SparkNotes Blog

9 Rejected First Drafts of Famous Opening Lines

No one has ever written anything good on the first go. Not Jane Austen, not Ernest Hemingway, and certainly not me in college. But do you think that ever stopped me from submitting a terrible essay with no clear thesis, a middling conclusion, and only two minutes to go before the deadline? Absolutely not. It should have stopped me, but it didn’t even slow me down. My grades suffered for it. One time I cried during office hours. Okay, twice. Anyway!

There’s a reason rough drafts exist, and it’s because your first instinct isn’t always your best. You’ll write something down, think it’s amazing, and come back to it later only to think, “Did a drunken baboon write this? Did someone close their eyes and just bang their hands on the keyboard for a while and then hit ‘save’?”

It’s happened to all of us. Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, and the like are no exception. Here are some of the rough drafts they almost definitely came up with before eventually settling on the opening lines with which we’re all familiar.

“Call me Ishmael David Henry William Jones the Third. Except maybe that’s a bit much. You know what? I take it back. Call me Ishmael or don’t call me at all.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I mean, man, it was just… the times, you know? Good. Bad. The times, we sure had ‘em. We had them whether they were good or bad.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Eat your vegetables,’ he always used to tell me. ‘Do the dishes. Never judge people.’ Anyway, let’s talk about that third one.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“It was a dark, stormy, mildly humid night.”
—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. The thing is, he used to be a normal human. That’s why it was weird when he woke up and he wasn’t one.”
—Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, or at least a mistress he can squirrel away in a seaside cottage that he occasionally visits ‘for his health’.”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish, or a shark, or a squid, or a lobster, or whatever else lives at the bottom of the ocean that scientists haven’t had the heart to tell us about.”
—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, or the day before that, or sometime the previous Wednesday; I can’t be sure. The fact remains that she’s extremely dead.”
—Albert Camus, The Stranger

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Pigs were flying. Hell had frozen over. Every day was Tuesday, and socks didn’t exist. Look, things were weird. You get what I’m saying.”
—George Orwell, 1984