From the First: Famous (and not-so-famous) First Lines

Nov 09, 2017 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This quote, reportedly attributed to Will Rogers, not only applies to people, but also to literature, and perhaps more so. After all, you may find after meeting someone that your impression of that person changes over the course of an hour or so. A book that begins poorly, though, is likely to be shut up and never opened again.

Think about some of the famous first lines that you may recall:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


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

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


“Call me Ishmael.”

Moby Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville

A good first line of a novel sparks your interest. A great first line stays with you and becomes a part of the shared cultural experience. First lines generate such a strong reaction, both positive and negative, that there is even an annual contest to see who can craft the best first line of a hypothetical “worst” novel. Called The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, it’s named after the writer who penned such memorable quotes such as “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and “It was a dark and stormy night.” Take a look. You may find a few fun entries from past winners to share with your students and perhaps inspire them to submit their own lines for consideration.

With the return of November, we also see the return of Nanowrimo, the month-long novel writing challenge. Writers young and old alike are at this moment drawing on their creative juices to craft their own compelling novels, spending special effort in starting them off in an intriguing manner. In honor of their efforts, we present to you a quiz on famous first lines taken from classic literature. See how many you can identify. Good luck!

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