Setting up a chapter synopsis in Ulysses

Most books aren’t a single massive chunk of text. They’re pieces in a narrative jigsaw that, in the end, link together to form a meaningful whole. I don’t outline a novel entirely before starting. But I do set myself waypoints in the narrative, events and character disclosures to aim towards along the way. Think of it as climbing Everest. You don’t begin by staring at the peak; you work out where your basecamps will be on the ascent.

This means that I do need to set down something that says, ‘In this section of the book certain things should happen if it’s to turn out the way I think’. Those things may change, of course, but setting them down gives me a direction, and all writing needs direction, a heading, even if you’re unsure of the eventual destination.

Am I talking about a synopsis? Kind of. But I can’t think of a better word. The sort of things I want to write might be…

  • Character A has to do this to Character B.
  • Something specific needs to happen to or at a location dealt with earlier in the work.
  • There need to be narrative bumps leading to a climax. Revelations, surprises, twists. What are they?

There are lots of ways you can deal with this in Ulysses. You could write a synopsis document in your management group. You could put a note on the starting sheet of the relevant chapter. Here’s another way which I think is pretty neat as I’ll explain shortly. First, let’s see what it looks like.


Like all things to do with Ulysses it’s dead simple. All you do is insert a sheet at the beginning of the act, section or chapter, whatever you wish to call it (in Ulysses it’s just a group of course). Then use the code for a comment paragraph — %% — to write whatever you want. I use the comment block all the time to put a brief synopsis at the top of each scene. So much that I’ve set it up as a simple Control-C keyboard shortcut (this is all in the book if you want more information, but it’s so easy you should be able to work it out for yourself).

Oh and one other thing to note. There are two ways to insert comments in Ulysses. To make entire paragraphs comments that don’t export you use %% like this. If you wanted to make a comment inside a paragraph you use ++. You’d use the latter to insert a comment inside a sentence ++like this++ and the bits between the plus parts won’t appear on export.

So for this purpose we need those percentage signs since we want none of this to appear in the final manuscript. As far as the book is concerned they’re invisible. You don’t get so much as a blank page.

Here’s why I like this way of approaching the synopsis. Firstly, it’s part of the actual text of the section even if it won’t appear. That means it feels connected, more so than if you hide it away somewhere else.

Second — and this is the clincher — it is so very accessible. It will appear in the sheet list of the section so you can refer back to it. Even better you can view it alongside whatever scene you’re writing. Remember: you can always view sheets together when they’re in the same group even if they’re not consecutive. Just select the sheets you want to work with using the Command key and there they are. This way not only can you refer to the synopsis sheet very easily, but you can also adapt and amend it as the story changes.

You could also make all your synopsis sheets favourites if you want so you can see them together. If I’d thought of this before I started this present book (which is three quarters of the way through now) that’s exactly what I’d have done.

Writing is as much about thinking as it is about setting down words. Simple, quick tools like this make my life a lot easier — and of course those synopsis sheets are ideal for playing with on a iPhone or an iPad now. As always feel free to steal, adapt or ignore these ideas completely as you choose.