The Art of the Start

Every writer understands the importance of drawing readers in from the very first sentence—but how do you do that? As this sampling of first lines of first nonfiction books shows, there are as many possible approaches as there are stories to be told. Some of these sentences have become classics, while others have been eclipsed by their authors’ later successes or simply by the passage of time.

Admit it—you want to know what comes next!

After you’ve had a chance to read our favorites, please share your own favorite first lines. Bonus points for insights into why they’re great!

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

James Patrick Perron, who is twenty-seven years old and the youngest mayor in the history of Elkhart, Indiana, as well as the youngest mayor of any decent-sized town in the state, drives a navy-blue Buick sedan with four doors, plush seats, power brakes, and a big, squishy suspension that smooths out bumps in the road.
Susan Orlean, Saturday Night

Beware thoughts that come in the night.
William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.
Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life

KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakeable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.
Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face

A few months ago after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news.
Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist.
Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night

My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.
Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors

My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his adult life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs and victims of nervous collapse.
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted

My high school friends have begun to suspect I haven’t told them the full story of my life.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams.
Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights

By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Last American Man

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin.
James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
John Hersey, Hiroshima

When I was a very little child, oh, about six or seven, I had a habit of walking down Walnut and Copeland streets; you know those streets.
John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

I remember to start with that day in Sacramento – a California now nearly thirty years past – when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.
Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory

I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes.
Robyn Davidson, Tracks

What’s your favorite first line? We limited ourselves to first lines of first nonfiction books, but we won’t require the same restraint from you!