I use the word "compelling" a lot when I talk about novels I love, or to explain how a novel with promise becomes unsuccessful i.e. it's not compelling. So how does one create a compelling story? I think there's a pretense and expectation of D-r-a-m-a with a capitol "D." Start with a fire or a car accident or a car accident that TURNS INTO A FIRE!
But, to compel a reader, stories don't need to be soap operatic. They just have to be, mostly, irreconcilable.
When I say "irreconcilable" I mean this: Something about each scene must be wrong, must be off, and that off-ness can not be understood unless a reader continues.
This is why star-crossed romances are, to borrow an inaccurate but pervasive phrase, "easy hits." It's also why soap operas, rule-the-world villains, serial killers and car explosions are popular (and often awesome). Nothing screams"something is wrong with this picture" like vehicular fireworks or man hunts.
Spies, Pirates, Killers, Thieves, Forgery, Femme Fatales, Personality Disorders, and Revenge plots rank highly on my "things I am a sucker for" list. I love me some D-r-a-m-a.
But I see authors, particularly in "quiet" contemporary novels struggle with how to "catch a reader's attention." They hear agents and editors repeat "you have to hook us," but there's rarely a lesson on how. Naturally, many assume something must explode or die.
All you have to do, is create a scene in which something is wrong that cannot be righted unless one keeps reading.
Great examples from novels or memoirs I've represented? Corey Ann Haydu's OCD LOVE STORY begins with a power outage. Lucas Mann's CLASS A opens with Lucas wearing a Mascot's uniform with an outsized head. Kathleen Alcott's THE DANGERS OF PROXIMAL ALPHABETS features a man whose sleepwalking becomes violent.
It happens in real life, too. I remember this story from the daily mail about a photographer who was documenting material (luggage, letters, photos) left behind in a psychiatric hospital. I was enthralled by it not because of ghosts or creepiness (though it is seriously creepy) but because why were these left? What do they mean? What do they say about the people who left them? about me? Because something about it was off.
One of the biggest reasons I think readers put down books (and don't pick them up again) is because they've come to a place of reconciliation too early. No one can maintain a 240 page car chase (that i've known), and there's a sense that there's no such thing as quietly enthrallment, but there is! There are ways to be gently compelling.
Kisses that shouldn't happen. A recipe that failed. The search for a lost household item. Siblings in the back of a car. A rumor. The battle of free-will vs. breakfast pastry. All of these are irreconcilable.
Remember the first line of Mrs. Dalloway "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself?" It's a memorable first line because - as simple as it is - we must keep reading to find out what the deal is with these flowers. In fact, if you read lists of classic, note-worthy first lines, most of them are quite basic, but there's always something off. In Paul Auster's CITY OF GLASS, with which I fall in love over and over, it's "a wrong telephone number that starts it all."
The sense of irreconcilability is most important early on, when you have not yet earned the benefit of the reader's doubt. But as you continue to write, find ways to upset the coming together of your story. Even small, quiet upsets create engaging questions for your reader.