Literary Theory & Criticism
Top 10 Greatest Opening Sentences in Literature

A strong opening sentence is important when writing a novel. It may not say much about the plot, but it speaks volumes about the author and sometimes protagonist or antagonist. It sets the tone for the whole book. To the casual reader it can easily get overlooked and they might never know just how important that line was to sucking them into the author’s mind. As a writer myself, I researched the ins and outs of some of literature’s greatest opening lines. In fact, I probably put more time into it than was necessary with the hopes that maybe one day mine would be on someone’s list. These are my personal top 10 greatest first lines in literature.

10. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Cover to Moby Dick.

“Call me Ishmael.”

Probably the most and easily quotable line in literature. This is the John 11:35 of literature. Everybody knows this line and no list would be complete without it.

9. Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk)

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Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

There really isn’t much to say about this line. It goes from 0 to 11 in nothing flat, immediately drawing the reader in, which is everything a great opening should do.

8. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut)

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All this happened, more or less.”

Probably my least favorite book on this list, but it’s opening line pulls no punches. Those six simple words hit you straight in the face by tearing down the fourth wall and possibly have you questioning just how reliable the narrator truly is.

7. Genesis (Moses)

Cover to the Holy Bible.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

I threw this in there for sake of variety. The Bible itself has sold literally billions of copies around the world and has been translated into over 3,000 different languages. Love it or hate it, it’s a literary masterpiece and belongs on this list.

6. The Call of Cthulhu (H.P. Lovecraft)

Cover to the Necronomicon.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

I was originally only going to include novels in this list, but The Call of Cthulhu’s opening line is just a beautiful and haunting masterpiece. H. P. Lovecraft could probe man’s deepest and darkest fears in a way that is still unmatched to this day.

5. 1984 (George Orwell)

Cover to 1984.

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

A brilliant introduction to the dystopian world of 1984. This line immediately sucks you in knowing that you’re in for a gloomy treat.

4. The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger)

Cover to The Cater in the Rye

“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’s timeless masterpiece introduces us to the pessimistic Holden Caulfield perfectly. It’s wordy, but sincere and doesn’t come off as contrived or pretentious.

3. Less than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis)

Cover to Less than Zero.

“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”

Sticking with the theme of simplicity, this line goes straight to the point, unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ opening line to American Psycho which is a mouthful to say the least.

2. A Tale of 2 Cities (Charles Dickens)

Cover to A Tale of Two Cities.

“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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

No list would be complete with the beautiful poetic opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. It’s certainly the longest one on the list, but it’s so masterfully crafted I couldn’t even imagine shortening it by one word.

1. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

Cover to Fahrenheit 451 60th anniversary edition.

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

As I said, I like my opening lines to be short and sweet and you can’t get much shorter or sweeter than Ray Bradbury’s opening line to his literary masterpiece Fahrenheit 451. Very simplistic, uninformative, and yet so powerful.

     That’s my list of literature’s 10 greatest first sentences. Do you agree? Who do you feel I left out?

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4 thoughts on “Literary Theory & Criticism
Top 10 Greatest Opening Sentences in Literature

Add yours

  1. Great choices here – although I’m surprised (but not disappointed) that neither Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, not Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” are here, since they so often appear on lists of this sort!

    1. Hi Isobel,

      Thank you so much for your feedback! Those are certainly great openings to fantastic works of literature! The hardest part of about making these lists is the decision process – especially when there’s so many great opening lines to pick from. I was going to have the opening line to “I Capture the Castle” on this list, but it would have meant bumping one of the others and I just couldn’t find it in my heart to bump any of them. I give you my sincere promise to have a shout out to both of those pieces of literature in the near future.

      Matthew Bachman

      1. I think it’s great to have the variety, and it makes your list more personal – what’s the point of writing a list if you only repeat what others have said? I hope you could tell that I didn’t mean to criticise.
        Another thought I briefly had – why do we tend to write “top _” lists as multiples of ten? Top ten Tuesday, for example, is alliterative, so I can see the attraction, but “50 best” and “100 best” don’t have that. Maybe if there are eleven books we want to shout about, we should just break with convention? Or is the limit part of the creative challenge for us writers?

      2. Hi Isobel,

        I embrace any form of constructive criticism and certainly don’t take it the wrong way. The best way to not only grow as a writer, but as also as a person, is to be open to criticism in its many forms. I agree, the “top ten” thing is overdone and I honestly want to try and keep away from that formula as much as possible because. Variety is certainly the spice of life and I’m still trying to find my niche as far as blogging is concerned (I’ve been writing fiction most of my life). I hope my blog can find new and interesting ways to capture your interest and break with convention.

        Matthew Bachman

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