First Lines in Bestselling Books - Part One

Having a killer first line is the Holy Grail for many writers, and years have probably been spent agonising over the first few words which will be followed by tens of thousands.

This article is sponsored by The Novel Factory
In a series of articles, we're going to look at first lines from some well known books and try to gain some insights into how the masters do it. We'll look at a random cross section of literature from the old classics to the modern, including all genres from literary, comedy, autobiographical, fantasy, philosophical and children's.

In this first article, I'm just going to present twelve opening lines from various books, in order of the year they were published, then draw some general conclusions. In following articles, we'll look at them in more detail.

(In a few cases I've included the first two lines, where I think it's appropriate.)

Here we go...

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 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.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1870), Charles Dickens

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.

BRAVE NEW WORLD (1932), Aldous Huxley

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 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.

THE HOBBIT (1937), J R R Tolkien

July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.

MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS (1956), Gerald Durrell

This journey took place in a part of Canada which lies in the northwestern part of the great sprawling province of Ontario.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY (1961), Sheila Burnford

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1986), Margaret Atwood

8st 13, alcohol units 2 (excellent), cigarettes 7, calories 3,100 (poor)
2pm Oh why hasn’t Daniel rung? Hideous, wasted weekend glaring psychopathically at the phone and eating things.

BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (1995), Helen Fielding

On the morning after the night it happened, Bruce Delamitri was sitting in a police interview room.

POPCORN (1996), Ben Elton

By the river Piedra I sat down and wept. There is a legend that everything that falls into the waters of this river – leaves, insects, the feather of birds – is transformed into the rocks that make the riverbed.


He came one late, wet spring, and brought the wide world back to my doorstep.

FOOL’S ERRAND (2001), Robin Hobb

How does one describe Artemis Fowl? Various psychiatrists have tried and failed.

Artemis FOWL (2001), Eoin Colfer

The main conclusion I draw from these is the increasing brevity over the years. Now obviously this is too small a sample to really base any solid judgements on, but there definitely seems to be a trend of shortening first lines. This may be a reflection of our shortened attention spans, or the fact that there is so much more competition in the world of literature, so authors have to work harder to hook us in from the first moment.

Also, there seems to be a shift from describing the situation and aurroundings, to focussing right in on character.  All the examples previous to 1980 make no mention of a any characters, with the exception of the hobbit. However, every one after that mentions a character, with half of them even being mentioned by name.

In the next article on this topic we'll look at some of these opening lines in more detail and see if we can learn anything...

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