First Impressions: A Look at the Opening Lines of Popular Fantasy Novels

First impressions are important, but that is especially true when you’re writing a novel. You only have a few pages to set the scene, introduce a compelling character, and give the reader a reason to be interested in what is happening to them.

And even if they do decide to read, the beginning of a novel represents so much more than that. How many books and movies and tv shows have you adored and how many of them had an opening scene that fills you with joy and nostalgia? This is the beginning of the story and it should give you a taste of the sort of journey you’re about to go on.

It’s for that reason that beginnings have always been something I’ve struggled with. I put a lot of pressure on my opening lines, and while I think I take it too seriously, I also think it’s justified. Whether it’s a prospective agent or a reader, you want people to immediately be engaged and get excited.

I think that’s what inspired this post.

Whenever I’m struggling with my first lines, I turn to some of my favourite books to get me inspired. And that got me thinking about the first lines of the most popular and well-beloved fantasy books.

Unfortunately, the subjective nature of reading makes it hard to have a ‘true’ list of the top 25 fantasy novels, so cut me a little slack here. I wanted to keep this post manageable, so I’ve gone through near a dozen lists of the best fantasy novels, including one from Forbes, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, IGN, and of course, Reddit. I spent hours collating those lists and creating a list of the 25 most popular fantasy books from the titles that appeared most often. So, it’s about as close as I can get.

Keep in mind that what is popular tends to fluctuate, and five to ten years from now this might be a completely different list. Consider this a snapshot of the most popular fantasy, as of May 2020, and if there is a novel that I haven’t listed here, by all means, include the opening line in a comment below! This is purely for entertainment purposes and a chance to learn a little something about writing, and not a tier list or any sort of ranking of the ‘best’ fantasy.

I’ve also pulled from chapter one for all of the following novels, as I felt that prologues are more extensions of the story and not part of the actual narrative. They deliver important backstory or information, but if they were so important that they should be considered the true beginning, they should be called chapter one, and that’s all I’ll say on my feelings about prequels.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the meat and potatoes. Here are the opening lines of 25 of the most popular fantasy novels, in no particular order:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

It was felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this – a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2006)

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle (1968)

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.

Storm Front, Jim Butcher (2000)

The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (1996)

Ash fell from the sky. Vin watched the downy flakes drift throuh the air. Leisurely. Careless. Free. The puffs of soot fell like black snowflakes, descending upon the dark city of Luthadel. They drifted in corners, blowing in the breeze and curling in tiny whirlwinds over the cobblestones. They seemed so uncaring. What would that be like?

The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson (2006)

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman (2001)

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan (1990)

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw. Chocolate.

The Princess Bride, William Goldman (1973)

My pen falters, then falls from my knuckly grip, leaving a worm’s trail of ink across Fedwren’s paper. I have spoiled another leaf of the fine stuff, in what I suspect is a futile endeavor. I wonder if I can write this history, or if on every page there will be some sneaking show of a bitterness I thought long dead.

Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb (1995)

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

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

The Gunslinger, Stephen King (1982)

She came to him toward morning. She entered very carefully, moving silently, floating through the chamber like a phantom; the only sound was that of her mantle brushing her naked skin. Yet this faint sound was enough to wake the switched – or maybe it only tore him from the half-slumber in which he rocked monotonously, as though traveling through fathomless depths, suspended between the seabed and its calm surface amid gently undulating strands of seaweed.

The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski (1993)

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)

“Prod and pull,” the old woman was saying, “’tis the way of the Empress, as like the gods themselves.” She leaned to one side and spat, then brought a soiled cloth to her wrinkled lips. “Three husbands and two sons I saw off to war.”

Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson (1999)

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997)

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests.

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)

In the autumn season of the wine, word went forth from among the cypresses and olives and the laden vines of his country estate that Sandre, Duke of Astibar, once ruler of that city and its province, had drawn the last bitter breath of his exile and age and died.

Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)

Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed. They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That’s how things were now.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009)

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006)

Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead. Even before Rike had finished taking fingers from hands, and rings from fingers. I leaned back against the gallowspost and nodded to the birds, a dozen of them in a black line, wise-eyed and watching.

Prince of Thorns, Mark Lawrence (2011)

I believe the question then”, says Vasily Yaroslav, “is one of intent. I am aware that the court might disagree with me – this court has always ruled on the side of effect rather than intent – but you cannot seriously fine an honest, modest businessman such a hefty fee for an unintentional damage, can you? Especially when the damage is, well, one of abstraction?”

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

The rabbit had been run over minutes before. Its pink eyes were glazed and blood stained its clean white fur. Unnaturally clean fur, for it had just escaped from a bath. It still smelt faintly of lavender water.

Sabriel, Garth Nix (1995)

It’s always interesting to see how much can be conveyed with so little. You really get a sense of the tone and scope of some of these novels from only the first line or so, and I think that’s pretty amazing. These are the words that begin some of the most epic and memorable stories!

You can see what different authors choose to focus on with those precious few words, and how different they are. Some include dialogue, while others jump right into the action. Some begin the story with a metaphor that captures the overall theme of the novel or series. But most, if not all of them, give you the tone, a sense of place, and a sense of character.

It’s fascinating, no?

Chat with Me!

Do you have a favourite line from the 25 listed above? Were there any phenomenal first lines that I missed! Let me know in the comments below!

Author: Alyssa Flynn

Alyssa is a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, a certified geek, and a blogger over at Alyssa Lost in Space. She is currently writing her first novel which she plans to self-publish in Fall 2020.

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