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A quick look at the Snowflake Method

This entry is part 8 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

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The Snowflake Method is the second plotting method we’re going to look at. Well, creator Randy Ingermanson might not call is a “plotting method”—he’d probably prefer to describe it as a “design method.”

Good stories, he says, come from good design. (It can certainly make them easier to write!) So Randy came up with a way to design and even write a story from a high-level, hook-type idea to a full novel in ten steps. This way, you can identify a “broken” story before you begin—and build yourself a better one.

Before you freak out because you’ve found the new-improved-easy way to plot a story, let me insert here that they’re not easy steps—step 10, for example, is to write the novel. Oy.

We’re going to take a quick look at the method so we’re all on common ground—but do note that the full Snowflake Method article adds much more detail to these steps.

Let’s start at the beginning—the idea. Sum up your idea in one sentence, preferably of less than fifteen words. No, seriously.

Don’t worry about fitting the whole story in there. Just hit the set up (or the hero or the villain) and one or two major points. Randy suggests using the one-line blurbs from the NYT Bestseller list as an example. And we will, too:

The murder of a curator at the Louvre leads to a trail of clues found in the work of Leonardo and to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society.

In step two, we take this sentence and expand it into a paragraph, with, as Randy says, “three disasters plus an ending.” One sentence per act, if you will (I guess that’d be a five-act structure).

Uh . . . okay, it’s been a couple years since I read The Da Vinci Code, but I think it might go like this:

A curator at the Louvre is murdered and his [hot] granddaughter and a [dowdy*] religious symbologist are called to investigate. They find a trail of clues pointing toward a secret society and the Holy Grail, but the police are pursuing them. Following the clues, they flee the country with the aid of the symbologist’s friend and mentor. The friend and mentor betrays them and tries to force them to reveal the location of the Holy Grail. He is arrested and they discover that the hot granddaughter is a lineal descendant of Jesus Christ—the Holy Grail.

*No offense to Hanks, but seriously, I had a short, balding professor in mind as I read. Yeah, that’s not what Brown described. So sue me.

In step three, we leave off with our plot summary and come to focus on our characters. They’re important too, you know. The major characters each get a summary page here on their motivations, goals and characteristics. (Forgive me if we don’t do that here.)

tapping pencilIn step four, we come back to our plot summary and expand each sentence from that paragraph into a paragraph of its own, making the summary roughly a page, too.

Now we’re going back to the characters—step five is to write the plot summary from the POV of each big character—and yes, the plot summary should differ among them—most especially between the hero(es) and the villain(s), but also, in, say, a romance, the hero and the heroine will have a very different perspective on events.

Really, these summaries are as much about the characters themselves—their reactions, perceptions, motivations, interpretations, etc.—as they are about the events of the novel. Major characters’ plot summaries should take a page; minors get half a page.

Guess where we’re going now? Yep, hopping back to the plot summary—now we’re going to make that one-page synopsis into a four-page synopsis. Again, it’s basically making the sentences from the last go-round into paragraphs and the paragraphs into pages.

Step seven takes us back to the characters (you knew that, didn’t you?). Now we’re making their pages into character charts (which you know I’m pretty meh about). Says Randy, the most important aspect to these charts will be to answer the question “How will this character change by the end of the novel?

For step eight we head back to our plot synopsis and make a list of scenes for the novel. The whole novel. (Now that is outlining!) In this step, we focus on just the basic facts—events, POV, locations. Step nine is along the same vein (fooled you there, didn’t I?!)—a narrative summary of each scene, with all the good dialogue and descriptions and tidbits that our doubtlessly floating around in your head now. (This step is optional, Randy says.)

As I mentioned before, step 10 is “write the novel.”

As you move through the steps, of course, you’re free (and even encouraged) to revise previous steps’ work. As always, we have to be flexible to new developments—ready to add a dining room if we find the perfect chandelier ;) .

So, you’re wondering, what’s with the name? The name comes from a simple fractal. You start with a triangle, then replace each straight line with a line with a peak: _/\_ . Star of David. Do it again. More complex, semi-snowflakey thing. Repeat. Even more complex snowflake.

What do you think? Could you take a story from an idea to a novel (or outline) like this? What strengths or weaknesses do you see?

Photo credits: snowflake—Julie Falk; tapping pencil—Tom St. George; fractal wrongness—the mad LOLscientist

Series NavigationPros and cons of the three act structureA ten-step snowflake versus a five-step star: Organizing a manuscript my way
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4 Responses to A quick look at the Snowflake Method

  1. Iapetus999 says:

    The question I have is: when am I done outlining and ready to start writing?
    This is the problem I have with outlining in general. At least with pantsing when I’m done writing I have a whole story. This outlining phase could last indefinitely, and last time I checked, outlines don’t sell.

    Here’s the thing. Ideas come when they come. If you have an idea for a scene, write it out. If you have an idea for a character, write it out. I think creating a story should be a combination of plotting and just writing.

    Another point he makes is that this method cuts down on the time it takes to create a novel. That’s nice but what about the quallity/marketability? Also my WIP I sense vast areas of research in my future. When exactly does this research happen?

    I’ve still in the middle of my outlining experiment, which borrows a lot from this method. I just want to know when I can write. Cause that’s the part that I truly love.

  2. Jordan says:

    That’s the eternal question ;) . We have a guest post related to this for tomorrow. It’s so easy to get into “analysis paralysis.”

    Other than a note in my outline/plot notes, I tend to keep all my ideas for one story in my head until I’m ready to put them in place in the story. If I’d started one of my books at the scene I first thought of (in the middle of the book), it would be a different book. I included the scene in the outline, but when it came down to it, it didn’t make sense. I had to change the location and the purpose—and even the conflict between the characters. (Ideas for future stories get dumped into a notes file.)

    He actually says that the quality is better because you know if/how the story works—but any plotting method can help with that.

    I think the answer to your question is “When you’re ready,” usually when you can’t hold back any longer.

  3. That “analysis paralysis” phrase cracks me up! It describes perfectly what happens when I research endlessly, read ‘how to’ books to the exclusion of actually writing, worry whether a passage is written well enough and work it to death, etc. Sometimes we have to just get on with the writing and accept that there will be significant revisions to do later.

  4. Jordan says:

    That’s something I’ve been working on this time around. Instead of fretting over how I don’t describe a whole lot in first drafts, I’m allowing myself to write as I normally do and know that I can add descriptions later.

    I learned about “analysis paralysis” in my job in Internet marketing. It was easy to get inundated with data and still not know what to do—or even be able to analyze all the data enough to know what to do. (It’s especially annoying on the client side ;) !)

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