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First Chapters

William Ryan

First chapters sell books. In fact, often, first lines sell books. Here’s an example from Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

Here’s another from Declan Hughes’ 2006 Ed Loy novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood:

The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband. Now she was lying dead on her living room floor, and the howl of a police siren echoed through the surrounding hills. 

Alright, fair enough, that’s two lines. Still, like Elmore Leonard, Declan Hughes has, in not very many words, achieved the primary goal of any writer - made me want to read on. 

How did they do this? Well, both authors introduced the novel’s protagonist and, through half hints and terse dialogue-like narration, made them sound intriguing. They also, in each case, raised a series of interesting questions. Why, for example, does Linda Dawson put her tongue in Loy’s mouth at the same time as asking him to find her husband? What is this bomb Mankowski must deal with? Why is he leaving his job? It will probably take the rest of each book to answer these questions fully, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s fairly certain this will be a journey worth taking. Most importantly, perhaps, both authors promise immediate excitement in the form of ticking bombs and police sirens. They’ve hit the ground running. 

Crime writers don’t necessarily need to hang their whole novels on an opening line, however - although they probably should want to make a good first impression and quite quickly at that. When a reader opens a novel, whether they’re an agent, a publisher or someone who has had the book suggested to them by a friend, they’re hoping to be entertained, excited and, most importantly, intrigued. The writer’s job to reassure them they’ve come to the right place. 

A good place to begin a crime novel is with the crime itself – it’s dramatic and can be a great way to grab a reader’s attention. I started The Holy Thief, my first novel, with a murder in the process of being committed. The novel is set in 1930s Moscow – so I wanted to give some hint of the oppressive atmosphere of that time and place. I was also careful to raise a series of questions about the killer, who is a State Security officer, and his unusual motivation for his actions. I wanted to make my victim, in the end, the stronger of the two. I wanted the crime to have an emotional impact but I also wanted the reader to be interested in the victim as a person, and want to find out more about her. I rewrote that chapter hundreds of times before I was happy with it.

The only restrictions on how to start a crime novel is, of course, the writer’s imagination. In Ian Rankin’s The Black Book, two unidentified men are driving a corpse along the west coast of Scotland, looking for a place to dump it. It seems they do this often, but normally on the east coast. They meet a policeman and, because one of the men has a particularly identifiable physical feature, one of them decides to knock out the policeman before he can see it. By the end of the chapter, the reader wants to know who the men are, who the dead man is, why he was murdered and who ordered it, how many other bodies are being dumped into the sea and how regularly and what it is that’s so distinctive about one of the men. As it turns out, the chapter has very little to do with the plot of the novel – but Rankin has accomplished his aim of hooking the reader. 

A crime novel, like any story, is a conversation – in this case between a writer and a reader, where the reader listens. With crime fiction, in particular, readers want to uncover crimes in the company of an appealing central character. Along the way they expect to be mystified, bamboozled and thrilled. If there is the added excitement of danger, passion and a little bit of mayhem - then all the better. They’re a demanding but loyal audience - so don’t take your time starting your story. Give them what they want from the get go – and then keep giving it to them until the very last page. 

William will be leading our 10-week writing course From First Draft To Final Draft  beginning on Wednesday 15th March.

William Ryan has written three crime novels set in 1930s Russia, which have been shortlisted for numerous prizes – including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The CWA’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and New Blood Dagger, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and The Irish Crime Novel of the Year (twice). The Constant Soldier, an historical novel set in 1945 Nazi Germany will be published in May 2016. William lectures on the Crime Writing Masters course at City University. Find out more on his website, and buy his guide to writing crime fiction here