In a commentary at the Atlantic Monthly, Stephen King remarked, “A really bad first line can convince me not to buy a book — because, god, I’ve got plenty of books already — and an unappealing style in the first moments is reason enough to scurry off.”
He then noted that first lines are just as important for writers, citing the way we agonize over them and then listing the ones from his own work that he can remember. He explains:
But I can tell you right now that the best first line I ever wrote — and I learned it from Cain, and learned it from Fairbairn — is the opening of Needful Things. It’s the story about this guy who comes to town, and uses grudges and sleeping animosities among the townspeople to whip everyone up into a frenzy of neighbor against neighbor. And so the story starts off with an opening line, printed by itself on a page in 20-point type: You’ve been here before.
Joe Fassler, collecting King’s thoughts for the Monthly, put together a rather lengthy and interesting list of authors’ favorite first lines from literature. It’s well worth checking out.
American Book Review, for which I used to write reviews once upon a time, has also pulled together a list of “100 Best First Lines From Novels.” And for a more esoteric collection, you can check out Flavorwire’s “Our 30 Favorite Opening Lines from Literature.”