You hear this often enough about any kind of writing: you have to grab your audience right away. For certain types of writing, I agree. Advertising copy, for example. You may have only a few short sentences in a magazine layout to get your message across. Screenwriting is another case where you can't afford to waste time. Screenplays are expensive to film, and every minute of screen time needs to mean something, to say nothing of the fact that your script will be read by someone who reads dozens of scripts per day, and you need to get that person's attention quickly.
But how necessary is it to grab your audience by the throat with the first page of your novel? I know there are many who will say it's absolutely vital, that you can't afford not to. Advertising types, mostly. I disagree. Not every type of writing requires the carnival barker approach, least of all a novel.
Novels are meant to be roomy compared to, well, just about every other kind of writing. In fact, one of the things a writer hears frequently when working on shorter projects is “Save it for your novel.” Good advice, but now you're telling me I can't even take my time with my novel? Establish a setting, generate mood and tone, create a few characters, maybe? Racing through all this (or worse yet, ignoring it entirely) for the sake of forced brevity is a good way to reduce your writing to little more than a string of hackneyed cliches (like that one).
And novel readers are a different kind of audience. They tend to make more informed choices because they usually know what they like. Very few people pick up a random book, no idea what it's about, and start reading on page one. That's what inside jacket flaps are for. If a reader is looking for a romance and the book is described as a darkly repellent horror story, there's not likely to be even a glance at the fist page. And here's another little secret: audiences want to be pleased. While there are certain critics who only seek opportunities to tear something down, most audiences are looking for a reason to like your work. They want to be entertained, to enjoy themselves. So long as you don't jar them out of the story with bad writing, flat characters, dull plots, tedious over-description, improbable events, etc., they'll keep going. Also, remember that, as a storyteller, you're a kind of performer, and performers should exude confidence. I'm in no hurry, you tell them. Are you? You're already intrigued, I can tell. Trust me. Stick with it, it's only going to get better. Few things attract like well-placed confidence. Conversely, few things repel like the stink of desperation. You must read this! Read this now! I beg you! It's terribly important!
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a novel that grabs you in the first sentence. Nothing at all. And I am by no means suggesting that a novel should be lazy, sloppy, or otherwise disorganized. Every word in it should be there for a reason, should help tell the story by advancing the plot, developing the characters, fleshing out the setting, etc. But if every novelist tries to make the writing jump off the page starting with page one, we'll end up with the inevitable lowest common denominator effect – a deluge of novels that read like advertising copy. Not all good writing jumps off the page at you. To me, some of the best writing draws you in, subtly at first perhaps, slowly but inexorably. Okay, this isn't bad. Haven't made up my mind yet. Maybe just a few more paragraphs, a few more pages, and suddenly you find you've crossed that invisible line where you're unwilling to put it down. Don't feel compelled to abandon the powerful nuance of this art merely to satisfy the bean counters of the world.