Epic Opening Lines

As I was wandering up the stairs at our public library the other day, my journey was arrested by the bright-colored bulletin board pictured in the header. This board is changed monthly, and frequently has things like Staff book picks, or children’s drawings with a book pick, etc.

But this was over the top! A bright orange sign up top announces “Epic Opening Lines”, and another orange sign to the left asks “Any of these sound familiar?” On brightly colored cards are printed thirty one- or two-sentence beginnings to a book; you can lift the flap to peek at the title and author of the book represented. It was a challenge to see if I could recognize any of them – a few were familiar, and one or two were obvious, but many I had never laid eyes on. I realized when I started looking them up at home that quite a few were Young Adult or children’s novels.

Since I doubt if you can read them all from the header, I’ll type several of them here, and see if any baboons can guess them – then I’ll reveal answers Sunday. Here you go:

1. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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

3. They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.

4. I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.

6. This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

10. The early morning sky was the color of cat vomit. Of course, Tally thought, you’d have to feed your cat only salmon-flavored cat food for a while, to get the pinks right.

11. The moment one learns English, complications set in.

14. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

15. Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.

16. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

17. It was a pleasure to burn.

20. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.

23. I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.

24. There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smuggler’s town. You shouldn’t make it a habit to ask too many questions, for one thing. And you probably shouldn’t be in it for the money.

27. All children, except one, grow up.

28. 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.

29. 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, nor 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.

30. Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

Do you have a favorite opening line(s) from a book you’ve read?

80 thoughts on “Epic Opening Lines”

  1. “How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It is the opening line from the novel “Paul Clifford” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and is considered a prime example of “purple prose” or unnecessarily florid writing. My grandfather had a set of the entire works of Bulwer-Lytton, a prolific writer whose prose was purple and quite unreadable. He coined the phrases “the great unwashed”‘ “the almighty dollar” and ” the pen is mightier than the sword”. Imagine writing novel after novel and being remembered for only 4 sentences!

        Liked by 6 people

        1. That line has inspired an annual Bulwer-Lytton contest for humorously overwrought prose. It is funny, or at least it is to people who value good writing and gag at bad writing.

          Here’s the opening line from the runner-up in the most recent contest:

          Dreaded Pirate Larry was somewhat worried, as he looked down at his boot, where his first mate was stretched out, making whooshing sounds, attempting to blow him over, that despite having the fastest ship, the most eye patches, and the prettiest parrots, his crew may need a few lessons on the difference between literal and figurative, as evidenced by the rest of the crew applying ice to the timbers.

          Liked by 4 people

  3. Fun post, Barb.

    I can identify six of the opening lines (1, 2, 14, 17, 27, 29), but I’m fairly certain I recognize a couple more though I couldn’t tell you from where.

    “Call me Ishmael.” Famous first line that we all know, even though we haven’t all read the book. Or how about this one: “All of this happened, more or less.” Or this one: “I’m pretty much fucked.”

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I would list “Call me Ishmael” as one of my favorite opening lines. It is brilliant. The speaker is not saying he IS Ishmael (although he is). He is asking to be called that. So with three words he has established that the central character in this sprawling novel speaks candidly but with ambiguity, since his first request is that we should think of him as Ishmael. To students of the Bible, which many people were when Moby Dick was published, “call me Ishmael” also meant something like “call me by the name of that wretch who stumbled about in the desert in the Bible.” And, at another level, he is saying something like “I, like the Biblical Ishmael, have a grand story to tell, although I’m not really the central subject.”

    I’d say that is conveying a lot with three words.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. r and I adore the opening lines of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. I marvel at how quickly and surely he sets the mood.

    One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. “We have a core problem. We have a President without shame, who is backed by a party without spine, that is supported by a network called Fox News, without integrity,” says author @tomfriedman, of Donald Trump.

    Now that is a great opening line.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those of us who were English majors probably have an advantage, Ben. I bet you could come up with some memorable lines from a movie though. Or perhaps from a play? Not necessarily opening lines, but lines that we’d recognize anyway. Like “Who are those guys?”

      Liked by 3 people

  8. “It would have to rain today,” said Rush, lying flat on his back in front of the fire. “On a Saturday. Certainly. Naturally. Of course. What else would you expect? Good weather is for Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday; and rain’s for Saturday and Sunday and Christmas vacation and Easter.”

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Almost twelve hours ago, so what the heck. Husband had his annual visit with this doctor yesterday. They gave him the usual short term memory test. Three words: banana, chair, sunrise. Then they measure blood pressure, and chit about this and that, and then check to see if he remembers the words. Well, heck he remembers the words, the same three words they have given him at every annual check up for the last three or four years, they are securely stored in his long-term memory. Ask him what he had for dinner last night, and he wouldn’t have a clue.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I don’t mean this to suggest that he has short term memory problems, but he brought it up himself that he thought it ridiculous that it’s the same perfunctory test, using the same words, year after year. I have to admit that I only recall having had this “test” a couple of times.

          Liked by 3 people

        1. Mostly I check to see if I”m having a bad hair day, and if I am – which is often the case – what I can do about it.


  9. So it is past my bedtime,and I am watching stupid TV while I wind down. All I can think of is opening lines. Barb,look what you have done.

    So a priest, a rabbi,and a Protestant minister walk into a bar…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’d be interested in hearing from Chris about his novel’s opening lines and how he chose them.

    That intrigues me because I wrestled with decisions about how to start the book I wrote about my parents. In the end, I did an odd thing. My book has two beginnings. (I think at one time it had three beginnings.) The first words of the first chapter address the issue of what storytelling is. The first words of the second chapter are the true start of the story I want to tell. Those words describe a photo (that I cannot show here). Here are those first words:

    Behold, dear reader, the George Grooms family on June 12, 1943. The setting for this photo is the lawn of my maternal grandparents’ home in Manchester, Iowa. The occasion is my first birthday. The laughing adults are my parents, George and Charmion Grooms. And, yes, I am the corpulent cherub in the bibbed pantsuit. I would like to persuade you that the kid behind the cake is not as dim as his slack-jawed stare implies, but what you think of the birthday boy is of little consequence. This memoir is about my parents. I am the storyteller, not the story.

    I was trying to set up several relationships with those words, especially relationships between the reader, the subject matter and the author. Secondarily, I wanted to define myself as a person who might be trusted to tell a good story.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. OK, the sources of the opening lines listed are:
    1. Anna Karanina – Leo Tolstoy
    2. 1984 – George Orwell
    3. Before I Fall – Lauren Oliver
    4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
    6. The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
    10. Uglies – Scott Westerfield
    11. Chromos – Felipe Alfau
    14. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
    15. Alphabetical Africa – Walter Abish
    16. Voyage of the Dawntreader – C. S. Lewis
    17. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
    20. Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
    23. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
    24. Greenglass House – Kate Milford
    27. Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie
    28. Matilda – Roald Dahl
    29. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkein
    30. The Debut – Anita Brookner

    Liked by 5 people

  12. OT – I just learned that Willie Murphey has died. Willie’s death pretty much marks the end of an era, although Spider John Koerner is still around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. all the old hippies are turning 80 about now and the consequences or sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are becoming evident

      i was such a control freak when it came to drugs i never much liked the control i gave up for the buzz on most drugs
      lots of folks had no problem going all in back in the 60’s and by the time they turned the corner there were dues to pay
      i saw willy play 2 years ago and he was fine but it looked like a tough way to scratch out a life

      peace to willie
      it was a wonderful era to be a part of. spider johns becoming an insurance salesman made him straighten up for a period of time,

      80 is just old, you can say it doesn’t sound old bit that like saying your health is good
      it’s all relative
      60 used to sound old and now the hot young babes are 60
      i hope to get back into shape so stairs don’t remind me i ain’t what i used to be anymore,
      carry a 40 or 50 lb box without noticing it’s heavy, and figure out a way to get the spring back in my step when i get up off the chair. both springs, the one before summer and the one that makes the cars suspension ride so smoothly
      when i saw willie he would play interesting guitar riffs for an hour or so then he’d start to get bored with doing the same old blues progressions and he’d concoct some new age jazz sounding lead line slay it down and challenge himself to make that cool and interesting. you gotta give a guy credit for making it a better challenge just because he had a choice
      hats off to willie
      go play an old les paul or stratocaster with hendrix and johnnie winter and john lennon
      let miles and chet baker play a little horn and get ella and janis to take turns on the female leads
      paul chambers on the bass
      good place to find a jam session
      not everyone will be there but i think musicians get cut a little slack
      making good choices is relative too


      1. He was only 75. But, you’re right, your body can only withstand the abuse for so long. On one of Rosalie Sorrell’s stays at our house, she wanted me to take her to the 400 Bar to visit with Willie and some of her other old friends. I did, and hated every minute of it in a smoke filled bar with a lot of more or less inebriated folks. Just not my idea of a good time. These old timers were made of better stuff than i – on the other hand, I’m still alive.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, tim, I know how you love Prince of Tides, and the South Carolina thing, kind of gave it away. Honestly, it was just a wild guess.


        1. i love pat conroy. i was at my ebay store when i returned from lunch and there was a car with a pat conroy novel on the front seat that i hadnt read yet or heard of. i wen tinto the store and asked when the new pat conroy book was relaeased. the lady inside was very surprised that a book fanatic was the propriotor of the ebay store, the book had come out that day and i went over to the barnes and nobel and got it and read it in 3 days. i realized that when a favorite author comes out with a book you love you need to divy it up a bit so its not over so quickly. pat only wrote what 10-12 books and to finish each one in 3 days means you have another 1 1/2 years to wait for the next one. used to get to wait for vonnegut. hes dead now. conroy died a couple of years ago, i havnt found the next author to wait for the next book from. but i will.maybe i have and i just cant think of it now i do it with movies today almost to a fault. im starting to do it with tv sjhows on netflix and amazon . its a new thing after following turner classic movies for my fix these last 20 years or so. netflix and amazon are the pandora of video. they can steer you where you want to go.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s ok. I’ll read Prince of Tides and the Great Santini over and over (even though VS didn’t like the Prince of Tides). love his writing and love the Low Country.

      Liked by 1 person

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