Mar 16 2011 12:00pm

“You Had Me at ‘Hello’”: Unforgettable Opening Lines

Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire“You had me at 'Hello.' ”

A friend of mine once said that first lines of books are like pick-up lines in bars. To a certain extent she's right: First lines and pick-up lines ask that you take a leap of faith and trust that they—either the book or the person—are worth spending some quality time together.

First lines are first impressions. As one of my writing mentors, Lisa Fugard (author of the amazing Skinner's Drift) pointed out, if you're going to introduce something fantastic into your story, your best bet is to do it in the first line, or at least in the first paragraph, when the reader's sense of belief is temporarily suspended. Introduce it later (oh, by the way, my hero is an alien, this story takes place on Mars, the killer just happened to be standing outside the door, she's not my girlfriend, she's just a good friend) and fantastic becomes often becomes simply unbelievable.

(I should point out, that first lines from books rarely, if ever, make good pick up lines. In fact, I suspect that I may have frightened the author M.T. Anderson at BEA when I greeted him with the opening line of his book, Thirsty. Though in my defense, I wasn't trying to pick him up, I'd just slipped into babbling fangirl mode.)

Thirsty by M.T. AndersonAt the risk of stretching my metaphor too far, if opening lines are like pick-up lines, than the introduction to Thirsty might be described as the moody, mysterious poet at the bar. You know there's something off, perhaps even dangerous, and yet you can't resist the dark eyes, and the urge to get to know him better.

“In the spring, there are vampires on the wind.”

What follows is an introduction to a fascinating YA where vampirism is portrayed as a virus, or perhaps, like the onset of puberty, a contagion that is at the same time repellent and irresistible. With Anderson's typically dark humor, the paragraph ends, “My father claims we have more this year because it was a mild winter, but he may be thinking of tent caterpillars.”

Andersen is the author of another of my favorite opening lines, though in contrast to Thirsty, the opening line of his dystopian YA, Feed, is more like running into a bad boy rock star. If you hang out with him, there's a good chance you're going to get into trouble—but hey, he's just bored, not bad. In fact deep down, he's got a heart of gold.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

With this line he introduces the reader to a world where the internet is fed directly into people's brains, where teens are constantly leaving the dinner table to change their clothes because they’re receiving updates on changes in fashion, ignored by their parents who are being fed the news, while toddlers are fed the futuristic equivalent of Barney. Where a trip to the moon is just another disappointment in a teen's search for the next big thrill.

The first line of thriller writer James Rollins' Sandstone is no bad boy; he's all man, dangerous, exciting, as likely to leave you as he is to break your heart (but it'll be a ride to tell your grandchildren about.)

“Harry Masterson would be dead in thirteen minutes. If had known this, he would've smoked his last cigarette down to the filter.”

Sure, there are lots of thrillers that open with the promise of imminent death and destruction, but there's something about the addition of the detail about the cigarette filter. Maybe it's the underlying suggestion that life may be brutish and short, so you better live it on the edge—like the characters in his novels do.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenOf course, no discussion of memorable first lines would be complete without mentioning the classic opening to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice—a classic, Cary Grant, George Clooney, totally out of your league, and yet, you can't help lingering at the bar, hoping he'll notice you. After all, a girl can dream.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

What makes this line so powerful is how much information Austen manages to convey with it—the central themes of marriage and economics, and that elusive prey so dear to the heart of all regency romances, the wealthy bachelor. Then there's the fact that Austen opens her book with assumption—albeit in her uniquely ironic observation voice—foreshadowing the flaw that ensnares each of the characters of Pride and Prejudice.

Great first lines, like great pick up lines. are few and far between. Trust me, while researching this blog, I spent a happy afternoon in the local library checking out the first pages of best sellers, classics, and my favorite authors. Lots of good lines, but ones that stick in your head? Not so much. I polled my friends, who, not surprisingly include a number of authors, librarians, and bookworms. They all drew a blank.

I began to think that perhaps I was alone in my fascination with first lines. To wonder if this was even a blog worth writing. Then I got this in an email:

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day, also a librarian, and she mentioned that one of her favorite first lines was from Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson. It is really two lines, but here they are:

'Kidnapping children is not a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.'

Excuse me. I have to go. I've just seen a book across a crowded room and I think it's calling my name. . . .

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Rakisha Kearns-White
1. BrooklynShoeBabe
Well-written. I never thought of books as guys with excellent pick up lines, but now that you mention it....
April Newton
2. lakelandpoet
First lines of books ARE just like pick up lines. It is the deciding factor on whether the book is worth reading or not. If I can't get into the first line (or two) I know that I won't get into the book. The first two lines of JR Ward's Lover Awakened didn't just get me into the book, it got me into the series (it was the first of Ward's that I read, don't know why I read it out of order.). The first line of First Grave on the Right had me right away! After reading your blog, I think I'm going to pick up a few new books today!
Myretta Robens
3. Myretta
Other than Pride & Prejudice, I think that Anna Karenina has one of the most compelling first lines and one that immerses you in the story immediately: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Susan in AZ
4. Susan in AZ
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, It Had to Be You:
Phoebe Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral.

That still cracks me up!
Louise Partain
5. Louise321
@Susan in AZ -- LOL!

Of course, there is still the famous C. D. line -- " 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. " Still the champion author of turning a run on and on and on sentence into a paragraph but achingly evocative of the times of The Tale of Two Cities. He gets you at the first paragraph.
Bella Franco
6. BeguileThySorrow
Thirsty wasn't even on my radar, thanks for bringing it to my attention! :)
Susan in AZ
7. SandyH
My all time favorite opening line -- "Call me Ishamel" from Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The significance of a name - very compelling.
Charli Mac
8. CharliMac
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

She had me at hello and it was junior year in HS.
Susan in AZ
9. SharonS
now I know I posted a comment yesterday. I will try again. My favorite first line is:

Mac, Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning

"My philosophy is pretty simple--any day nobody's trying to kill me is a good day in my book.
I haven't had many good days lately."
Susan in AZ
10. SharonS
okay, I think I have figured out how to get my posts to show up . For the third time....
"My philosophy is pretty simple--any day nobody's trying to kill me is a good day in my book.
I haven't had many good days lately."
Mac - Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning
Susan in AZ
11. CindyS
Julie Garwood's historicals had opening and closing lines that kept me reading long past the time my eyes would have shut from sheer exhaustion.

You know the way you'll say to yourself, I'll just read till the end of this chapter - only with Garwood my eye would jump to the next line and it would set up a whole new series of exploits that I couldn't help but promise myself just one more chapter.

Mary Beth Bass
12. marybeth
Fabulous post! And since reading a great book is a bit like falling in love you're totally right about the first lines acting like a can't-miss pick-up line.

This opening made me fall for the book and the writer. I loved this book so much I bought two copies in case I lost one, and her whole backlist!


No one sends for a niece they’ve never seen before just to annoy her family and ruin her life. That, at least, is what I thought. This was before I’d ever been to the city. I’d never been in a duel, or held a sword myself. I had never kissed anyone, or had anyone try to kill me, or worn a velvet cloak. I had certainly never met my uncle the Mad Duke. Once I met him, much was explained.

Sigh, the Mad Duke. I totally love him.
romance reader
13. bookstorecat
I recently tried to come up with my top 5 opening lines, so I will try to link to them here.

There were so many memorable ones that didn't quite make the top 5, though! From the short, but evocative:

"The secret kiss grew larger and larger."

To the slightly-more-lengthy and evocative:

"A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate."

Both books live up to their opening lines, and are excellent reads all the way through.

*Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
**The Scarlet Pimpernel
Mencara Mitchell
14. Mencara
There are three that come to mind:

The iconic opening of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: 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.
So sensual, so disturbing. You already feel his obsession, the intensity of his wanting.

The intriguing opening of Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (my favorite contempoary romance writer):[b]'Once upon a time', Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, 'the world was full of good men'. She looked into the handsome face of the man she'd planned to take to her sister's wedding and thought, '[i]Those days are gone.'[/i]

I could actually quote the entire opening scene, it's so hilarious when she begins fantisizing about killing her boyfriend with a swizzle stick as he is breaking up up with her.

The hilarious beginning of Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips: It wasn't every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of the road, not even in Dean Robillard's larger-than-life world.
It only gets weirder and funnier from there.
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