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Pros and cons of the Snowflake Method

This entry is part 10 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

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The Snowflake Method of story design is just one way to create a plot—but it’s not the best way, nor is it even a good way for all of us. (And we’ll continue to look at more methods to plot stories over the next two weeks.) We’ve already seen how Carol adapted the Snowflake Method to suit her needs as a writer, using its strengths for her and discarding its potential weaknesses. So what are the potential strengths and weaknesses of the Snowflake Method, so we can do this for ourselves?

Pros

After spending so much time refining them and writing about them, you get to know your characters and your plot well. Really well. Before you even write one word of your story, you have pages and pages of information on the characters, their backgrounds, how they see the story unfolding. You know the events, the sequence, the logic there.

Another strength is that you can start with almost nothing and “grow” a plot “naturally.” If you start with just the most basic idea—say, National Treasure for the Amish or something ;)—you can develop your characters and your plot.

Also, the method’s steps alternate between working on characters and on the plot, ensuring that you develop both—but that you don’t have to spend so long working straight on each one that you get bored.

Simply put, if you like to know as much as you can about a book before you start writing, this can be a great way to discover your characters and their storylines.

Cons

On the other hand, using this method can lead to analysis paralysis—you can spend so long trying to perfect your outline and your character profiles that you never actually get around to writing anything.

Or, somewhat conversely, if you go through the first nine steps of this method, for some writers that level of detail in planning can sap the fun out of writing. For all the writers I know, the joy of the journey of writing is in discovery, and if you’ve made all your discoveries before you start writing, sometimes there’s nothing left to motivate you to write on.

And I can say this from experience. Yes, while I am a fully converted pantser, I forgot to mention that my first attempts at plotting almost put me off the practice forever. I used the Snowflake Method to plot two books in between my second and third completed manuscripts. I managed to slog through fourteen pages of notes, outlines and character profiles (through step six) before I let myself get to actually writing.

And it wasn’t any fun. It was an intense struggle to get out a mediocre first chapter. (I’m okay with mediocre first chapters in first drafts, of course, but for the amount of effort made it at least mediocre—well, if I didn’t enjoy writing it, why would I believe anyone would enjoy reading it?) Although I loved and still do love the idea, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write that book now.

(Luckily, I’ve tried a few other methods with more success, which we’ll get to next week.)

Lastly, like the act structure, the Snowflake Method doesn’t give a whole lot of direction for the actual events. I sometimes turn to plotting hoping that I’ll find a plotting method that will tell me exactly what I should have my characters do next. Yeah, not so much.

But beyond “three disasters and an ending,” there’s very little direction in the Snowflake Method on how to get from A to B. There’s just not much in the way of actual structure for a story. Next week, we’ll start looking at methods with a little more guidance on what kind of events and disasters we should have to help craft compelling, non-rambling stories that move along with purpose toward our goal.

What do you think? What other strengths and weaknesses do you see in the Snowflake Method? Have you tried it?

Photo credits: growing plants—Daniel Greene; writer’s block—Jonno Witts

Series NavigationA ten-step snowflake versus a five-step star: Organizing a manuscript my wayApplying the Hero’s Journey
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17 Responses to Pros and cons of the Snowflake Method

  1. Iapetus999 says:

    I don’t think writing is about putting more and more bumps in the road for characters until the road looks like a snowflake pattern. I’m interested in seeing the next few posts.

    • Reba Baker says:

      i think that after taking the long, some what robotic steps of the snowflake methode your novel would read flat. it is a good idea to outline a plot and write charector descriptions but there are more creative and less headache prevoking ways to do that. everything should not be completely worked out before you start writing or it might take the excitment out of writng and reading your book. brainstorming and writing down seens as your inspired is a good way to stay interested in your novel

  2. Jordan says:

    You do know that’s not really where the name comes from, right? (It comes from a fractal pattern, how you can go from a triangle to an elaborate snowflake simply by repeating a simple change—adding complexity one layer or iteration at a time.)

  3. Phu says:

    Thank you for the review! Good luck with your books.

  4. Merovech says:

    “Con…analysis paralysis…” That’s not a defect in the system, therefore not a true con. That’s a feature of the author. A comment later suggests a hidden strength, that it’s a fractal thing. http://jordanmccollum.com/2009/10/personalizing-snowflake-method/ does a good job of highlighting this strength as well. One views a fractal with only as much detail as one needs; then move on. If an author goes into analysis paralysis, that is not the fault of a fractal plotting method.

    By contrast, the Snowflake method pulled me _away_ from analysis paralysis. I was going to go into extreme depth with a novel. Snowflake was at least two levels _less_ details. I then had a conversation with a major author who said, “I write a four-page synopsis and then move on to the rough draft.” That is Step 8 of Snowflake. I personally dropped Step 7, and let writing the story teach me about the characters. Its fractal nature is a Pro.

    Your second con, “Sapping Fun” is also an author feature. I would argue that the fractal nature counteracts this as well. Once you find you’ve started to lose the “fun” in preparing for the story, dive into the draft. Perhaps for some that’s Step One? The issue becomes for an author who feels they much dogmatically follow this (or any) method.

    I would submit that’s another hidden pro of a fractal system. It’s a good place to start. For first novelists, it gives a sufficient framework—hang onto it what other features you need; or don’t. Once you’ve finished (or failed to finish) your first attempt, then you have at least gotten an idea for where your bind was.

    For me, Snowflake kept revealing a massive plothole in my story. I finally decided to drop that entire part from the work. Something that may not occur to some authors until after the first draft.

    A final pro of Snowflake is that it encourages recursion. That is, you start at a step, and regress as needed until _you are satisfied._ Then, dive into the story. When you hit a plothole, that’s a time to regress, rework, and return. All in the first draft. Recursion may not occur to new novelists. I know that has impaired me quite a few times.

  5. Merovech says:

    Sorry for the sloppy writing above. There was a second comment worth making. The concept was lifted out of non-fiction writing. By expanding from one sentence to a paragraph to a page to pages, as long as each remains true to the parent iteration, you have a work that remains within the scope. This is merely an outlining method in narrative form. I’ve used this two write legal papers (during law school I wrote six papers instead of the required one), professional works (to the annoyance of competition, the material is always concise and tight), and in novel writing. Alas, my novel skills trail my other vocations.

  6. Pingback: The Snowflake Method, Part Deux « Phantasma

  7. John says:

    I’ve just found your blog on ‘Pros and cons of the Snowflake Method’ via a Google search. At the end of the piece, you mention that the following week you would be looking at other ‘proprietory’ methods. Can you let me have the link to that further entry please?

    Many thanks

  8. Molly says:

    This review seems pretty negative to me. I like the snowflake method. I find it makes writing a novel more approachable (anyone can write a sentence, right? and if you’ve got a sentence, you can easily write a paragraph, right?) and helps me get to know my characters extremely well. I am currently writing a first novel that I intend to be very plot- and character-driven, and I cannot stress enough how immensely the Snowflake method has helped me.

  9. Damir says:

    The snowflake method, at least for beginning writers, is a very useful and almost vital process. The major problem with most aspiring novelists is that they cannot organize their ideas, and expand main ideas into the events that make up a story.

    analysis paralysis: It is better to know a ton about your character upfront than to have a rambling first draft where you have no idea where you’re going.

    True, writing is discovery, but the fact is that for the most part, the snowflake method leaves much room for discovery and only lays a framework. You will make the tiny decisions the hero makes and the plot twists by chapter, but the snowflake method gives you the confidence of being able to organize the events and be in full control.

    Lastly, it is important to know that in truth, no one can “teach” you to write stories. It is an ability that someone is born with, that is developed, and that is practiced. Reading other writing or engaging in free writing may help develop your skills. But to think that the snowflake method isn’t useful because it doesn’t teach writing is an unfair analysis.

  10. Katie says:

    Well crafted article!

    I personally have enjoyed the lack of plot dirrection in the snowflake method. I would also argue that analysis paralysis is a trait most pansters would go through trying any new outline method. As for taking the joy out of writing the majority of ploters would admit that an outline is a start, not a bible; a map and a plan with room for a few sidetrips.

    I write this partially because I used to hate the snowflake method. With my first attempts at novels and outlines the snowflake method was constantly saying that my stories were too broad (i.e. I could never get the 11 word summary) and my characters were flat because I could never manage the one page character summaries. (step 5)

    I have since trained myself to complete snowflake steps 1,2, and 4 the day I get a premise and fill in through 6 the rest of that week. The dreaded step 5 now feeds the story’s momentum rather than writers block. I can also get a pretty good sense of how fleshed out the story is in my own mind by the problems I have on each step.

    Take what you want from Snowflake like you would any method of course

  11. Reginald McGhee says:

    I am in a process of writing my first novel, and I am using the snowflake method. This is my first time using it too. I would have to agree that using the snowflake method does not give you tips on adding direction to your story. I have to tell the characters where to go next. Therefore, my outline is ten page long, where Randy said that it should be only four pages long. I think I am writing an outline of an encyclopedia! I believe that this is because I have eight characters in my novel.

    About analysis paralysis, I think that can be reduced if we limit the number of characters we have in our book. Say if we have only 4, vs the 8 I have, odds are that there would be little or nothing else to write, since we know everything about each character and have only four instead of more.

  12. TinkerTenor says:

    My thinking here is response to a comment on a different page, and I can’t remember where. The question was, “This is all fine but when can I start writing?”

    My feeling is that if you think of the outlining/plotting/Snowflake part AS writing, you’ll enjoy it more. So once you start the outlining process, you’re writing. You’re still making decisions and creating your world, even if it isn’t in full-out first-draft form. It can be an integrated part of the writing process, and feel just like the discovery you enjoy when writing the first draft. And it can be just as fun, too.

  13. Cole says:

    I tried to use the Snowflake Method about a year ago to write a short comedic novel and I’m pretty sure that it would have worked out well if I had stuck with the actual writing of the draft step. I got two chapters in and started adding stuff my outline hadn’t accounted for and lost track. I think I’m a reluctant plotter–I try to play it as it lies and go without a guide, but I tend to write better with a well-formed plot.

    Anyway, I think your analysis is good. For pantsers, Snowflake’s probably a no-go. And yeah, it could use more than just the three disasters thing in terms of story. But I think that the concept, when personalized effectively, is a great idea.

  14. Brad says:

    I’m pretty sure your “pro’s and cons” aren’t based on any systemic or sustained use of the snowflake method. You list none of the pro’s.

    The actual pro’s are that it is an easy 1-2-3 step by step approach that starts with the smallest kernel of a story, which is what you would have at the time, and builds it up until you have a 1 and a 4 page synopsis. The same with your characters, with just a rough idea of who they are and what they contribute to the story, you build them up from something very small to something substantially meaningful and well-fleshed out. These should be basic things that people do anyways, in some form or another, but doing them in such an even, steady approach is the best.

    After this, you can go into “super-detail” on the 4 page synopsis and/or the characters.

    At least the last step one should do is the one-line per scene list as this will direct the first draft very well. What you do after that, is up to the writer and should IN NO WAY take away from the fun of writing the first draft.

    In conclusion, your critical rejection of the method without consideration to the real pro’s is disappointing. The snowflake method, at the least, is a disciplined, rigorous approach to organizing your story’s summary, its synopsis, and its characters, PURE AND SIMPLE. If you do just the basic steps of these 3 categories and skip the super-detailed steps of the characters and scene lists (that derives from the synopsis and one line scene list)

  15. Brad says:

    you will end up with a very good shell of your story in a lot less time.

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