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Opening Chapters (Part 2) by W.C. Ryan

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Getting Started
William Ryan

W.C. Ryan

Read Part 1 of this article here.

Introducing the Central Character

It isn’t essential to have the central character present in the very first chapter but, if they aren’t, they probably should arrive soon afterwards. Tom Harkin arrives in Chapter 2 and I put the reader inside Harkin’s head and place him in danger, as putting your central character under pressure is often the most effective way of showing their personality. I also use present tense in The Winter Guest which I think gives an immediacy that works particularly well with supernatural and psychological thrillers and also helps the reader engage with Harkin as they experience the action alongside him. I normally use past tense but I thought for this novel, present worked a little better. You will also notice I don’t spend a lot of time “telling” the reader about Harkin’s personality and background in Chapter 2. Instead, I want the reader to share his experience in the chapter by way of an introduction.

I follow Chapter 2 with a memory of Harkin’s from the trenches of World War One and then a meeting with Vincent Bourke, an important subsidiary character. In the fog scene, I was trying to give a sense of Harkin’s internal state. In the trench scene, I’m offering an insight into the trauma he has recently experienced. The scene with Vincent Bourke is where we get a sense of Harkin’s external personality, through his interacting with another character. Through these three scenes, I’m trying to build up a sense of him in the reader’s mind. If, alternatively, I started with several pages about Harkin’s childhood, appearance and a summary of his personality, I would run the risk of boring the reader. By making him engage with the world around him and with other characters, I get to the same place in a more effective and engaging way.

Introducing the Objective

I’m not sure it is absolutely essential to tell the reader in the first few chapters what the central character’s objective over the course of the story is going to be, but it’s something I like to do. I feel it tightens up the narrative if the reader has a sense of where the story is going, and it also helps me to decide what is important for me to tell the story clearly and what isn’t. The ambush chapter makes it clear to any reader who has read a crime novel before that Harkin’s objective, as the investigator, is to solve Maud’s murder. However, I also make it clear in the following chapters that Harkin’s mental state is precarious and that this will be both an obstacle to him achieving his objective and an objective in itself. His vulnerability will hopefully help engage the reader and if Harkin manages to address his mental state over the course of the novel, that will be a satisfying aspect to the story.

Where to begin your story?

The obvious place to start your novel is at the beginning of your story’s timeline and that’s what I do in The Winter Guest. However, fiction allows us to play around with the sequence of storytelling and first chapters can be placed at the beginning, the middle or the end of the main story’s timeline – as well as long before the main story starts, and long after it ends. The start may even come from a parallel storyline, or from a subplot. What is key is that those opening pages have something happening in them that hooks the reader’s attention. I could, for example, have started with a scene from when Maud and Harkin were lovers before the First World War, or I cold have started with Harkin standing beside Maud’s grave as she is interred several days after her murder. I could even have started with Harkin as an old man, visiting Kilcolgan House many years after the events in the story have taken place. More importantly than where the opening scene fits in the timeline, I want it to be dramatic and appealing to the reader.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned once or twice before, I want to engage the reader early on in my novels. One aspect of this is that I want the first chapters to read smoothly. I avoid, as much as possible, information dumps about the characters or the setting, as these can often bump the reader out of the story. Where possible, I deliver information through action and the narrating character’s observation. I show rather than tell, in other words. I want the story to flow, particularly early on, with the reader being swept along with that flow.

I also think of the opening chapters as a montage of images rather than a continuous sequence. In The Winter Guest, for example, the first three chapters are not obviously connected until the fourth ties them together. I think there is a danger, with more linear storytelling, that you end up including too much detail and slow the opening chapters down more than is necessary. The first three chapters of The Winter Guest give lots of information to the reader but also, hopefully, are entertaining to read. I don’t need to have the police discovering the ambush site or the family’s reaction to Maud’s death, which a more linear storytelling style might suggest. That can all come later.

I suppose the general point is that I try to write as a reader. A novel is a conversation between you as a writer and whoever is reading your novel. You need to attract and hold their attention so it’s sensible to be aware of them when you are writing. Ask yourself how you can entertain and engage them best. If you manage to take them into the fictional world that you create and keep them there, then you have probably done your job well.

(c) W.C. Ryan

Read Part 1 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.

Read The Winter Guest Chapters 1-3

About the author

W. C. Ryan is also known as William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier and the Korolev series of historical crime novels. His books have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the CWA’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers, the Irish Fiction Award and the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, as well as being published in 18 countries. William lives in London and teaches creative writing at City University.

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