18 of the best first lines in fiction

Can you tell a fantastic story from its first sentence? Here are some of the best in literature.

Illustration of a ship with a light above it, and the words 'ships at a distance have every man's wish on board'.

“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 foreshadow what is to come. 

Here, we've picked 18 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.

'The King is dead. Long live the Queen.' The announcer's voice crackles from the wireless and winds around the rapt patrons of Berlin's Milk Bar as sinuously as the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones.

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.

Call me Ishmael.

I am an invisible man.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.

124 was spiteful. Full of Baby's venom.

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

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

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

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