The 50 Best Opening Sentences from Novels

The world around us is saturated with stimuli and, as reading a novel requires a disproportionate amount of time, it is important that we choose carefully before committing to so much time on one activity.

One way of choosing a novel is to open several books and read the opening sentences. Novelists pay particular attention to their first sentences for just that reason.

To take an example or two from the following list, look at Orwell’s famous opening of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. It’s disturbing on several levels – the bright cold day, and particularly the eye-catching clock striking thirteen. Something’s off, something’s weird, something unusual’s happening. I want to know more.

Wanting to know more is the key to capturing a reader. Take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. A glance at that sentence assures me that there is a great story here – a story about love and money, with a hint that it’s not actually true, so I want to find out how it pans out. I’m definitely going to read this book.

Below are fifty great opening lines for you to ponder. We’d love to know if any of these first lines are enough to pique your interest to read the full book. Let us know in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

50 of the most impactful opening sentences in literature:

Metamorphosis by Kafka:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Stubb, and he almost deserved it.”

 Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Fathers and Sons by Turgenov:

“Well, Pytor, still not in sight? Was the question asked on the twentieth of May, 1895, by a gentleman of about forty, wearing a dusty overcoat and checked trousers, who came out hatless into the low porch of the posting station at X.”

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.”

Moby Dick by Herman Melville:

“Call me Ishmael”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

“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.”

Ulysses by James Joyce:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Eugene Onegin by Pushkin:

“Onegin, my good Sir or Madam, was born on the banks of the Neva, where perhaps you too were born, or made your name, my dearest reader.”

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller:

“It was love at first sight.”

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

“Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.”

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford:

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes:

“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”

The Stranger by Albert Camus:

“Mother died today.”

Chromos by Felipe Alfau:

“The moment one learns English, complication set in.”

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway:

“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.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham:

“I have never begun writing a novel with more misgiving.”

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler:

“Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

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

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

The  Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyoevsky:

“Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Paclovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall speak of in its proper place.”

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner:

“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.”

Doctor Zhivago by Pasternak:

“On they went, singing ‘Eternal Memory,’ and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.”

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson:

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.”

Blown Away by Ronald Sukenick:

“Psychics can see the colour of time – it’s blue.”

Orlando by Virginia Woolf:

“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.”

Changing Places by David Lodge:

“High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other, at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

“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.”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison:

“I am an invisible man.”

Herzog by Saul Bellow:

“If I am out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain:

“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.”

The Trial by Franz Kafka:

“Someone must have slandered Josef K. For one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino:

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.”

The Catcher in the Rye by 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.”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner:  old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert:

“We were in class when the head master came in, followed by a “new fellow” not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.”

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust:

“Time was, when I always went to bed early.”

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun:

“In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town.”

Perfume by Patrick Suskind:

“In eighteenth century France, there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee:

“The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.”

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson:

“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison:

“124 was spiteful.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”

Murphy by Samuel Beckett:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen:

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

best opening sentences - written on a typewriter
which are your favourite opening sentences?

Which of these opening sentences do you think are the best? Or are there any incredible first lines from a novel we’ve left off the list? Let us know in the comments section below!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *