"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.