Beginnings, the First 250 Words

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Muse & the Marketplace writers conference in Boston, organized by Grub Street. Among the many sessions I attended, one called “Literary Idol” got me thinking about beginnings. In this unconventional session, writers in the audience were invited to submit, anonymously, the first 250 words of their short story or novel. Actor Alessandro Nivola randomly selected the submissions from a box and then read the first page out loud. A panel of judges, consisting of the authors Anita Shreve, Mameve Medwed, Elinor Lipman and Stephen McCauley listened and then commented, sometimes raising a hand, if they heard something “wrong,” like a cliché. If four hands went up, the actor stopped reading completely.

The thing that struck me was how many stories started off with a BIG FAT nothing. Frequently, the opening scenes being read (including mine!), had just one person walking or thinking or sitting or musing. This is not the stuff of fictional drama.

My takeaway was this: drama needs to begin soon. Immediately. There needs to be something on the page by word 250. Maybe you think that’s too soon. But if I just randomly select some of my favorite short stories, you’ll see immediately that the authors have gotten something important onto the page in the first graph, much less by word 250.

In Dan Chaon’s “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” the first paragraph starts:

Cheryl woke in the middle of the night and she could hear the macaw talking to himself — or laughing, rather, as if he had just heard a good joke. “Haw, haw, haw!” he went. “Haw, haw, haw”: a perfect imitation of her brother-in-law Wendell, that forced, ironic guffaw.

In the very first graph, Chaon has managed to tell the reader who the three main characters are. You don’t know what the conflict is exactly, but already there is tension between Cheryl and the macaw because it’s woken her up in the middle of the night. The tone hints at the drama, as do the words “forced, ironic guffaw.”

Here’s the first graph from Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”:

We call ourselves Die Harschblodeln: the Frozen Idiots. There are four of us who’ve volunteered to spend the coldest winter in recent memory in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope of the Weissfluhjoch nine thousand feet above Davos. We’re doing research. The hut, we like to say, is naturally refrigerated from the outside and a good starting point for all sorts of adventures, nearly all of them lethal.

You know that there are four people, that they’re doing a job that’s not glamorous and in fact could be “lethal.”

In Stacey Richter’s “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” the first graph is:

There are cavemen in the hedges again. I take the pellet gun from the rack beside the door and go out back and try to run them off. These cavemen are tough sons of bitches who are impervious to pain, but they love anything shiny, so I load the gun up with golden Mardi Gras beads my girlfriend, Kim, keeps in a bowl on the dresser and aim toward their ankles. There are two of them, hairy and squat, grunting around inside a privet hedge I have harassed with great labor into a series of rectilinear shapes. It takes the cavemen a while to register the beads. It’s said that they have poor eyesight, and of all the bullshit printed in the papers about the cavemen in the past few months, this at least seems to be true. They crash through the branches, doing something distasteful. Maybe they’re eating garbage. After a while they notice the beads and crawl out, covered in leaves, and start loping after them. They chase them down the alley, occasionally scooping up a few and whining to each other in that high-pitched way they have when they get excited, like little kids complaining.

Right away, you know that this short story is going to be about the main character, his girlfriend Kim and the cavemen. This is one of my favorites (although I have many favs), but I keep coming back to this one because it’s a love triangle (classic drama), has a fantastic story structure (more on that in a later post), and it’s super voicey (again, another post). Also, look at the word choice. Note the use of the word “again” in the first sentence. Right away you’re pulled through time, from a past, which contains previous events of cavemen in the hedges to the present, where here they are again (this is another topic for a post to come).

In short, look at the first 250 words of your short story, as I will, and ask yourself if your characters are there, if your narrator has mentioned them, and if they’re interacting. If not, find them, grab them by the back of the collar and hoist them up onto the first page.

Photo: Nishanth Jois / Flickr, Creative Commons

3 Comments on “Beginnings, the First 250 Words”

  1. Great site,Tracy.

    Also, your article has just the info I need.
    I pulled out my story and checked the beginning.
    It, with no doubt, needs more mind-catching detail. Thanks

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