Would you read the next sentence?

10. There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.

9. Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

8. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

7. They shoot the white girl first.

6. I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.

5. Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.

4. The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.

3. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

2. Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

1. Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. —


Josephine Hart, Damage


Mario Puzo, The Godfather


Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


Toni Morrison, Paradise


Dashiell Hammet, Red Harvest


Victor LaValle, Big Machine


Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find


William Gibson, Neuromancer


Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club


William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own

Posted in


Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.



  1. Mary Doyle on July 15, 2016 at 5:37 am

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes all the way to #1 – point taken – thanks!

  2. Aaron Garrad on July 15, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Actually, not one of those sentences hooked me to read on. My favourite all-time opening sentence is from Stephen King’s book, The Gunslinger:

    “The man in black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.”

  3. lara on July 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

    The Godfather quote is the only one I would read. The rest sound “artsy craftsy.”

    I read for two reasons: information and to be entertained.

    I do not read to be impressed with someone’s pretentious angst and thesaurus.

  4. Tony levelle on July 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Yes to all. Added 5 books on my re-read pile, 5 to my must now read, finally, pile.

    As Mary said well, “Point taken.”

    Thanks, again.

  5. Michael Beverly on July 15, 2016 at 7:17 am

    I read almost exclusively based upon personal recommendations (and Amazon reviews) so the first sentence concept isn’t so important to me.

    I suppose I’m still a “first five pages” kind of reader, but my experience with Game of Thrones and One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest have reminded me that some books take time to blossom into your mind.

  6. Amy Isaman on July 15, 2016 at 7:29 am

    Great list and as an earlier comment noted, you made your point well. They didn’t all “hook me” instantly but a few did, and they did it with very few words. There’s an art to crafting a great first line.

  7. Christine on July 15, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Maybe #2 & #7 … For sure #8. For #9 I would just flip to the back of the book to see how it ends.

    I am much more likely to read the next sentence if the font type combined with paper quality make the physical act of reading easy & enjoyable.

  8. Bart Fouchard on July 15, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Funny, I’ve read half of the list. Yet, it was the Toni Morrison line “They shoot the white girl first” that I found the most intriguing. Clear, concise, and with punch–much like the Stephen King Dark Tower opening line mentioned above. I would also include Hunter Thmpson’s “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Delicious!

  9. Stacy on July 15, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Yep, point taken – even more books to add to my TBR pile. It’s hard to craft a great first line. Another one I’ve always liked was Julia Spencer-Fleming’s “It was a hell of a night to throw away a baby.” That one’s from In the Bleak Midwinter.”

  10. Paul C on July 15, 2016 at 10:24 am

    The order to abandon ship was given at 5 P.M.

    – first sentence from Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctica.

    Anyone who can’t finish Endurance should be kicked out of the human race.

  11. John Christensen on July 15, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    No to all but Toni Morrison, although I did read The Neuromancer and liked it.

    On the other hand, “Call me Ishmael” isn’t particularly compelling either. So maybe there’s more to this writing thing than snappy first sentences.

  12. KG on July 15, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.”

  13. Lalo on July 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Yes, I would keep reading. Those are good opening lines and… I’m like the cat who was killed by curiosity. Satisfaction brought it back.

  14. Bobbie on July 15, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Not so much 8, 3 and 2, though I do like Chuck Palahniuk. A good opening sentence is so important.

  15. Madeleine D'Este on July 15, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Isn’t it interesting how everyone has a different view on what makes a compelling first sentence?
    As a reader, I’m definitely a “try before you buy” book purchaser. Thanks to online sample chapters and book shops. The writing style is so important.

    Off to tweak my first sentences!

  16. David Kaufmann on July 15, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Thank you. An interesting exercise. A bit different than the “identify the first line” game, which tests familiarity and breadth of knowledge.

    I think an opening sentence works in one of two ways, or both. That may be true for every sentence, but the first as the first of the hook sometimes has a heavier weight than others. But this exercise also shows a first sentence does not define the quality or the reading experience of the entire book. (War and Peace has notoriously the worst first sentence in almost all of fiction, and yet is considered by many the finest novel ever written.) The second sentence may be the real beginning, in that sense. And certainly the aggregation of sentences, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, is important. Nor is the “hook them in the first five pages” necessarily a requirement head-turning surprise, explosions, etc. Genre, expectations, structure, etc. may well determine the narrative pace, so that the suspense, the hook, is more subtly constructed. But, as you and Steven say, it must be there in some form.

    So what are the two ways an opening (or any) sentence function?
    1) If the sentence works as a sentence, that is, for itself. A sentence does not have to be “artsy-artsy” or pseudo-angsty to meet this criteria. It must, however, be elegant. (I have a wonderful book that’s a compilation of delightful sentences, from the very short to the very long. All have a grammatical poetics, if that makes sense.) Such sentences still need to be contextual (which is why they aren’t pseudo-angsty).

    2) Setting context, genre, tone, and therefore by implication and from accumulated reader context, expectations.

    Of course, we don’t usually come to first sentences “clean.” We have read the blurb, the book’s been recommended, we know the genre (the “department” we find it in), we’ve read the author, etc. Still, as an exercise, reading these, reacting to them – would you read more – and so testing one’s own sentences, not just the first, is quite valuable.

    And now to the reactions:
    10) Yes, but the first paragraph had better be a bit more concrete and enticing. A paragraph of wandering in the observable might become preachy. So, with reservations.

    9) No, because this tells me the genre, or even sub-genre, and I don’t like that kind of book. But the sentence works, because it announces where the story’s going.

    8) Yes. I like the contrast, the placing of the narrative in its historical context, and contrasting that with the author’s own self-crisis. Author is probably a teenager or young adult.

    7) Yes. Intriguing. Although the one book by Toni Morrison I started to read I didn’t like. It was well written, though.

    6) Maybe. The sentence to me almost tries too hard, and leave me, meh. But I like Hammett, and quite a while ago read Red Harvest with pleasure. I may revisit it. I think this proves my point about the first sentence. Or any sentence.

    5) Yes. Short, direct, intriguing. Call me Ishmael.

    4) Maybe. As a stand-alone, it’s 50-50, but I’d continue reading for another two or three sentences, to see where the story’s going (if it’s going anywhere) and if it’s a type I enjoy.(I think I’m pretty eclectic.)

    3) At first no, but second response yes, give it a try. A bit offbeat (perhaps bordering on off-putting), it reminded, upon immediate reflection, of Orwell’s “the clock struck thirteen.”

    2) Probably not. The sentence may work for criteria 2, but genre announced is not to my taste. I just don’t like that sentence, I’m not sure why. Maybe because the character Tyler comes across as so unpleasant, or crazy.

    1) Yes. It’s crisp. It hints at a good detective novel, or if not perhaps a Dickensian or Kafkaesque exploration. I’d give the second sentence a chance, as with No. 4.


  17. Ruth Nolan on July 16, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Shawn Coyne’s fingers hovered above the key board.

  18. Earl Tower on July 17, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    “As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door
    leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.”–Robert A Heinlein, Friday

    Still one of my favorite openings for any book.

  19. Lee Poteet on July 27, 2016 at 7:24 am

    No to all of them which is probably why I have not read any of them. Not that I haven’t tried. But there have been sentences which have been very big yeses for me such as the opening sentence of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and that book which begins “I have always been a soldier.” But then I am not any of the rest of you and the hook that grabs me might not grab anyone else. But then I still wonder why I read certain books and refused to finish others.

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