Lets Get It Started!

As the old cliche goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. This is true in business, this is true in relationships, and this is especially true in writing. People may or may not judge a book by its cover, but you can be sure that they do judge a book by its first line. An author has mere seconds to set the tone of the story and connect with the reader. If the first line doesn’t grab attention, chances are good that the rest of the story will never get the opportunity to try.

Some first lines are so powerful that they become a part of our cultural literacy. Consider the works of Charles Dickens for example. He is not one of my favorite authors, but he has an amazing ability to write an opening line.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

Even people who have never read a single word from A Tale of Two Cities recognize this beginning – although the actual sentance goes on far, far longer than these simple phrases.

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

Dickens beatifully sets the tone of A Christmas Carol with these simple sentances, proving that writing does not have to be poetic or overly descriptive to catch the reader’s attention.

But Dickens is not alone in this ability to capture the imagination with a single sentance. Here is a list of some of my favorite first lines of books. Look at the list and see how many of these you can identify, then post a comment to let the rest of us know. I think most of these are fairly easy, despite my eclectic taste in books, and I can’t wait to see how many people get 10/10.

  1. All children, except one, grow up.
  2. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
  3. You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
  4. You better not never tell nobody but God.
  5. Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
  6. Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not on the subconscious level where savage things grow.
  7. The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.
  8. Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
  9. The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendents table – the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.
  10. Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of Gambia, West Africa, a manchild was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.



  1. Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie
  2. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  4. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. Carrie – Stephen King
  7. Jaws – Peter Benchley
  8. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  9. Snow Falling on Cedars – David Guterson
  10. Roots – Alex Haley

4 Replies to “Lets Get It Started!”

  1. Liz!

    Great post.

    I got 4 right. Only 4.


    (P.S. I’d hide the answers for now, give readers a sense of anticipation, don’t make it easy for us…)


  2. How true, Liz! Those first lines are so famous ….and for generations. I only new #1, #2, #3, #10
    Hat off to anyone who knows them all!

  3. Great post Liz! I admit I only guessed about four of them. But you make a good point. The first line is the most important. It can set the tone for the entire story.

    Funny, when I read these, the editor in me wants to cringe at a few, because they’re not ‘ideally’ structured. And yet – they hit home. Great examples!

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