For a lot of books, the genre is pretty clear the second you peek at its cover. Romance books often sport the image of a young couple or an item that is symbolic of love. Horror books display creepy houses and the like, along with strange fonts that instantly clue you into the book’s content. Supernatural books sometimes swing both ways though. You have beloved series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, both of which have editions with well-known covers that depict creatures of fantasy and mythology. But there are also a few series I’ve read whose covers don’t necessarily indicate something paranormal, like April White’s Immortal Descendants series (one I’d highly recommend, by the way). That said, whether or not your book’s artwork depicts its genre, there’s one thing absolutely should: the first chapter. It doesn’t matter if your book is about ghosts or if it’s about elves who have to save the world from blood-sucking witches who are pregnant with the illegitimate son of a werewolf and a hippogriff. Point is, your intentions for the genre need to be transparent by the time the reader hits the second chapter.
Making your intentions clear doesn’t mean you should give away the plot. What it does mean is that you need to paint an image for your reader that instantly transports them to a world where they know something funky is up, even if they don’t know what it is right away. One of the best ways to do this is through environment. The first book in the Harry Potter series is an excellent example of this. In book one, we immediately see a multitude of things that let us know what we’re in for: a peculiar cat who can read, people dressed in ridiculous outfits, owls swooping around in broad daylight, a family secret being discussed among strangers, unusual words, street lights disappearing at the flick of silver lighter, a cat who can morph into a woman, and a flying motorcycle. Clearly, this isn’t going to be your average story—and that’s the type of message you want to get across if you’re crafting a supernatural tale.
Another way to hint at the supernatural genre is by introducing strong characters. It doesn’t matter whether a female or a male is taking the lead; each should hold characteristics that make them unique and memorable in the reader’s mind. Sometimes supernatural series spawn characters that are rather eccentric to do this. Think Sherlock Holmes or the Mad Hatter. One of my favorite eccentric characters is actually the Doctor from Doctor Who. Though he’s a character on a TV show, he is so zany and memorable that he immediately creates a connection with viewers (and other characters) and draws them into his world. Not only that, but a flying police box that’s really an intergalactic spaceship? What about that doesn’t clue you into the fact that the show is supernatural?
Just about every good book has one thing in common: secrets. They all reveal a little bit of the plot one page at a time, and after just a few pages, you’ll likely find yourself hooked and dying to know more. So how does one go about doing that? While there are some extraordinarily talented authors who can wing it and weave intricate details into their story as they go (I’ve met a few, and I greatly admire them for their talent), most writers—myself included—have to rely on loads of planning, scheming when and where they’ll drop snippets of subplots for the reader to learn, along with the characters. The trick is to provide readers with just enough information that they can’t bear to put the book down until they find out more. Usually, that information hinges on a secret of some kind, though it doesn’t necessarily have to. However, the end result is often the same: a killer beginning that readers can’t resist.