It doesn't matter what I saySo long as I sing with inflectionThat make you feel that I'll conveySome inner truth of vast reflectionBut I've said nothing so far-- The Hook, Blues Traveler
I once had a beta reader who tossed a story - admittedly, it was bad - back at me with a scornful snort.
"You're never going to publish," he said, looking down at me. (Everyone looks down at me; I'm abnormally short, and for whatever reason, I don't think I have a single male friend who's less than six feet tall.) "with introductions like this. Someone's got to die or have sex in the first chapter, or no one is ever going to read further than that."
I was insulted, and more, I was rather incensed. I went back to my home and immediately opened about twenty books, reading the first five pages of my favorite books. Death? No. Sex... no. Death, well, does someone we don't know at all being dead count? Then this one counts, I guess. Sex, yes. Death, yes. Sex, no.
He's not entirely right.
But he's not entirely wrong.
- Harry Potter. His parents are already dead when the story starts. We don't know James and Lily Potter; it takes many novels before we even get a sense of them as people rather than just "dead parents." But the description of them being dead, the house destroyed, a mystery as to why they were killed, and what is going to happen to that baby... that's all established in the first few pages.
- Stephanie Meyers opens up the Twilight Saga with the threat of Bella's demise. We don't even know Bella yet - she's not identified by name, we know nothing about her... and yet, there's the happy hunter (I've always thought James' description in that first chapter was a bit jarring, actually.) bouncing across the room to murder her.
- Even my favorite writers, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller open up Conflict of Honors with a funeral, a rape and the threat of a second sexual assault.
It's about the hook.
You have to hook your readers in. There are millions of writers, tens of millions of books. Even if you're an avid reader, there's no way in the world you can possibly read all the books that exist. So everyone makes choices. We narrow ourselves to a couple of genres, or recommendations from friends and talk show hosts. And even then... I personally have a rule that I'll read about 10% of a book or 70 pages, whichever is longer, before I decide I'm not interested. (Unless, of course, I'm so massively offended before that... Game of Thrones, which everyone that I know completely adores, so totally turned me off before I even reached page 50, I never did finish it.) If I'm not interested in 10%, I don't need to waste my time.
The hook... that's what you're looking for. As both reader and writer. The question isn't always "death or sex" in the first ten pages... it's Why? What? Who? (I suppose you could throw When or Where in there, too, but they're a little harder to pull off.) Who is this? Why should I care? What's happening?
As a writer, you form a question in the reader's mind... and then you don't answer it. For a while.
Advertisers know that. "Drink Coke!" Not so compelling.
"Thirsty? Try a Pepsi."
The question opens up a need; even if you didn't necessarily have one before. And neatly offers you the solution right there. That's advertising, getting you to buy the product. A book's solution is also right there... get the answers... read the book.
The death or sex equation is asking the question with a sledgehammer. You get the reader's attention (theoretically... Black House by King and Straub opens with the detailed description of a murder victim. And even with a built-in audience - I had read The Talisman - I was so squicked out by the opening that not only did I never read the book, I took it back to the bookstore and exchanged it for something else.) and then you can get on with the business of telling your story.
Which is good, since I don't have so many characters in this short-story I'm working on, that I can kill anyone off immediately. And as it's a romance/erotica story, the sex is the payoff. I don't want to show that right away.
So..... yeah. I need a really good intro.