In a 2013 interview with Joe Fassler, horror fiction maestro Stephen King reflected on the magnitude of a novel’s introductory sentence. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” The first sentence sets the stage—however long or short the text—and hints at the “narrative vehicle” by which the writer will propel the book forward. King continued:

[C]ontext is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice... An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection — a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.

There are thousands of classic opening lines in fiction—A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison come to mind—but often the most well-known are not always the best. First sentences, of course, have different functions—to amuse, to frighten, to mystify—and the mechanics a writer uses to achieve this connection vary from genre to genre. In looking for the best opening lines, we took all of this into consideration. What follows are the 50 best. These are the sentences that say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

“The time has come.”

—Dr. Seuss, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

—Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“They shoot the white girl first.”

—Toni Morrison, Paradise

“Dear Anyone Who Finds This, Do not blame the drugs.”

—Lynda Barry, Cruddy

“An abandoned auto cout in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic, and a switchblade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border—right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootsack his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”

—James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.”

—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem

“The man who had had the room before, after having slept the sleep of the just for hours on end, oblivious to the worries and unrest of the recent early morning, awoke when the day was well advanced and the sounds of the city completely invaded the air of the half-opened room.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Dialogue with the Mirror”

“Pale freckled eggs.”

—Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”

—Victor LaValle, Big Machine

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station.”

—William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”

Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

—Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.”

—Roberto Bolańo, The Savage Detectives

“Chris Kraus, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker and Sylvère Lotringer, a 56-year-old college professor from New York, have dinner with Dick _____, a friendly acquaintance of Sylvère’s, at a sushi bar in Pasadena.”

—Chris Kraus, I Love Dick

“See the child.”

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.”

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.”

—Don DeLillo, Underworld

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

—Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“Some real things have happened lately.”

—Joan Didion, The Last Thing He Wanted

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”

—Dennis Lehane, “Until Gwen”

“We wanted more.”

—Justin Torres, We the Animals

“An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the north—the core of it beneath one of these frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.”

—Rick Bass, “The Hermit’s Story”

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

“Since it’s Sunday and it’s stopped raining, I think I’ll take a bouquet of roses to my grave.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses”

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.”

—Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead

“No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sinking into the sacred mud, but within a few days no one was unaware that the silent man came from the South and that his home was one of the infinite villages upstream, on the violent mountainside, where the Zend tongue is not contaminated with Greek and where leprosy is infrequent.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”

—Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.”

—Edward P. Jones, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons”

“A cradle won’t hold my baby.”

—Daniel Woodrell, “Uncle”

“My first and favorite task of the day is slaving over the Iliana Evermore Fairy Castle.”

—George Saunders, “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror.”

“One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face.”

—Stephen Millhauser, “The Slap”

“A woman has written yet another story that is not interesting, though it has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting.”

—Lydia Davis, “The Center of the Story”

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...”

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”

—Paul Auster, City of Glass

“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.”

—Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.”

—Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle

“Nobody died that year.”

—Renata Adler, Speedboat

“‘You are full of nightmares,’ Harriet tells me.”

—James Baldwin, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon”

“The cage was finished.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon”

“Here is a weird one for you.”

—David Foster Wallace, “Signifying Nothing”

[Many thanks to the Gawker and Jezebel staffs for their contributions in compiling this list.]

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