Author and agent Chuck Sambuchino recently made an important observation about modern novels: they should start inside and go out. In other words, you start with a character and his or her actions and thoughts, and then place them in a setting.
Many of the great novels—from a time when readers had more time or at least more patience—started outside and then went into a character. You’d have several pages of description of the landscape, the weather, and maybe the ancestry of the protagonist before you ever met him or her.
If you want to grab readers, focus on what we find most interesting: people. Introduce us to someone who find intriguing, or lovable, or mysterious, or fascinatingly evil. Make us wonder what’s going on with them. Then, when you’ve hooked us, you’ll have the luxury of describing the setting and other aspects of their lives.
Of course I’ve overstated the case; not every book needs to start with a shocking or mysterious event featuring the protagonist, but many writers err in the other direction, assuming that we’ll stick around to meet the main characters once the authors have finished setting the scene.
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