This post is focused on the first chapter of The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth and how enough story questions and unresolved conflicts are introduced in the first chapter to sustain a reader’s interest and sense of suspense throughout the novel.
The chapter heading, The Curse of Wintersloe Castle, gives a first indication about the content to follow. That is, there is a place called Wintersloe Castle and there is a curse, or alleged curse, associated with it.
The opening line builds on the curse alluded to in the chapter heading:
Hannah Rose Brown was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed.
This is followed by several sentences alluding to what is in store for Hannah following the discovery of the family curse. This is then separated by asterisks (***), creating a brief prologue distinct from the main story.
This brief prologue encourages readers to form expectations about the kinds of events which might occur later in the story. This is sometimes called foreshadowing. Until the things alluded to in the prologue happen, there can be a suspense effect created as a reader begins to wonder when the kind of events alluded to will happen, how prepared the characters will be and how they will respond. This can also make details about the characters which may otherwise seem ordinary and uneventful more interesting as a reader tries to work out how each character might respond to future events in the story.
The main story begins:
Hannah had no way of knowing that the letter she found stuffed in their mailbox was going to change her life forever. She only found it because she had been sent home early from school in disgrace. If Hannah’s mother Roz had found it instead, she would have destroyed it, and so Hannah would never have found out about the curse, or the puzzle ring, or her father’s mysterious past.
This passage does some more foreshadowing, introducing the puzzle ring and Hannah’s father’s past in addition to the curse. It introduces action in the present time of the story; Hannah has found a letter after being sent home from school. It also introduces some detail about Hannah and her mother Roz. Hannah got sent home from school, which is likely to be in conflict with what her mother wants and Roz would have destroyed the letter and not shown it to Hannah, which is likely to be in conflict with what Hannah wants.
Then Roz comes home and Hannah confronts her about the letter. Hannah being home from school early is an issue but one which is not dealt with in the first chapter because the letter is a bigger issue. Hannah finds out from Roz some details about their family history.
‘My father was a viscount?’
‘And I have a great-grandmother? Who’s a countess? How could you not tell me that? Hannah was white with rage, her hands clenched by her side.
‘I left all that behind when I left Scotland,’ Roz said wearily, picking up the letter and turning it over in her hand. ‘It meant nothing to me, and it should mean nothing to you either, Hannah. We make our own destinies.’
‘Surely I have a right to know something like that!’
Roz wants to forget and move on from something which happened around the time of her husband’s death almost 13 years ago. Hannah wants to find out about her family, a desire which is strengthened further when she reads the letter containing an invite to visit their ancestral home in Scotland. Part of the letter reads:
I know that you must be surprised to hear from me now after so many years. I can only say that I’m sorry. I should never have spoken so cruelly to you after Robert died. I think we were both half mad with shock and grief. I am writing to you now to beg you to come home to Wintersloe, and to bring Hannah. I would very much like to see Robert’s child before I die.
Hannah wants very strongly to go to Scotland, while Roz is very reluctant and distressed about something that happened in the past and about returning to a life she had left behind. She is also concerned about taking time off work and Hannah taking time off school. However, Roz agrees to go for a little while and Hannah is excited. It seems Hannah would be happy to leave her life behind and start a new life in Scotland.
In the space of 11 pages (10 full pages and two half pages of writing), Kate Forsyth has set up:
– the characters of Hannah and Roz
– conflict between Hannah wanting to discover their family history and Roz wanting to bury their family history
– conflict between Hannah having issues with her schooling and Roz wanting Hannah to get her school work done without any issues
– conflict between Roz and Hannah’s grandmother, who never got along well
– potential conflict involving Hannah not wanting to leave once she gets to Scotland
– the question of whether or to what extent Hannah, Roz and Hannah’s grandmother will get along and whether Hannah and her grandmother getting closer will cause problems
– the mysteries of the curse, the puzzle ring and Hannah’s father’s past, and what problems or discoveries they might give rise to as the story goes on
The first chapter of The Puzzle Ring contains enough unanswered questions for a reader to wonder about to sustain the suspense throughout the novel. Lots of sub-questions can pop up along the way but there is always somewhere of interest to the reader for the story to go until the major questions are answered and until the unresolved issues are sorted out.
More on Kate Forsyth (interviewed here) and her fiction can be found at www.kateforsyth.com.au. An article by Kate Forsyth about the inspiration for her The Chain of Charms series can be found on The Australian Literature Review here.