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Try 100 words.
Hooking readers instantly seems almost de rigueur in today’s world of short attention spans and one-click-away information. However, I first encountered the 100-word rule years ago. Book editors (not article or short story editors, mind you) often decide to pass on a manuscript after the first 100 words. If you can’t sell your book to them in that limited space, the theory goes, you won’t sell it to a paying customer.
To test this theory, I turned to three stories in a literature textbook to see what the authors did with their first hundred words. All of these stories, written long ago, are considered classics. But at one time they were just stories their authors hoped to sell to an editor and, in turn, to a mass audience.
Here are the first one hundred words of Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the words in brackets continue the sentence after the 100th word):
You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly -- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly [a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.]
Twain’s use of regional language tells us a lot about our narrator/protagonist: his age, background, setting, and, most tellingly, his personality—he regards everyone he knows as a liar, even the author! Twain's use of voice makes us like Huck immediately and want to learn more about him.
For a very different opening, check out the first 100 words of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War short story. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek”:
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.
Unlike Twain’s first-person narration, Bierce tells his story in third person—but we immediately know what’s going on: Our protagonist, a soldier, is about to be hanged.
What makes this opening come alive are the details—the water, the cord, the rope, the cross-timber, etc., are all described vividly so the reader can “see” the action. No emotion is given in the passage, but none needs to be. The setting itself is dramatic enough for the reader to want to see if the man escapes.
Lastly, here are the first 100 words of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wall-paper”:
It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror [of superstition . . . ]
In 100 words, Gilman tells us who her protagonist is (a married woman) and clues us in on her situation (she’s spending the summer with her husband in an upscale house very different from her usual surroundings). This, in itself, is not out of the ordinary, but notice the narrator's misgivings about the house and how her husband casually dismisses her feelings. The situation is ripe for conflict and danger.
Whether you’re writing a piece of fluff entertainment or the next literary classic, make those first 100 words count.
What happens in your first 100 words?