I've read many books on writing, and almost inevitably emphasis is placed on the first sentence and the first chapter. Supposedly these 'hooks' grab the reader and keep them reading.
The first chapter is also the material agents and publishing house editors request to determine their interest in a particular manuscript, so those first pages are very important.
While I believe the first chapter must engage readers, I believe the whole story must be a continuing series of hooks, and that the first chapter isn't the only measure of a story. The entire story must work together to keep a reader engaged, and it can fall apart at any moment. The writer essentially borrows the reader's imagination for a while and the goal is to make their time spent satisfying, and hopefully memorable. I've slogged through a few first chapters where I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep reading only to discover my fascination increasing with a building intrigue of ‘what happens next and how will it be resolved’ in the story in later chapters.
At the same time I know it is important to try to engage the reader from the very start, to get them involved in an emotional or unique situation that engages their curiosity. There must be millions of ways to do this because every author handles it differently in every book they write.
Yet that first chapter has much to accomplish besides setting the beginning of an intriguing plot. It has to introduce the main character(s) and begin to establish the setting, which is also aspects of trying to satisfy the reader. While every author is different, this is also true of readers. Each reader's expectations differ in what they want from reading. They also all act differently to beginnings. Readers invest hours of time reading a novel and often make their minds up on whether to continue reading or not very quickly.
If there were a guaranteed method for gaining readers’ interests, it would mean a very predictable start to all stories. This method would most likely defeat the very objective it was made to achieve.
I believe the author has to determine what reader reaction they want to achieve in their beginning chapter: An intriguing moment? A pivotal moment? A deeply emotional situation bound to change a character’s life? In Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale, this chapter is the main character’s ordinary world and the moment where they are called to adventure (any challenge leading to a life-changing event presented in the story). This is the tack I always try to consider when I start a new story, and yes, I write primarily science fiction and fantasy, but I consider these genres the new folklore and mythology of this age.
To read other viewpoints on this topic, please visit these author's blogs:
Dr. Bob Rich