Beginnings matter. Writers and English professors love to exchange their favorite first lines: “Call me Ishmael,” or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

A well-crafted first line in an essay or book not only intrigues or “hooks” the reader, it also points to the theme. I had a colleague who loved to trace the structure of the whole book by dissecting the structure of the first paragraph.

Recently, a Facebook friend, Richard Kauffman, challenged his readers with this message: “find a more provocative opening line from a memoir than this: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’–Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. Or just post your favorite opening line/s from a memoir.”

“Being on the move, seeing what you have never seen before, not knowing where you will rest your head when night falls, receiving what comes as it comes, expecting everything and nothing; this is the allure of the canoe country.” Paul Gruchow, Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.
What opening lines have arrested you? Please add your favorites in the comments section.  In the meantime, here are some fun links:  100 best first lines from novels and a similar list chosen by the editors of American Book Review and here’s one in the form of trivia.

Shirley Showalter


  1. Gutsywriter on April 13, 2010 at 3:53 am

    I agree with the hook concept, and I really like my own… sorry to say so, but so do the agents and editors who have read it.”I found a pink thong in my fourteen-year-old son's top drawer.”

  2. shirleyhs on April 13, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    You got my attention!! And I see why agents and editors like it too. Do you have other favorites?

  3. EYSchmitt on April 14, 2010 at 1:24 am

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” -from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John IrvingMy sister recommended this book which I have not yet read, but I am already totally intrigued by the first line!

  4. jerrywaxler on April 16, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Here's another link, Shirley. It's a wikipedia entry about opening lines. I had no idea there is a name for them: Incipit. How about this for a favorite: As Gregor Samsa awoke from a night of uneasy dreaming, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. * The Metamorphosis by Franz KafkaJerry Waxler

  5. shirleyhs on April 17, 2010 at 3:16 am

    I've never read this book even though friends have recommended it. After reading the opening, however, I really want to read the whole book. That's the point of hooking the reader. Thanks for the visit and the comment!

  6. shirleyhs on April 17, 2010 at 3:18 am

    Incipit. Not insipid, right? 🙂 Fascinating. Thanks so much for adding good content in your comment, Jerry. I need to get over to visit your blog. I have not been a faithful listener/commenter lately. Too much activity at work, home, and conferences!

  7. Kendra Bonnett on April 17, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Shirley, Matilda and I also love first lines and opening paragraphs. For more than a year now, she's been doing a monthly post for Story Circle's TellingHerstories blog under the title “Opening Salvos.” And whenever we interview an author, Matilda usually puts in a couple questions about how they decided upon their opener. These are posted among the interviews on Women's Memoirs ( )As for a favorite opener, I like this one by Jid Lee in To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea: “My nightmare–and my dream–started when I was six years old, a child sick in bed. 'Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother–she was quite a woman,' Grandmother said. 'She volunteered to be eaten alike by a tiger for her descendants.'”

  8. Gutsywriter on April 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    You asked me for an example of something that hooks me and here is one example: “Santa didn't come to Sydney last year. The community nurse came instead. My four kids weren't exactly thrilled by this swap–but then again, neither was I.Fat, Forty, and Fired by Nigel Marsh. Ne he is not a relative, but I love his down-to-earth style.

  9. shirleyhs on April 18, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Kendra, So glad you brought this wonderful URL to our attention and highly recommend it to anyone thinking about opening lines for any reason. And that is quite a wallop of a first line to chew on! BTW, would you still like a review of The Help? And did you want to send me a copy? If someone else has done this for you already, fine!

  10. shirleyhs on April 18, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Good one to make the reader continue in order to answer the obvious questions that arise!

  11. shirleyhs on May 2, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Just discovered a YouTube on first lines: speaker on the video, Barnaby Conrad, has written a book on first lines called Samples of the 101 Best Beginnings Ever Written: A Romp Through Literary Openings for Writers and Readers. He loves opening with dialogue that suggests conflict.

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