The Snowflake Method
While developing my creative writing course (due out next month), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking both about the way stories are structured and the processes writers use to go from idea to draft.
In pursuit of further data, I finally got around to reading How to Use the Snowflake Method to Write a Novel by Randy Ingermanson. This link above is an affiliate link to the book, which means that if you decide to buy it and to use the link, I will get a teeny tiny bit of the proceeds at no cost to you. Please do not feel any pressure, of course, to do either of those things.
Now, let’s get it into it...
The book’s narrative, used to show the Snowflake Method in action, follows Goldilocks, now an aspiring author who has no idea how to actually write her novel. We, the reader, learn the Snowflake Method alongside Goldilocks as she attends a writing workshop led by Baby Bear.
Some readers may benefit from reading the narrative and getting the nitty-gritty details about the elements of a good story. However, the Snowflake Method itself is relatively simple, and many writers won’t need further explanation past the steps laid out below. What the book does do particularly well, however, is it showcases the types of changes you could expect to see your story undergo as you move from step-to-step, and these examples may be helpful to you depending on how you learn best and where you are in your writing journey.
The Snowflake Method, if you haven't divined this already, is all about working through a sequence of steps. This is where the snowflake example comes in:
If you as an average person attempted to draw a snowflake free-hand with all of its details included, it probably would come out as a mess. If instead, you used an iterative process (a series of successively smaller and accurately placed triangles) to get more and more detailed (as in the graphic here), you’d come out with a pretty cool and relatively precise snowflake.
Ingermanson believes that this sort of iterative process is also the best approach to writing a novel.
Thus the Snowflake Method is comprised of ten steps that start with a big picture overview and then require progressively more detailed work from the writer. After each step, Ingermanson suggests going back and editing the work from previous steps to match it up with the new things you’ve discovered.
For someone who’s never written a novel before, doesn’t have a process yet, and likes structure, the Snowflake Method would be a pretty good place to start.
Here are the steps:
Step 1: Write a one-sentence summary of your story. You’re looking for the “big idea” in its most interesting yet concise form. In other approaches, this might be called the logline. One hour is suggested for this task.
Step 2: Take your one-sentence summary and turn it into a one-paragraph summary that describes the set-up, three disasters, and an ending. You’ll probably want a sentence for each. Ingermanson says that the first disaster can be an accident of some sort, but that the subsequent disasters (aka plot points) should be caused by how the main character is trying to fix things.
Step 3: Create a high-level overview of each of your major characters. This should include their name, a one-sentence summary of their individual storyline, motivation (abstract), goal (concrete), conflict (what keeps them from the goal), epiphany (what they learn/how they change), and finally, a one-paragraph summary of their individual storyline.
Step 4: Taking a few hours to do so, expand each sentence from step 2 into more or less into its own paragraph. Each paragraph except for the final one, which will tell how the story ends, should conclude in one of the aforementioned disasters.
Step 5: Write a one-page character synopsis for each major character and a half-page synopsis for each minor character, telling the story from the perspective of each. This step should take a day or two.
Step 6: Expand upon step 4, taking each one-paragraph summary and turning it into a page. Ingermanson suggests taking a week on this step.
Step 7: Take your character synopses from step 5 and turn them into full character bibles with all of the information you could possibly want or need to know. They should be fully formed people by the end of this step. Don’t forget to pay attention to how they change over the course of the story.
Step 8: Take your four-page synopsis from step 6 and break each page into a series of scenes. Ingermanson and I suggest doing this in a spreadsheet.
Step 9: Write out the story, using a couple of paragraphs to describe each scene on your spreadsheet. (Ingermanson now considers this step to be optional.) I personally would recommend this step to more hesitant writers; writers who feel ready to start on their manuscript should go ahead and do so.
Step 10: Write the dang book.
If you feel like the Snowflake Method might be the system for you but you feel like you need some more information, then go ahead and grab the book. (Yep, it’s another affiliate link.)
Don’t hesitate, however, to use the idea behind the Snowflake Method but tailor the steps to fit your individual needs and preferences. This is just one process out of many possibilities, and there is no right or wrong way; there is only what works best for you at any given time.
Although the method and book are aimed at writing a novel, there’s no reason that you couldn’t take the premise and/or the steps and apply them to a screenplay or stageplay. You’d need to make some adjustments for a series, but the idea of working from in progressive detail from big-picture to close-up is a valid way to approach any piece of writing.
Let me know if you’ve read the book or used the Snowflake Method on your own project(s). I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences.