Here's what I think: the words have to add up to more than words.
If there's a formula, it might look like this:
C(haracter) + W(ound) + S(truggle) = (Compelling) Storyline
A character appears on the page, catching your eye the way you might notice someone stepping into an empty doorway, and you don't just see him but want to meet him. Something about the way the character holds himself makes you want to know him.
In A Separate Peace, John Knowles draws in the reader with a description of the narrator returning to Devon School fifteen years after he had been a student there, and describes (on page 2) how living at the school had felt to him:
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.Knowles gives the reader the character, hints just enough at the wound and struggle that is to come, and the reader is hooked, wanting to know the story and how it might unfold.
I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.
And here's how Robert Lipsyte draws us into The Chief. Again, you don't have to look further than pages 1 and 2:
It's usually a good sign, Sonny on edge. Means his reflexes are hair-trigger; he's ready to rock. But this feels different. He's cranky, off his rhythm. After two years with a boxer you can read his moods like a weather map. He's got a lot shaking around inside his head. His mom is on his case again to move out West with her, and the knuckle he broke two months ago still hasn't healed. But he's lived with this before. Something else is cooking, something bigger. he could be ready to snap, bail out, dump the dream. Last night, on the Reservation, he used the word "futile." Not a Sonny kind of word. He's beginning to think the heavyweight title's out of reach. I told him I thought he was wrong, but I lied.And the reader is hooked. You're given a character with a wound--something deeper than a physical injury like a broken knuckle--and a struggle ("could be ready to snap, bail out, dump the dream"), all of which adds up to a compelling story (told by a mysterious narrator who lies) that has drawn you in.
One more example, this time from Chris Lynch's first novel, Shadow Boxer, which packs a punch on page 1, in the first paragraph:
I was nine years old, younger than Monty is now, the first time I hit my father and made him bleed. He was proud.That's the first paragraph of the story, and already Lynch has given us the character, the wound, and the struggle, enough information, at any rate, that we want to know the character and how he survives.
Part of the key to grabbing the reader, I think, is to give the reader a sense of the character's wound--the sore spot that a reader can intuit, even if it's not yet visible--as soon as possible.
The author must reveal the character's weakness, not a flaw necessarily, just a sign of the character's humanity, and convey a sense of this weakness, a sense of what the character is suffering (or has suffered) and needs to overcome.
What else draws the reader into a story but a strong desire to know how a character manages to handle his or her struggle? How does he or she deal with whatever caused or is causing the wound--the sadness, the fear, the ache (physical or emotional), the lack of confidence?
It's why we read, I suspect: to learn if the character can cope, or if the struggle will overwhelm him or her?
So, when you review your story-in-progress, ask yourself if you have set up the beginning to draw in the reader. Or are you just clearing your throat, dancing around the character's wound or weakness, hoping the reader will happen to fall into your story the way someone might fall into an open manhole?
Grabbing a reader's attention isn't accidental. It's intentional, and it happens within the first page or two.
Why not check out a few of your favorite stories and see if you can identify what grabs you? What information does the author share to pull you into the character's world? Why do you keep reading?