Unforgettable first lines. Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

Unforgettable first lines. Image: Ryan McEachern / Penguin

“First sentences are doors to worlds,” wrote Ursula Le Guin in her essay The Fisherwoman’s Daughter. Which is to say: in the hands of our greatest writers, opening lines cast an immediate spell, grab your attention like a starter's gun, set the tone and even foreshadowing what is to come. 

Here, we've picked 15 of our favourite opening lines in fiction. It's not exhaustive; there are far too many exquisite openers in literature to make space for them all. But these are some we find hard to forget.

Let us know your favourites on Twitter or at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

'Call me Ishmael'

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Crisp, cryptic and claustrophobic. It's probably the most famous of famous first lines, grabbing the readers attention like a slap in the face. Who is this man who calls himself Ishmael, you say, if indeed that is his real name?

'I am an invisible man'

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison  (1952)

Not just an iconic opening line, but a deeply enigmatic one. As the unnamed narrator quickly explains, this is not a case of Edgar Allan Poe or Hollwood invisibility but a man ignored by the society around him. Thus begins one the greatest novels of the 20th Century. 

'The story so far: in the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move'

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (1980)

Read a newspaper lately? Hard not to agree, at times, with this line from Douglas Adams' second instalment of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. And if you disagree (the universe at least gave us love, right?), it should still make you laugh.

'Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure'

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

So, someone clearly has mummy issues, but of what sort remains to be seen. Does he care that she's dead, or not at all? It's so hard to tell. Mersault is our narrator, a wonderfully messed-up social misfit who struggles to conform to society's expectations as he's drawn inexorably towards murder.

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

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

So. Many. Questions. And you've only read the first line. Turns out, death-obsessed Esther Greenwood is a far-from-happy college girl on the brink of a breakdown. But you got that already, right?

'Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board'

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

It's not often opening line works as both a brilliant way into a story and a handy aphorism, but that's precisely what you get on page one of one of the crowning novels of the Harlem Renaissance.

'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 (1971)

OK, pretty clear what this book is going to be about. And he hasn't just thrown back a couple of Nurofen after a few too many hours in the sun. No, this is a “a savage journey into the heart of the American dream” and a demented love letter to paranoia, insanity and superhuman levels of substance abuse.

'You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy'

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

Words spoken by an abusive father to his daughter, this first line is one of the most sinister and haunting in all of fiction. Like the rest of Walker's masterpiece it is gripping and impossible to forget.

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

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

In Orwell's dystopian future, nothing is certain; nothing is fixed. Even time itself can be manipulated when the government has toppled God. A haunting message that sets an eerie tone for the greatest novel of the 20th century.

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

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Another writer who liked to set out her stall from the very first line. Jane Austen's masterwork is, boiled down, a story almost exclusively about single men, good fortunes and wannabe wives. Almost.

'The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation'

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

This opening line is both highly technical – establishing scene, character and plot – and stylistic in how it sets an immediate tone of dark comedy. Moreover, it leaves you in no doubt you're in for a hell of a ride in Tartt's 'murder myster in reverse'.

'The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.'

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

Ten words in, and you're not going anywhere. First, of course, the language – uneasy, visceral, confusing. Is it even English? And why is 'Sick Boy' trembling? Read on just a little further and you're plunged into a world of strained friendships, heroin needles and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.

'124 was spiteful. Full of Baby's venom'

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

On its own, this intriguing combination of words and numbers reads more like a scary Japanese haiku. But then we learn 124 is the name of protagonist Sethe's house that's haunted by her dead baby in Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, and the spine really begins to tingle.

'As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect'

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

No need for a synopsis for Franz Kafka's most famous short story here; it's already in the first line. Man becomes cockroach, and things go downhill from there.

'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink'

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

The bookworm's favourite, this, and one of the most famous first lines ever written. It tells us everything we need to know about Cassandra, our spirited but bored 17-year-old heroine living in a crumbling castle with her ravishing husband-hunting sister, an ex-art model stepmother, and a father with writer's block.

What's your favourite opening line? Let us know by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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