Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: John Scalzi’s Old Man's War

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter comes from one of the modern classics of sci-fi: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which has a DNA based firmly in the classic military tales of Starship Troopers and The Forever War, yet manages to have its own voice.  Yet he accomplishes some complex worldbuilding in the first chapter via a trick that could fall apart in lesser writers’ hands.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Sentence: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”
Okay, technically, that’s an opening paragraph, but what I love here is the compactness and the starkness of the detail presented here.  We know right off the bat the protagonist is old – which, given that most people will default to typing a protagonist as young, white, and male until given clues otherwise, is a very wise choice.
See, if you wait too long to inclue someone that the protagonist is different, it throws them out of the story: they’ve started to envision things their way, and now they have to stop and adjust.  I’ve gotten critiques where I jarred someone by giving the protagonist a sexually-ambiguous name, then only mentioned the sex halfway down page 2, and by then they’d already firmly decided that this person was a guy and wait what.
By starting out with the declaration of a birthday, we have a very firm push to say, “Old dude talkin’.  Or did you not read the title?”
But the next two sentences are the juice.  I love that it’s not the drama of his wife’s funeral, so we know that this decision was not made in haste; there’s already a clear vision of some time passing, that sense of why the hell not, what else do we have to lose… and we know nothing about the wife.  I’ve often said that while I hate Tolkien, what he had a real grasp of was archetypes. You don’t need to know a whole lot about Frodo to fire up the ol’ empathy circuits because he’s in a situation that we can all easily see ourselves in: given a great burden, with no other choice but to push forward to save his home town. Frodo’s actually kind of a one-note character – but oh, what a note!  (Likewise Aragorn, and Boromir, and so forth.)
Likewise, notice how Scalzi realizes that we can sympathize intrinsically with an old man who has lost his wife, even before we get any details.  The setup does the work for him (though, naturally, he’ll flesh it out).  And then that final note of surprise – what kind of military would want a seventy-five year-old man?  What skills does this man have that he was not just wanting to join, but – since the verb “joined” is in the past tense – actually did?
Eighteen words, and look at all that damn character, intrigue, and setting.  This is what people are talking about when they say, “Every sentence should serve at least two purposes.”
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? Right by the end of the second sentence, though it takes until the third to know what he’s doing.
What Happens In The First Chapter? He visits his wife’s grave.  Then he joins the army. I gotta say, John, you’re making it pretty easy to fill in these blanks.  

There’s some lovely examples of “show, don’t tell” as he relates how getting his wife into the cemetery he wanted was tricky because they hadn’t planned out a funeral.  And while some authors would go to flashback to show what his wife Kathy was like, instead Scalzi chooses to characterize his wife by her choice of headstone – a simple marker for a simple, loving woman.  Scalzi’s doing the trick here of rooting everything in the now, by having his protagonist discuss how he didn’t want to be one of those old men who visited his wife’s grave, but he can’t help it.  By the end of this first section, we understand very concretely why he is eager to join the military.
The clerk at the recruitment office knows who the protagonist is because a) most people sign up on their birthday, and b) of the three people on their birthday, he’s the only man – and note, again, how those paragraphs all do double-duty.  It provides an excuse for the clerk to say our protagonist’s name – “John Perry” – but also reinforces the knowledge that this is a small town, and gives the worldbuilding explanation of how and when people sign up.
Then the interesting bit comes: worldbuilding through bureaucracy.  As he signs up for the army, the clerk reads off the various agreements he must sign, which is a genius excuse to tell us what we need to know, while still keeping it rooted in reality.  This is infodumping, but an excused infodumping, as we learn such lovely details as that his term is two years but they might keep him for up to ten in times of war and duress (and when is there not war and duress?), that he can’t claim conscientious objector status, and –
– here’s the meat –
– that he agrees to all therapeutic, surgical, and medical regimens deemed necessary to enhance combat readiness, and oh by the way when you join this super-duper military they make you young again via a mysterious process that nobody knows how they do it.  And there’s the spec-fic element, presented via a clause to sign, and a minimal infodump – John sparingly presents two paragraphs explaining the CDF and why Earthbound citizens like him don’t know what they do, but he’s admirably restrained.  Then the last zap: after you get youthenized and are sent into space, you can’t go home to Earth again.
There’s also a rather nice bit that demonstrates how voluntary this is; even after John Perry signs up, he can cancel his signup at any time in the next seventy-two hours.  Which demonstrates, again, how unusual this military is, and so as readers of course we’re now curious to see how it works.  It feels like an official unit of the military, and we’re juiced.
Now, this is a relatively straightforward novel – unlike The Hunger Games and Uglies, this isn’t a dystopia where Ordinary Girl Gets Ensnared In A Large-Scale Crisis, this is Everyman Explores A Weird Universe.  So we know the next chapter will be him starting at boot camp and meeting his fellow NPCs, and the chapter after that will probably be basic training, and so forth.  This is a story where a man becomes a soldier, and so the obvious structure is that we’re basically being given a tour through this new and fascinating military unit, up until the point where he gets his greens and starts fighting.
(Which, interestingly enough, was the part I found least interesting about the book, but many responded to positively.  I’ve seen enough space combat where I was like, “Okay, can we get back to the training old people bit?” but a lot of folks were all like AWW YEAH SHIT BLOWS UP, proving that it all comes down to your personal taste.  And if Scalzi can satisfy both camps, hey, maybe that’s why this was a bestselling book.)
So as a first chapter, it’s completed its promise.  It’s shown us a guy we sympathize with, given us the ground rules, and set us on our road to wanting to know more about how all this works with – dare I say it? – a military efficiency.  I’d read the rest, and in fact, I did.
Past analyses:

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