The first two hundred fifty words of a manuscript are crucial. They should set the tone for the whole, almost like a novel in miniature. They are your ultimate hook. And because of that importance, you might want to separate those opening words from the rest of the manuscript and look at them alone instead of as a part of a larger whole. Consider your first two hundred and fifty words as flash fiction—flash fiction that’s missing an ending. So what should be expected from flash fiction?
Because of the shortness, flash fiction has to be very alive. Strong and active verbs are a great way to do this. Don’t ‘jump’ when you can ‘leap’ or ‘soar’. Don’t ‘make’ when you can ‘create’ or ‘craft’ or ‘construct’. Forget ordinary verbs and go for active ones. Flash fiction needs to convey emotion, make you feel something. The opening page should set a mood. If the piece is mostly descriptive, that description should invoke atmosphere.
Also, just like flash fiction, your first two-fifty needs to breath or hint conflict. It doesn’t need to be the main conflict of the novel, but is there something to indicate everything is not sunshine and flowers. Conflict is what runs the show and pushes a good novel forward, start off on the right foot by involving conflict.
The characters should have personality and be fully-fleshed. They should use sharp, real-sounding dialogue and stand out as individuals. Flat characters make for boring stories. Create memorable characters.
And finally, because of the limits on words in flash fiction, each and every word has to count. The same should go for your opening page. There shouldn’t be any wasted words that could be cut, such as unneeded tags (said/asked). Watch for useless filtering, using words like ‘heard, saw, looked, thought, realized’ and others. Not only does filtering waste words, but it distances the reader from the action.
Whether you’re entering a contest or trying to entice an agent, it pays to take a long hard look at your first two hundred and fifty words. Separate those beginning paragraphs out from the rest of the first chapter. Consider your opening as a work of flash fiction. Does it provoke interest? The opening words have to be workhorses. They are the sample that first meets the eye, and you need them to do their job.