It takes about three paragraphs to decide whether or not I’m going to buy that novel I just mindlessly picked up in the book store. Sometimes I’ll read the entire first chapter if I’m still on the fence, but those are rare occasions. Nine times out of ten, I’ve made my decision by the end of that third paragraph.
That means the writer has three paragraphs to present an interesting premise, a strong voice, and a character I’m willing to spend 200+ pages with. And maybe that sounds like an impossible standard to meet, but I’ve bought more books than I can fit in my house.
Three paragraphs is more than enough space. Hell–I’d say I’m even being pretty generous by reading that much. I’ve met pickier readers who only went by the first paragraph. There was a particularly tough event my old writers group offered where we’d critique and rank our interest level based completely on the first sentences of each others stories (which was ridiculous in hindsight, because it actually is pretty impossible to get a solid impression from just one sentence).
Point is, you have a very limited window to grab a readers attention, so a strong opening is indispensable.
In my old writers group, we learned a little checklist for things our opening paragraph(s) should contain and accomplish. I don’t have the damn thing memorized anymore, but it went a little something like this:
Introduce your protagonist, preferably by name
Introduce immediate conflict and foreshadow larger conflict
Introduce your setting
Don’t open with a dream
Actually. Just don’t open with your character waking up at all
Also. No flashbacks.
And don’t open with dialogue
AND FOR FUCK’S SAKE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER THAT’S SO BORING OMFG
The list I learned was a lot longer than that, but that’s the gist of it. Aaand now you can go ahead and forget you read any of that, because I personally think it’s stupid to put any sort of limitations on a person’s creativity. You wanna start with dialogue or a full weather report? Go ahead.
The novel I’m writing now begins with a flashback to an out-of-narrative monologue, then jumps into the main character’s point of view on the second page. My main character goes nameless through the majority of the novel.
Basically, I’m breaking all the rules I put so much merit in back in the day. But I’m still super confident in my opening. Why? Because I open with a punch.
So. How exactly do you open with a punch?
Voice. A strong, interesting voice catches me every time. Take a look at some of your favorite books and pick out what makes the voices unique.
Disorient me. Most of my favorites left me completely bewildered after those first three paragraphs. I’m confused. I have questions and no idea what the answers could be. I’ll probably start reading in the parking lot.
Action over explanation. Back story can almost always wait until after you have your reader on the line. It’s best to give them something to sink their teeth into before you go unloading all the lore of your world. I’ll be much more interested in (and less likely to skim) the back story if I’m already invested.
Seriously. Action. It’s important. Like I said, you can start your story however you want, but boring
content will always be boring content. You wanna open your novel by
talking about the weather? That’s fine. But it’s only interesting to
read about if it’s something out of the ordinary. The blizzard of the
century. A damn meteor shower. Something I can’t just walk outside and look at.
Give me an existential crisis. This one might be specific to me, but I have quite a few favorites that, instead of starting with action, use their openings to scare the shit out of me with some horrifying theory or observation.
Of course, these are just a few ways you can punch your reader with your opening. Play around, experiment, and write your own hooks.
1. Always be kind. The graduate nurse was a Student Nurse about five minutes ago. Remember your own beginning.
2. Practice patience during hand-off reports. Remember how you were once scared to give report to the experienced nurses.
3. If they’ve forgotten something crucial, like follow up of labs, or starting a stat medication, yelling at them and criticizing won’t help. Guidance will. Chances are they feel terrible about not doing the best they can, and are already criticizing themselves.
4. Giving them the worst assignment on the unit, and standing back to watch while they drown - it may teach them time management, and it may teach them to handle stress - but it will also teach them that their coworkers threw them to the wolves.
5. Involve them in critical cases by having them watch first. They’re likely scared. E.g., a code; they may not feel comfortable jumping in right away if they’re a visual learner. They may even freeze up if it’s their own patient coding. Debrief with them afterwards. None of us are experts. Codes especially. Remember the first critical patient you saw, remember your first code.
6. If they make a mistake, talk to them personally - it isn’t nice to go and laugh about it with others on the unit. They are probably more perceptive than you think. It’s a hurt that will leave a mark, and you may not know it. They’ll try to be brave. They’re new. They’re learning. And just like you, they will continue to make mistakes. Imperfection isn’t only for the brand new.
7. They may not ask for help. They are learning how to function without an instructor. They are learning how to function without a preceptor. They are learning how to just function without falling apart. They are likely trying to prove that they can do this on their own. Sometimes the people whom everyone assumes can handle things well, are the people you need to help the most. Encourage them to ask lots of questions - without installing fear and ridicule for not knowing.
8. Don’t embarrass them in front of the patient during hand-off report. Don’t embarrass them in front of your peers, or nurse manager. Chances are pretty high that they may feel like they don’t know what they’re doing, or belong. It will alienate them further if you aren’t kind. People remember kindness, but they likely remember meanness more.
9. Ask them how their day is going, and let them know you are there to support them whenever they need it. Empathy is never lost on a beginner.
10. When you’re tempted to say something mean, remember your own beginning. Remember how it felt to pass NCLEX, become licensed and the thrill of starting a brand new job. Remember how you’d hoped to make some new nurse friends, and then remember the people who just weren’t welcoming. Remember how that felt. Remember the days you felt like quitting. Remember the people who weren’t so nice. Remember the people who guided you. Remember the people who took the time to explain mistakes, and what to learn from them - and remember those who encouraged you to be the nurse you’d hoped to become. Remember the people who were simply kind.
6:48am. It’s here. You have new scrubs, squeaky new sneakers, and your hair is pulled back, (plus you have your good luck charm). You’re ready. Your first day off orientation, and you’re pacing the locker room nervously, trying to remember the plan, “charts, assessment, 10am meds, diabetics check, more meds, oops, don’t forget to make sure patients are fed…”
7:15am. You get your first assignment. Thankfully it’s the same zone you worked in with your preceptor. You had a jam packed orientation. Great nurses, but not a lot of consistency with scheduling conflicts. You feel a mix between fear and adrenaline. You’re ready, today’s the day - you are “a real nurse”. (Holy crap!)
9:00am. What the hell have you gotten yourself into. The OR is calling, Transport is here to take your patient to CT (which you didn’t even know was ordered, (really Dr. Intern?) your patients haven’t been fed, the tech is nowhere to be seen, your nurse manager wants a meeting, and you haven’t even checked your charts. Plus there’s two call bells that keep ringing. And you didn’t get to your assessments yet. Sh*t.
12:45pm. Ok….this isn’t so bad. You finally passed the 10:00am meds (45 minutes past the cutoff but who’s counting). You helped the tech clean one patient, you’ve done your assessments. And you had a few minutes to chat with the really sweet older patient with no family. You finally have a moment to breathe and check to see what’s missed in the charts. Hold on, why’s that stretcher going into one of your rooms? A new admission? (Rats). So you confirm with the charge nurse, yes it’s yours - even though you know very well there are other zones with less patients, and yours is practically full. (hazing…hmm). Patient seems quiet. Seems like a good admission (oops, maybe you shouldn’t jinx it yet…)
3:00pm. You got through your midday meds. One of your IV’s blew, but hey, you actually got one in on first try! Another admission, a “hallway patient” apparently until you can discharge the patient you had no idea was leaving, but hey, the ambulette is there. Confounding. You seem to be the last to know. Where’s the social worker? Maybe they have a clue….you have no idea what to do. You sure as heck don’t feel comfortable sending the patient yet. He seems a bit…..confused. Update, the hallway admit patient is combative, needs a one-to-one and just defecated in the hallway. (Today’s really not going as planned).
5:45pm. Your neighbor tells you she’s going on a break, and you realize, you haven’t even taken a sip of water, let alone peed in maybe 12 hours. (Oops). But you don’t want to sound whiny, so you say “sure no problem. Anything you want me to do?” And she casually mentions her patient in room X is “likely going to code, ‘they’ know about it.” Your head whips around. “See you in half an hour.” And she’s gone. WHAT! you scamper to the room, and sure enough the patient is so blue, you sort of stand there for a terrified minute before yelling, “code!” Eyes wide as saucers, hands trembling you ambubag the patient while the code team comes in and pushes you aside. You push back and get to work on the patient. In the distance, you hear someone yelling, your first new admission just fell out of bed (Dangit. You jinxed the good admission), and also there’s another patient rolling in to you from the ER. But right now, this patient is your patient. You shakily continue to hang IV fluids, somehow find supplies for blood draw, and in a rush of activity move the patient to ICU. Your neighbor comes back and wonders where her patient went. You’re sort of lost for words, so you just go to your zone, and take care of your afternoon meds, your falling person, and somehow gulp down a protein bar with vitamin water. Best meal you’ve ever had.
7:16pm. You survived report. The charge nurse, and tech probably hate you, and your nurse manager maybe wants to refund you for a more confident nurse, but you made it to the finish line, despite your self-doubts. You’re pretty sure you failed your patients and your plan, but you made it. And thankfully, so did your patients. You learned so much more today than you thought possible. Life of a nurse is a dang roller coaster. You remind yourself that wouldn’t have it any other way. Tomorrow will be better….You can do this.