1. Start just before something is going to happen, in the middle of something happening, or right after something has happened. There’s a term in screenwriting called “landing in the scene on roller skates.” This is a great way to start a story. Basically, create a situation for your characters and throw them right into it.
You can even create a beginning where all three things are going on. When Stephen King’s The Stand starts something has already happened (an accident at a government facility has released a deadly flu virus) something is in the middle of happening (a guard at the facility manages to get to his house and grab his family so they can escape before the place is shut down completely) and something is about to happen (after they escape, the guard and his family will spread the deadly virus across half the country before they die from it).
2. Don’t worry too much about exposition at the beginning. A big mistake a lot of inexperienced writers make is thinking that the reader has to “get to know” the characters before they can care about what happens to them. So they start their story with a lot of exposition. Or, worse, they start with the character(s) waking up and going through a typical, normal day. You know, so we can see they are typical and normal just like us.
That’s a good way to bore the pants off your reader.
In the example I gave of The Stand, what’s compelling is the SITUATION. The characters involved in the first scene die early on in the story. The Stand is a multiple protagonist story, and several chapters are devoted to their lives before the flu hits. If King had chosen to put those chapters before the scene of the guard and his family escaping after the accident, he would have lost his readers early on. Knowing what’s coming at the characters is what keeps readers on edge, wondering what will happen when the inevitable disaster effects them.
Another good example is the pilot episode of the show Lost. The story starts AFTER the plane has already crashed. A weaker way to start the story would have been to “get to know” the characters before the plane crashed. By starting after the cataclysmic event, and witnessing the character of Jack heroically trying to help the survivors, we find the situation compelling enough to want to find out more about this character and the other survivors.
How about a real life example? Remember when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger had to land his plane in the Hudson River? What did you know about this guy? Nothing, except how he handled one particular dangerous situation.
After it happened, did you want to know more about him?
Of course you did.
It’s situation that hooks your reader into wanting to know more about the characters.
3. Make certain you get tone established right away. If you’re writing a funny story, it has to be funny right away. If you’re writing a thriller, something thrilling better be happening in the first chapter. Establish a sense of dread with horror. And so on.
4. Do the same with voice. What is your character’s voice? Is it sarcastic, optimistic? Young, old? Well-educated, a high school drop-out? Funny? Serious? Pompous? Crazy? Get that across right away.
If you’re going the route of an unreliable narrator, you need to have her misleading the reader from page one.
5. Never hold back and never wait to impress the reader. You have to show your stuff from the get-go. Hoping that the reader will stick with it long enough to “get into it” until you pull out big guns is a mistake.
Writers who hold back remind me of contestants on reality competition shows who are eliminated and wail that they never had a chance to show the judges what they can do. Even though they had been on the show for several weeks and had several opportunities to show what they can do.
Realize that you have a very short window of opportunity to engage the reader. I’m saying this as someone who worked as a reader for a film company. Readers for publishing houses and film companies will typically say they’ll give a screenplay or novel ten pages to engage them.
Actually, it’s more like three.
If you can hook them by the end of page one, you’re golden.
6. Think long and hard before starting with a prologue. I’m not a fan of prologues. They usually serve to front-load the story with unnecessary exposition. However, if you are absolutely convinced you must include one, treat it the same as you would a first chapter. Dramatize a situation. Establish tone and voice.
7. Don’t assume this advice is meant to accommodate modern readers with short attention spans. Homer started the Iliad in the middle of a battle scene. On page one of Pride & Prejudice Jane Austen established the central situation for her characters (their mother is determined to marry them off as quickly as possible). Shakespeare started MacBeth with the protagonist having just executed a daring act of heroism during a battle. Then he meets three witches who predict he will one day become king. Soon after this, he goes home and listens to some very bad advice from his wife.
Remember always that hooking the reader is something storytellers have been doing since there have been storytellers.