300 words

I came across another article on what to write on the first page. I know it’s getting old, but I will try to answer it again. This article asks you to infuse five things:
1. A powerful opener.
2. Unique perspective.
3. A well-realized world.
4. An authentic voice.
5. Attention-grabbing characters.

Since one type written page contains about 500 words single spaced and 250 words double spaced, you have to do all of this in that many words. You also should open with action, as opposed to, say, the main character waking up in his bed with a hangover. You have to “show, don’t tell” and you have to make sure that every sentence will either “advance the plot or expose character”. Though 250 words is not a tied and fast number, the number of words in the first page would still be less than 300 words tops.

Also, you have to present an urgent problem with a time limit. In case you forgot, a story is about (somebody) who needs to (blank) the (blank) before (blank) is (blank) otherwise (blank) will (blank). That much must be presented on the first page or the reader will cease to care. That’s a lot of things to do in 300 words.

When you say “powerful opener”, the first thing that comes to my mind is “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” But something else might hit you harder. You can google for some good opening lines. In fact, I wrote about opening lines before.

Recently, when someone on Facebook asked if it was sufficiently attention-grabbing to have a story open with a description of someone waking up with a hangover, I suggested opening with action and suggested an opening line.

I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

That is not bad for something to post on a Facebook thread, but as an opening for a book, it is not quite a powerful opener.To turn a static descriptive line into something more engaging, you need to inject sensations like sounds, smells, or feelings. In this case, the cop is hungover and his footing is uncertain. How about this:

The world rolled more than I intended when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. 

A little more visible, but not good enough. Should I add something in front of this line or after this line? I am describing a scene, but I also want to pack a punch. Maybe I want to add something more crafty and powerful in the beginning, or I might want to run with it and add something after. Word to the wise: When in doubt, add after. Do not try to embellish the opener with something contrived.

The world rolled more than I expected when I had to swerve to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy as he rushed out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. The jet liner started screeching in my head again. The cup was hot in my hand.
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.
“Hi, Marv.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from his clipboard.
“Morning, Frank.”

That is already 100 words.
You can already see the scene, but it doesn’t quite draw you in does it? Firstly, the main character is just a generic drunk cop. Secondly, this looks like an ordinary neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. The passage could be the establishing scene of a Criminal Minds episode. How can we make this drunk cop special? How can we change the scene to Victorian England, or at least make Cleveland seem more interesting?

First, change the characters.The easiest, and increasingly popular (if not overused) method to make the main character more interesting is to switch genders. Turn Marv into Martha and Frank into Carol. I think it was Billy Wilder who said, “If a man comes in through the door, it is not interesting. If he comes in through the window, it is interesting.” It is a reflection of the stereotypes we still hold in our minds that we find it interesting when a homicide detective is a woman. Be that as it may, we only have so many words to make this scene interesting.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit on the lawn. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long.

160 words. A little more interesting.
(By the way, do women actually forget to take out diaphragms? I know a guy whose used condom fell out of his pants in the middle of class in college. You forget to take off weird things when you are in a hurry in the morning, but it can’t be common. I wonder how real this scene feels. That would be a question for the beta readers.)

Next, the scene. It does not have to be Victorian England, but it has to be interesting. That does not mean that a generic city cannot be interesting. Even a place like Fargo can be interesting if you describe it well. So far, the only word that describes the setting is “lawn”, which projects a surprising amount of information. Almost anyone who has ever lived in North America can picture an abandoned house with a lawn. And that leads to a whole train of associations. Let’s scrap the lawn. There are no kids riding bicycles under sunny skies here.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling my coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash.

Now I am debating with myself whether I should describe the spray-painted graffiti on the walls or get on with the story. This actually an opportunity to inject the “unique perspective” and “authentic voice”. It is always the stuff that you don’t need to write that renders voice to your story.
Voice is reflected in what the narrator sees. What does she notice about the graffiti? Is it the size, the colors, or the words? Does she pick up the lyrics to an old song, focus on the profanities, or snicker at outdated political chants? And what sort of voice is it when the narrator notices that the forensic guy vomited beneath the words “Impeach Nixon”? How is that different from, for example, saying the guy barfed under the word “fuck” or that he looked small against a giant mural of a penis?
Bottom line; this is how you infuse voice into your words. It can make or break your book, so get serious.

My tousled hair rolled more than I expected as I nearly lost my footing when I swerved to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.

That projects some character and voice, not a very likable one so far, but one with personality. And it also places the scene in a grittier, more interesting place. This above paragraph leads to “Hi, Martha” which is the first line spoken. Up to that is basically a thinly disguised exposition, even though it is a description of events. So now the real action begins. It is 203 words up to this point, and I have less than a hundred words to present the story question, which is 1) what the problem is, 2) what the protagonist must do to solve the problem, 3) the time frame in which she must finish the task, and 4) what will happen if she fails to accomplish the task within the allotted time. So without further ado:

“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same individual, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is probably white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

That’s exactly 300 words. Does it catch your attention? I don’t know. Honestly, I am not satisfied with it. Good enough for a first draft, I suppose.

What I think is missing is the hook. An opener that carries a punch. So I will break my 300 word rule and add one more line at the beginning. Something ostensibly a graphic description of something visible, but conveys emotion of the scene. Something short and clear. I’ll nick a few words here and there to make it close to 300 for the first page. Then maybe on the second page, I will add something to describe the character.

The sky hung grey where duty called.
My tousled hair rolled surprisingly far as I nearly stumbled when swerving to avoid spilling coffee on the forensic guy, rushing out of the crime scene to vomit in the ditch full of broken glass and mummified trash. Either the guy was still green or this was a really bad day to show up with a hangover. In the rush, I forgot to take out the diaphragm and my underwear was getting uncomfortable. The cup was hot in my hand. I hardly glanced at the forensic guy, who looked like a piece of modern art crouching against the wall spray-painted in a cascade of colors over eroded brick and ancient stone corbels. Beads of sweat was erupting on my forehead.
“Hi, Martha.”
The medical examiner barely looked up from her clipboard, her graying Afro obscured under a police issue shower cap.
“Morning, Carol. How was the date?”
I tried to buy time to come up with an answer by sipping on the coffee, still too hot to really drink. Martha looked over her glasses at me.
“That bad, huh?”
The place smelled like a million dead rats. Everything looked grayish, the house had been vacant so long. I stooped over the corpse partly hidden under plastic cover.
“What have we got?”
“Same M.O. Same African-American victim. Same brutal rape. Fifteen stab wounds. Sign of anger, like the others. Three makes a serial.”
“Whew!”
“It get’s worse. The two previous sperm samples, they were from the same killer, big surprise, but both had the C282Y gene mutation, cause of hereditary hemochromatosis, most commonly found in Scandinavians and related Europeans.”
“Meaning the perp is white.”
“And probably race motivated. You gotta get this bastard before the media gets wise or it’s gonna be a fucking circus.”

“How old was she?”
The smell of blood was overwhelming. And there was the chicken meat smell of fresh corpses. And the smell of wet hair.
“Same age group. Twenty-two or three. We won’t know for sure until we get a positive ID.”
The victim’s wrist was very thin and her skin was still fresh and smooth. Dark and beautiful.
When I grew up, boys played with boys, Jewish girls played with Jewish girls, and black people lived down the street. We all went to the same elementary school but we did not really mix very much. I thought I grew up to be decently inclusive, color blind practically, and could work with anyone without trouble, but when it was time to actually sleep with a dark skinned man last night, I took two more glasses of Scotch than I should have to help me go through with it. And as the puss from the diaphragm ran down my thigh and the sick burned my throat while I tried hard to swallow it down, I felt in my guts that I hated myself. A loving man I did not deserve had to be tolerated with the help of whiskey.
“Bitch,” I said.
“What?”
“No, not her.” I stood up, and immediately felt the blood draining out of my head, the floor a ski slope under my feet.
“I was talking… about myself.”
A cold chill gripped my body and liquid squeezed through the goosebumps. 
“Are you alright?”
“Fine.”
“You look like shit.”
“Thanks, Martha.”
“Seriously, are you okay? What the hell happened last night?”
“Nothing. I just… need to step out and drink my coffee.”
I straggled out of the scene and saw the young forensic guy still recovering by the spray-painted wall. I briefly thought I might join him and barf, but more uniforms were showing up and I had to put on a brave face.
The coffee was still too hot to really drink. I tried blowing on it. Slowly.

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