Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Scott Westerfeld's Uglies

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter comes from one of my favorite book series: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, which has a ton of worldbuilding embedded into a dense plot.  So how does Scott parcel out the rather intimidating futuristic world he’s built, which deals with a society based around plastic surgery and political changes that created a complexly dysfunctional society based on beauty… and yet make it seem so damn casual?
Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Sentence: “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.”
Given that Uglies turns out to be a grand, action-packed adventure, what I was not expecting was for the first sentence to be a rather static variant on the opening sentence of Neuromancer.  From my vivid memories of Tally’s bold escapades, each decision rooted firmly in her character, I’d thought it would have opened deep inside Tally’s head, but no; the first two paragraphs are a rather lurid description of a disgusting sky, in some detail.
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist?  The end of the third paragraph sets the hook; “Any other summer, a sunset like this would have been beautiful.  But nothing had been beautiful since Peris had turned pretty.  Losing your best friend sucks, even if it’s for three months and two days.”
What Happens In The First Chapter?  Tally sneaks out of her room, crosses a steel bridge, and sneaks into Prettytown to see her friend Peris.
The interesting thing here is that, like yesterday’s analysis of Hunger Games, the entire plot is driven by Tally’s need to sneak into Prettytown to see her friend Peris, who has been transformed… yet the thing she’s seeking, Peris, is a blank slate.  We don’t know who he is aside from “best friend.”  In a short chapter, we get no flashbacks to Peris, no indication of Peris’ personality aside from the fact that it mirrors Tally’s sneakiness.  In fact, the only two things we know for sure about Peris are that Tally and he learned how to “trick the house-minder” back when, and that they’d snuck into Prettytown together to snicker at the Pretties.
This provides an interesting tension, because we feel Tally’s motivation – she’s taking great risks for her buddy, potentially even endangering her life by going off-grid – but have no idea what Peris is.  And that makes us curious to meet him, providing a driving force – we’re pulled along, wondering what sort of a person could inspire this sort of loyalty.
The way Scott dribbles out the worldbuilding details at just the right pace, however, is really a masterstroke.  In particular, let’s look at this paragraph circa page 2, which is only about fifty words but tells us a lot about how this is the future:

Tally took off her interface ring and said, “Good night.”
“Sweet dreams, Tally,” said the room.
She chewed up a toothbrush pill, punched her pillows, and shoved and old portable heater – one that produced about as much warmth as a sleeping, Tally-size human being – under the covers.
Then she crawled out the window.

Now, that’s three futuristic things snuck into four short paragraphs, so that’s an impressive economy – but what I admire about Uglies is how the significance of the ring, which is actually quite critical, isn’t explained until the absolute moment you need to understand how it affects her.  It’s not until she’s crossed the bridge and dodged traffic in Prettytown that we discover the computer-sentinels can’t see you without your ring on, so she might get hit by a car that can’t sense her.  It’s also not until after that that we discover that Tally is actually in great danger of getting in serious trouble for taking it off.
Yet you sense a great cleverness in Tally – she sneaks out of the room, knows how to decode the codes at the bottom of Peris’ last email to her to know where to go, the way she crosses the bridge.  In what’s probably less than one thousand words, we know she’s resourceful.  And we’re given a very abbreviated look at Prettytown – the words “telling details” come to mind, because the mentions of shooting safety fireworks at passing balloons sounds like it’s a party that never ends.
(In a minor note, how insanely great is it that you can add the word “safety” to fireworks and give us a compelling vision of future technology we want?)
But what’s not in here – at least not explicitly – is the entire key of worldbuilding, in that every kid gets made pretty at the age of sixteen, and becomes a bubbleheaded ditz.  Nor is all the political stuff. Nor is anything outside of what Tally is seeing right now.
This chapter is actually a tutorial in how leaving the right stuff out makes things work – Scott’s subtracted everything, like pulling bits of wood out of a Jenga tower, until there’s only the bare minimum left standing.  We don’t need to know who Peris is, only see how desperate Tally is to get to him (and we’ll meet him in Chapter 2 anyway).  We don’t need to know how these technologies work until they’re suddenly relevant towards putting Tally in some danger.  We don’t need to know exactly what sort of transformation is having when we can have it doled out sentence-by-sentence.
You don’t get it right up until the absolute moment you need to know it – which, frankly, isn’t a bad approach to worldbuilding anyway.
Is there a really good characterization of who Tally is at this point, aside from a little heartbroken, clever, and headstrong?  No.  But God, this is all in what’s probably under 1,500 words, so look at how much you can compress into a start.
Past analyses:



  1. Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] this is a relatively straightforward novel – unlike The Hunger Games and Uglies, this isn’t a dystopia where Ordinary…
  2. Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker | Ferrett Steinmetz - […] Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld […]

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