Monday, January 27, 2014


When I think of opening lines of novels, I tend to think of Snoopy. I picture him, as Charles Schulz so often did, sitting atop his doghouse, typewriter before him, aching to retrieve a second sentence from the recesses of his precocious canine brain. All he can come up with is the hoariest of clich├ęs: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Those seven words—often mocked, occasionally with a wink (Madeleine L’Engle used the line as a starter for A Wrinkle in Time)—are considered the purplest of purple prose. Writer’s Digest once described the line as “the literary poster child for bad story starters.” Or not. The American Book Review once chose it as one of the best first lines from novels. Beautiful writing is in the eye of the beholder.

The opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford actually was this: 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.

Not bad really. But then, I don’t always agree with historical literary consensus. Take Charles Dickens, for instance. The protracted first sentence to his 1859 classic A Tale of Two Cities is considered among the iconic openers: 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.

Me? I think that’s a bunch of overwritten nonsense. The epoch of incredulity? Really?

Alas, you won’t find that one on the following list, the Why Not 100 ranking of the 94 finest openers in fiction. There are actually a couple offerings from Dickens, just not that one…

1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)

2. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

3. 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.” (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

4. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston)

5. Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. (Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes)

6. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford)

7. Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead. (A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb)

8. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. (City of Glass by Paul Auster)

9. Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honkytonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries and laboratories and flophouses.” (Cannery Row by John Steinbeck)

10. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis)

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. (Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West)

12. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. (Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides)

13. It was a pleasure to burn. (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

14. You better not never tell nobody but God. (The Color Purple by Alice Walker)

15. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his
bed into a gigantic insect. (The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

16. In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. (A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean)

17. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley)

18. Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue. (Blown Away by Ronald Sukenick)

19. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

20. They shoot the white girl first. (Paradise by Toni Morrison)

21. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

22. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. (I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith)

23. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English literature approached each other at 1200 miles per hour (Changing Places by David Lodge)

24. Call me Ishmael. (Moby-Dick by Herman Melville)

25. Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams)

26. Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

27. It was the day my grandmother exploded. (The Crow Road by Iain Banks)

28. We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson)

29. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife. (Waiting by Ha Jin)

30. No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. (The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)

31. I am an invisible man. (Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison)

32. A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon)

33. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. (Murphy by Samuel Beckett)

34. The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer by William Gibson)

35. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. (Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

36. In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. (The End of the Road by John Barth)

37. Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. (2001—A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke)

38. The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron)

39. All children, except one, grow up. (Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie)

40. All this happened, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut)

41. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. (Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler)

42. The great gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. (The Thief of Always by Clive Barker)

43. 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, not 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. (The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

44. Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” (The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor)

45. They threw me off the hay truck about noon. (The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)

46. Dr. Weis, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. (The Debut by Anita Brookner)

47. When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. (The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin)

48. “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (The Towers of Trezibond by Rose Macaulay)

49. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) was was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting with my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.” (I, Claudius by Robert Graves)

50. Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what the Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi. (The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells)

51. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. (The End of the Affair by Graham Greene)

52. 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. (David Copperfield by Charles Dickens)

53. None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore. (True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne)

54. Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. (Brighton Rock by Graham Greene)

55. The moment one learns English, complications set in. (Chromos by Felipe Alfau)

56. In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. (Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson)

57. Granted, I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.” (The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass)

58. I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. (Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton)

59. The only look at me sometimes. To push in the tray of food or for medicine ever three or four hours. (So Far Gone by Paul Cody)

60. Boys stand with road-sore feet holding cardboard suitcases. (The Second Coming of Malava Shikongo by Peter Orner)

61. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)

62. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. (Tracks by Louise Erdrich)

63. This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast. (Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut)

64. 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. (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

65. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. (The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner)

66. Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight—and superstitious about sevens—shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly. (Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts)

67. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. (Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad)

68. On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. (I Am Legend by Richard Matheson)

69. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers)

70. First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. (Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury)

71. Marley was dead, to begin with. (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

72. All stories are love stories. (Eureka Street by Robert McLaim Wilson)

73. I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army. (Old Man’s War by John Scalzi)

74. When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger. (The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark)

75. How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. (Wildwood by Colin Meloy)

76. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. (The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane)

77. There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. (The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence)

78. If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. (A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett)

79. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. (Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini)

80. It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. (The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber by Ernest Hemingway)

81. Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. (The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood)

82. Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick. (The Shining by Stephen King)

83. Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming the chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan. (Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley)

84. “God? Presumably with two ‘d’s,” said the concierge, without looking up. (The Old Man and Mr. Smith by Peter Ustinov)

85. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

86. My father had a face that could stop a clock. (The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde)

87. Today I have made a major decision: I am never going to die. (Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart)

88. The world is full of broken people. (One Door Away From Heaven by Dean Koontz)

89. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

90. What’s it going to be then, eh? (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)

91. If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. (Herzog by Saul Bellow)

92. If this typewriter can’t do it, then f*** it, it can’t be done. (Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins)

93. If you’re going to read this, don’t bother. (Choke by Chuck Palahniuk)

94. This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it. (The Princess Bride by William Goldman)


  1. I Love Lists…I Love repetition …needless to say I Love your new blog. "first lines" definitely called to me…The writing style and tone of the book are immediately evident and I like to be drawn in from the beginning. Can't wait to see the future lists…what a clever and wonderful endeavor!
    Lyhn Green

  2. Fantastic work, Brad. My favorites are 4, 9, 12, 22 and especially 16, because there's no clear line between religion and fly fishing in my house, either. Can't wait to read more. - Scott Brown

  3. I rewrote/paraphrased No. 3 for my college entrance essay.

  4. Bravo! So many gems here! Loved the ones by Kafka, Nabokov, Eugenides, West, Zora Neale Hurston (I highly recommend the audio recording, read by Ruby Dee--fabulous), and the first line of the Sound and the Fury--always loved that one! Plus, No. 7 A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (because I've always loved Dickinson, but have NOT read this book, so now I must!!), No. 21 (Gabriel Garcia Marquez--brilliant first line!), and finally Nos. 44 (Flannery O'Connor) and 88 (Dean Koontz), both of which I have not read but now want to! How many hours of glorious browsing through your own shelves of beloved books must this entry have required? Fun fun fun!

  5. What's so cool about the list, I think, is that everyone has their own favorites.