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First things first

“Prim­i­tive,” the forth­coming novel by Eng­lish pro­fessor Gary Gosh­garian, in which a tech-​​savvy Bostonian ditches his iPhone in favor of simple living on a remote Aegean island, begins this way: “‘Sry, but ur dad died. Call 4 dtails. L.’” We asked Gosh­garian, whose nom de plume is Gary Braver, to dis­cuss the art of crafting a bril­liant opening sentence.

“Call me Ishmael,” the first sentence of Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick,” topped The American Book Review’s list of the 100 best opening lines in American novel history. What is your favorite opening line from a novel and why?

Con­sis­tently favorite novel openers of mine are those from the late Robert B. Parker, a close per­sonal friend and former office mate in Northeastern’s Eng­lish depart­ment. In fact, the opening line of the first of his series of crime novels about a pri­vate detec­tive named Spenser, “The God­wulf Man­u­script,” written while he was a pro­fessor here, projects the classic Spenser wise­cracking wit as well as his atti­tude toward aca­d­e­mics: “The office of the uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent looked like the front parlor of a suc­cessful Vic­to­rian whorehouse.”

Is there a tried and true writing formula for consistently producing engaging openings, or do strong beginnings often differ in style and statement?

For me the best opening lines should have three key ele­ments: brevity, paradox and the­matic pro­jec­tion. And if that line is also subtle — that is, you may ini­tially miss the impli­ca­tions — then it shines.

One such shining example of great first lines is that from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahren­heit 451”: “It was a plea­sure to burn.” At first glance, a reader may miss its brilliance. But as one gets into the story, it all becomes clear what Brad­bury accom­plishes in that hook of an opener. The novel is about a future dystopian society where books are banned and where firemen torch libraries — a society where people are dumbed-​​down to raw instincts.

What makes the opener bril­liant is the double meaning of the verb “to burn.” It is both a tran­si­tive verb (has a sub­ject and direct object) and an intran­si­tive verb (does not have a sub­ject and direct object). In short, “to burn” means to set some­thing ablaze as well as to be on fire. So the opening line projects the brutal paradox and philo­soph­ical core of the novel: to burn books is to self-destruct. And instantly dra­ma­tizing that is the long rich para­graph that fol­lows, descrip­tions of protagonist-​​fireman Guy Montag’s almost-​​sexual plea­sure of flame-​​throwing books as their pages flap like bird wings while being scorched.  Next, without thought, Montag takes a near sui­cidal plunge down the fire­house pole, stop­ping him­self just inches before crashing to the floor.

More impor­tantly, the opening line is deliv­ered from the point of view of Montag who will expe­ri­ence an arc of human­iza­tion throughout, moving from a mind­less burner of books to a rebel who fights the dehu­man­iz­ingly cen­so­rious system.

What is your favorite first sentence of one of your novels and why?

One of my better opening lines of my nine novels is that of my sev­enth, “Skin Deep,” a psy­cho­log­ical thriller whose par­tic­ular med­ical slant is cos­metic surgery. The story cen­ters on a homi­cide cop trying to stop a killer who is stalking alluring Boston women — someone with a keen eye for beauty and a twisted mind. The opening line is uttered by a woman of iconic beauty — a woman who will by the chapter’s end become another victim: “If looks can kill.” Yes, it’s an old expres­sion, but taking a cue from the double meaning infused in Bradbury’s opener, I chose that because “looks” means appear­ance as well as (stalker) glances.  It’s brief and catchy, it’s con­tra­dic­tory and it projects the themes of the story.

– by Jason Kornwitz

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