Once upon a time writing descriptive passages at the beginning of a novel was the right thing to do. Adverbs (purple prose as we call it nowadays) were a writers friend. Those days are long gone. Now people want to be drawn immediately into the story. Action. Action. Action. While editors may give you the benefit of the doubt and read the first five pages of your ms before tossing it in the slush pile, potential readers will only give you a few seconds. If you don’t capture them in that time, forget it. Odds are they won’t wait to read the first ten pages to get to the ‘good part’. The good part, the hook, must exist from the very beginning.
So what hooks a reader? In my opinion: characters. Don’t bore your reader with how cold it is outside or what the city or town looks like, or if Fred has a mole on his face, unless a worm or alien is crawling out of that mole. Then describe the mole all you want along with your character’s reaction to the alien being. You’ve got to let the reader meet your character, see him, relate to him. Give your reader a reason to attach to the character, find out what he wants. Introduce a conflict because without conflict, you don’t have a story. The two are tightly wound around each other and together they move the story forward.
“But I have tension throughout my story to keep it moving forward,” you say. Good. You need tension to move up and down in a story, but in order to grip your reader, you need to have tension within the first 20 seconds or you could very well lose a potential reader. Remember, just like in real life, your fictional characters will experience a rollercoaster of highs and lows. A good writer will know how to balance the two, giving the characters moments to breathe before adding another conflict, whether internal or external. It is the way you make your audience care about what happens to them during and in between the conflicts that hooks a reader.