Famous first words


Silk’s Post #69 — Like Helga I’ve experienced a bit of deadline slippage this week, but fortunately Paula – who claims she’s having a spell of not writing – saved the day by writing her Tuesday post right on time. Ah, the irony.

My topic is an admitted quick cheat to make up for missing my post date. I don’t wish to barge too heavily into Paula’s Tuesday, so here’s a light evening post – and a challenging puzzle – for those of you with not too much to do on a Tuesday night in January.

The topic is a novel’s opening line. The door into your story. If it doesn’t invite readers in, nothing else you write really matters. It won’t get read.

There are countless articles, books, blog posts, workshops, courses and whatnot to help you craft that irresistible first line. For instance, here’s the link to an excellent article titled “7 Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel” on the Writer’s Digest website.

Opening lines can be incredibly powerful. Some are so memorable they literally become clichés, repeated and riffed upon forever.

An example: “In the beginning …” is the beginning of one of the most famous opening lines in literature. Even people who have never read the Bible can usually complete the sentence “… God created the heavens and the earth.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous: “It was a dark and stormy night …” is an actual opening line of an actual book, although most people would be hard pressed to tell you the book, the author, or the words that come next. This opening line has become, as Writer’s Digest described it, “the literary poster child for bad story starters,” an example of a style so overwrought, it owes its fame only to the countless parodies it inspired.

For the congenitally curious: the name of the dark-and-stormy-night novel is Paul Clifford, written in 1830 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Here is the full text of the first sentence (which demonstrates not only a penchant for purple prose, but a fondness for variety in punctuation marks):

“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.”

A final, and undoubtedly the most beloved, example of the opening line archetype must also be mentioned. “Once upon a time …” stands alone in literature. These are the first words most children hear when they’re told their first story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this opening has been in use since at least 1380. The words are as much lyrics as they are words to write down on paper – an enduring artifact of our oral tradition which has become embedded in our storytelling DNA.

So, now to the fun part. Perhaps the following 25 examples of famous first words will inspire you. They all sound so familiar … but can you name (from memory!) the books that begin with them, and the authors who wrote them? Answers are at the bottom for cheaters …

1. “Call me Ishmael.”

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

3. “A screaming comes across the sky.”

4. “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.”

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

6. “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.”

7. “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.”

8. “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.”

9. “All this happened, more or less.”

10. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

11. “It was a pleasure to burn.”

12. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

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

14. “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

15. “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

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

17. “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

18. “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.”

19. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

20. “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”

21. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

22. “They shoot the white girl first.”

23. “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

24. “It was love at first sight.”

25. “All children, except one, grow up.”


Okay, cheaters, here are your answers:

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
  2. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  3. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  4. Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  5. George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  7. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  8. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864)
  9. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  10. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
  11. Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451 (1953)
  12. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  13. Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
  14. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  15. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  16. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  17. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
  18. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)
  19. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
  20. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  21. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  22. Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
  23. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
  24. Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (1961)
  25. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

PS – Confession time. I could maybe get half of these right without looking them up. Okay, a third. Maybe. Fun, though, to see how many of these obviously highly successful opening lines break the “rules” of writing we’re often taught.

8 thoughts on “Famous first words

  1. I didn’t quite make a third of them! A lot of folks don’t realize there’s an award-winning book that also opens with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Who would have thought it?

  2. What fun, Silk! Much better than the NY Times crossword puzzle. I won’t disclose my own score, which is pathetic, however I was familiar with, or had read more than half of these openings before. Nice choice!

  3. One third is not a confession, Silk, it’s bragging. I got 1, 4. 6, and 24, and knew the authors of 2 (Tolstoy) and 22 (Toni Morrison) but couldn’t name the works. I’d read a number of the other books, but didn’t recognize the opening lines. Maybe Helga, Paula, and i should form a Legion Of The Pathetic.

  4. Number 6 is now one of my favorite books, but when I was supposed to read it in 9th grade, I didn’t. When I taught it to my Juniors, they seemed much more open to the book, but I don’t know if that is because of their age, the way I taught it or their generation. I did give them extra credit for watching “Girl Interrupted” as I consider it the female version of teen angst and how extreme wealthy parents war in their reaction to it.
    All I can say is I sure am glad my parents didn’t have money. I would have totally freaked if I had been put in a psych ward!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s