How to Begin Writing a Novel When You Don’t Know What to Do

So I’m about 20% into my new novel at this point, and was just struck with a very important realization: I have no idea what I’m doing. But it’s fun to learn new things, right? Well, sometimes.

How to Begin Writing a Novel When You Don't Know What to Do

As this challenge gets progressively harder, I’m learning a few lessons about the art of writing fiction (which seems much harder than nonfiction, but maybe that’s just my inexperience talking).

In the past few weeks, I’ve reached out to a number of experts who have done this longer and better than I have, and they shared some core principles I think you’ll find helpful if you are considering writing fiction or have yet to finish a novel.

So, here goes. Three important lessons on how to begin writing a novel from someone who has never done this before, and is mostly faking his way through it, but with the help of some really smart people:

1. Get a strong story idea

My friend and student, Shaunta Grimes, made me do this. Shaunta has published two young adult novels with Penguin and teaches a popular writing course called A Novel Idea. She encourages her students to start with a strong idea for their novel before they even begin writing.

As boring as this sounded, I decided to commit to it and was surprised at how simple and easy the exercise was – and how it served to guide the writing of the book.

In Shaunta’s free course How to Develop and Test a Story Idea, she advises you decide the following before you write:

  • Characters: Who is going to be in this story?
  • Setting: Where and when is this story going to take place?
  • Situation: What is going to happen to these characters?

Then you put them together in five key plot points that will drive the story. It’s a very simple exercise that leaves you with the basic building blocks of a story you can then turn into a 70,000 to 90,000-word novel.

What is a story?

A story, in its most basic essence, is a cast of characters in a certain setting who experience an unexpected situation. It’s something happening to someone somewhere. Here are some familiar examples:

  • A young girl moves to the Pacific Northwest after her parents’ divorce because her dad gets a new job. She meets a group of teenagers who end up being vampires.
  • An orphan gets an invitation to a special school and finds out he is a famous wizard with a powerful nemesis.
  • A man wakes up on a ship with no memory and learns he is a CIA-programmed assassin. Now he is wanted dead for some reason he doesn’t yet remember.

Takeaway: Before you write, you first need an idea of what your story is going to be about. Good story ideas typically involve putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and seeing how they rise to the occasion.

Without an idea, you don’t have a story; you just have words on a page.

Without an idea, you don’t have a story; you just have words on a page.

Jeff Goins

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2. Study your genre

After deciding what my story was going to be about (an uncool teenager, who is new to town and becomes friends with the popular crowd, is forced to decide if being cool is all it’s cracked up to be), I then had to pick a genre.

I think this makes sense to do after you decide your story idea. Unless you’re dead-set on writing a mystery or a horror novel, I think you need to begin with the story itself, then figure out what genre is most suitable for it. There may be some exceptions to this, but for me, it worked best in this order.

Regardless, after you have a story idea and select your genre, you need to study it. I learned this from Tim Grahl and Shawn Coyne, who host the popular Story Grid podcast.

In his book, Shawn is bullish on the importance of genre. Before you get too far into writing anything, you need to get clear on what kind of story this is.

Why? Because “genres have conventions,” he says.

These are the rules of the genre. And each genre has its own set of “obligatory scenes,” as Shawn calls them. Here are some examples:

  • Action stories have a speech delivered by the villain usually when the hero is at his mercy.
  • Coming-of-age stories often begin with the death of a loved one or some tragedy that leaves the hero feeling alone.
  • Fantasies tend to have a guide who dies in the middle of the story and leaves the hero on his own.

How do you find these conventions and obligatory scenes in your genre? You consume a lot of stories.

As for me, I knew my story was a coming-of-age young adult drama, because that’s my favorite kind of story. So what did I do? In the past week, I skimmed every book I could think of and watched a half dozen movies I was already familiar with.

These included: The Perks of Being a Wallfower, The Great Gatsby, The Great Santini, Stuck in Love, Looking for Alaska, To Kill a Mockingbird, Elizabethtown, The Benefits of Caregiving, and many more.

As I read and watched these stories, I took notes, writing down each scene and noticing if something positive or negative was happening to the character. This is something Shawn Coyne teaches – a scene either adds positive energy or negative energy as it contributes to the overall narrative.

You can get deep into genre and spend a lot of time thinking about sub-genre, but be careful not to get lost in the weeds. My friend Kevin, who’s ghostwritten a number of bestselling novels, told it to me like this:

Genre is just a way to guide reader’s expectations. What do you want them thinking when they go into reading your story? Be mindful of that as you write and try not to do anything that would violate their trust.

In other words, you can’t typically write a mystery and use horror conventions. It won’t work so don’t try to force it.

Takeaway: Writing fiction is not just about making up whatever story you want. There are rules and conventions to every genre, and before you get too far into telling your story, decide what the genre is, and therefore, what rules and conventions you are going to follow.

Writing fiction is not just about making up whatever story you want.

Jeff Goins

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3. Plot out the story

Depending on whom you ask, every story has anywhere from three to twelve, or even one hundred plot points. There are scenes, sections, parts, chapters, themes, beats, and more.

It can be kind of complicated and a tad confusing. But I take great comfort in the simplest version of a story, which looks like this: 1) beginning, 2) middle, 3) end.

The more I studied different story structures, the more overwhelmed I felt. Instead of surrendering to the complexity, I went back to the basics and picked the three main story parts so that I could just start writing it.

I did this by following what Steven Pressfield calls the Foolscap Method, handwriting the story elements on an actual piece of paper. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Beginning: Hero moves to a new town after parents’ divorce. Meets most popular kid in school and is accepted by him.
  2. Middle: Most popular kid in school dies and leaves hero alone to lead the school. Hero wonders if he has what it takes. So does everyone else.
  3. End: Hero faces school bully and realizes he does have what it takes and that every kid is a little insecure, even the cool kids.

Is this the world’s most interesting story? Of course not. But it’s one I can tell. Why? Because there’s a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning is where the hero meets the situation that sets the story in motion. This is what Robert McKee and other story experts call the “inciting incident.” Shawn Coyne calls it the Beginning Hook. This is where the story really begins and it must grab the reader.

The middle is where the hero faces all kinds of trials and conflict, where his abilities are tested. The conflict gets worse, and the drama heightens. Coyne calls it the Middle Build, because everything builds in this section, and you wonder if the hero is going to get out of this one alive.

The end is where the story climaxes and the conflict is resolved. It is, in Story Grid language, the Payoff. This is where whatever you promised the reader at the beginning of the story now gets its due. This is where we find redemption, retribution, justice, forgiveness, success, comeuppance, or whatever moral virtue we’re seeking as readers.

And once you have that, you have a story you can keep tweaking, but also one you can start writing, knowing that it’s going to lead somewhere.

Takeaway: Before you can start writing your novel, you must decide where it leads.

Before you can start writing your novel, you must decide where it leads.

Jeff Goins

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Join me on the journey

I’m not going to lie. This is really hard, and I am really bad at it – worse than I thought I would be. But it’s still fun, and I’m learning a lot. So I hope this helps you.

If you don’t want to miss future lessons and musings on writing fiction from a true newbie, be sure to join my bi-weekly newsletter updates. Also, be sure to check out the links below to other helpful resources.

Recommended resources:

What is your best tip for new fiction writers? Who are your favorite novelists to learn from? Share in the comments.

61 thoughts on “How to Begin Writing a Novel When You Don’t Know What to Do

  1. I love this so much. I also recommend the book Save The Cat Goes To The Movies for a simple, clear approach when looking at genres. (I too recommend Shawn Coyne’s work and Story Grid podcast, but it is more detailed.)

    I thought my novel was one genre and I realize now it is actually is a different genre. Genres really provide you with clarity by letting you (and the audience) know what to expect.

  2. The best piece of advice for all beginning novelists, and I suppose writers in general, is write what you know. The novel I am writing–in it’s very early stages–is part-autobiographical, but wrapped around a much bigger fiction and theme. The autobiographical aspects have help me get started and ground the novel in place, as it were. Now the hard part begins!

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Yes, it is very hard to write compelling novels. Try to think of it in terms of scenes, like you might see on the big screen, where there’s at least one, up to three levels of conflict going on, and where the characters’ actions drive the story forward. I actually did the STORY seminar one year – it’s 4 days of sitting in a room with Robert McKee and it really helped get how to structure and write compelling stories “into my bones.” I also liked James Scott Bell’s easy-to-read Write Your Novel from the Middle to help with the dreaded middle sag. And some talk of the 4-Act Structure as a variation on the 3-Act Structure, which also helps me to really flesh out the middle.
    Keep going! If you are looking for Writing Buddies on NaNo I’m there as Lizzie Harwood. I’m also in your Intentional Blog course currently.
    Best, Lizzie

    1. Thanks, Lizzie! I have McKee’s book which I like. I’ve been thinking in terms of scenes, and that’s been helpful. I’ll check out Bell, as well. Heard some of his stuff, as well. Thanks!

    2. You’re right there; all movies start with ‘storyboards’ which convey a lot of information about each scene. Imagine, you’re writing a book largely in your own mind, but guys who write screenplays need to convey what’s in their head out for other people to enact the whole thing (hopefully as envisaged) which must be so difficult!

      p.s. looks like ‘qa rider’ skipped their meds today…. 😉

  4. As long as you are meeting your word count goal, watch all the movies you want. Sounds like you have a great plan!

      1. Just remember the 50K you are writing now are just a beginning, the editing and so forth is for later. The usual goal of Nanowrimo is to get the words out, good, and bad … and ugly. Don’t listen to the voices telling you it’s bad and just write, write, write. Sometimes the tangent you go on might be something just demanding to be written, burbling out of your sub conscious, don’t deny those words, let them flow onto the page. Sorry, the Writing/English teacher/coach in me took control for a moment. You can do it!! Keep writing!!

  5. As someone who has dabbled in fiction since jr. high, I have to recommend K.M. Weiland and her book Outlining Your Novel and the corresponding workbook. I was given this as a gift Christmas of 2014 and it revolutionized my process and really helped me delve into twists and turns on my current piece that I never would have imagined. Her website has some great resources and awesome articles.

  6. Having even the most basic outline is a huge help. I used to use very detailed outlines with a synopsis for each scene written out—crazy I know! For the two most recent I have used either a very basic story arc or timeline. With the timeline I also wrote out a one paragraph description of each character. The result was that I reached the NaNo 50,000 word goal on the first novel (the timeline) in less than 30 days and finished the novel (well beyond 50,000) within the first week or so of December. The current NaNo novel I’m using the story arc and am just shy of 30,000 words. Knowing where you’re going helps tremendously. But it doesn’t have to be set in stone. My 30,000 words are actually much different than what is plotted on the story arc (and better too!), but I still have the main events and goals in front of me if I get a little side-tracked. The story arc I use follows this simple guide: _/- The underscore represents the beginning stasis at the end of which you have the inciting event, the slash is the rising action/conflict ascending to the climax, the dash (which is lower than the conflict and higher that the beginning stasis) is the new stasis at the end of the story. I draw out the arc and then mark the main events along the appropriate lines. It keeps it simple, while giving a clear guide. Getting the story down is the most important thing, characters and scenes can grow in the rewrites. Rewrites are where the story comes to life.

  7. Fiction is HARD — like ugly, brutal hard. However, I’d like to offer another suggestion…you truly don’t understand your novel until you reach THE END. So, let it be a sh***y first draft, having faith that you’ll understand if better 75,000 – 90,000 words down the road. Good luck!

    1. I’m with you, Marcy! I’ve published one novel, have another one about to be shopped by my agent, and in between wrote one using a *plot outline* that killed the soul of the thing. So, yes, exploratory first draft, then starting again on the next draft once I know more All The Way!

  8. Jeff, having written a few novels (two unsold) and lots of nonfiction, including books, I agree: the demands, nuances and intricacies of fiction writing are very different—and for me, much harder to do well. You gave some good resources (Shawn Coyne’s stuff is solid and McKee’s legendary). And I see Save the Cat in the comments, also a dandy.

    There’s a great new book out called Author in Progress from the editor of the WriterUnboxed site, with 50 essays that go through a good deal of the underpinnings of writing fiction and the author’s journey. The authors are industry stalwarts like Donald Maass and Lisa Cron (and I have a short essay in there as well).

    Good luck with the book!

  9. I’m with you on this journey and interested how yours turns out. I started writing my first fiction series. Currently working on Book 1 and 2. I’m new at writing fiction myself.

    Something that has helped me visualize my story is I created my book trailers. The trailer reminds me of my story ideas for a given book, not to mention, it helps keep my overall series ideas brewing. They have also served as motivation for me to keep on writing.

  10. Gene Wolfe’s solution to all such problems is to cut himself off from ALL art/entertainment–ALL. No music, movies, art, reading, writing. He works around the house, runs errands, cleans up the yard, but NO TV, no radio on while he works–nothing. When I get desperate that’s what I do.

    Every one of my books and stories began with the female character in a situation. Most of my heroes have been male, but until I figure out the woman in the story, it tends not to get going.

    ONE piece of music that is the ‘theme’ helps.

    Ideas tend to be two or three (no more) images, ideas, thoughts put together.

    It’s not so much the story that matters at the very start, but what it is you want to write ABOUT. Especially if you don’t do so explicitly. I had very strong ideas about a certain political issue, and it came out in a post-apocalyptic horror story.

    Just some random thoughts to add to yours.

  11. Margaret Atwood, the novelist, used to go to parties and have people, educated people, ask her about her novels, and then tell her they were going to write a novel when they retired. Like it was something they could do after a long day on the golf course. It pissed her off so much she started telling people at parties she was going to be a surgeon when she retired.
    Fiction writing is hard. So is non-fiction, but a good roadmap has made my fiction writing so much easier. I’m a big fan of Shaunta’s courses for sure. And knowing your genre and what conventions your genre will tolerate gives you a lot more wiggle room than you might realize up front. Keep writing, but don’t think it’s going to be easy!

  12. Thanks, Mr. Goins! You have inspired me again!

    I loved how you just broke down simple ideas and steps to get started. I am a non-fiction writer and blogger… but I’ve always had a wild imagination that seems to wander into crazy worlds, so I am looking to tap into fiction in the future.

    Fiction is so different to non-fiction… but this article gives me a starting point. Thanks again!

  13. A few more recommended reads for everyone. These books REALLY helped me develop my craft as a fiction writer (and even got a couple of my short stories accepted into anthologies).

    1. “Invisible Ink” and “The Golden Theme” by Brian McDonald (an award-winning filmmaker and storytelling consultant for Pixar Studios). The great thing about his books is that he offers techniques that are VERY simple and also VERY specific to the point that they’re easily applicable.

    2. “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight Swain. Also very specific in how he gives advice on better writing. The great thing about this book is that he tackles the copy in your writing (like how to structure a sentence to create the best reading experience for your audience, how to manage flashbacks, how to insert and incorporate symbolism, etc.)

  14. You know, sometimes you just have to write and go wherever the story takes you. My advice to writers, especially fiction writers, is to start with a scene. Write all the fun parts and then make it make sense. I always write my endings first because that’s the part I’m most excited about!

  15. Jeff, I recommend you and your readers read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. You’ll learn some valuable story building principles to help you build your story. I’m assuming your goal is to become a professional writer who writes to make money, and not an experimental writer.

    “1. Get a strong story idea” This is where many would be writers fail because they don’t truly understand what that entails. Let’s look at this a little deeper with a simple example.

    IDEA: Let’s do a story about beans. (No story here.)
    CONCEPT: Let’s do a story about magic beans that grow into a beanstalk that reaches into the sky. (Stage for a story here.)
    PREMISE: Premise: WHAT IF a poor young boy, who had traded the family cow for a few magic beans, climbs the beanstalk, which has grown from those magic beans up to the sky, to discover a giant’s castle containing objects that will make him and his family rich, steals them, and is chased by the giant who wants to catch him to eat him and grind his bones to make his bread? [Character(s) on stage here. The hero’s quest has been defined. Conflict and stakes established. The answer to the WHAT-IF question is the story.]

    “What is a story?” Again let’s look at this a little deeper because writers truly need to know what the word “STORY” means.

    A story is about something happening…with stakes hanging in the balance. It’s not a story until that takes center stage in context to palpable opposition that will block their (hero’s) path as it (the antagonistic force or character) seeks opposing objectives, and/or simply seeks to defeat and torment your hero. Your bad guy needs a motive (stakes), too.

    The most important, required, non-negotiable single word in fiction is CONFLICT. It is necessary to have a plot that presents conflict and stakes. Plot is the stage upon which character unfolds.

    If there’s no conflict, there’s no tension.
    No tension, no story.
    No stakes, no tension.
    It’s simple, really: No conflict, no story.
    Work on the strength of your idea/concept/premise first; jack it to its highest inherent potential before you begin to develop a vision for the story that ensues from it.
    Knowing the core essence of your story, the spine, the central conflict and how it relates to your hero, is the essence of knowing your story.
    You must know this before you can write it with optimal effectiveness. This should be your goal.

    “3. Plot out the story” beginning-middle-end. What sounds so simple is actually quite complex if we dig a little deeper into story principles as Larry Brooks describes them.
    Here are your major story MILESTONES:

    -1- HOOK: Tension and conflict presented in the first few pages simply to “hook” the reader. Reader does not know what it means yet.

    -2- Inciting Incident: Something huge, dramatic and game- changing; differs from FPP, because FPP bestows “meaning” on the hero, reader or both. Inciting incident simply presents the one-way doorway the hero passes through to future.

    -3- FIRST PLOT POINT is the most important–and the most heavily imbued with purpose–moment in your story. It is a moment of new information in the form of a revelation, twist, opportunity, challenge, necessity, that launches (or, if already underway, dramatically shifts) the hero’s story-specific journey, in pursuit of a need, the solving of a problem, the seizing of an opportunity, avoiding danger or threat, etc.
    Also, the FPP appears in context to several things: established stakes for hero (consequences of success or failure, so we have something to root for, and to fear), the presence of an antagonistic force with an agenda of their own (and stakes), and a sense of urgency or immediate consequence if the hero doesn’t respond.
    The First Plot Point always happens, in a well told story, at a prescribed place. It needs to show up somewhere between 20 and 25 percent in to optimize dramatic tension.
    The story really begins right here.

    -4- First Pinch Point: Definition of a pinch point: An example, or a reminder, of the nature of the antagonistic force, that is not filtered by the hero’s experience. The reader sees for herself in a direct form. The reader needs to see the antagonistic force for herself. Not just discussed or referenced, not just remembered. She needs to experience it through the eyes of the hero. Or at least the consequences of the opposing force as they affect the hero. Or, in some stories, an exposure to the antagonist is for the reader’s perception only, completely separated from the hero’s perception. While the reader sees what the hero is facing, he continues to respond, to it, largely unaware. NOTE: It comes squarely in the middle of Part 2 at the 37 percent spot in the story.

    -5- Mid-Point is NEW information that changes the CONTEXT of the story. Think of it as the parting of the curtain of awareness, either for the hero and/or for the reader. Let’s say they were running from an unknown danger in Part 2 (response), then at the MP they learn WHO is chasing them. Same danger, but this new info shifts the context. Because now that the running hero knows who is chasing him, he can soon discover why, and from there, mount a counter-attack in Part 3 (proactive attack.) The Mid-Point occurs at the 50 per cent spot in the story.

    -6- Second Pinch Point: See #4 above. At the 62nd percentile, the antagonist takes action to stop the hero. What follows is an increased sense of pacing – very much in keeping with the principles of structure; it’s time to really crank up the drama here.
    -7- All-is-lost Moment: This optional screen-writing trick comes right before the second plot point. It’s that brief moment when all hope seems to be lost for the hero.
    -8- Second Plot Point: The expositional content of the 2nd PP’s intended mission is to inject something new that opens the door for the hero to mount a final charge and conquer inner demons to become the primary catalyst in the resolution. The Second Plot Point occurs at the 75 percent point in the story.

    -9- Ending / Resolution: Having the hero be a spectator who watches the ending happen, or someone else saves the day…not good.

    Jeff, you could use the above milestones to plan your story scenes. There is a lot to wrap your head around in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, but once you do, you’ll be able to test your story CONCEPT/PREMISE by plugging it into the story structure milestones above. And you can even have Larry critique it for you. Money well spent.

    For an excellent example of how Larry Brooks explains these story milestone principles take a look at his deconstruction of the movie AVATAR. You can find it here:
    Follow the links to the other parts. You’ll learn plenty. He deconstructs many other movies on his website. It’s a gold mine of information for writers.

    Good luck with NANOWRIMO. I did it two years ago with a beat sheet plan of the story milestones for the fourth book in my five-book fantasy series. I completed 57,000 words in 30 days and fifteen days later I had close to 87,000 words of the first draft of that book.

    I’m in the process of planning my website and launch of Book I. Book III will be coming back from the proofreader soon. Book IV is ready to go to her. Two weeks ago I met with my editor to show her the corrections I had made to address her questions, comments, and concerns. I got the green light.

    I started writing this series in 2005. The best thing to happen to me was doing a Google search with the words “fix my story.” I found I read Larry’s books and many others, McKee’s STORY among them. But getting Concept/Premise Evaluation from Larry truly opened my eyes. Learn more about Larry’s coaching services here:

    If you want to write a novel, start thinking that you’ll be in it for the long haul. If you don’t love what you’re writing, no reader will love it. Once you find that concept/premise that wakes you up in the middle of the night with your story not wanting to wait to be written down, then you’ll know you’ve found a story you love.

    Find the love, Jeff.


  16. As a professional fiction writer, I have to outline the book to create a submission proposal for my editor – before I start the writing.
    But I do a lot of prep work on my characters before I create the outline.

    From my experience there are two types of fiction writer:
    * Those who create a working outline, based on the character arcs and a few signposts to guide them to the ending where they know their characters are going. The detective will solve the crime and the romance couple will find happiness together.The route the characters take to reach the end is flexible, but they have to get to each stopping point on the way.
    * Those who free write into the story, wallow around and get lost and fed up but somehow hack their way to the end but it can take months to get there. The first draft is for them and it has more characters than a George Martin series and no narrative line. This draft is then put to one side and the best ideas are used to create a working second draft.
    These authors know that the process is horribly inefficient but that is what they know. They are scared that structure will make them freeze and snuff out the spark.

    Which option do you think is better for mental and physical health as well as income?

    It it helps I do have some free training on how to outline a romance novel when you are an intuitive writer which applies to all genre fiction. Best of luck with your work!

  17. I usually end up starting on the first page. Okay, so that sounds obvious, but really let the characters jump into something and see where it leads. When that creativity runs its course, I do a rough plot and takeaway (took me a long time to understand this takeaway thing). Then I let it rest. Let the ideas and what if’s play in my mind and jump in again. I find stock photos of the characters I have vaguely in my mind – when I see a picture of them I know instantly and map their history somewhat. I find I build better characters by learning about them rather than creating it all up front. My story goes that way too. When it comes to plotting and structure, I recommend Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. His movie scene approach has really helped me – especially in that middle third of the book when we all wonder what we’re doing and what we were thinking! I start with a vague idea of ending, but so far neither of my two novels have ended as I expected…the third one is still morphing as I go. The best advice given me I pass on: write, write, write. Edit later. So much easier said than done!

  18. Great post Jeff….thanks!
    I am also struggling through NaNoWriMo, but having started three novels in previous years that all need completing, I decided I would try do something non-fiction, perhaps a pdf and ebook for a website and then I rambled into some blog posts and many days, just a whole bunch of crap to get to my 1667 words a day. And even those have fallen by the wayside after I was tied up for three days on the weekend with an event I was hosting. So now, I’ll go back to those words and struggle through just because it’s a goal I’ve set. But in reading all these posts, it’s making me want to take December to get back into my first NaNo project–that very first novel and get it done. I loved James Scott Bell’s post as referenced in the previous post and another older one, but still very valuable for fiction writers is Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Good luck on your book…I have no doubt we’ll see you publish it. You’re driven and that’s inspiring. So again, thanks.

  19. “- Action stories have a speech delivered by the villain usually when the hero is at his mercy.
    – Coming-of-age stories often begin with the death of a loved one or some tragedy that leaves the hero feeling alone.
    – Fantasies tend to have a guide who dies in the middle of the story and leaves the hero on his own.”

    These aren’t genre conventions, these are cliches.

  20. Thanks. I like points 1 and 3. Not sure I agree with all of the points regarding genre, but it’s definitely good to have a framework in general. I don’t understand why sticking to a specific style necessarily makes for a better story, but maybe I need to read more about it.

    “Writing fiction is not just about making up whatever story you want.” Is it not?!?

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