Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Synopsis of an Outline

John here, after a week off and a rainy Easter weekend. I recently discovered an article on, “Got Fiction Characters? How to Use a Character Web to Track Them,” that reminded me of John Ramsey’s guest blog a few weeks ago in which he wrote of diligently outlining his novels before writing.

The general premise of this article is that a character web helps the writer to keep track of her characters and helps her to see them in terms of their respective relationship with other characters in her story. I’m struck by this seemingly simple concept because, as a longtime composition instructor, “mapping” is something I routinely urge students to do—begin with your main topic in the center of the blank page, then draw lines to outlying ideas that will allow you to develop your primary topic.

One of the things stressed in the article is that the character web often grows as the writer works, which I like since I’m an author who often has little idea where he’s going when I start a story or novel. My process is a lot like entering a forest in the dark and wandering (through draft after draft) until I find my way to the other side. My process works but, as one would imagine, is often frustrating.

As you can probably tell, I’m thinking of altering my approach when I begin my next project. “Outlining” is probably too strong a word; the thought intimidates me. I like making stuff up as I go, and I’m a believer in the adage “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” However, several weeks ago, I was asked to write a synopsis for a novel currently under review. I had never written a synopsis before, so I sent emails to several of my Type M colleagues requesting a couple to read.

I enjoyed the process of writing the synopsis, and I believe the entire approach to be helpful. The synopsis didn’t feel as constricting as an outline has when I have tried writing one. Something about an outline strikes me as a large undertaking and a massive commitment, an O-U-T-L-I-N-E. My synopsis was six or seven pages, a brief sketch of my novel in very wide parameters, looser than an outline, but still something to use as a daily steering wheel.

What it amounts to is we are all constantly looking for ways to improve our work and to do it more efficiently. That’s part of the joy and the challenge that keeps me coming back to the blank page: you can never master it. And when you think you have, you’ve stopped getting better.

1 comment:

The Adventurous Writer said...


Thanks for sharing this article!

Regarding outlining -- my outlines are always fluid and dynamic, which to me means they can change at any time. That's where the element of surprise comes in. You can have an outline, mind map, goals, word count quotas, etc etc etc...and still be open to the power of a left hook that comes from nowhere.

The writer: surprised! The reader: hungry for more words, chapters, books! :-)

All good things,