Opening Lines in Literature

What's in a story or poem's opening line? Is the opening line really important, or is judgment of said line petty and/or a waste of time? Is the opening line of a story or poem ever indicative of the quality one can expect from that particular work?


I, personally, feel opening lines are important -- but they aren't end-all-be-all. If a book has a funny or catchy or blunt opening line, I'll make note of it. And yes, it's more likely than not to draw me into the author's creation. However, if an opening line isn't noteworthy (to me), that's okay.


Here to say some things about opening lines in a much more apt and intelligent way than I ever could is my favorite author, Stephen King (quote taken from an answer he gave in an interview a couple of years back which can be found here.):


"There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It's tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don't think conceptually while I work on a first draft -- I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.

But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

How can a writer extend an appealing invitation -- one that's difficult, even, to refuse?"


I figured since I'll be including several of King's opening lines (as well as a couple by members of his immediate family), it was only fitting to include a quote from the man himself. Like him, I think an author's opening line (or passage) should be inviting. It should make the reader want to go just a bit farther. It doesn't have to be long or methodical or complex -- most of the best opening lines aren't. It simply sets the tone and style for the story to come. It's the first impression, the opening act. It is crucial, to say the least.


Below I'm going to list several of my favorite opening lines or passages from various works that span all sorts of time periods. I wasn't picky when making this list; I just included what truly sticks out in my mind when I think "what are some great opening lines I've read?" These are, essentially, my very faves. My only requirement was it had to be taken from a work I've read in full (with the exception of David Copperfield, which I will read SOON!). And off we go....


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

- George Orwell, 1984


"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."

- JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye


"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


"All this happened, more or less."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


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

- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


"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, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


"So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness."

- "Beowulf"


"The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon."

- William Golding, Lord of the Flies


"The baby was crying again."

- Robert McCammon, Mine


'Learning the other ways into Nodd's Ridge, the back roads, takes a lifetime of living there."

- Tabitha King, Pearl


"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."

- JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


"My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable."

- Joe Hill, "Pop Art"


"Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things."

- Joe Hill, Horns


"When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie theater, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home."

- S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders


"It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself."

- Ned Vizzini, It's Kind of a Funny Story


"Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky..."

- T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


"Here I am, an old man in a dry month, / Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain."

- T.S. Eliot, "Gerontion"


"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


"My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I am not sure why you should care who I am or that I exist."

- Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas


"He was just tight enough and just familiar enough with the house to be able to go out into the kitchen alone, apparently to get ice, but actually to sober up a little; he was not quite enough a friend of the family to pass out on the living-room couch."

- Shirley Jackson, "The Intoxicated"


"We were very tired, we were very merry - / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry."

- Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Recuerdo"


"I am an invisible man."

- Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man


And now I present to you my top ten favorite opening lines from the works of my favorite author, Stephen King! (Because picking only one was impossible.) These are in no real particular order -- they're just my ten favorites. Enjoy...


"Jack Torrance thought: officious little prick."

- The Shining


"This is what happened."

- "The Mist" (from Skeleton Crew)


"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

- The Gunslinger


"The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain."

- IT


"I've never been what you'd call a crying man."

- 11/22/63


"After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach."

- "Night Surf" (from Night Shift)


"This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain."

- The Green Mile


"No one -- least of all Dr. Litchfield -- came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told."

- Insomnia


"She sits in the corner, trying to draw air out of a room which seemed to have plenty just a few minutes ago and now seems to have none."

- Rose Madder


"The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How's your marriage?"

- "A Good Marriage" (from Full Dark No Stars)


There are many, many, many others from King I would have liked to include in this list, but I guess limiting it to ten is smart.


So, those are some of my very favorite opening lines. It's certainly not all of them, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind whenever I find myself discussing this topic (which isn't often enough, he remarked sadly). Did I leave any out? Do you have any favorite opening lines? Let me know in the comments below!