If I Only Had the Nerve: Four Tools to Embolden You to Write Your Novel


The question has plagued would-be (and even successful) novelists since Don Quixote, arguably the first modern novel, was published in 1605.

The best (and perhaps only true) answer often given to young writers is at once the most helpful piece of advice—and the least: one word at a time.


NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) began in November of 1999 with the following mission statement:

National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.

Though hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have gone on to be traditionally published, the expressed goal of the event is not to write a best-selling or critically acclaimed novel but to write your novel. Like all first drafts, it’s not about perfection—it’s about completion.

Everyone who’s ever dreamed of writing a novel deserves to feel the sense of satisfaction that accompanies adding the final words to a complete draft, a sense of satisfaction that no amount of rejection letters and critical naysayers can take away. If you have always wanted to write a novel, NaNoWriMo may provide just the impetus and structure you need to finally do it!


Writing fiction is a craft. As such, its tools can be learned, honed, and wielded, irrespective of that elusive trait we call “talent.” If you are interested in writing fiction, I would recommend taking a class or seeking out a practical volume like Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which will help you work on the fundamentals, such as character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting, pacing, voice, and theme, not to mention revision. Each of these aspects of writing warrants study and practice, and mastering them will make you a better writer, but you don’t have to fully grasp them all before you start writing your first draft.

There are four useful tools, however, that help sustain the interest of the reader—and the interest of the writer. Being aware of these four concepts will also help you create a plot that feels natural and self-propelling, one that requires resolution and therefore completion.

As you learn about the different facets of the craft of fiction (or the craft of anything), you are bound to encounter jargon, which can render sometimes simple subjects difficult to understand and remember, so in an effort to simplify and clarify our discussion, I am turning to a benchmark of American storytelling: The Wizard of Oz (focusing on the details of the well-known 1939 film as opposed to the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum). If you haven’t seen the film—watch it!

The jargony terms we’re going to discuss are appointments, dangling causes, dramatic irony, and dramatic need. Don’t worry if you don’t understand them yet—my hope is that linking them to some of the most memorable and recognizable lines of dialogue in The Wizard of Oz will help render them more comprehensible and easier to recall and use in practice.


Off to See the Wizard

One of the easiest ways to sustain a reader’s interest is to create an appointment—an event the reader knows will happen at a later point in the story. This literally gives the reader something to look forward to! Sometimes it takes the form of a ticking time-bomb or the impending return of an absent character or a rapidly approaching wedding date—whatever it is, it’s in the future.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy finds herself over the rainbow, lost in the Technicolor land of Oz after a tornado whisks her away from her drab black-and-white farm life in Kansas. Along with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and her little dog Toto, she sets off on a quest, following the yellow brick road to the land of Oz to see if the wizard might help her get home.

Many plot points occur between Dorothy’s announcement that she’s “off to see the wizard” and the actual meeting with the wizard himself, but that appointment lingers in the audience’s mind, compelling us to keep watching in order to find out whether or not the meeting will be a success.

The film earns even higher marks by employing a reversal, another jargony term for a plot point that doesn’t go as planned. In this case, the wizard proves to be anything but “wonderful.” First, he is frightening and mean, and then he is revealed to be all too human. But that final reveal of the wizard’s true form would be far less powerful if our expectations weren’t already high.


Witch 2

Cause and effect are essential for solid plotting, but stories would be boring if effect directly followed cause every time. Closely related to appointments, dangling causes also linger in the reader’s mind, suspended and waiting to be resolved. Typical examples involve vowing revenge on another character or events that have unintended consequences later in a narrative.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house, lifted up by a tornado in Kansas, lands in Oz—directly on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her. When the Wicked Witch of the West discovers that Dorothy has killed her sister, she announces her vengeful intentions, and for the rest of the film, the audience looks forward to seeing exactly how this will play out. And another reversal occurs when Dorothy ends up killing the Wicked Witch of the West instead of the other way around!



There are countless examples of dramatic irony in books, theater, and film. The term simply refers to information the audience has that certain characters do not. Sometimes the information makes us want to scream at a character, “Don’t go in there!” Sometimes it makes us laugh at a character for his or her apparent lack of awareness. Shakespeare used dramatic irony to great comedic effect in his cross-dressing comedic plays and to tragic effect when, for instance, we helplessly watch as Romeo kills himself, unaware that Juliet is actually still alive. Whether it is being employed to make the reader laugh, cry, or shudder with suspense, the mechanism is the same: the reader or audience has more information than the characters.

In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, she doesn’t realize what is obvious to the audience: those characters are all played by the same actors who played Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke (respectively), the three Kansas farmhands Dorothy interacts with during the opening black-and-white scenes of the film. These dual roles, along with the fact that The Wicked Witch of the West is played by the same actress who portrayed Miss Gulch and that The Wizard of Oz is played by the same actor who portrayed Professor Marvel in the opening Kansas scenes, suggests to the audience that the colorful land of Oz may be nothing more than Dorothy’s dream or hallucination. All the while, Dorothy remains unaware until the final scene when she wakes up and recognizes everyone, resolving the subtle tension.


Good Witch

Dramatic need refers to a character’s deepest desire and, in many cases, the one thing they hope to accomplish or resolve during the narrative. Famous examples include Captain Ahab’s mission to find and destroy the white whale in Moby Dick and Hamlet’s ultimately self-destructive need to avenge his father’s death in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In both cases, that essential need defines and compels the character, providing a narrative through line and the central question in each work: will they achieve their goals and, ultimately, at what cost?

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s dramatic need is to return home to Kansas, the very place from which she once longed to escape, and the entire plot hinges upon her quest to find the wizard who may be able to help her get home. Throughout the narrative, that question remains in the audience’s mind: will she ever get out of this bizarre place and, if so, how?


Now that you have a few ideas about how to keep readers—and yourself—interested in the story you are about to write, what are you waiting for? If the only way to write a novel is one word at a time, then it stands to reason that the only way to start a novel is with one word. So write it—and don’t stop until you have a completed draft!

It will take brains, heart, and more than a little courage, but once you put the final period on your final sentence, you will have written a novel—well, at least a draft.

And then, after you’ve had a few months away from your manuscript, you can check out another event in March: NaNoEdMo, National Novel Editing Month.

But that’s a whole other story. . . .

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