I'm a believer in books starting off big in the first chapter. You need to get your reader hooked as early as possible. It doesn't have to be on page one, but before you end that first chapter, you need a big piece of action, or a large chunk of drama. Don't simply set up your character with back story and static action. Readers don't want to be introduced to your character as he or she is going through a normal day (unless a normal day is packed with more action than most people experience in a year, and even then you need to ramp it up). I'm not saying to forgo characterization in chapter one. No, not at all. After all, what better way to see how someone ticks than how they react to danger or other stressful situations? I'm willing to bet you'll find it easier to introduce your main character to your readers that way.
For example, in my novel, Dragon Guard, we meet fifteen year old Ben Phillips as he's walking to school, as he does every weekday. His mind is on his unfinished math homework and how his teacher is going to yell at him in front of the entire class. Pretty mundane so far, so to ramp things up, I have Ben run into a couple of zombies. Not only does the excitement level elevate (Hey, zombies!), but it helps set up the main story while giving the reader more insight into Ben than they would have received had he simply continued on to school, dreading math and wondering how best to not sweat during PE. And, as an added bonus, the reader also sees how Ben's world works. Based on his reaction, zombies and other supernatural things shouldn't exist. This action scene is a much more satisfying way to set up the story than simple exposition.
Sometimes you need to build up to the big bang of your main plot. It might not get there until chapter two, three, or four. (If it happens later than that, you'd better have a ton o' short chapters or it might be time to think about restructuring your story.) So what does this mean for the big beginning? One thing you can do is tease the main plot. You might start with someone other than the main character as the viewpoint character for the first chapter. Some people argue that you must start with your main character, but I'm in the camp of as long as he or she shows up by chapter two or three, you're fine. You might also start your story with a prologue, meaning your main character can still be there for chapter one. There are many anti-prologue sentiments out there, but I believe, as long as you do them right, prologues can be powerful storytelling devices.
If you decide you simply do not want to touch your main plot in chapter one, you have another option for your big beginning: subplots. Your novel is going to have them, so why not use one to hook readers into your story? Even if you want the main plot to unfold slowly, you can't have the story itself start slow, or you will lose bored and frustrated readers. A subplot can work great for a big beginning. Just as if the subplot were your main plot, it needs to set up the main character and setting in an organic way. And, of course, like all subplots, make sure to wrap it up before the end of your story.
What do you think about big beginnings? Do you agree with me that they are necessary, or do you have no problem with stories slowly building up? Do you have any favorite novels that started big, ones that always stick in your mind?