The first 250 words

I’ve been involved in several writing contests where the entry calls for your pitch and the first 250 words, or sometimes just the first 250 words.

This is fine, and it’s kind of fun, but I’m worried that some new authors are getting the idea that if you don’t shoot the Sheriff in the first two paragraphs, you’re not going to get an agent’s attention. I suspect that many entries have been specifically “tuned” to the contests. There have been too many cases of the “hook” arriving in the last sentence of the 250 words to be a pure coincidence.

The way I see it, most readers buy a book for these main reasons:

  • It’s an author the reader likes and she knows what they’ll deliver.
  • The reader checked out the cover and the back of the book or the end papers.
  • The reader saw a review or a friend recommended it.

If they’ve gotten that far, most readers will happily plow through a few pages of gray, gray Kansas to get to Oz.

An agent can’t do these things when they’re checking out a new author, so they typically request a pitch/query to lay out the whole idea, and the first chapter to demonstrate writing ability. A whole chapter gives the writer a little more slack. The first 250 words in the examples I’ve collected below may be mundane, but almost all of the books they are taken from have you into some real action before the first chapter ends.

Usually only contests cram us down to the first quarter page, or even loglines or Twitter pitches. Again, I hastily add that I’m perfectly okay with that, especially since the judges are good-hearted volunteers who don’t deserve being buried in hundreds of pages.

Still, it’s important to remember that ultimately you’re writing for readers (and agents), not for contests. Make the pacing work for the story. There’s a lot to be said for “hooks” and “grabbing the reader right away,” but I’ve read many a good book that eased you into the story a lot more quietly.

A few 250 word examples after the break:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mrs. Potter was Mrs. Dursley’s sister, but they hadn’t met for several years; in fact, Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn’t have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbors would say if the Potters arrived in the street. The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him. This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

To be fair, things pick up pretty quickly after that, but what’s in the first 250 words that “hooks” a fantasy reader looking for wizards, wands, and dragons? Note that Harry’s name doesn’t even appear here. If you didn’t know the title of the book, you wouldn’t even be sure who the main character is.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

Personally I love this, but nothing here signals wizards or dragons either, never mind the Battle of Five Armies. Again, notice that our main character isn’t even in most of the excerpt at all, but manages to slide in just under the 250-word wire.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn’t usually afraid of weather. —It’s not just the weather, she thought. —It’s the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg Murry doing everything wrong.

School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade. That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really, Meg, I don’t understand how a child with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student. If you don’t manage to do a little better you’ll have to stay back next year.”

During lunch she’d roughhoused a little to try to make herself feel better, and one of the girls said scornfully, “After all, Meg, we aren’t grade-school kids anymore. Why do you always act like such a baby?”

And on the way home from school, as she walked up the road with her arms full of books, one of the boys had said something about her “dumb baby brother.” At this she’d thrown the books on the side of the road and tackled him with every ounce of strength she had, and arrived home with her blouse torn and a big bruise under one eye.

Nothing about planet-hopping, giant evil brains, or strange alien worlds. Not only that, but the author actually had the nerve to start out with “it was a dark and stormy night.” Imagine an agent’s response to that.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.

Like the other examples, the writing is great, but as far as telegraphing where the story is going it might as well be Anne of Green Gables. Again to be fair, Dorothy is riding a tornado at the end of Chapter One, but we’re talking 250 words.

Okay, this wouldn’t be complete unless I gave a well-known counterexample:

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.

Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.

If you’re a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened.

But if you recognize yourself in these pages–if you feel something stirring inside–stop reading immediately. You might be one of us. And once you know that, it’s only a matter of time before they sense it too, and they’ll come for you.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My name is Percy Jackson.

I’m twelve years old. Until a few months ago, I was a boarding student at Yancy Academy, a private school for troubled kids in upstate New York.

Am I a troubled kid?

Yeah. You could say that.

I could start at any point in my short miserable life to prove it, but things really started going bad last May, when our sixth-grade class took a field trip to Manhattan–twenty-eight mental-case kids and two teachers on a yellow school bus, heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at ancient Greek and Roman stuff.

I know–it sounds like torture. Most Yancy field trips were.

Now this one gets the scary background music playing almost immediately. As if that weren’t enough, the first chapter is titled “I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher.” So yes, sometimes the first 250 words get things running right off the starting line.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight has a mundane 250 words starting out its first chapter, but this is the preface:

I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months–but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.

I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.

Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.

I knew that if I’d never gone to Forks, I wouldn’t be facing death now. But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.

The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill.

Yep. That’ll do it.

The first 250 words, Part Two

4 thoughts on “The first 250 words

  1. It worries me that many wonderful novels these days never achieve publication, because agents and publishers are addicted to the instant hook. Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo”, somehow managed to break the rules. From what I remember, the first fifty pages were really heavy going, until Lisbet Salander appeared on the scene.

  2. I really appreciate this post. You’re absolutely right. What I’ve liked about all the contests is what I learn about my book by trying to cram it into 250 words, or 300 words or 140 characters. Each round of requirements tells me something. new So far, that – and the people I’ve met – have been the best part.

  3. You wrote exactly what I think about this topic. The opening of Sula is all about the setting with nothing of the main characters if I remember right. I think another perpetrator of this movement to the instant hook is writing programs. I can’t count the number of times professors or workshop students would talk about grabbiness – and if people are getting rewarded for catchy openings, it’s sure to spread as a general practice.

  4. My sentiments too! Sad to see that society keeps pushing for instant gratification. Not that we all need to write ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, but someone does not need to die in the first page. Or even the first chapter. Maybe by the end of the book though. 🙂
    As a side note, I’ve always adored the first pages of A WRINKLE IN TIME. And I didn’t get into TWILIGHT until Edward was introduced.

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