Late last year I had the good fortune to attend one of the New Hampshire’s Writers Project’s many web-based seminars. This one was conducted by none of than James Patrick Kelly. The topic was “Your First 250 Words” and I have managed to transcribe some pointers.  Bear in mind they are in no way anywhere near as detailed or articulate as James Patrick Kelly was, but there are some pretty specific insights here (some general, and some very precise) that I thought I’d share:
A brief into: JPK does a bit of enlightening us on his process, here. Day one, he writes at least 250 words. Day two, he does 250 more, but he re-reads the first 250 he wrote. Day three and onwards, he re-reads everything he’s written — at least the last ten pages, he says — so that the piece is still fresh in his mind when he takes up where he left off.

* The first 250 words are actually more important than the title. He gave a number of convincing specifics on this, including the titles of a number of current best sellers (which were all over the map in terms of “good” and “bad” titles, but then went on to show just how many shared the same, strong “opening 250” as he says).

To start with, he gave us five guiding questions:

  1. Who is the story about?

  2. Why are they doing what they’re doing?

  3. What is the story itself about?

  4. Where does it take place?

  5. When does it take place?

Try to answer these five questions — even cryptically or generally — within the first 250 words, or soon thereafter.

General goals:

  1. Teach the reader how to read your story. Show them what they should be looking for, what tone to expect, etc.

  2. Foster a sense of immediacy — a sense that the story needs to be told/needs to be read.

  3. Establish the story’s credibility — a well-researched setting is more immersive and believable than a Roman Coliseum  with clocks, or a Continental Congress using ball-point pens. Also, any grammatical errors or typos in the first 250 words will be almost certainly result in a rejected manuscript.

  4. Create narrative momentum using suspense and tension. Make the reader want to know and make the reader care.

James’ “Ten Commandments”

* These are broken into three sections

The first four are necessities, or near “must haves” to the rules, even if they can be broken. They are as follows:

  1. “Thou shalt establish a point of view.” (first, second, third person, whatever — needs to be consistent.)

  2. “Thou shalt introduce a protagonist.” Even if they aren’t physically in the first 250 words, who they are should be clear (Think I need to work on this one, myself).

  3. “Thou shalt establish a setting.”  Time and place can be as specific or as vague as you wish, but they need to be there.

  4. “Thou shalt establish a tone.” If it’s a funny piece, include some comedy. If it’s a tragedy, include some foreshadowing, symbolism, anything that actually sets the mood of the story.

The second section is for “less essential but still valuable” pointers. Try/attempt these as much as you can:

      5)   Attempt to write a hook in the first sentence, paragraph, etc. It’s not necessary to have the hook in the very first sentence, but a strong hook anywhere within those 250 words is a huge plus for your manuscript

      6)  Start in medias res or “in the middle” of the story. Starting points may seem tricky, but it’s easy to look at a work and say “this story doesn’t start until page three” or “this prologue isn’t relevant until page two hundred.” Starting in the middle of the action helps the reader want to know more.

      7)  Include action/dialogue.  Basically “show don’t tell” as we’re all fond of saying.

The third tier are for items that are only appropriate in specific situations or are “big plus” items that may or may not apply to the story:

      8)  Consider introducing other characters — don’t make the protagonist the only character that matters.

      9)  Make sure to show the status quo — a story is often going to be about situations that are not ‘normal.’ In these cases, you have to show what ‘normal’ is before you deviate from it.

     10)  “Precipitating incident” — this is essentially the event/trigger/device that actually starts the plot. If it isn’t portrayed, defined, or at least alluded to in the first 250 words, chances are you’re going to lose the reader.

One last caveat: James emphasized that this isn’t necessarily part of the “creative process.” Don’t let these devices get in the way of “getting the words out.” Save them for once you’ve gotten the meat of the story and you’re looking for the best way to present it.

Finally, feel free to take all of these with a grain of salt — obviously, JPK elaborated far more eloquently and in greater detail than the bare-bones pointers I’ve laid out here — and I’m probably not doing them justice.

Even so, I hope this provides a bit of insight — even just a handful of these can probably offer up a few gems to improve almost any piece.



~  Alexander Scott McGrath