Received wisdom tells us to begin a story in the middle--the middle of the action, that is. We're told to 'hook' the reader on page one, from the first sentence if possible. Keep things moving, keep the action going, keep the reader on the edge of their seat. It's a lot to expect from the beginning of the story, and woe to the author who doesn't do this. There are plenty of books out there, and readers have an ever-shrinking attention span--they won't hesitate to drop your book and pick up another, one that presumably holds their interest.
What about those books that don't start right in the middle? What about the books that take you on a journey, building your relationship with the characters before plopping them into the middle of the action? I'm not saying I want to read the entire biography of a character before they do something, but as a reader, I don't mind a little build-up to the action.
One of my favorite books is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. If you haven't read it, go get a copy. I'll wait. <g>
By today's standards, Outlander starts off pretty slowly. It takes at least 50 pages for Claire to travel back in time and meet Jamie. My guess is that an agent or editor today would want to trim that introduction, have the book begin right as Claire makes her trip. But all of the stuff that happens before she goes back tells the reader who she is, makes the reader care about her so that we want to know what happens to her. The details and back story also serve to make Claire a more fully realized character, one who comes alive off the page.
Maybe I'm being naive, but rather than worrying about opening with an explosion or car chase, I try to open with something that makes the reader want to turn the page. That doesn't have to be a big, showy event, and in fact, I usually have several pages of character introduction and scene setting before getting things off the ground.
Fellow authors, how do you approach beginnings? Do you like to set the scene, or do you start things off with a bang? Readers, what about you? How much time are you willing to spend on a book that doesn't get to the point right away?