Opening Lines from 15 Novels

In my local writers’ group recently we were discussing the opening lines of novels. We hear about the importance of the first few lines, if not the FIRST line, both to capture the reader’s attention and also to capture a potential publisher’s. So I thought I’d dive somewhat randomly into my own library and share the opening lines. I decided to extend past the literal first sentence to include what seemed to be the end of a complete thought, if not paragraph. These are in no particular order, except the first one has become one of my favorite novels ever. Some will be quite familiar.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)
Man Booker Prize

“So now get up.”

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobble of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
Pulitzer Prize

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.


Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
National Book Award

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.


Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund (1999)

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my lat. Yet, looking up—into the clouds—I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark (I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb’s ear).


An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears (1998)

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity.


Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey (2009)
Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable—slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.


White Noise, Don DeLillo (1984)
National Book Award

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.


Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

(from the Preface)

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.

(from Chapter 1)

This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.


Moby-Dick or, The Whale, Herman Melville (1851)

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.


The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

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.


Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.


Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner (1971)
Pulitzer Prize

Now I believe they will leave me alone. Obviously Rodman came up hoping to find evidence of my incompetence—though how an incompetent could have got this place renovated, moved his library up, and got himself transported to it without arousing the suspicion of his watchful children, ought to be a hard one for Rodman to answer. I take some pride in the way I managed all that. And he went away this afternoon without a scrap of what he would call data.


The Known World, Edward Jones (2003)
Pulitzer Prize

The evening master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.


Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins (1990)

(Prelude)

This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper. The toadstool motel you once thought a mere folk tale, a corny, obsolete, rural invention.

(opening chapter)

It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.


Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Pulitzer Prize

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

– Fred Dews

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