You’ll often see writing advice about good first lines. It’s important to hook your readers right off the bat, to make them want to keep reading and find out what happens next. It’s important for finding a publisher too. A lot of publishers get hundreds of submissions and they have to sort through them very quickly to figure out which ones they’re going to reject, so you want to have a really strong opening that grabs your reader’s interest and makes them want to know more.
You need an engaging and interesting opening sentence and opening paragraph.
But the problem is that if you spend ages and ages trying to make the first sentence absolutely perfect, you might never write the second one. For me, because of my approach to planning, I often end up having to rewrite the opening to my books. For example, in Shadows of Tomorrow, I initially thought that the main character would be the one who became Cassie, so I started the book there, but I later realised that Gareth was the one making all the important plot decisions. Gareth turned into the real protagonist, so I went back and rewrote the opening to start with him. I could have spent ages and ages making that first scene with Cassie have the perfect opening line only to find that it didn’t need to be the opening line anymore.
Knowing this about my writing style, I generally don’t fuss too much about the opening sentence until the end, until I know exactly how the story is going to end so I can write an opener that ties in with that. When I’m writing my first draft, I will just write whatever fits with the first scene as my opening sentence, knowing I can come back to it later. What I write is good enough for a first draft.
And that’s the point. A lot of the time, you can write something knowing you can come back and fix it later. If you’re not sure how to get a piece of information to a character, you can write a clunky bit of exposition for the first draft, knowing you can come back and fix it in a second draft. I’ve seen someone advise just summarising what needs to happen next in square brackets: [and now the hero does something clever to escape]. There’s a large chunk of a scene that’s summed up by that one sentence, but you don’t have to figure out the perfect escape plan right now. You can keep writing and figure out the details later. I tend not to use this square bracket summary approach – I prefer to just write a clunky version of the scene I can fix later – but I can see why other writers might like it.
The thing I do use though is ??? in place of details. I might want to think of the perfect name for a location, but I haven’t figured it out yet, so I’ll put ??? in every time the name would come up and I can easily find these parts and insert the name in a second draft. I do the same with details I need to research. ??? basically means little detail (usually a word or a name but sometimes a sentence) that I need to add later. It stops me losing my flow of writing to go and look something up there and then. Using the same set of punctuation every time I reach one of these points makes it easy to search through the document later to find the bits I missed.
My first drafts tend to be pretty rough as I’m generally figuring out the plot as I go. I know I will have to come back and rewrite chunks later, so I don’t sweat the details. I can fix these little detail gaps later. I can find the perfect first line when I know the overall shape and themes of my story. I can fix the awkward dialogue exchange.
If you fret about having every sentence perfect before you can proceed to the next one, you’ll never get the first draft finished. So write something that’s good enough for now and worry about making it perfect later. This means writing a second or third draft is critically important, but you can always improve a thing that exists more easily than you can make a perfect creation out of nothing on the first go.