10 of the Most Famous First Lines in Fiction

10 of the Most Famous First Lines in Fiction

When it comes to fiction, the first sentence is arguably the most important part of the book itself. A great first sentence will grab your attention, set the tone for the overall story, and—above all—compel you to read on. Over the years there have been some incredible first sentences—some subtle, some brilliant, and some downright strange. Read on to see some of our favourite fictional openers.

‘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

Austen’s opening line in the much-loved classic Pride and Prejudice is perhaps one of the most iconic on this list—and certainly my favourite. Using her trademark wit, she playfully sets the scene for her novel, which is essentially about wealthy bachelors and prospective wives.

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ 

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Melancholic and moody, the opening line of Rebecca is one to remember. In one fell swoop, Du Maurier establishes the voice, setting and dream-like atmosphere of her gothic classic, which hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1938.

‘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…’

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

The opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities is definitely iconic—even if you haven’t read the book, there’s a good chance you’ve come across this phrase at some point or other. It’s a grand, sweeping opener—much like Dickens’ classic novel itself. And coming in at a whopping 119 words, it’s also the longest first sentence in this list.

‘Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

Dickens truly was the master of the opening line. Unlike A Tale of Two Cities, the opening of A Christmas Carol is short, succinct, and straight to the point. Yet it leaves so much to the imagination … How could you not read on?

‘Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

As far as first lines go, Rowling’s is one of the more subtle on this list—yet it achieves so much. Not only does this sentence perfectly characterise the odious Dursleys, it establishes a status quo that will soon be upended by the arrival of Harry Potter, the boy who lived.

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

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

The opening line in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader is as hilarious as it is brilliant. It introduces the protagonist, Eustace Clarence Scrubb, agrees that, yes, his name is rather awful, suggests his personality is not much better, but hints at the redemptive arc this character will undergo. After learning all this, my 11-year-old self couldn’t help but read on.

‘All children, except one, grow up.’

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

In six short words, J.M. Barrie has managed to sum up the essence of his enchanting story about a boy who refuses to grow up. Years after first reading Peter Pan, this iconic line is still enough to make me teary.

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

1984 by George Orwell

The opening of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece has left readers with a distinct feeling of unease since he first penned it in 1949. Right from the get-go, Orwell suggests that in this world nothing is beyond the control of Big Brother … not even time itself.

‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The opening line of The Great Gatsby is elegant and poetic (much like Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece) and I’m still turning these words over in my mind—years after reading them.

‘Before you fairly start this story, I should like to give you just a word of warning … Not one of the seven is really good, for the very excellent reason that Australian children never are.’ 

Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

A little closer to home, Ethel Turner’s opening line is the perfect way to begin her classic story about the seven mischievous Woolcot children. And besides … Can you argue with her logic?

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                    1. Ross Lane says:

                      The mustering for drafting and branding was a distressing time for the cattle. “ Man-Shy “ by Frank Dalby Davison