I decide if I care about a story or not in the first couple lines.
In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. In a perfect world, I’d read every story. I’d give every author the chance to tell their tale. But I don’t have the time or energy. So I give them a couple sentences. Or, if the book comes recommended or the world seems interesting, a chapter.
Some books open like a textbook. Like the author wants you to understand how wonderfully complex their world is before you meet the people in it. Frankly, though, I hardly care about your world if I don’t love the people in it.
Other authors try a bait-and-switch. I did this with my first novel. It was dirty. My opening scene was an action sequence with guns and blood and stuff. But the novel was about love and culture and a bunch of people chatting in coffee shops. Dishonest. If I ever resurrect it, that opening will be cut.
But sometimes, glorious times, the author makes you care in a single line. It’s not a formula. It’s not a science. It’s like meeting a new person. Sometimes you just hit it off. Sometimes you just decide to be yourself and that authenticity works.
Here’s an idea for a slick writing exercise: Write the first few paragraphs to a novel that you never plan to write. Make it good enough to bother you that it doesn’t exist. If you can pull that off, you’re dancing.