Best First Lines (according to Leith) – Part 2

In part one, I discussed the pros and cons of insisting on killer opening lines: how it serves the interests of agents and editors more than readers, yet also how a strong first line can lend an air of dignity and confidence to any story.

Today I want to dig into my first list of Best First Lines, six of them, dedicated to openers that present the reader with an engaging idea.

Now, don’t be quick to assume that openers based on engaging ideas are dry, intellectual, and (to writers and readers who like “human” stories) boring. Very often, this sort of opener presents an idea about human relationships, and how the characters you’re about to meet are going to stumble over it.

The Engaging Idea

Some first lines kick off their story with what is often alleged to be a story-killer: explicit discussion of one of the story’s themes. And yet, it can work, if done elegantly. Opening lines that present engaging ideas are often about relationships, and particularly a contrast in relationships, letting the reader know what aspect of human nature this tale is about to unravel.


All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Even though I disagree with statement as a sociological premise, it is genius as opening line for a story, and makes just about every list of “Best First Lines” you can find. Notice this: Tolstoy’s opener to Anna doesn’t just make you want to read the next line. It makes you want to read the whole story.


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.

Like Tolstoy’s opener, this one could be challenged on its veracity … but don’t you really want to see where Austen is going with this idea? Not only does this Engaging Idea telegraph the nature of the story ahead, but also starts you looking for characters to fill the two roles mentioned.


Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God

The power of this one is subtle, but undeniable. Qualifying “ships” with “at a distance” sets up a suspicion in the readers mind that, close up, those same ships might not actually have wish fulfillment in their holds.


The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.” The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

Not only is the wit of this opener charming, but very clever in the way it draws the reader’s status into question: first explicitly teasingly, as members of the human race, then implicitly and dead serious, as members of either “the few people who grow up” or that larger general category into which Chesterton had maneuvered the reader into assuming herself just a few words before. A writer who can reach through the text and yank the reader around like this deserves to share in Chesterton’s reputation which, as a “distributist,” Chesterton would likely endorse.


All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.

Like Austen’s above, beyond being an engaging idea, this opener sends the reader’s mind on a quest to find a character who fits this description, and see what happens to him or her.


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 being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. ” The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.

I’ve read the book, and someone needs to tell those “intelligences” that planets at a distance have every Martian’s wish on board. The supreme irony of Wells’s opener is that it presages the eventual demise of the Martians; had they only scrutinized the actual transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of Earth’s water, rather than merely reducing humans to that level of observation, their ill-fated invasion might have ended differently.


Like these?  Try part three, Best First Lines – The Engaging Character.

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