Writers on Writing — The First 200 Words

To escape the rain outside, a young girl casually strolls amongst the shelves and shelves of glorious stories. Marvel sparkled in her eyes, giddy at the sight before her. Books, hundreds of books, but she may choose only one.

Her hope? To savor this moment, caressing each and peering at their covers, assessing what they may contain, until at last one stands out—shimmering in an ocean of words. The glistening spine beckoned, calling out to be caressed and opened.

The tension rises. Those first few letters grip her, and she begins to read. The exhilaration pulses through her finger, tracing the line on the page. Her eyes behold a wondrous tale of circumstance.

One obvious choice. Her heart leaps, never taking her eyes off the book. Clerk paid, she scurried out the door.

Panic edges into her mind. The story calls out to be read, it must be read. “Stop now… Here, under this tree. Stop and read me. Begin the journey you long to take. Do not linger, lest the adventure be lost. Hurry, please hurry and read me now!”

She succumbs, and nestled beneath the rustling branches, the light breeze turns the pages like magic.

—Chapter One

Girl reading a book under a tree as described by DJ Cooper's tale.

What did you see in that first passage?

What triggers a reader to choose only one? That single book that captures their interest and grips their psyche? The answer is; what the writer offers them in the first few paragraphs. Beckoning them, telling them they NEED this book.

As a publisher, we read stories every day. We only ask for the first ten pages of any manuscript, and within these few words, we should know a few key things. What genre, who the character is, and where they are. We should see the character’s flaws or virtues and the problem they seek to solve. All of this is within ten pages.

You… Have 200 words.

How can you do this in merely 200 words? The passage above is 200 words exactly. We know it is a young girl; she is in a bookstore; the choices are agonizing, but there is magic in one book. This book is a fantasy story. The girl is young and about to begin a journey. The hook. She can’t wait and sits beneath a tree to begin an adventure.

This small bit is not entirely unscripted but modified from a well-known tale. The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, where a young boy to get out of the rain goes into a bookstore and finds a book irresistible.

Three tips to help you do this in 200 words.

  • Offer the genre: Consider the very first line in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It takes a mere twenty-three words to tell us the summation of this book. This, my friends, is a romance. There will be weddings.
  • Give them the scene: Stephen King, in his book Needful Things offers a flavor of the scene. In those first few words, he sets the scene of a small town, a character that tells us something is off. The way they see tourists in the town is telling. But more than that we as readers feel the angst by the third paragraph, “Hot damn! Just look at his thing, will you? DICE AND THE DEVIL printed right on top.” At this point, we just know this book will be good.
  • Finally, the hook: As writers, we have probably ONE page to snag that reader, so we best make it good. J.K. Rowling does this with a simple chapter title. The first four words grab the reader and refuses to let them go. “The Boy Who Lived.” It does not get much more visceral than this, we learn in the first paragraph that this boy is special in an ordinary family.

Understanding how important these first few paragraphs are to the novel is one of the greatest ways you can ensure it is read. Use them wisely.

Thanks to DJ Cooper for this article.

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