Entertainment Books The write stuff: best opening lines in literary history

The write stuff: best opening lines in literary history

We ask prominent Australian literary figures to select their favourite first lines. Photo: Getty
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” so goes the oft-quoted opening of Charles Dickens’ literary classic A Tale of Two Cities, but what makes a great first line?

We asked several literary Australians. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.” – Bliss by Peter Carey

AS Patrić, the Miles Franklin-winning author of Black Rock White City, says: “Great first lines can have the desperation of a waiter standing outside a restaurant door trying too hard to get you to enter… but if I have to pick one, which is also the first paragraph, I can’t think of a better one than this.”

Until he was four years old James Henry Trotter had a happy life.” – James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Heather Rose, author of the Stella Prize-winning The Museum of Modern Love, says: “It implies, in a few short words, that we are about to embark on an adventure of alarming proportions. It is darkly funny, yet it is impossible to imagine the magic and wonder that is also about to unfold for young James.”

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”– The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Lisa Dempster, artistic director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival says: “It firmly sets the tone for Sylvia Plath’s brilliant novel, foretelling the vividly drawn and unsettling story to come.”

“In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.” – Wildlife by Richard Ford

Nick Earls, author of the Wisdom Tree novellas, says: “Somehow the tone is as underplayed as can be, but instantly there’s tension. It puts you in the narrator’s head, looks like it’s all exposition and then, when you least expect it, there’s a story hook.”

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Michaela McGuire, artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ festival says: “Humbert Humbert’s opening gambit is so beautiful that you’re on side with the dirty old perv by the end of the first short paragraph.”

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” – Feed by M. T. Anderson

Margo Lanagan, author short story collection Singing My Sister Down and Other Stories, says: “The voice is so strong, the sense of humour behind that character is so much fun, you immediately need to know everything leading up to and away from the trip to the moon.” 

“Will you look at us by the river!” – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. 

Izzy Roberts-Orr, artistic director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival says: “My Year 11 teacher took a figurative magnifying glass to this skerrick of text. It contains within it a sense of action, of place, of a motley crew that belong together.”

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” – The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. 

Brentley Frazer, author of Scoundrel Days: A Memoir, says: “I love the way it establishes the voice of the narrator in an instant and provides a symbolic birthing of the literary character of Ponyboy.”

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