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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs - the best opening lines in novels

Now, this is how you begin a story.

Literature's greatest opening paragraphs - the best opening lines in novels
19 February 2022
As with pubs and shoes, you know you’re reading a great book from the second you’re inside it.
In the right hands, a novel’s beginning alone can make you feel like you’ve just fallen into a fast-flowing river, snatched away from reality and hurtled downhill.
They range from hard-boiled pulp fiction to classics to, well, The Bible; the only thing they have in common is that they’re so good it’s impossible not to read on. Unfortunately, right now you can’t. But in the meantime, enjoy the best literary handshakes of all time…
Let us know if we've left any off at the bottom.

Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

1. A Tale Of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)

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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 of 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.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

2. 1984 (George Orwell)

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

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

3. The Raven (Edgar Allan Poe)

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Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

4. Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

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Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

5. Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

6. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

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It was a pleasure to burn.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

7. The Stranger (Albert Camus)

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Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

8. Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)

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As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

9. Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)

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I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

10. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Hunter S Thompson)

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We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

11. The Bible

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In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

12. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

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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. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly - Tom's Aunt Polly, she is - and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

13. White Fang (Jack London)

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Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

14. Notes From Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well then let it hurt even worse!

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

15. The Dark Tower Volume 1: The Gunslinger (Stephen King)

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The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

16. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

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Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

17. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)

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It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

18. A Farewell To Arms (Ernest Hemingway)

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In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

19. The Haunting Of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)

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No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

20. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

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The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

21. American Tabloid (James Ellroy)

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America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

22. A Confederacy Of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

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A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenes against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

23. The Witches (Roald Dahl)

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In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black coats, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

24. On The Road (Jack Kerouac)

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I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles. First reports of him came to me through Chad King, who’d shown me a few letters from him written in a New Mexico reform school. I was tremendously interested in the letters because they so naively and sweetly asked Chad to teach him all about Nietzsche and all the wonderful intellectual things that Chad knew. At one point Carlo and I talked about the letters and wondered if we would ever meet the strange Dean Moriarty. This is all far back, when Dean was not the way he is today, when he was a young jailkid shrouded in mystery. Then news came that Dean was out of reform school and was coming to New York for the first time; also there was talk that he had just married a girl called Marylou.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

25. The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)

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It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

26. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)

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I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg Airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth. lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in waterproofs, a flag atop a squat building, a BMW billboard. So - Germany again.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

27. Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh)

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The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

28. Brighton Rock (Graham Greene)

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Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

29. American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis)

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ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn't seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, "Be My Baby" on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

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Literature's greatest opening paragraphs

30. Pick-Up (Charles Willeford)

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It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chile dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chile over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn’t have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left. That was the exact moment she entered. A small woman, hardly more than five feet. She had the figure of a teenage girl. Her suit was a blue tweed, smartly cut, and over her thin shoulders she wore a fur jacket, bolero length. Tiny gold circular earrings clung to her small pierced ears. Her hands and feet were small, and when she seated herself at the counter I noticed she wasn’t wearing any rings.

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