Novel Tips: What Makes a Great Opening Line Great?

Book on a beachIt’s a question all writers ask themselves, especially when they start a new novel. How will your opening line set this novel apart? Hook the reader? Reel him in? Inspire him to turn the page and want more? More of your writing.

We can argue about the greatest opening lines in literature and that’s okay. I’m not an authority but I’ll share my five favorite opening lines.

1)     “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Who can argue that this opening line doesn’t belong on everyone’s list of best opening lines? The full sentence will surprise you though, because it is actually 119 words long. Why is it so popular? It’s optimistic and it’s pessimistic. It inspires hope and delivers despair all at the same time. The reader wonders, where is Dickens going with this and we give him the benefit of the doubt because he is, well, Charles Dickens.

2)     “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?”–Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook (1996).
OK, I cheated here and recapped the first two sentences for the sake of context and to demonstrate how well they work together. Still, the first sentence grips us because how can someone not know who they are? (Remember, this was in the early days of Alzheimer’s so this approach was indeed compelling.) The second sentence quickly creates a great sense of peril. These two powerful sentences launched me into Sparks’ debut novel and propelled me through his next 15.

3)     “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”—J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Great opening line. Why does it stop us? It’s defiant. It raises questions. We want answers. Why is he defiant? Why was his childhood lousy? And why doesn’t he want to go into it? Yet, this sentence hooks us for another reason. Voice. It has a captivating voice. A bitter voice. It’s a great example of show, don’t tell. Finally, it’s written in the first person so it comes to life. Pardon me, but I must read on.

4)     “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952). I love this line because it tells me so much. Look at it again. He is an old man. He is a fisherman. The story is set near the Gulf. His motivation is to catch a fish and we will later learn not just any fish. He has been unsuccessful for 84 days. His life depends on catching fish, his livelihood depends on it and his pride depends on it.

5)     “Call me Ishmael.”—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851). This is often regarded as the greatest opening line in a novel. Could it be shorter or more compelling? Hardly. Notice the simplicity. And I love the way it makes me feel. I feel like an old friend of my grandfather is about to tell me a gripping story. Pull up a stool.

So, there you have it. My five favorite opening lines. They’re famous for different reasons—but compelling for the same reason. They hook the reader. They prompt him to read one more sentence, one more paragraph, turn one more page, and then a sudden tug and the hook is set. Reel them in, one sentence at a time. It all starts with that crucial opening line.

As writers, we are judged by agents, editors, publishers and ultimately, the reader by our first sentence. If they turn the page, they may make a critical decision to journey with you through your book. Make it worth the journey.

Rewrite your opening line until you’re sure it will seize your readers and pull them expectantly into your fictional dream.


The Writer’s Refuge blog is a place for writers, like you, to break away from your daily routine and for just a few minutes find insight, inspiration or simply a word of encouragement.

Blog entries are posted every other Thursday.

You may contact Jim Magruder at:


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