Five Fingers in a Slap to the Face

Begin at the beginning. Every short story and novel needs to establish in the first few sentences, or first paragraph, five specific essentials. Character, conflict, tone, theme, and leit motif, should slap the readers in the face upon first read.


Where the Long Grass Bends by Neela Vaswani, Sarabande Books, 2004. (Short story collection)

“Five Objects in Queens”

White Nova. Circa 1979. Astoria, Queens.
They used the backseat for misdemeanors. The eldest, Rita, smoked cigarettes there and hid lipstick under the floor mat. Rita’s little sister, Priyanka, rolled up the windows, stretched out on the cushy, red leather (smelling of rotten French Fries and incense), and attempted to sing like Aretha Franklin. Their grandmother, Dado, surreptitously chucked her insulin in the neighbor’s trashcan and hunkered to eat half a Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets.


The first sentence opens with indiscriminate subjects, our main characters, plural, trio in crime and piques interest with straightforward reference to minor infractions. We dive deeper with specificity, five objects, and get more details than the title bargained for: cigarettes, lipstick, Rita, Priyanka, red leather, Aretha Franklin, French fries, Dado, insulin, Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets. Each detail gives us specific insight into character. They’re carefully chosen and paint a vivid scene. Each detail contrasts against the next one, so we have cultures and ideals clashing and clanging against each other. All five senses are evoked. We smell incense and fries, taste Ring Dings, see red, twice, hear Aretha, feel cushy leather and sense three people crammed into the back of the car. The conflict is direct. They’re each doing something forbidden, on a joyride of sin–and this is just the beginning of the story! Vaswani’s  five, strong fingers certainly smack readers in the face, proving, as most brilliant writing affirms, how good it feels to be so bad.

Pick five (or more) concrete details and create a scene where each detail scaffolds to build character, shapes meaning, and leads to direct conflict. Use active verbs. Be as concrete and specific as possible.  If you have an introduction to a novel or short story you’re working on, check to ensure you fully immerse your readers in scene. The beginning of a short story is no time for flowery or abstract ideas. The reader should be able to put their finger on hard, specific objects. Make every word, phrase, and image tactile by evoking all six senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, and, yes, psychic travel. The sixth sense is where you and your reader can have a little fun. Try forecasting to the future, what’s about to happen that will heighten conflict? Or what just happened before, in the distant, or not so distant past, that lends tension to this introductory moment. If you can tie the sixth sense to a concrete detail that leads to the central conflict of the story that’s more mileage for your writing. Vaswani’s tell tale clues of the cigarettes and lipstick lets us in on racy, past violations and complicate Priyanka, deliciously. Grandma’s Ayurvedic tablets and insulin build the tension of sickness and give heft to what could otherwise be a wickedly casual day out.

The Salonniere  invites you to post your exercise below. Be sure to include a short paragraph afterward that summarizes and explains your process, what you’re trying to achieve, what you struggled with, what was successful, and, of course,  any questions you may have. The parlour is open!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s