Great Beginnings

By Mark Alpert

Here is my favorite first sentence of any novel, the English translation of the opening lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

I like this sentence so much, I’ve memorized it. I recite it at parties after I have a drink or two.

What’s your favorite first sentence?

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

26 thoughts on “Great Beginnings

  1. From “Miss Lonelyhearts” by Nathanael West:

    “The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.”

  2. From “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt:

    The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

  3. My favorite first sentence? No fair, there are too many. Here’s my current fave, because I’m in a Trekkie sort of mood today. It’s from The Ashes of Eden by Shatner and Reeves-Stevens, and it’s a little over-the-top (but ain’t that just like Kirk?):

    Kirk didn’t look back to the past—he slammed into it, running, diving, hitting the volcanic ash of Tycho IV shoulder first, rolling to cover by Ensign Galt behind a jagged boulder.

  4. “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

    Ernest Hemingway, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’ This packs much in a short opening line: time of day, climate, the current activity, and even the relationships among the characters.

  5. “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” — Charlotte’s Web

  6. The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

    —Stephen King kicking off the Darktower series.

  7. It’s strange what you think about when you’re running across the sands of the Afghanistan desert to kill someone.

    I know you were probably thinking of first lines from the works of others, but this is . . . uhm . . . well, from my own.

  8. My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

    From The Lonely Bones by Alice Sebold

  9. A screaming comes across the sky.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

    I’ve never made it more than a few chapters of the book, but I do love that first line. I love the sound/visual combination, and it just contains such energy.

  10. I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.

  11. “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

    –James Crumley, THE LAST GOOD KISS

  12. Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

    Elmore Leonard’s “Freaky Deaky”

  13. “We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”
    John D. MacDonald, DarkerThan Amber

  14. “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.”

    Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go.

  15. “The terror which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I can tell with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” Stephen King. IT.

  16. A great first line from 1903 by Jack London:

    Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

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