Ten Worst Opening Lines

Johannes Jansson
Johannes Jansson


We’ve all noticed them: first sentences of a novel, either overwrought or just plain embarrassing, that elicit a groan or a smack of the forehead. Here are 10 opening doozies, lines that make it difficult to continue reading.

Our highly subjective list includes “worst firsts” from famous and infamous writers. We begin with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who penned the most famous dead-weight line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” We end with the first sentence of the first published novel by John Edward Williams, one of our favorite novelists, who went on to write the spare, near-perfect Stoner, giving hope to clunky writers everywhere.

This is but a tentative beginning; we welcome your contributions. Fire when ready.

“Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?” said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.

—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii

It began oddly.

—Philip Roth, The Breast

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: “I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,” then sat pen in hand with no more to record.

—Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case

Rumours are the begetters of gossip.

—Doris Lessing, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

—Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s

It was like so, but wasn’t.

—Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our pleasant town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three Gordforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable.

—John Updike, The Widows of Eastwick

Indian Summer is like a woman.

—Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

In this dream where he was weightless and unalive, where he was a pervading mist of consciousness that seethed and trembled in a vast stretch of dark, there was at first no feeling, only a dim sort of appreciation, eyeless, brainless, and remote, whose singular ability was to differentiate between himself and the darkness.

—John Edward Williams, Nothing But the Night

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Our Editors include Sudip Bose, Bruce Falconer, Stephanie Bastek, Jayne Ross, and Ellie Eberlee.


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