Many of the writing competitions out there require a query and the first 250 words of your manuscript. That means not only one, but both need to be as strong as you can make it. As a judge for multiple writing competitions, I’ve seen some common mistakes in the first 250 that tend to bog it down. Sure, some people take longer to settle into their voice when they first start a new project. I tend to start in the wrong spot all the time. Editing and getting feedback before entering the competitions help.
So how do you make your first 250 pop? I sat down for a few hours trying to figure this out. What makes a reader want to keep going? What makes them put down the book and move on? There may be a lot of reasons–some that have nothing to do with how well written it is, but there are certain things you can do to make sure that the first 250 is the best it can be for your story.
This morning, I came up with the acronym P.A.G.E.S. Hopefully, this little mini guide will be handy tip to help you polish that intro.
Making The First 250 Great
Phenomenal First Sentence – A gripping first sentence can make a reader stop whatever else they’re doing. It can make the rest of the world fade away, and that same reader will HAVE to know what comes next. What caused this first sentence? If the first sentence is that good they’re going to want to know what the next one is, what does the rest of the story have to say? At the core, that first sentence, whether dark, light, humorous, witty, etc–it makes the audience want to know what happens next.
If you want more information on how to craft a phenomenal first sentence check out this amazing post by Stephanie Scott over at Writing With The Mentors.
Actively Do Something – Hopefully,that something is something important. Somethingthat brings us to the inciting incident. Hopefully, that’s more than just ‘looking’. Looking is fine, but looking is also telling, and too much telling is tedious. Besides, if they’re just looking, chances are you’re just scene setting. Is your character riding a bike? Having a conversation? Were they just in a car accident? Did a letter arrive? There’s so many things to have your character doing, and they need to be doing something other than just observing.
Ground The Characters – While the characters are doing something, we need to know where they are. That doesn’t mean we need a 100 words worth of setting, but the reader needs something to ground them in the story. Are they on the shore of a beach? Sitting in their bedroom? At a doctors office? Without this pivotal information the characters–and the reader–are left floating in the ether. It’s nothing but a white back drop. Grounding the reader in the story with a bit of setting brings them in closer while the character is doing the aforementioned action.
Engage The Reader – This comes when you have a happy balance of the above. Give a reader all the elements–a great first sentence, have the characters doing something, and put the setting in. I don’t want all dialogue in the first 250–there doesn’t even have to be any, pending on the story. I also don’t want all scene setting. I certainly don’t want nothing but observation or backstory. I want a fleshed out first 250 that makes me want to read more, and that means learning how to put all the necessary tidbits into a small space.
Start In The Right Place – All of the above is great, but if you don’t start in the right place for your novel, you run the risk of losing the reader anyway. If you’re explaining too much backstory, or maybe you have a prologue that probably isn’t needed–chances are you started in the wrong spot. If you’re first two paragraphs are nothing but description of where the character is, chances are, you started in the wrong spot. You should be starting at the event that either is, or is quickly leading up to the inciting incident of your story. Once you figure out just what the inciting incident is, you can figure out where you need to begin.
For more help on figuring out where to start your story, check out this great post by Kes Trester at Writing With The Mentors.
There you have it. P.A.G.E.S. The basic elements you need to make your first 250 great. Infusing the voice is all on you. It can be tricky. Don’t be afraid to cut the original beginning to start later, or even rewrite it. Tons of authors state how they write the first sentence several dozen times, if not more. So much of writing is rewriting, but the thing is, you can’t edit or rewrite what you don’t have. First drafts suck, so don’t get too caught up on making the first 250 amazing right away. Make sure you finish the draft. That will also give you a clearer picture of the overall story, and if you have all the elements of P.A.G.E.S.
Play around with it. Expand. Remember, this is just the basics. You have to figure out how to make it work for your story.
If you’re interested a bit more on the query aspect, see QUERY ADVICE: DO’S, DON’TS, AND STRUCTURE.