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The Best First Line of a Short Story… Ever?

Responding to my post about how much I love first lines, Adam told me that his high school English teacher used to say that the best opening line for a short story, ever, was this:

“None of them knew the color of the sky.” —from “Open Boat” by Stephen Crane

Now, no matter what I think of the story itself, I’ll admit it’s a great opening line. I kept reading (though—confession—I got distracted and didn’t finish). But the best opening line to a short story ever written? For me, that’s personal.

You know I love short stories. In fact, I collect them, like someone would seashells or stamps. I keep the ones I especially like so I can read them back later—at the moment I have about eight binders full of photocopies. Some are stories I read in college; a few are stories from my peers in workshops that really impressed me; most are stories from anthologies and literary journals and short-story collections that I’ve read over the years and that I didn’t want to forget. Thinking about Adam’s question, I pulled out a few of the binders last night to see if I could find my own favorite opening.

Alas, I couldn’t pick just one.

Here are some first sentences that I just love:

“On the nicer side of a not nice street, between God Bless the Cheerful Giver and his dog, and There But for the Grace of God Go I and his dog, a wino engaged me in the following Q and A:” —from “Litany” by Amy Hempel

*

“It is surprisingly easy to run out of love.” —from “Can You Wave Bye Bye, Baby?” Elyse Gasco

*

“One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.” —“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie

*

“Had I been dreaming, I would have dreamt of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest—a recurring nightmare.” —from “Passover” by Aleksandar Hemon

*

“You wouldn’t have known me a year ago.” —from “The Story” by Amy Bloom

*

“These are the first words I’ve written since J. fell down the stairs, unless you count lists.” —from “Plane Crash Theory” by Dani Shapiro

*

“When this story goes out into the world, I may become the most famous hermaphrodite in history.” —from “The Obscure Object” by Jeffrey Eugenides (which, of course, later became a novel)

*

“It was in the fifth month of her sobriety.” —from “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” by Kate Braverman

*

“I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.” —from “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender

*

“The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter.” —from “Isabelle” by George Saunders

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“My first and only visit to a therapist cost me my red coral bracelet and my lover.” —from “The Red Coral Bracelet” by Judith Hermann

*

“One time, she had left him.” —from “Floating Bridge” by Alice Munro

*

“We are going to invent a death for Aida South Wiley, and let’s make it magnificent, because I knew the real Aida South Wiley and she deserves a better death than the one she had.” —”Aida South, Flower” by Martha Otis

*

“One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.” —from “100% Perfect Girl” by Haruki Murakami

*

“To be sixteen on a July Saturday was heaven.” —from “The Saturday Morning Car Wash Club” by James Ellis Thomas

*
“I once knew a girl who sat apart at the party, down on the floor.” —from “Planetesimal” by Keri Hulme

*

[Edit, for E, which could be translated a number of ways, and here’s just one:]

“No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe as it sank into the sacred mud, and yet within days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man had come there from the South, and that his homeland was one of those infinite villages that lie upriver, on the violent flank of the mountain, where the language of the Zend is uncontaminated by Greek and where leprosy is uncommon.” —from “The Circular Ruins” by Jorge Luis Borges

*

And then, who could forget:

“I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.” —from “Dirty Wedding” by Denis Johnson

*

I know there are many I didn’t mention… I couldn’t find all my binders last night. Like, wasn’t there one by Zora Neale Hurston? Jean Rhys? Mona Simpson? Lan Samantha Chang? Rick Moody? Mary Gaitskill? I want to go home and dig through my shelves again.

But now that I’ve confided a few of my favorite first lines from short stories—like confiding a list of secrets—tell me, what are some of yours?

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41 thoughts on “The Best First Line of a Short Story… Ever?

  1. I can’t recall at the moment—although I have the same collection of her stories somewhere in the teetering tower of books above the (nonworking) fireplace in our bedroom, so I shall check tonight.

    Do you have a favorite of hers?

  2. Leafing through, and going by first lines alone, I think mine would have to be from “Rapunzel, Rapunzel”
    During the three weeks I had been in the hospital I would often see a phantom village when I looked out of the window instead of the London plane trees.”

  3. I found four in just the first book I looked at (Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories).

    And the first thing they did was segregate me.
    -“My Life With R.H. Macy”

    The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.
    -“Charles”

    Just before the alarm went off she was lying in a hot sunny garden, with green lawns around her and stretching as far as she could see.
    -“Elizabeth”

    It was a respectable, well-padded restaurant with a good chef and a group of entertainers who called themselves a floor show; the people who came there laughed quietly and dined thoroughly, appreciating the principal that the check was always a little more than the restaurant and the entertainment and the company warranted; it was a respectable, likable restaurant, and two women could go to it alone with perfect decorum and have a faintly exciting dinner.
    -“The Dummy”

    And these are not my favorite of her stories by far. AND I have books by other authors to look at as well. Many books. Many stories. So many first lines. I may have to make my own post about this.

  4. (sigh) These are great. Reading a great first line is like love at first sight!

    I love that story by Sherman Alexie, btw.

  5. Do you not like “The Open Boat”? Stephan Crane is a favorite of mine. Though, I admit, mostly for his incredible Poetry. I’ve been fishing through first lines for my own blog entry, but let’s see…

    “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.” from “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie.

    That grabs me.

  6. Yojo: Okay I am home and have found my favorite opening sentence from a Rhys story, and it’s a simple one: “Funny how it’s slipped away, Vienna.” —from “Vienne”

    Annika, I’ll have to get that collection. I have a stack of 9 short-story collections from the library sitting at my feet—it was all I could carry at the time. I should have brought a cart.

    Mel, Love at first sight! What a spectacular way of looking at it!

    Adam, I can’t say “The Open Boat” is my kind of thing—blasphemy!—although I’ll totally admit the first sentence is killer. I’m just very particular in what I read. That’s a beautiful Rushdie line, but since “The Satanic Verses” is a novel I don’t know if it can count, for this post at least… If you haven’t seen it already check out W’s “Shelf” section on loudsolitude.wordpress.com—she has some thrilling openings to novels up there. Looking forward to reading your post!

  7. While I agree with you that the opening line of Bender’s ‘Call My Name’ is good, I think the real first line not only starts ‘The Rememberer’ but also starts the entire book. “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” That is the story that placed her firmly on the top of my ‘favorite writers’ list, so I guess I have some bias.

    Okay, a few more:
    “Gimlet dreamed that if she did not see a concert last night she would become a type of liquid, therefore my friends Mr. Wonderful, Big, Gimlet and I went to see Keith Jarrett play a piano concert at Irvine Concert Hall in Irvine last week.” from Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

    “He introduced himself to me, stout, squat, his huge mouth full of fire. His name was Franklin.” from Converstation with the Stove by Hermann Hesse

    “The witch-girl who lives by the bend in the river is said to keep a fart in a bottle.” from Moonlight Whoopee Cushion Sonata by Tom Robbins

    “There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste.” from Greasy Lake by T.C. Boyle

    “‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said.” from In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel

    “I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.” from Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson

  8. Ben, I was confused by your comment. Do you read short-story collections as if they are novels? I like to read the stories one at a time, on their own. I actually think I read the story “Call My Name” before it was included in the collection “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt”—the story was published in the North American Review first. I love Aimee Bender.

    I love the list of first lines, too, so exciting!

  9. “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution” are the first words I ever read by Aimee Bender-and to me they hold everything that her writing has to offer. They are beautifully simple and oddly profound. She has a way of turning the ridiculous into the sublime.

    It’s interesting that you should ask me that question because I did not read ‘Flammable Skirt’ in some linear fashion, front to back, as I would a novel. I read “The Rememberer” in a class years ago and loved it. I then read more of her stories online or while visiting Barnes and Noble. So, perhaps what I really meant by my comment was that the particular first line referred to started not just the story, not just the book, but something more intangible and personal.

  10. Oh, I understand now! I love that. It’s wonderful how a single line can stick with you in such a way, and that you still remember it. I’m excited to find another Aimee Bender fan. Her stories are incredible.

  11. Novels don’t count? It’s almost all I read! I must admit, I’m just not that into short stories. Unless it’s an author I truly love, Like Vonnegut, I’m not likely to read a short story. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ll have to look into that. I’ll have to find a great short story opener.

  12. All of Borges’s stories, yes. I have to pore over his books now.

    For a while, it was Stephen Dixon for me. When I dig out all my Dixon books from the closet, I’ll post some good ones here that I hope you’ll enjoy.

  13. I love those opening lines, and I agree. They’re the hook. Whether a short story is successful or not, there has to be a bait that will incite people to investigate further.

    Fictional writing, I’ve found, can be more useful than a lot of the political blogging going on out there… for a number of reasons. It’s all very interesting.

    Mind if I keep an eye on your blog?

  14. Donald Barthelme’s stories aren’t as popular as they once were, but in an effort to revive their reputation a little bit, let me offer two nice opening lines.

    From the story, ON ANGELS: “The death of God left the angels in a strange position.”

    From the story, TRAUMEREI: “So there you are, Daniel, reclining, reclining on the chaise, a lovely picture, white trousers, white shirt, red cummerbund, scarlet rather, white suede jacket, sunflower in buttonhole, beard neatly combed, let’s have a look at the fingernails.”

    • Hi Dave,

      I’ve just read Traumerei, and I dont get it at all. I’m trying to break down each of “Sixty Stories” but can’t make heads or tails of this one. Any help?

      • Hi, Frank. This is an old post from 2007 and I don’t think David Bale will happen to see this comment. I’m sorry I haven’t read the story myself to weigh in. Good luck!

  15. Speaking of Barthelme:

    “Things have never been better, except that the child, one of the stars of our film, has just been stolen by vandal…” from “The Film”

    “My wife wants a dog. She already has a baby. The baby’s almost two. My wife says that the baby wants the dog.” from “Chablis”

    and…

    “William Wallace Jamieson’s wife Hazel was going to have a baby. But this was October, and it was six months away, and she acted exactly as though it would be tomorrow.” from “The Wide Net” by Eudora Welty

    “I fell in love with a robber and he took me on his rounds.” from “The Ring” by Aimee Bender

    “When the phone rang, the gray-haired man asked the girl, with quite some little deference, if she would rather for any reason he didn’t answer it.” from “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” by J.D. Salinger

    “Recently I came across a journal entry from my adolescence. I am living a lie, it said. How truly, truly sad.” from “Personal Foundations of Self-Forming Through Auto-Identification With Otherness” by Nelly Reifler

    “The thing I had to realize was that all the laws kept changing.” from “The Law of Sugar” by Steve Almond

    “The man in the dog suit whines outside the door.” from “Dog Days” by Judy Budnitz

  16. Pingback: Collecting Short Stories « distraction no. 99

  17. The greatest first line ever is: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

  18. “Brother to a Prince and fellow to a beggar if he be found worthy.” – Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King

  19. “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

    first and only sentence of Hemingway’s attempt to write a short story in only six words.

  20. Pingback: Remembering English » Blog Archive » I’m procrastinating.

  21. “A man without hands came to my door to sell me a photograph of my house.”
    Viewfinder, Raymond Carver

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  23. “Where’s papa going with that ax?”
    -E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

    “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
    -Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho, which is especially great because the first line breaks between “blood” and “red”.

  24. Not necessarily the best…and from a “novella” (don’t you hate the term?), not a short story…but this is the gripping, compressed, first line of the latest book I’ve read, the disgracefully out-of-print THE DEVIL’S OWN WORK by Alan Judd:

    “I had it, you see, from Edward himself, though not all at once and never, I am sure, all of it.”

  25. And, in a similar vein, one of my longtime favorite first lines, from “The Call of Cthulhu” and a man who wrote far better prose than his reputation allows, H.P. Lovecraft:

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

  26. “Do you really mean it, Montgomery? You’d rather sit alongside me as a withered old man than spend the last of your well earned cash on hookers and whiskey?” if Audrey needed to ask, then, no he didn’t mean it.

  27. ‘The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east.’

    Stephen Vincent Benet, By the Waters of babylon

  28. “Kenneth left me on a Monday morning before I’d even had the chance to mousse my hair….”
    Jill McCorkle’s “Crash Diet.”

  29. “I fell in love with the ministerʻs son the winter I turned fourteen.”

    – Amy Tan, “Fish Cheeks” (short story)

  30. hey, nova-

    sorry for jumping in so late in the conversation, but i’m giving a craft talk on openings tomorrow, and lucked upon your blog.

    billy

    (p.s. have you done the Printer’s Row LitFest in Chicago? let me know if you’re interested in appearing.)

    Twelve years old, and I was so bored I was combing my hair just for the hell of it.
    – Snow, Charles Baxter

    Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.
    – Bullet in the Brain, Tobias Wolff
    First, try to be something, anything, else.
    – How to Become a Writer, Lorrie Moore
    When school let out the two of us went to my backyard to fight.
    – Refresh, Refresh, by Benjamin Percy

    This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.
    – Cathedral, Raymond Carver

    The fall of my 13th year was a time when all the important events in my life seemed to cluster together like bees.
    – Apples, Kevin Brockmeier

    My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear, blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body.
    – Silver Water, by Amy Bloom

    Well, we had all these children out planting trees, see, because we figured that…that was part of their education, to see how you know the root systems…and also the sense of responsibility, taking care of things, being individually responsible.
    – The School, Donald Barthelme

    …and from a novel, “The morning was a fish in a net.” T.C. Boyle’s novel, Drop City.

  31. I also just stumbled across this blog. It’s funny: I recently put this question to my colleagues in English and Creative Writing. Here are a few of our favorite lines.

    “When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another.”
    – Barry Hannah, “Water Liars”

    “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father–an act which made a deep impression on me at the time. “
    – Ambrose Bierce, “An Imperfect Conflagration”

    “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
    – Poe, “The Telltale Heart”

    “Riding horses in a back pasture, gone wild. Woods. Inside, on a hill, a house as black as dinosaur bones. Grass grows up through the driveway’s broken asphalt, but there is a car. This the house of the oldest judge in the world. The Judge has company.”
    – John Gardener, “Prologue,” Sunlight Dialogues

    “This is not a happy story. I warn you.”
    – “Great Falls,” Richard Ford

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