The best first sentences in novels

by Toby Manhire / 07 August, 2013
Some of the finest literary openings, as chosen by authors and critics.
An antidote to that “worst sentence ever” from the other day: the best ever opening sentences in novels. As picked by novelists.

The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler has asked a bunch of acclaimed authors to nominate their favourite opening lines.

Margaret Atwood goes for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:

Call me Ishmael.

Jonathan Franzen plumps for Franz Kafka’s The Trial:

Someone must have slandered Josef K, because one morning, without his having done anything bad, he was arrested.

Crime writer Lawrence Block volunteers five – and the opening lines from five separate Richard Stark novels in the “Parker” series make a splendid set.

When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.

When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.

When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.

When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.


When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.


Last year the Observer selected its ten best opening lines in fiction. This, from James Joyce’s Ulysses (which we’ve all read, right?), came top:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

And atop the Telegraph selection of the 30 best “great opening lines in literature”, from earlier this year, is just as familiar - from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

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

But as far as New Zealand literature is concerned, there’s any easy winner. Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow:

The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.

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