You only get one chance to start a story. When I was studying Creative Writing at university, emphasis was sometimes placed on the first page of a novel. Books have to be engaging throughout because the writer naturally wants the reader to finish the whole book, so every page is a new challenge to make them turn over and keep going. If you can’t even sustain their interest to the end of the first page then something has gone very wrong. Even more so, then, you need a first line that grabs the reader and drags them into the adventure they’re about to undergo.

Probably the most famous opening line, used to begin many stories in the English language and popularised by fairy tales, is “Once upon a time…” When you give it some thought, it’s actually a bit of a nonsense phrase, but one we accept without question because we are all exposed to it from a young age. It’s deliberately vague, setting the following story in deep history, back when magic was real and animals talked. In other languages, however, the phrase isn’t ever used and they have their own curious phrases, some of them actually much more fun. In the Indian language of Telugu, fairy tales open with, “Having been said and said and said…”, implying the story has been repeated throughout history. In Korean, fairy tales begin, “Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…” and Polish ones focus on a location rather than a time, beginning, “Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven forests…” Fairy tales are always meant to be out of reach of us mortals to visit. One of my favourites however is that of Chile, where the traditional beginning is, “Listen to tell it and tell it to teach it”, which focuses on the oral tradition and morality aspects of fairy tales.

Because life doesn’t have beginnings and endings the way fiction does, it can be interesting to see where writers choose to begin their stories. Common beginnings, however, can be setting up a location (Fantastic Mr Fox: “Down in the valley there were three farms.”), having the character waking up (The Way Inn: “The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”) or perhaps already at the breakfast table (Third Girl: “Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”). Starting in the morning seems to make sense to us, and I can’t think of many if any books where the character’s first act is to go to sleep. Mornings, and breakfasts feel like suitable beginnings, although perhaps The Bible takes this to its logical extreme by beginning at the creation of the universe. It’s far from the only book to do so.

Another very common form of opening line is one that discusses the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night” is often thrown up as an example of purple prose, and is now often mocked and parodied. Washington Irving (writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) first used the phrase in 1809, but it reached its fame as an example of bad writing in 1830 with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, which opens:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t all bad – he also coined the term “the pen is mightier than the sword” – but this opening line was so maligned that that in 1983, San Jose State University began the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a contest to find the worst opening line in fiction for each year. None of this, however, has stopped the use of weather in opening lines. In Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, writer Ben Blatt analysed the use of weather in opening lines and found that Danielle Steel is one of the biggest culprits, with 46% of her 92 novels opening with a description of the weather. Other well-respected novelists use the same methods – 26% of John Steinbeck’s novels and 17% of Stephen King’s begin with the weather, as do 10% of Charles Dickens’.

Blatt also explored the length of opening lines, are his findings are interesting. Toni Morrison averages five words in her opening lines; Jane Austen, thirty-two. Charles Dickens straddles it all, with A Christmas Carol‘s first line being just six words long, but the opening of A Tale of Two Cities being a sentence of “119 words, 17 commas and an em-dash.” Despite the extraordinary difference in lengths, both are considered classics, showing that really there are no hard and fast rules for what makes a good opening line.

So what is the best opening line of all time? This is a point hotly debated by readers and writers, but often the same contenders crop up again and again. I’ve tried not to include many of them in my list below and give some others a chance to shine, but they are still worthy of a mention. 1984 famously opens with “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” I’ve always been a fan of this, as it invokes the fact that you’re about to step into a world where everything is just a bit off. It’s immediately uncomfortable. Alert Camus’ novel The Stranger says enormous things about grief just with its first ten words: “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Moby Dick, of course, opens with “Call me Ishmael”, which serves to simply make us ask more questions than necessary – there’s an implication that Ishmael isn’t the narrator’s real name. Immediately you’re curious to know what – or indeed if – he’s hiding. And Pride and Prejudice opens with “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, which is probably one of the most parodied first lines in literature, and very quickly establishes a lot about the plot, characters and culture of Austen’s world.

And with those out of the way, may I share with you six of my favourite opening lines in all fiction.

A Christmas Carol

Marley was dead: to begin with.

I’m not especially a fan of Dickens, finding him long-winded, but this is understandable given the man was paid by the word. He is, however, responsible for this opening line, which contains what is surely the best colon in literature. Death is so often the end, but here we know straight away that Marley is coming back in some form or other. It feels topsy-turvy – if you start dead, surely you can’t become anything else? Like 1984, it introduces an immediate sense of unease which then pervades the rest of the novel. You can’t not be captivated by this opening.

Slaughterhouse-Five

All this happened, more or less.

It’s been a long time since I read Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s one of those books that has stayed with me and began an ongoing fondness for Kurt Vonnegut. A lot of great stories have unreliable narrators, and this first line gives the indication straight away that it’s one of them. As the old saying goes: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Here, we know immediately that things are not necessarily going to be quite as they seem, and details of Billy Pilgrim’s life may have been altered for the purpose. What is true and what is false, however, are left for us to decide ourselves.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

The Narnia books passed me by as a series, and I wonder if it’s too late now to head through the wardrobe and learn about Christianity through the eyes of a lion. Probably for the best, as I never liked Turkish delight anyway. This opening line, however, always makes me laugh, though as a friend once said, “That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose middle name is Staples.”

A name can tell you a lot about a person – and if you don’t believe me, then think of two people called Wayne and Percival and tell me you don’t have preconceived notions about what these people would be like – so to open with a name like that is a sure fire way to grab the attention. Like a lot of good openers, too, it brings about questions. Who is he? Why does he almost deserve his name? Why doesn’t he fully deserve it? There’s something silly about it, but it works.

The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

The Day of the Triffids is still remembered but doesn’t seem to be held up in the same regard as other classic science fiction tales. Cool and terrifying, I’d forgotten the opening line entirely. It’s a great one though, upending the world immediately and throwing you in, once again, with a sense of concern. I also like that it suggests we all know a Sunday morning is a very different beast to a Wednesday morning. Like many traditional openings, we are of course starting with talk of the morning, but it quickly points out that this is not going to be normal. Whatever is going to happen has already happened in some respects, and now we’re straight in dealing with the fallout.

The Crow Road

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

I’ve never read The Crow Road and this opener came to me when I asked others for some suggestions of their favourites. It’s instantly captivating, shocking, weird, funny and makes you wonder what on earth is happening. There doesn’t seem to be any shock in the words, like this is something that happens regularly. It’s another one that instantly makes you want to know more.

The Beginner’s Goodbye

The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.

In a similar vein to A Christmas Carol, The Beginner’s Goodbye opens with someone not being quite as dead as they were first thought to be. Like The Crow Road, it takes something strange and normalises it. We aren’t meant to think that this is odd, or at least not if we’re siding with the hero. It’s everyone else that seems to have the problem. It’s cleverly worded, and I adore the use of the word “strangest” which you think should be about one part of the line but is actually about another. It also doesn’t feel creepy in the slightest, just makes you want to know how people reacted and, frankly, how his wife made it back.


Thanks for reading the first post in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

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