using a synopsis vs. writing by the seat of the pants

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After a thorough evaluation of these writing techniques, I have become a fan of using a synopsis and/or outline when writing a novel. I wrote my first novel by the seat of my pants with neither outline nor synopsis. I intended to allow my artistic expressions to run wild and for my characters to show me the way.

My characters were idiots.

I gave up writing fiction for a while, then took some writing classes and workshops that studied novel structure. With my second novel, I implemented the techniques I learned from those classes and used a detailed synopsis. I gave myself permission to diverge from the synopsis if character development required a plot deviation. Rather than inhibit me, the synopsis gave me a clear roadmap to my destination.

Here are the differences between the two novels:


(seat of the pants)



Protagonist: multiple characters

Protagonist: one character (Lucian)

Antagonist: multiple antagonists

Antagonist: one character (Catarina)

Character sketches: none

Character sketches: detailed character sketches of all the characters

Synopsis: none, the novel meandered endlessly and never reached a conclusive ending

Synopsis: detailed synopsis showing the three acts of the novel with a clear story arc

World building: made it up as I went along

World building: a written, detailed sheet of Woerld, its social structure, and the religious orders involved

Discipline: none, just wrote when the mood struck me

Discipline: scheduled writing time every evening and on weekends

Critique group: several friends

Critique group: tough writers who tell me the truth (Thanks, guys!)

Time to complete the first novel: several years

Time to complete the second novel: 17 months (keep in mind, I have a full-time job and only write in the evenings and weekends)

Notice that on the second novel, I did all the hard work before the first word hit the page. I knew my story line, my characters, and what obstacles they were going to overcome.

Did some of my characters change during the course of the book? Yes. I’ve had to go back and touch up scenes with Lindsay (my twelve-year-old character), and I’ve had to strengthen a plot line with Lucian and Catarina, but that is the beauty of this exercise. I’ve only had to do touch-ups. I have not once had to sit down and re-write huge chunks of my novel because of major plot or character flaws.

The only thing I will do different on my next novel is write a chapter-by-chapter outline.

None of these techniques restricted my creativity. With the plot lines and characters thoroughly mapped prior to writing my first chapter, I was able to enjoy watching my characters develop.

So what about you? Have you written two novels using the two different techniques? What are some techniques you’re willing to try on your next book?


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14 Responses to using a synopsis vs. writing by the seat of the pants

  1. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, you raise some good points here.

    I too wrote both novels without a plan in mind and I’ve had to do huge amounts of revision on each as a result. A one page synopsis is a good way of getting the main plot points on paper, (also many agents want one) but I would seriously recommend the StoryBook software package, free of charge. This package enables writers to copy and paste to scenes and keep records of character details, plot, themes, etc. I’m polishing my first novel at present before I send it back to the editor, and I’ve found that much of it now appears to have a clearer structure as a result of StoryBook.

    Best of luck with your work.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Lawrence! Do you have a link for StoryBook? I think that’s an interesting concept, and I know a lot of Mac users love Scrivener, because it has author friendly capabilities. I’d like it if it is a software I can download to my laptop, but I don’t want something that requires me to only use it online.

      Best of luck to you too, and I hope your revisions turn out the best!

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    This is harrassment. You can’t change me. 😉

    I am a pantser, and while I have had to rewrite every scene multiple times, I think it’s about the same amount of time. I wasn’t able to tell the story until I was telling the story. Now that I know my characters, I can imagine what they might do in a sequel, but searching for that spark of life was hopeless until I started writing them. Maybe it will be different for me next time, but outlining was not an option this time. You win some you lose some 😉

    • Teresa says:

      Girl, you are corrupt. There is no hope! 😉

      Different techniques work for different writers. Some work through their novels quickly with no outline, but this is what works best for me.

  3. tikiman1962 says:

    I think there a misconception that an outline/synopsis will dull the creative urge. I haven’t yet used StoryBook (although Lawrence has advocated its usage in several of his blog entries) but I do most heartily agree with a structure. At the very least, you have a road map with the opportunity for detours.

    When I started doing NaNoWriMo in November 2007, I realized that I didn’t want to just finish 50,000 words of tripe to say “Hey, I did it.” Rather, I wanted to have a manageable product worthy of revision. I had my plot, my main characters and their “sensibilities” (I wrote description as I came to them) and knew more or less where the story was going.

    Now, there WAS a good deal of filler in order to “succeed” at NaNoWriMo. But the revisions have tightened what is, in general, a good little story. I have moved on to other pieces. However, I always start with an outline and basic character bios.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi HB,

      I found the link last night, and I have decided to take the plunge, but for anyone who’s interested, you can look at StoryBook at

      I use Word and comments to keep track of certain issues I want to highlight and remind myself of as I work through the novel. That’s helped tremendously.

      I’m like you, HB. I need a map to keep me on course; otherwise, my novels start rolling off in a thousand different directions. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I’ve definitely been migrating to a more structured approach. Why not go through several iterations of an outline instead of several rewrites of an entire novel? Love the comparison table. Thanks for the post!

  5. Alana says:

    Looks like we’ve come to the same point:) After spending waaay too long on the last novel, I’m now really, really thinking things through in hopes of finishing the second one in better time. And I plan to check out Storybook.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Alana, that’s what convinced me! I also learned so much about plotting, and using a synopsis/outline was the only way I could see my plot point emerge in my own novel.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Pingback: Writing from an Outline (or summary, if you will. And I know you will.) « Words and Coffee

  7. sarahwedgbrow says:

    Hi! I’ve popped over from Jonathan’s blog and am so glad that I did. Your side-by-side comparison is so valuable to beginning writers. And maybe even writer’s who’ve been doing this writing thing for a while. I actually have a software thingy called the “Snowflake” method by Randy Ingermannson…I bought it when he was promoting it, so it was cheaper. It basically forces you to outline, writing snyopsis for character and story. First it forces you to summarize your book in one sentence, then expand to one paragraph, then a paragraph for each sentence in that paragraph. You start simple, then expand. It’s very helpful. As you said, you do the hard work first, then write. He has written many, many novels this way and now sells software for his method. It’d probably be cheaper just to write it all out yourself.
    Anyway, I have mostly finished my first novel, written by the seat of my pants. I’m moving to my second novel and am going to outline. Great post and discussion!

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Sarah! Thanks for stopping by. I’ve heard of Ingermannson’s Snowflake method and believe it or not, my writing instructor took us through a similar method. We had to summarize our novel in one sentence, then a paragraph, then formulate the story into three-acts.

      I think both methods help the writer keep their focus: who is the story about; how does the protagonist overcome their obstacles; etc. It’s so nice to know I’m not the only one benefiting from outlines! 😉

  8. Pingback: Words and Coffee » Blog Archive » Writing from an Outline (or summary, if you will. And I know you will.)

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