One of the best novel openings ever – Old Man’s War

It used to be that you had three pages to suck a reader in. Nowadays people will tell you it needs to be done on the first page or the first paragraph.

That’s not easy.

There’s really only one book that I can think of that sucked me in from the moment I started reading, and that’s John Scalzi’s military sci-fi Old Man’s War.

The book starts like this: 

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Visiting Kathy’s grave was the less dramatic of the two. She’s buried in Harris Creek Cemetery, not more than a mile down the road from where I live and where we raised our family. Getting her into the cemetery was more difficult than perhaps it should have been; neither of us expected needing the burial, so neither of us made the arrangements. It’s somewhat mortifying, to use a rather apt word, to have to argue with the cemetery manager about your wife not having made a reservation to be buried. Eventually my son, Charlie, who happens to be mayor, cracked a few heads and got the plot. Being the father of the mayor has its advantages.

Scalzi comes from a nonfiction writing background and I feel like you can really see it in his writing. The first sentence here really acts like a topic sentence for the entire chapter.

This simple first line does three important things:

  1. It immediately conveys the novel’s high concept–senior citizens going to war.
  2. It tells you what this chapter is going to be about so you have two things (joining the army, visiting wife’s grave) to look forward to learning as you read.
  3. It creates several questions in your head. How can an old person join the army? Why is this man joining the army? Who are they fighting? How did his wife die? Why is he visiting his wife’s grave and joining the army on his birthday?

With that, you’re hooked.

Obviously, this method can’t be used for every story or chapter opening, but it’s a cool technique that is highly effective in immediately engaging the reader.

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