The opening chapters of your novel are crucial for any author, but particularly if you are hoping to be published for the first time. For an aspiring author, those first few chapters are your calling card to the publishing industry; they need to grab the attention of publishers and agents and fire their imagination. If they don’t succeed in doing that, the publisher or agent may not read on. If they do succeed, you may be well on your way to your goal of having your novel published.
So how do you write that perfect opening? Sadly, there is no one size fits all magic formula that can be applied to every novel with a cast-iron guarantee of success. However, there are definitely certain things that I think about when approaching the crucial opening pages, as well as tasks that I want to achieve early on in the novel, which may be useful for you to think about as well. In order to explain a little bit about how I go about things, I’m going to discuss the first few chapters of my latest novel, The Winter Guest. You can find them at the bottom of this piece.
Engaging the Reader
Firstly, and most importantly, I want to engage my reader early and encourage them to read on. I like my opening pages to feature an event, a character or a quality of prose and storytelling that encourage the reader to read on.
In The Winter Guest, I start with an ambush and three deaths. The ambush takes place at the gates to Kilcolgan, a rundown Irish country house. The important death is that of Maud Prendeville, the daughter of Lord Kilcolgan. Maud is not killed in the initial shooting but is killed by an unidentified person soon afterwards, before help arrives. The event itself is quite dramatic but I also wanted to get the reader involved in the story so I posed a series of questions about the killing which could only be answered by their reading on. Who is the murderer? What are they searching for in the car? What is it they find in Maud’s evening bag? Does she recognise the killer and is that why she is killed? Once the reader is asking questions, they are engaging with the story.
Not all of the opening chapter deals with the ambush, however. I do a lot of world building in those first nine pages. Quite a lot of time is spent giving the reader a sense of Kilcolgan House, the stretch of coast on which it stands and the Prendeville family who own it. I also give a very quick introduction to the Irish War of Independence, of which the ambush forms a fictional part, and the history behind it. I also hint at a ghostly presence in the woods, which is relevant to the story, and tell the reader a little bit about Maud Prendeville. The novel revolves around the investigation into Maud’s murder so she is a very important character, even if she dies before she manages to say a single word. To this end, I also made a conscious effort to encourage the reader to care about her, without labouring the point.
All of this is new information to the reader and I needed to think carefully about how to deliver it without it seeming too heavy handed. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I used omniscient narration for the first chapter, whereas the rest of the novel is told exclusively from the point of view of Tom Harkin, who is the central character. Omniscient narration allowed me to shift focus easily from the house, to the ambushers, to the couple who live in the gate house and finally to the killer. It also allowed me to give a slightly mythic flavour to the opening and to cover four hundred years of history in less than nine pages, while not allowing this information to get in the way of the action. It’s not an approach that will work for every book but I considered my options and chose it as the one that would work best for The Winter Guest. That mythic quality to the omniscient narration also allowed me to be a little more flamboyant in my writing style, which again works well for the story, but might not work well for, for example, a more contemporary novel. As it happens, this is the first time I have used omniscient narration to start a novel, and may well be the last. When looking at your own story, try a few different approaches and see what works best. It’s unlikely to be a waste of time.
Establishing the Atmosphere
As with setting, if the atmosphere is a key element of your novel then the earlier you establish it, the better. The Winter Guest is, on one level, a ghost story – although it’s never entirely clear whether the ghosts exist mainly in Harkin’s mind, still recovering from the trauma of the First World War, or in reality. With this in mind, I wanted a supernatural feel to the novel and I set out to achieve this from very early on..
In the first chapter, I use the fog and the omniscient narration to try to give a slightly other worldly aspect to the storytelling. In Chapter 2, Harkin feels his way through the fogbound streets of Dublin, attempting to avoid a police patrol and being assisted by a mysterious ghostly presence. Again, he is not certain what is real and what is not. The following chapter is a memory from Harkin’s time in the trenches, which feels real although I signal, by using italics, that it isn’t part of the main story. Putting them all together, I tried to paint a picture for the reader of a vaguely supernatural version of 1920s Ireland, and more particularly, Harkin’s slightly distorted perspective on it.
(c) W.C. Ryan
Read Part 2 0f this article here.
About The Winter Guest:
A gripping mystery with a classic feel, for fans of Agatha Christie.
The drive leads past the gate house and through the trees towards the big house, visible through the winter-bared branches. Its windows stare down at Harkin and the sea beyond . . .
January 1921. Though the Great War is over, in Ireland a new, civil war is raging. The once-grand Kilcolgan House, a crumbling bastion shrouded in sea-mist, lies half empty and filled with ghosts – both real and imagined – the Prendevilles, the noble family within, co-existing only as the balance of their secrets is kept.
Then, when an IRA ambush goes terribly wrong, Maud Prendeville, eldest daughter of Lord Kilcolgan, is killed, leaving the family reeling. Yet the IRA column insist they left her alive, that someone else must have been responsible for her terrible fate. Captain Tom Harkin, an IRA intelligence officer and Maud’s former fiancé, is sent to investigate, becoming an unwelcome guest in this strange, gloomy household.
Working undercover, Harkin must delve into the house’s secrets – and discover where, in this fractured, embattled town, each family member’s allegiances truly lie. But Harkin too is haunted by the ghosts of the past and by his terrible experiences on the battlefields. Can he find out the truth about Maud’s death before the past – and his strange, unnerving surroundings – overwhelm him?
A haunting, atmospheric mystery set against the raw Irish landscape in a country divided, The Winter Guest is the perfect chilling read.
‘Haunting and exquisitely written. Part intricate mystery and part ghost story. This book will stay with me for a long time’ Anna Mazzola
‘A stunning book, beautifully written’ Ann Cleeves
Order your copy online here.