fleet.” – James Clavell, Shogun

“A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” – W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944)

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” –Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

“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.” – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

“I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.” – Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” – James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

“You weren’t supposed to have favorite children. If there was one thing Margaret Porter knew, it was that nothing could divide a family faster than showing favoritism, even in the most minor circumstances.” – Luanne Rice, Dance with Me

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

"To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die." —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

“Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.” – David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

“Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” – Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.” – Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

“When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.” – Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.” – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

“Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” – William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

“Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.” – J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

"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 swung from the rafters."
– Virginia Wolff, Orlando

“Five weeks after Kirsten Waller's body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband. Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering away on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband's chest.”
– Joanna Hines, The Murder Bird

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing." – Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

“It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.” —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women.” —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” – Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.” – Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

“They say when trouble comes, close ranks, and so the white people did.” – Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

“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 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 & Prejudice

“All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

- compiled by Jodie Renner, November 2010,


  1. It is fasinating how a line (or two) can capture you when you read it, drawing you into the story. Excellent examples all and, of course, I am sure, you and I could write many more.
    I am learning this craft slowly but surely, it has completely captured my mind and heart.

  2. Those are some awesome first liners. Probably my two favourites there are 1984 and Neuromancer; both gripping, mysterious and lend an air of the unusual about them. Awesome :)