With examples from Zugzwang by Shaelin Bishop
My definition of a strong opening scene has always been one that spills out character voice, narrative atmosphere and hints at upcoming fears, desires and conflicts. In Shaelin Bishop’s Zugzwang, the opening scene is but a vague description from an omniscient narrator, breaking almost every rule. And yet, the opening line is as effective as any.
What makes this such a hooking opening scene?
The answer lies in specificity.
Consider the following excerpt:
“The woman smoking meth across from the bodega looks like your sister, so you offer her a pack of cigarettes and 43 dollars if she'll pretend to be her for one night. You could afford to pay more, but this is all you have in cash and she takes it.
Up close, she looks less like Reed — acne sockets her forehead, her jaw is too canine, cheekbones industrial instead of suburban, eyes minnows instead of hummingbirds, but you've already paid up. She wears an olive parka unzipped over bike shorts and an iridescent bralette with a pyramid cut-out over her solar plexus. A refugee from the future.”
It’s vague and curious, no hints of character conflict (at first glance). What must be understood is that Zugzwang -- like many of Bishop’s short stories -- are literary fiction. Just as any genre, literary fiction requires a set of its own conventions to create a fitting opening. Part of the genre’s appeal lies in word choice: deliberate syntax, powerful diction and riveting details. Bishop uses specific characteristics that entice readers. From the same excerpt, let’s have a look at examples of engrossing word choice, syntax and specificity, and how they add to the narrative.
“The woman smoking meth"
Uses 'meth' instead of just smoking. Methamphetamine is a drug that often causes side effects of euphoria, which may explain why the woman accepts the odd offer. One word can offer a lot of fascination and support a character's actions, as done here.
"across from the bodega"
A bodega is a wine shop or a storeroom for maturing wine. It can also mean a grocery store specializing in Hispanic groceries, often in urban areas. This immediately specifies the image of the woman as well, which describes what she is doing there. By using this one word, we save a sentence’s worth of unnecessary explanation. Additionally, the subtext of this one word rather than an explanation of several, further brings out the literary fiction in this piece.
"looks like your sister, so you offer her a pack of cigarettes and 43 dollars"
A particular, interesting number that brings intrigue. While, unlike the other details, this one does not seem to (as of this point) serve much other use to plot, style or character it immediately builds interest. Why forty-three?
"if she'll pretend to be her for one night. You could afford to pay more, but this is all you have in cash and she takes it."
Again, another distinct detail. It may not add much but it adds interest. The sentence could also tell us about the time period or financial situation of the main character. Do they not have a credit card? Are they old-fashioned? Raises questions, but because to most readers they’re small enough, it does not distract from the narrative.
"Up close, she looks less like Reed —"
Using a name, rather than a relationship label (eg. Sister, father, mother) adds interest and specificity. The name Reed is a gender-neutral name that means a reed or red-haired. Now, while most readers won’t be bothered to search up the definition, it captivates readers. And for those who do, or already have knowledge on the name, gain a hint of the supposed backstory and origin of the character in just a single word.
"acne sockets her forehead,"
“Acne sockets her forehead.” This verb right here will forever be on my list of favorite unconventional noun+verb pairings. It’s an extremely odd, strong verb. It’s not “acne layers her forehead” or “is on her forehead”, but sockets. This is such an enticing and uncommon verb pairing that immediately helps readers visualize a much more precise picture. While the verb itself isn’t that revolutionary, the way Bishop pairs it with a contrasting noun immediately builds a powerful tonal and literary atmosphere.
"her jaw is too canine, cheekbones industrial instead of suburban, eyes minnows instead of hummingbirds,"
The three details are interesting words and comparisons that build the language environment tonally and also suggest a bit about the character subtextually. Does her canine jaw fit with her personality? By comparing cheekbones to city sizes, interest is immediately built, painting such a vivid, accurate picture in readers’ minds. Then, using birds to compare eye shape. Again, it’s interesting and clear-cut, weird but vivid. Does the POV character have a passion for birds?
"but you've already paid up. She wears an olive parka unzipped"
She doesn’t just wear a jacket, but an olive parka that is unzipped. Interesting, both in fashion choice and detail. By showing us that it is unzipped, we get a sense of the weather there. Maybe it’s hot? Stuffy? Or, perhaps, it just comes from the character’s quirky fashion choices. Either way, it gives the chance for readers to speculate in a way they could not have if Bishop just used “jacket”. In some cases, having this many details can bore the readers. Part of the beauty of specificity is that it comes from the gripping word choice that adds to the narrative in a subtextual manner.
"over bike shorts and an iridescent bralette with a pyramid cut-out over her solar plexus. A refugee from the future.”
All these specific details tell us about the weird fashion sense of this woman (a parka with shorts??) how the narrator perceives and describes things through their voice, offers interest, as well as raising questions. Maybe she went biking? The usage of 'solar plexus' tells us a lot about the smartness of the narrator. One does not usually describe someone's torso area as a 'solar plexus'. The way the narrator filters these descriptions gives readers plenty of information to sink their teeth into.
In these two first paragraphs, Bishop uses a strong, unusual word, picks out the most interesting details (meth, solar plexus, canine, unzipped, bike shorts e.t.c), using funky but fun metaphors to create overall visceral images in her writing.
While some details are odd and out-of-place at times, it’s what makes the narrative effective. Obviously, this amount of details won’t be necessary in every genre, but in this case, it fits both Shaelin’s style of writing and the short story + literary fiction genre. By relying on the strange and often-overlooked details, the narrative is immediately enriched in a way that’s unique to the story. Even if the situation had not been interesting, her tight, succinct and specific prose is enough to keep me going. Here is the same excerpt except without most of the specific words/details and/or images.
“The woman smoking looks like your sister, so you offer her a pack of cigarettes and some money if she'll pretend to be her. You could pay more, but this is all you have and she takes it.
Up close, she looks less like Reed — acne on her forehead, her jaw is too sharp, cheekbones different, eyes smaller, but you've already paid up. She wears a jacket over shorts and a small shirt over her torso. A refugee from the future.”
Not as vivid, right? Sure, we’ve got an enticing premise but the style, tone and atmosphere are gone. Here are some things you can take into your own writing, to help nail that opening scene (on the micro-scale):
Strong, specific word choice, diction, verbs and details can create a sense of fascination in a story. In your own work, try to steer away from the mundane and ask yourself: what is something (verb, noun, word, situation, fact or detail) I can pick out that can tell more about the character and situation? What are some ways I can condense sentences of unnecessary explanation into a few strong words? What is a verb I can replace with a stronger, more unusual one to create a more vivid image?
Specificity is a tool to make your prose better. However, it’s not the only tool, nor is it the only way to lift up your stories. Some genres will rely more heavily on bigger picture tools, pacing, characters and imagery. Rather than prose, the overall picture or moral may be important. As discussed before, literary fiction is a genre that relies heavily on prose and style, and while specificity may not drastically play an important role in every genre, it certainly does here. It’s important to assess whether your story would benefit from specifics or not. Even if the answer is no, a small bit of rich detail and wording could help out your language, even if it’s scarce. In the end, specificity is a style choice that is ultimately subjective and entirely up to the writer. Whether you decide to use it or not is up to you, but it’s always good to recognize the benefits.
After researching specificity, I’ve come to realize that the fate of an effective literary fiction opening scene lies beyond just the larger-scaled things -- but also, in the details. As much as character and macro-level storytelling tools help lift up your story, specificity helps to lift up your prose, bringing unique details to your story with 100% accuracy.
first ventured into the world of writing with her sister. Since then, she has gone to explore different genres and styles: short fiction, literary fiction and most recently, non-fiction. When she’s not writing she can be found spending time with family, going on walks, or watching the latest grammar videos.