Tag Archives: snowflake method

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?


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.


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

A ten-step snowflake versus a five-step star: Organizing a manuscript my way

This entry is part 9 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

by Carol J. Garvin

If you were to ask, my family would tell you I have a thing for snowflakes. Childhood efforts to catch and melt them on my tongue evolved into a slightly out-of-control adult passion to amass the ultimate collection including jewelry, embroidered fabrics, candles and other home accessories. Every December we dangle giant snowflakes in our windows instead of wreaths and display a tree decorated entirely with a variety of snowflakes set aglow by tiny white twinkle lights.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that the idea of a “snowflake” method of writing would appeal to me. Of course, if you’ve read any of my whining about outlines and plotting you might guess that I’d grasp at anything likely to improve my odds of producing a more organized manuscript.

I’ve never liked being tied to an outline so when Randy Ingermanson’s recommended Ten Steps of Design appeared to offer a less rigid approach I gave it a try.

KochFlakeThe first step in the Snowflake approach required getting the essence of my story condensed into one sentence—always a challenge but something I was going to have to do sooner or later to answer the always-dreaded, “What’s your novel about?” question. The second step was to expand that one sentence into a short paragraph—once again a useful exercise that could later form the basis of a synopsis. I shirked somewhat on the third step that called for a full-page summary sheet for each of my characters and instead created summary paragraphs.

At this point my good intentions balked. The remaining steps had me spending too much time repeatedly going over the same ground in an effort to record information that I hadn’t yet created. I wasn’t developing a snowflake design so much as creating a daisy pattern, each step causing me to return to the centre fulcrum and trace ever-increasing loops.

All this building on the basics was meant to leave me with the story virtually complete and thus simplify the writing process. The theory is sound but for me it had the effect of capping the fountain of creativity and dragging me to a standstill.

I didn’t cease writing permanently, of course. I examined what had been working and analyzed why it no longer was. Just as Jordan suggested in her post on story architecture. I learned that what I need is to have a basic plan in place but with reassurance that I’m not locked into following its every detail. I need more flexibility than the true Snowflake Method allows. As a result, I adapted the steps for an abbreviated approach that helps create my initial building blocks and then keeps track of scenes and chapter content as I write.

If I have to backtrack occasionally to accommodate a new character or scene, that’s okay but usually I write straight through to the conclusion of a bare bones first draft. As I review and revise I add a succession of new layers of description and detail to flesh out the story, setting and characters.

Since I skip half the steps, what I’m doing doesn’t represent the true Snowflake Method but only a vague version of it. It has just five points (kind of like a star rather than a snowflake):

  1. Create a one-sentence summary of the story.
  2. Expand the one sentence into a paragraph that outlines the story basics.
  3. Expand the paragraph into a page or two that introduces the main characters, the conflict, complications, and resolution. Include how the MC will change throughout the story (i.e., intended character arc).
  4. Create a spreadsheet into which highlights of each chapter’s action will be inserted as the first draft is written.
  5. Revise draft, adding details and description to enrich the writing.

I could be criticized for taking shortcuts and not giving the Snowflake Method a fair try but I’ve already admitted I need flexibility. My commitment to begin with that method didn’t extend to any kind of promise that I would stay with it. I truly believe each novelist must approach story building via whatever method works, however unique it might be. There is no one right way that will suit everyone. The only way to guarantee the successful completion of a novel is to keep writing and the smart novelist utilizes whatever tools it takes to reach that goal.

About the author
Carol J. Garvin, blogging at Careann’s Musings, is a freelance writer with articles in various Canadian magazines and publications. She lives in southwestern British Columbia and is a member of the Federation of BC Writers and the Langley Writers’ Guild. She has written a family memoir that is not meant for publication, and began writing novels ten years ago. She is on her third but so far none are ready to send out into the world quite yet . . . but soon. Besides writing, her other passions are her church and family, gardening, reading, music, painting and purebred dogs.

A quick look at the Snowflake Method

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

Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

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