It was a dark and stormy night as I set about writing the novel…

Our summer special: the best 50 opening sentences in English-language fiction.
Michael Cook | Aug 15 2011 | comment  



 

We promised to publish our readers' nominations for the best opening sentence for a novel. Well, this has been a Herculean task. There were so many to choose from that we had to narrow it down to English-language sentences. We've also cheated a bit: some of the entries comprise more than one sentence -- but what's a bit of punctuation here or there?  The master is clearly Dickens. His sentences are perfectly structured, intriguing and original, but clearly he has many rivals. Enter your own favourites in the comments. 

1719, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho' not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call'd me.

1759, Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abissinia.

1813, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

1830, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

1843, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

1850, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

1850, Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Call me Ishmael.

1854, Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Now what I want is, Facts.

1859, Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
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.

1865, Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversation?'

1884, Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
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.

1890, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.

1894, Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.

1898, H.G. Wells, War of the World
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

1900, Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.

1903, Joseph Furphy, Such is Life
Unemployed at last!

1908, Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows
The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home.

1911, James Barrie, Peter Pan
All children, except one, grow up.

1913, Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

1916, James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...

1921, Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche
He was born with a gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad.

1926, A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

1927, Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.

1928, Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall
"Sent down for indecent behaviour, eh?" said Paul Pennyfeather's guardian. "Well, thank God your poor father has been spared this disgrace. That's all I can say."

1930, Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-from high flat temples-in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.

1932, Aldus Huxley, Brave New World
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”.

1935, P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French. 

1937, Isak Dinesen (Karin Blixen), Out of Africa
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

1937, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.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 yet 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.

1937, Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not
You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?

1938, Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
While still a young man, John Courteney Boot had, as his publisher proclaimed, 'achieved an assured and envi­able position in contemporary letters.'

1938, Damon Runyon, Palm Beach Santa Claus
It is the afternoon of a hot day in the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, and a guy by the name of Fatso Zimpf is standing on a street corner thinking of very little and throwing so much shade that a couple of small stove lids are sitting on the curb at his feet keeping cool, for this Fatso weighs three hundred pounds if he weights a carat and as he is only about five feet eight inches tall he is really quite a tub of blubber and casts a very wide shadow.

1939, Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.

1939, John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

1939, Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

1945, C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
"Matrimony was ordained, thirdly," said Jane Studdock to herself, "for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other."

1948, George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen

1951, J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
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.

1951, John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

1952, Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
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.

1952, C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

1952, Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car.

1953, Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
It was a pleasure to burn.

1953, L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

1958, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart  
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.

1960, Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.

1965, Frank Herbert, Dune
In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

1967, Flann O'Brien , The Third Policeman
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

1970, Erich Segal, Love Story
What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.

1988, Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”

2005, Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.

2006, Cormac McCarthy, The Road
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.



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