From synopsis to story

David Bowie, William Burroughs, and Character Libraries- From Synopsis To Story

I’ve been in this position a few times. I’ve written a synopsis. I’ve boiled this synopsis, which has the bare bones of my plot, down to two sides of A4. I now have a decent a plan of where I want a story to go, written in the simplest terms. Describing what each character does, and where the narrative goes. I may even have bolstered certain parts of the story by work shopping, on separate Word Documents, the background of a character. Fleshing out a little about what music they are into, how their bedroom would be decorated, what habits they have when they are on their own. I sometimes even build up a folder of photos of images that either capture something about how my character would look, or something that represents the mood around them at a certain point in the plot. Here’s an example of one such a picture which I’m using to inspire a character I’m currently writing-


In other cases I may even have a folder containing pictures of outfits that I want a particular character of mine to wear in a certain scene. Or pictures of settings that I think would illuminate some aspect of a character, which I want to incorporate into the story-


All these things help me get a sense of who my character is. They are a library of information about an imagined person, in which I am trying to bring them to life by giving them the type of details that a real, flesh-and-blood person has. So- I’m about to write the story, lifting a few lines from the synopsis as a brief of what I want to get written that day. But often at this point I get stuck. How can I go from my detailed plan of a story, to actually writing the story itself?

Recently I’ve learnt a couple of tricks that have helped me on my way. Helped me to find my voice on the page. Number one is to choose a random picture, from my folder of images that describe my character, and to force myself to use the next part of the stories synopsis within that setting, or with my character in the outfit they are in in that picture. The story becomes, as it so often is, a problem-solving exercise. In which I’m using various ideas of mine, in symphony, to create a piece of creative work.

Another tactic I’ve used is to bring in an element of randomness to how I write the story. Let’s say (as has been the case with a novel I’m currently working on) that I need to write a scene set in a nightclub. Let’s say that the nightclub has a 1970’s glamrock theme. I know, from my synopsis, that in this scene I need certain things to happen to my character, after she has entered this setting. But how do I begin to write this scene?

One technique is that I’ve started to write tables, on Word documents, in which I insert random details about the scene. So, let’s return to my glam rock nightclub setting. A table I made for it looks like this-


As you can see, I have put into this table various details that my character will see in this setting. Blue curtains. Velvet coats. What I do is I print this sheet off, and play ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, letting my pen fall somewhere onto the page. Whatever detail the pen falls upon has to be the next detail I use in the story. This has helped me many times not just to write but to give the circumstances in a story the slight sense of chaos that life often has.

This is a technique I adopted from William Burrough’s cut-up technique, in which he wrote prose by juxtaposing random images he had had written onto a page, which he’d cut up and then selected parts of at random. Here is a short clip showing how David Bowie used the same technique to write some of his most famous lyrics-

Our stories become detailed worlds of themselves. Sometimes we need a little nudge in order to get into them. I’ve found that these techniques can work.


  1. carole925 22 March 2016 at 9:21 am

    Excellent article Guy. I have used mind maps, clustering, photographs etc. It’s always good to see what other people use. The way I start a scene is to make my character speak. I find it helps me enormously to know their voice first. It sometimes suprises me and my first thoughts of who the character is disappears and someone new emerges.The way they speak tells me a lot about their character, background, outlook on life, likes and dislikes. Thank you for another method to add to my skill set.

  2. Guy Mankowski (@Gmankow) 24 March 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks Carole- I’m going to look up some of the techniques you mentioned- might be useful!

  3. debsriccio 24 March 2016 at 5:13 pm

    A great idea, Guy – like Carole says, it’s incredibly helpful knowing how other writers work – and especially if their system is an official Bowie-adopted one! 🙂

  4. ninahare 28 March 2016 at 9:12 am

    Brilliant idea. Our minds are always struggling not to be random or chaotic, but that is actually how the universe seems to want thing to be. A bit like always using the last dream in some way in what you’re writing, this would be such fun to do – a release from a writing straight-jacket!


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