In The Beginning

Has anyone submitted a proposal to an agent or editor who asks to see just five pages of a project before deciding whether to read the rest? It really makes you think about beginnings. What makes those crucial first pages (hell, first sentences today) work? Ask this question and you’ll get different answers: They must grab the reader and never let go. They must cast a spell, drawing the reader into a spellbinding fresh vision of the world. They must demonstrate a dazzlingly original and captivating voice.


I knew a guy in college, a fiction writer, who took this sort of advice to heart. The opening line of his first novel: “F*** you,” she screamed. No, I’m not kidding. This guy went on to become an English professor and to publish fiction, though perhaps not that first novel. It makes me laugh now, but I tip my hat to him. He was just trying to figure it out and taking his best stab. Isn’t that what we’re all doing?

There was a time—and I guess I’m dating myself here—when a story could start slowly and softly, when readers would tolerate a gentle build-up in narrative tension. Now it seems people want to be shot out of a canon when they read fiction. In this age of instant messaging and 24/7 connectivity, non-stop action is the rule, unless you’ve already got a bestseller to your name, in which case you’re given more credit for knowing what you’re doing.

Beginnings are critical. They always have been. But at a time when a little more emphasis is placed on them—thanks to the ever-shrinking national attention span—beginnings matter more than ever. I’ve pasted twenty, timeless first lines here that most folks agree work pretty well.  Take a look, enjoy, and follow the link to read the rest.


100 Best First Lines of Novels

The editors of American Book Review selected what they consider the most memorable first lines of novels. The titles on the list span centuries and genres and include classics and contemporary novels that are certain to become classics. Use this list to test your literary knowledge.

  Quote Author Title Year
1. Call me Ishmael. Herman Melville Moby-Dick 1851
2. 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 and Prejudice 1813
3. A screaming comes across the sky. Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow 1973
4. 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 (trans. Gregory Rabassa) One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Vladimir Nabokov Lolita 1955
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy (trans. Constance Garnett) Anna Karenina 1877
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. James Joyce Finnegans Wake 1939
8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell 1984 1949
9. 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. Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 1859
10. I am an invisible man. Ralph Ellison Invisible Man 1952
11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts 1933
12. 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
13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. Franz Kafka (trans. Breon Mitchell) The Trial 1925
14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver) If on a winter’s night a traveler 1979
15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Samuel Beckett Murphy 1938
16. 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
17. 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. James Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1916
18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier 1915
19. 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. Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy 1759–1767
20. 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. Charles Dickens David Copperfield 1850

Read more: Best First Lines of Novels |



4 thoughts on “In The Beginning”

  1. The first paragraph is so hard to write. There’s so much at stake. You have to swallow so much self-doubt. Bottomline: you just have to be true to yourself, your vision, and the story.

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