Best First Lines

“Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”
Bob Dylan, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’

Proof that ‘Once upon a time’ is still the best way to start any story. Of course, what makes it brilliant is not just the line itself, but the famous opening drumbeat. Bruce Springsteen described it as “that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind.” Nick Asbury

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
Graham Greene, ‘Brighton Rock’

It’s actually quite a clumsy sentence, because Greene wants the punchline at the end. But talk about setting a scene. It’s so immediate and visceral, a real spine-tingler. Jim Davies

“I was minding my business/ lifting some lead off/ the roof of the Holy Name church.”
The Smiths, ‘Vicar in a Tutu’

How could you not be desperate for the next line, for the story to unfold. Which it does, like a beautiful old cassock in the hands of a sarcastic altar boy. Tim Rich

“I don’t believe in an interventionist God…”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, ‘Into My Arms’

Press play on the CD ‘The Boatman’s Call’. A few piano chords fall out of the ether, and then Nick Cave’s plangent bass voice croons the words above Well, that’s not something you normally hear on a pop music record, is it? It is a line of grandeur and almost impossible profundity, at once startling and moving. And funny too. Where else would you find a theological teaser that you can sing along to? It pulls you in, not just into the rest of the beautiful, optimistic song, but the whole of the album. I retain an idle daydream that it will be played at my wedding one day. Rishi Dastidar

Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess
Raymond Carver, ‘A New Path to the Waterfall’

This isn’t a first line, even: it’s a dedication. I picked this book up while browsing idly in a bookshop many years ago. Reading the dedication was enough to make me want to buy the book. I knew nothing about Carver at the time: about his struggle with alcoholism, or how his marriage to fellow poet Tess Gallagher had helped him escape the booze and experience final years of what one of the poems in this book calls ‘pure gravy’.

I didn’t need to. The dedication takes you straight to the core of this story, to the urgent, overwhelming nature of this extraordinary love affair. The book is dedicated to Gallagher, of course.

Never mind a story in six words. Here’s a story in four. Or rather in one, but that repetition turns the word into an invocation, a song, a poem. Even the punctuation pushes the meaning home. There’s no full stop on the final ‘Tess’. This is no static, relfective dedication. It’s current, pulsing, ongoing. It’s past, present and future. And there is nothing else: just Tess.

It was all I needed to know: I bought the book. Mike Reed

“Forget everything.”
Bob Gill, ‘Logo Mania’

Bob gave me a copy after a long talkative lunch in New York last month. I hadn’t seen him since he taught me at the RCA 25 years ago, but he’s lost none of his steam, wit and scathing contempt for sloppy graphic design. A sprightly 76, Bob is still thinking radically about how ideas happen. This particular thesis – amongst many we chomped our way through – was that design solutions are increasingly meaningless and driven by style, and to find something truly interesting to say about anything we have to start from scratch. So throw out your software programmes, abandon your image banks, junk your brand onions, burn to your mood boards, donate your D&AD annuals to the Oxfam shop, stick all that lorem and ipsum through the shredder, and buy yourself a nice new pointy pencil. Tom Lynham

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
LP Hartley ‘The Go-Between’

Ever since I first read the book, I haven’t been able to get his haunting first line out of my head. John Simmons

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
Samuel Beckett, ‘Murphy’

Along with “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, this is actually the only first line I can quote from memory, but it’s a classic. There’s wit, world weariness and poetic rhythm all in there, and a huge sense of anticipation. You have to read on, and you’re not disappointed. Martin Lee

“ ‘It may only be blackmail,’ said the man in the taxi hopefully.”
Margery Allingham, ‘The Tiger In the Smoke’

Mid-20th Century detective fiction is my escapist literature of choice. I love the elegant turn of phrase (in fact, I borrow them) and almost forgotten slang. Give me an Edmund Crispin, Josephine Tey or a Freeman Willis Crofts and I’m quiet for hours. Marjory Allingham is my favourite and ‘The Tiger in the Smoke’ is probably her best. For me, this line promises adventure. Sarah McCartney


“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
Anthony Burgess, ‘Earthly Powers’

An old chestnut but still an absolute corker – longevity, homosexuality, exoticism,
religion and the unexpected, all in 28 words! Jamie Jauncey

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