Whether you're writing a short story, a book, a memoir, or a nonfiction article, one of your most important steps is to hook your reader. Your aim is to begin with something that pulls your reader in and makes him/her want to continue. Immediately! Not three paragraphs down the page, nor two chapters into the book.
The world we live in today is one where speed and getting right down to business is of greater importance each and every year. People lead busy lives, they shorten everything to get to the main deal. Look at texting, facebook short comments, email notes rather than long letters. Get it done, make it quick--that's the 21st century attitude. Consequently, readers are more than likely to be of the same mind set. I only have so much time to read so get me into the story as fast as possible.
Beginning writers tend to give too much background material before they get into the heart of the story problem that needs to be solved. Nonfiction writers might begin with far too many technical aspects that turn all but the most detail oriented readers off in a hurry. Fiction writers may want to set the scene with a long description in the opening paragraphs. Doing so risks losing the reader before they ever reach the end of the first chapter of a book, or the first few paragraphs of a short story.
My state authors organization offers an annual contest with several categories. One has been First Chapter Of A Book. which is now Synopsis and First Five Pages of a Book. That first chapter or even the first five pages are of great importance. Why would they have an entire category devoted to it if not? It's your chance to hook your reader. Do it then or your story slides into nowhere fast.
I attended a writers conference one Saturday many years ago. One of the sessions addressed hooking your reader. After speaking for awhile, the presenter asked the participants to write an opening paragraph designed to draw your reader immediately into the story. Remember that this occurred at least 18 years ago, but there was one person who read her paragraph that impressed me so much that I've never forgotten it. It revolved around a woman with a cane walking down a hallway in a building, being followed by an unknown person. The writer made the reader (or listener in this case) see what was happening, hear it, smell the air and experience emotion. All this in one not so very long paragraph. I can still hear the ...tap, tap, tap of her cane... She did not tell her reader what happened, she showed it. She opened with action. The background could come later, woven into more of the story. The setting was hinted at and would be expanded upon later. When she finished reading what she'd written (in what seemed like nanoseconds), I wanted to know more. Questions had arisen in my mind. Why was the woman using a cane and limping? Who was walking steadily behind her? Why was the hallway darkened? She hooked me and everyone else who listened to that paragraph.
Hook your reader by:
1. starting with action
2. appealing to a reader's emotions
3. leaving the background material for later in the story
4. creating questions in the reader's mind
5. piquing the reader's natual curiosity
6. using sensory details
7. not telling too much at once
8. leaving the description of the setting until later
But remember, once you hook your reader, you have to come through with the promise you gave them in the opening and continue to keep his/her interest. You don't want to write a fantastic opening, then slide away into oblivion.