Saturday 13th June 2020
Long story short, I need to work on a rough synopsis to something.
It’s not for a project that I plan to be actively working on so I don’t need to go too deep, but I need something workable that I can potentially go back at a later date and add a bit more flesh to.
So it’s quite a pleasant feeling when I go into my writing folders and find a file there already for it and… a very rough synopsis. Well, an outline – but the way I create my outlines is such that it doesn’t take much work to convert them into a synopsis . I’d forgotten I’d put a lot of this stuff together.
And herein, the story might end. Adrian needed to write a rough synopsis, looked in his files and found an existing outline. Story ends.
But what’s interesting here is how my approach to outlining has changed a little during lockdown.
Ordinarily, I work with a virtual corkboard. By this stage, the ideas have been mulling around in my head enough that I know the opening act and then the climax. I will sometimes know a few key scenes inbetween.
I start by placing these on the corkboard. I’ll have 2 or 3 cards at the start, maybe a few in the middle and one at the end. Each card represents a ‘scene’ but that often means a chapter and could consist of several scenes. I’ll often have details on the cards including notes to myself. Character goes to X, finds magic sword. “Remember to set up the dragon”
When I eventually come to write, these notes will get fleshed out into a chapter plan with a beginning middle and end: Character goes to X looking for sword. Sees smoke coming from a tunnel, disables trap to retrieve magic sword. Escapes.
I know enough about how I write to know that I typically need 25-30 cards for a completed novel.
I’ll then try and fill in the gaps. I’ll sometimes work backwards, asking myself how a character arrived at this card. If Chekov’s gun appears on that final card, where did it get placed on the mantelpiece?
I’ll also work forwards at the same time, how does this card catapult the character into the next?
Where I have subplots, I might colour code these to highlight them. I always want them to be clashing into the main story if I can, so will often try and think how the outcome of one subplot card can impact the main storyline or vice versa. Can they be combined? Can a card serve both narratives?
I’ll move things around. If I have two subplot cards next to each other, I might move it to somewhere later in the story. The corkboard view allows me to see the flow of the story. I’ll put slower scenes between action pieces, space out various plotlines.
Everything will feel rough. Instead of flowing from one card to another, early on it can just feel like the story is flicking between narratives. As I progress and the position of cards solidify, I’ll look at how the story flows from one to another. I’m a plasterer here, smoothing over the cracks.
The end result is that I end up with an outline. I can then take the notes I’ve made on each of those cards and use it to create a synopsis.
So what’s changed during lockdown? Theme.
I have an outline here that’s 80% done. There are scenes and subplots. The cards have been arranged to give the novel a narrative flow. The cracks might not be fully smoothed over, and maybe one of the subplots could be better paced, but I think it’s enough to get a rough synopsis. Job done.
Except… what question is this story asking? What’s it about?
Usually, that comes to me after I’ve written the first draft… but here, I’m asking those questions now. The reason being, is I’m still liking this idea that the conflicts the protagonist comes across are representations of possible answers to these questions.
If the story was about an unhappy overweight protagonist (*looks at self*) then the question the story asks might be about how to be happy and healthy. Maybe the first antagonist the character meets is a gym bunny who works our hero so hard at the gym that they can’t walk the next day. Maybe the next is a sloth, who never exercises and eats chocolate and pizza all day. And then maybe the conclusion is meeting someone who is neither slim nor obese, is happy with their body and enjoys a moderate amount of exercise.
That feels like a tighter story because the middle stages help make the conclusion feel more satisfying.
So the question for me now, looking at this outline, is trying to understand what the question is here, and then looking at the various conflicts (whether they be physical or metaphorical) and trying to find out what this book is trying to ask. That’s going to be difficult when it’s so rough but the answer will help me strengthen the middle where typically I have the least idea going in.
It’s interesting to see this additional step in my process because it feels like I’ve grown as a writer, and I can see how this has developed in the last 75 days or so based on things I was doing when The Climb restarted. Lockdown does feel a bit like being locked in limbo so being able to actually see some growth in this time is massively reassuring and makes it all a little easier.
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