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The Snowflake Method For Designing A Novel
Writing a novel is easy . Writing a good novel is hard. That’s just life. If it were easy, we’d all be writing best-selling, prize-winning fiction.
Frankly, there are a thousand different people out there who can tell you how to write a novel. There are a thousand different methods. The best one for you is the one that works for you.
In this article , I’d like to share with you what works for me. I’ve published six novels and won about a dozen awards for my writing. I teach the craft of writing fiction at writing conferences all the time. One of my most popular lectures is this one: How to write a novel using what I call the “Snowflake Method.”
This page is the most popular one on my web site, and gets over a thousand page views per day. Over the years, this page has been viewed more than six million times. So you can guess that a lot of people find it useful. But you may not, and that’s fine by me. Look it over, decide what might work for you, and ignore the rest! If it makes you dizzy, I won’t be insulted. Different writers are different. If my methods get you rolling, I’ll be happy. I’ll make the best case I can for my way of organizing things, but you are the final judge of what works best for you. Have fun and . . . write your novel!
The Importance of Design
Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it is designed. You can do the design work before or after you write your novel. I’ve done it both ways and I strongly believe that doing it first is quicker and leads to a better result. Design is hard work, so it’s important to find a guiding principle early on. This article will give you a powerful metaphor to guide your design.
Our fundamental question is this: How do you design a novel?
For a number of years, I was a software architect designing large software projects. I write novels the same way I write software, using the “snowflake metaphor”. OK, what’s the snowflake metaphor? Before you go further, take a look at this cool web site .
The first few steps look like this:
I claim that that’s how you design a novel — you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can’t teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity — getting it organized into a well-structured novel. That’s what I’d like to teach you here.
If you’re like most people, you spend a long time thinking about your novel before you ever start writing. You may do some research. You daydream about how the story’s going to work. You brainstorm. You start hearing the voices of different characters. You think about what the book’s about — the Deep Theme. This is an essential part of every book which I call “composting”. It’s an informal process and every writer does it differently. I’m going to assume that you know how to compost your story ideas and that you have already got a novel well-composted in your mind and that you’re ready to sit down and start writing that novel.
The Ten Steps of Design
But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story — holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document. And you need to produce it using a process that doesn’t kill your desire to actually write the story. Here is my ten-step process for writing a design document. I use this process for writing my novels, and I hope it will help you.
Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture.
When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It’s the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can!
Some hints on what makes a good sentence:
- Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words.
- No character names, please! Better to say “a handicapped trapeze artist” than “Jane Doe”.
- Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win.
- Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form.
Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as “three disasters plus an ending”. Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. I don’t know if this is the ideal structure, it’s just my personal taste.
If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist’s attempts to “fix things”. Things just get worse and worse.
You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. Don’t confuse this paragraph with the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story.
Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:
- The character’s name
- A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
- The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
- The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
- The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
- The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
- A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline
An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good–it means your characters are teaching you things about your story. It’s always okay at any stage of the design process to go back and revise earlier stages. In fact, it’s not just okay–it’s inevitable. And it’s good. Any revisions you make now are revisions you won’t need to make later on to a clunky 400 page manuscript.
Another important point: It doesn’t have to be perfect. The purpose of each step in the design process is to advance you to the next step. Keep your forward momentum! You can always come back later and fix it when you understand the story better. You will do this too, unless you’re a lot smarter than I am.
Step 4) By this stage, you should have a good idea of the large-scale structure of your novel, and you have only spent a day or two. Well, truthfully, you may have spent as much as a week, but it doesn’t matter. If the story is broken, you know it now, rather than after investing 500 hours in a rambling first draft. So now just keep growing the story. Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.
This is a lot of fun, and at the end of the exercise, you have a pretty decent one-page skeleton of your novel. It’s okay if you can’t get it all onto one single-spaced page. What matters is that you are growing the ideas that will go into your story. You are expanding the conflict. You should now have a synopsis suitable for a proposal, although there is a better alternative for proposals . . .
Step 5) Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These “character synopses” should tell the story from the point of view of each character. As always, feel free to cycle back to the earlier steps and make revisions as you learn cool stuff about your characters. I usually enjoy this step the most and lately, I have been putting the resulting “character synopses” into my proposals instead of a plot-based synopsis. Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction.
Step 6) By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now take a week and expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page. This is a lot of fun, because you are figuring out the high-level logic of the story and making strategic decisions. Here, you will definitely want to cycle back and fix things in the earlier steps as you gain insight into the story and new ideas whack you in the face.
Step 7) Take another week and expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. The standard stuff such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel? This is an expansion of your work in step (3), and it will teach you a lot about your characters. You will probably go back and revise steps (1-6) as your characters become “real” to you and begin making petulant demands on the story. This is good — great fiction is character-driven. Take as much time as you need to do this, because you’re just saving time downstream. When you have finished this process, (and it may take a full month of solid effort to get here), you have most of what you need to write a proposal. If you are a published novelist, then you can write a proposal now and sell your novel before you write it. If you’re not yet published, then you’ll need to write your entire novel first before you can sell it. No, that’s not fair, but life isn’t fair and the world of fiction writing is especially unfair.
Step 8) You may or may not take a hiatus here, waiting for the book to sell. At some point, you’ve got to actually write the novel. Before you do that, there are a couple of things you can do to make that traumatic first draft easier. The first thing to do is to take that four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel. And the easiest way to make that list is . . . with a spreadsheet.
For some reason, this is scary to a lot of writers. Oh the horror. Deal with it. You learned to use a word-processor. Spreadsheets are easier. You need to make a list of scenes, and spreadsheets were invented for making lists. If you need some tutoring, buy a book. There are a thousand out there, and one of them will work for you. It should take you less than a day to learn the itty bit you need. It’ll be the most valuable day you ever spent. Do it.
Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline. Make just one line for each scene. In one column, list the POV character. In another (wide) column, tell what happens. If you want to get fancy, add more columns that tell you how many pages you expect to write for the scene. A spreadsheet is ideal, because you can see the whole storyline at a glance, and it’s easy to move scenes around to reorder things.
My spreadsheets usually wind up being over 100 lines long, one line for each scene of the novel. As I develop the story, I make new versions of my story spreadsheet. This is incredibly valuable for analyzing a story. It can take a week to make a good spreadsheet. When you are done, you can add a new column for chapter numbers and assign a chapter to each scene.
Step 9) (Optional. I don’t do this step anymore.) Switch back to your word processor and begin writing a narrative description of the story. Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the essential conflict of that scene. If there’s no conflict, you’ll know it here and you should either add conflict or scrub the scene.
I used to write either one or two pages per chapter, and I started each chapter on a new page. Then I just printed it all out and put it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily swap chapters around later or revise chapters without messing up the others. This process usually took me a week and the end result was a massive 50-page printed document that I would revise in red ink as I wrote the first draft. All my good ideas when I woke up in the morning got hand-written in the margins of this document. This, by the way, is a rather painless way of writing that dreaded detailed synopsis that all writers seem to hate. But it’s actually fun to develop, if you have done steps (1) through (8) first. When I did this step, I never showed this synopsis to anyone, least of all to an editor — it was for me alone. I liked to think of it as the prototype first draft. Imagine writing a first draft in a week! Yes, you can do it and it’s well worth the time. But I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like I need this step anymore, so I don’t do it now.
Step 10) At this point, just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel. You will be astounded at how fast the story flies out of your fingers at this stage. I have seen writers triple their fiction writing speed overnight, while producing better quality first drafts than they usually produce on a third draft.
You might think that all the creativity is chewed out of the story by this time. Well, no, not unless you overdid your analysis when you wrote your Snowflake. This is supposed to be the fun part, because there are many small-scale logic problems to work out here. How does Hero get out of that tree surrounded by alligators and rescue Heroine who’s in the burning rowboat? This is the time to figure it out! But it’s fun because you already know that the large-scale structure of the novel works. So you only have to solve a limited set of problems, and so you can write relatively fast.
This stage is incredibly fun and exciting. I have heard many fiction writers complain about how hard the first draft is. Invariably, that’s because they have no clue what’s coming next. Good grief! Life is too short to write like that! There is no reason to spend 500 hours writing a wandering first draft of your novel when you can write a solid one in 150. Counting the 100 hours it takes to do the design documents, you come out way ahead in time.
About midway through a first draft, I usually take a breather and fix all the broken parts of my design documents. Yes, the design documents are not perfect. That’s okay. The design documents are not fixed in concrete, they are a living set of documents that grows as you develop your novel. If you are doing your job right, at the end of the first draft you will laugh at what an amateurish piece of junk your original design documents were. And you’ll be thrilled at how deep your story has become.
Ways To Use The Snowflake
Are you struggling right now with a horrible first draft of your novel that just seems hopeless? Take an hour and summarize your story in one sentence. Does that clarify things? You’ve just completed step (1) of the Snowflake, and it only took an hour. Why not try the next few steps of the Snowflake and see if your story doesn’t suddenly start coming to life? What have you got to lose, except a horrible first draft that you already hate?
Are you a seat-of-the-pants writer who finally finished your novel, but now you’re staring at an enormous pile of manuscript that desperately needs rewriting? Take heart! Your novel’s done, isn’t it? You’ve done something many writers only dream about. Now imagine a big-shot editor bumps into you in the elevator and asks what your novel’s about. In fifteen words or less, what would you say? Take your time! This is a thought game. What would you say? If you can come up with an answer in the next hour . . . you’ve just completed Step 1 of the Snowflake! Do you think some of the other steps might help you put some order into that manuscript? Give it a shot. What have you got to lose?
Have you just got a nightmarishly long letter from your editor detailing all the things that are wrong with your novel? Are you wondering how you can possibly make all the changes before your impossible deadline? It’s never too late to do the Snowflake. How about if you take a week and drill through all the steps right now? It’ll clarify things wonderfully, and then you’ll have a plan for executing all those revisions. I bet you’ll get it done in record time. And I bet the book will come out better than you imagined.
If the Snowflake Method works for you, I’d like to hear from you. You can reach me through the contact page on my web-site.
Acknowledgments: I thank my many friends on the Chi Libris list and especially Janelle Schneider for a large number of discussions on the Snowflake and much else.
Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D.
Want to Learn More About the Snowflake Method?
Want a Tool to Make the Snowflake Method Fast, Easy, and Fun?
The software tool I use is called Plottr , and it’s written by a programmer friend of mine, Cameron Sutter.
Plottr is a program that helps you design your novel using several different methods, including the Snowflake Method.
I liked it so much , I gave Cameron some free labor to make Plottr work way better with the Snowflake Method.
First , I created a Snowflake Method Character Template that Cameron put into Plottr so that you can easily design characters using Steps 3, 5, and 7 of the Snowflake Method.
Then I created a Snowflake Method Plot Template for managing the timelines in Plottr , and Cameron put that in Plottr also. (Timelines let you visualize your scene lists from the Snowflake Method.)
Finally , I created a Snowflake Method Project Template that walks you through the first nine steps in the Snowflake Method, with exact directions on what to do, and in which order, and exactly how to do it in Plottr . Cameron didn’t have any full Project Templates in Plottr , but he liked mine, so he added a Project Template feature to Plottr .
As I said, I use Plottr myself now for my novel design work, and I recommend it to all Snowflakers. Plottr runs on both Macs and Windows, and it has a 14-day free trial and a 30-day money-back guarantee. And it’s priced extremely reasonably.
Click here to learn more about Plottr .
About The Author
Translations of This Article
This article is immensely popular and has been translated into several languages. Here they are, in the order that the translations were done:
- German : Read the German translation here .
- German: Read a different German translation here .
- Italian : Read the Italian translation here .
- Russian : Read the Russian translation here .
- French : Read the French translation here .
- Spanish : Read the Spanish translation here .
- Japanese : Read the Japanese translation here .
- Czech : Read the Czech translation here .
- Serbian : Read the Serbian translation here .
- Traditional Chinese : Read the Traditional Chinese translation here .
- Brazilian Portuguese : Read the Brazilian Portuguese translation here .
- Dutch : Read the Dutch translation here.
- Vietnamese : Read the Vietnamese translation here .
- Hindi : Read the Hindi translation here .
- Hebrew : Read the Hebrew translation here .
If you know of other translations, please let me know about them on my Contact page .
Translators: If you’d like permission to do a translation, email me on my Contact Page . After you complete the translation, let me know and I’ll include a link to your translation here.
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Posted on Oct 12, 2018
The Snowflake Method: 6 Steps to a Powerful Story Outline
In the annals of ‘unhelpful writing tips offered to first-time novelists,’ Neil Gaiman’s oft-quoted opinion takes the cake: “You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard.”
If you’ve never written a novel before (and you don’t have an MFA in creative writing), it's only understandable that you’re daunted by the prospect of writing a book . This uncertainty is precisely why outlining systems, such as The Snowflake Method, are so appealing to developing writers.
If you want to find out how to use the snowflake method, feel free to skip ahead to this section . But if you have a moment, let’s first look at the basics of this popular approach.
What is the Snowflake Method?
The Snowflake Method is an approach to writing that encourages starting with the simplest premise possible. From there, you systematically expand it to include plot and character details. Developed by American author, physicist, and writing coach Randy Ingermanson , the method's end result is a comprehensive character bible and scene list with which an author can begin the first draft.
“My power flurries through the air into the ground. My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around” — “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen
Given Ingermanson’s background as a computational physicist, it should come as no surprise that his method was inspired by a mathematical principle known as a fractal. In particular, he references the Koch Snowflake to demonstrate how your story grows with each subsequent stage of the planning process .
It's probably no surprise to you to learn that every writer uses a different outline. If you're curious about the general outlining process, we dive deeper into the topic in this post on how to outline a novel. (Feel free to grab the free book outline template in there as well!) But for now, let's talk about the advantages of this particular method.
What are the benefits of the snowflake method?
Fans of Ingermanson’s method tend to enjoy how structured the process is. Not only does he lay out practical steps for outlining, but he also gives an idea of how long each step should take. For example, he suggests spending an hour on the very first step of honing a single-sentence story summary. Later on, when writing a character bible, he recommends spending a few hours on each character.
The Snowflake Method also identifies and fixes a common cause of Abandoned First Draft Syndrome: plot holes. It’s common for writers to be 20,000 words into a first draft before noticing major story issues that they need to go back and fix.
By working toward a scene list and, more importantly, synopses for every character, you can better identify plot holes before you even start chapter one. If the butler commits a murder in Chapter 20, you can make sure he isn’t imprisoned for life in Chapter 12.
With the help of the Snowflake Method, many writers have been able to follow-through and complete a draft of their novel where previously they may have failed.
How to use the Snowflake Method to write a novel (in 6 steps)
Without giving away every detail of Ingermanson’s process, here’s a quick look at how you can use the snowflake method to write a novel:
Step 1: Write a one-sentence story summary
Encapsulate what your novel is about in a single sentence. You might also call this ‘the hook’: a line that you can use in almost any situation to get anybody interested in your book .
A revenge-obsessed whaler embarks on a deadly voyage to hunt the beast that took his leg.
Whisked away to a magical boarding school, an orphaned boy discovers that he’s a famous wizard.
This practice will be closely related to the theme of your novel . When constructing this single sentence, it’s important to avoid specifics. A character’s name isn’t as useful as a reference to their personal goal, for example. For this step, writers are urged to keep their sentence under 15-words long.
Step 2: Expand it to a one-paragraph summary
If you are imagining the snowflake metaphor , this is when the triangle turns into a star. Building off the details in your one-sentence summary, add a few elements here and there until you have retold your story in five sentences.
This is where you will introduce your major plot points. If you’re a fan of the three-act structure , you’ll want to include:
- The exposition (what is the status quo at the start of the story)
- The first plot point (what major event kicks off the story),
- The mid-point (where things take a turn for the worse), and
- Plot point two (where your character hits rock-bottom and starts turning things around)
- Climax and denouement (how the story resolves)
It’s worth putting time into getting this summary just right. You can always come back to revise it if things change, but having these plot signposts in place will help guide the next few steps.
Step 3. Start small with your characters
Now that you’ve started expanding your view of the plot, Ingermanson suggests shifting down a gear and painting your characters with broad brushstrokes.
This is where you identify all the major characters in your book, give them names and spend an hour identifying their:
- Motivations (what drives them in life)
- Goals (what non-abstract things do they want)
- Conflict (what prevents them from achieving their goal)
- Epiphany (how they overcome that conflict)
It’s worth bearing in mind both external and internal conflict . If a character’s goal is to get that big promotion, then their conflict might be with the bully from HR (external conflict) and their own self-confidence (internal conflict).
At the end of this stage, you’ll have an idea of the major players’ character arcs .
Step 4. Expand your one-paragraph summary into a single page
Ingermanson sees this stage as taking a few hours, as you blow out each sentence of your one-paragraph summary (step 2) into a full paragraph. To develop your story into blocks that are easy to understand and write, you can end every paragraph with what he calls a ‘disaster’ — which you might interpret as a major plot point or a cliffhanger.
Step 5. Character bibles and character synopses
This is the first stage where you, the story designer, will roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Armed with your short character summaries and your one-page plot, you will now create a one-page dossier for each major character (and a half-page for the minor ones).
If you want a bit more guidance, you can find various online guides to fleshing out characters, or download and fill out this free character profile template . By going deep into your major characters’ backstories, you’ll likely discover reasons why they might behave in a certain way during your story.
Once your character bible is complete, you then write a synopsis for each character. This involves outlining each character’s journey through the novel. This is perhaps one of the most useful parts of the snowflake method — especially when you’re writing for plot-heavy genres such as mystery or suspense. What a character knows at any given point in the book will factor heavily into whether the story ‘works’.
So let’s take stock: you have a long synopsis, character bibles, and fleshed-out story threads for each character. This leaves only one step in your preparation.
Step 6. Write a four-page synopsis and scene list
Remember how you expanded every sentence of your short synopsis into paragraphs to form your long synopsis? Here, you effectively do the same: taking every paragraph from the long synopsis and letting them breathe over a page each. Naturally, you might get the urge to write more descriptively, but resist that urge and keep every sentence just as tightly focused as before.
And then, last of all, you’ll want to draft out a scene list, where you detail exactly what will happen in every scene of your book.
Of course, there’s much more to the process than what’s been listed above. If you want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, you can always buy and read Ingermanson’s book on the Snowflake Method.
Things to remember
Watch out you don’t find yourself bogged down in analysis and not actually writing anything!
Going back and revising previous stages is not just okay: it's encouraged! This shows your characters are telling you more about your story. Major changes (your protagonist is no longer a lawyer encountering family troubles, but a high witch of a faraway fantastical land) might call for a start-over, but little additions and tweaks are all part of the joy of the process.
Seek intricacy, not perfection. Keep up the forward momentum and don’t worry about making every stage perfect before moving on. Every step of this method is intended to be a springboard and move you onto the next stage — not roadblocks designed to hinder you.
Many writers swear by the snowflake method — but ultimately, the only way to see if it will work for you is to try it. And even if you find yourself deviating from it at some point, at the very least it can help you get a running start by crystallizing those crucial first story elements.
Has the snowflake method worked for you before? Let us know how you find applying this to your own writing in the comments below!
13/06/2019 – 01:57
Could you give examples on the 5 sentences of part 2?
Amazing Blair Peery says:
16/06/2019 – 17:01
I second Andreas: Please show us the 5 bulleted sentences that would have been written for, say, "Gone With the Wind" or Star Wars". That would help us understand the concepts better. Thanks!
↪️ Martin Cavannagh replied:
17/06/2019 – 12:47
Martin from Reedsy here. I'm happy to take a bash using Star Wars as an example. 1. The exposition — Luke, a young farm boy on a desert planet dreams of excitement. 2. First plot point — Luke discovers a message from a princess in trouble and recruits a Jedi master and a smuggler to go save her. 3. Mid-point — Luke successfully rescues the princess but his mentor sacrifices himself so that the team can make their escape. 4. Plot point two — The villain closes in on the rebel base and as Luke prepares to defend it, Han decides to bail on him. 5. Climax and denouement — Luke discover his force powers, and Han has a change of heart — together they destroy the death star and save the day. Medals for everyone!
30/08/2019 – 15:34
I used this method to write my first novel and an abbreviated version for the 2nd and 3rd book of that trilogy.
Alicia O Williams says:
21/09/2019 – 05:47
Thank you for expanding more on this outline.
Comments are currently closed.
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Snowflake Method in 8 Steps With Examples + Free Templates
Ready to plot your story idea? The snowflake method is a brilliant technique for outlining your story ideas in just a few simple steps.
Originally created by Randy Ingermanson, the snowflake method has quickly become one of the ’go-to’ tools for both beginners and experienced writers. The basic idea behind this method is that you start off small, and then keep on expanding until you end up with a fully formulated outline of your story (or the snowflake).
Just like all tasks in life, everything is better when it’s simplified and small-sized. Just imagine if your parents ask you to clean the whole, entire house – That could take ages! Now imagine if your parents asked you to just wash the dishes – Okay, that seems a lot more manageable, right? And then you can mop the floor, take the trash out, clean the cat and so on. Eventually, without even realising it, you cleaned the whole house! Applying this exact concept in story writing means that you can start off small, and eventually have a complete novel at the end.
In this post, we have outlined the snowflake method in eight simple steps, along with examples to help you learn this super easy story plotting technique.
You might also want to try the story mountain method for outlining your story ideas.
What is the Snowflake Method?
1. write a one-sentence summary of your idea., 2. write a one-sentence summary about the setting., 3. write a one-sentence summary for each main character., 4. go back to step 1. expand your one-sentence summary to a paragraph., 5. go back to step 2. expand your setting description to one paragraph., 6. go back to step 3. create a one-page character profile for each character., 7. make a list of key scenes. write down one sentence to describe each scene., 8. write a 2 page summary of what your story is about., benefits of the snowflake writing method, free snowflake method templates.
The snowflake method is a technique for outlining your story ideas. You start off with a simple sentence and keep adding to it. The end result is a complete structure of your story’s plot, characters and key scenes.
When many writers start working on a novel, they tend to have an idea, and then start processing that idea chapter-by-chapter. Let’s say our story idea is a modern-day fairy-tale about a homeless teenager who becomes a millionaire. This chapter-by-chapter approach means that we may brainstorm our plot based on each chapter:
- Chapter 1: Introduce the main character
- Chapter 2: Show flashbacks of early childhood
- Chapter 3: The main character gets attacked by another homeless kid.
When writing your story like this, it feels heavy and tiresome. Yes, you have broken your big novel down into chapters, but you completely skimmed out important story elements , such as characters and settings. You also have very little idea of what your story is really about, and what the moral of it is. You can use our chapter book creator to make your own chapter book online.
The snowflake method focuses more on the story idea and develops this idea from every angle before jumping into the actual writing of the story. Here is what the steps would like when taking the snowflake approach:
- Write your idea down in one sentence.
- Expand your idea into one paragraph.
- Make a list of characters.
- Write a paragraph describing each character’s role in the story.
- Think about the setting. Write a one-paragraph summary to describe this setting
We’ll explain these steps in more detail below. For now, all you need to know is that the snowflake technique is all about starting small, and then expanding until you essentially have a draft of your story.
Snowflake Method in 8 Easy Steps (With Examples)
How do you do the snowflake method? Before you begin, you’ll need a story idea. You can use an idea generator app or find inspiration from anywhere in your life. Once you have an idea ready, you can complete the following snowflake method steps to outline your idea:
Your story idea is likely to be in pieces, and that’s completely fine. Just take some time to bullet point down all the ideas you have in your head. From all the scribbles, try to summarise your idea in just one sentence alone. Give yourself plenty of time – In fact, Randy Ingermanson recommends spending at least 1 hour on this step.
This one sentence should provide an overview of your entire story in the shortest words possible. Try to aim for between 6 – 15 words in your sentence. Randy also recommends that you do not include any character names in your one-sentence summary. Here are some examples of one-sentence story summaries:
- A retired nurse discovers a deadly disease on holiday.
- Living on the streets, a teenage girl finds an alien weapon.
- A shy girl embarks on a journey to become a world-famous singer.
All these example one-sentence summaries include a reference to a character and something that happens to them. Using these tips try creating your own one-sentence summary now, and share it with us in the comments below.
An important story element is the setting. Randy’s original snowflake method does not reference settings, but we think it’s helpful for new writers to think about this element. When it comes to settings, this could include a physical location or references to a particular time period. For example, the woods, a haunted house or the year 3,000.
Think about where your story will take place. Here are some examples of one-sentence summaries for settings:
- During the summer holidays on the tropical island of Saint Lucia.
- The dark streets of London in the 1830s.
- A futuristic city in the year 2,895.
- Inside a haunted house on Halloween night.
Again you can take an hour to jot down your setting ideas, and then write a one-sentence summary of your setting.
Characters are at the core of any story. Both the main and secondary characters are important. In this step, we ask you to start by listing out your characters. In a bullet-pointed list just write your character’s name and a sentence to describe their role in the story.
Here are some examples of one-sentence character summaries:
- Abigail Branson: A retired nurse, and the hero of the story.
- Dev Sumider: The doctor who catches the first wave of the virus.
- Matthew Richards: A billionaire who invested money into creating the virus.
- Dr Lennons: A experienced doctor with over 40 years of experience in medical science.
By now you have noted down all the important elements of your story. The next step is to add more details to your summaries. Review your one-sentence story summary from step 1. Now your task is to turn this one sentence into a one-paragraph story summary. This one-paragraph summary is similar to a blurb that you would find on the back of books.
Take the following example of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
When writing your one-paragraph summaries, you can include your main character, setting, as well as the major conflict or problem in your story.
Here is another example:
- One-sentence summary: A retired nurse discovers a deadly disease on holiday.
- One paragraph summary: While on holiday with her family, Abigail Branson a retired nurse from New York catches a rare and deadly virus. On a mission to save herself, her family and the rest of the world, Abigail has two missions. The first is to find a way to stop this virus from spreading. And her second mission is to find out who is responsible for creating this virus. The sunny island of Saint Lucia has never looked so dark and dangerous.
Here you can see, that we included some details about the main character, the setting, as well as some of the conflicts or disasters the main character will face. We’re now coming close to understanding what this story is about, and a basic structure of how it may be laid out.
We now need to do the same for the one-sentence ‘settings’ summary from step 2. A setting is not just a physical location, it’s also the mood you are trying to create in your story. For example, a horror story would follow a dark, creepy tone, while a fantasy tale would have a magical and epic feeling about it. With your one-paragraph ‘settings’ summary try to think about the physical location, the mood, time period and link this back to your main character.
Here is an example paragraph summary of the Hogwarts setting in the Harry Potter series:
Take a look at this example:
- One sentence summary: During the summer holidays on the tropical island of Saint Lucia.
- One paragraph summary: Wanting to take a break from the busy city of New York, Abigail and her family take a relaxing, tropical holiday to the island of Saint Lucia. It’s the summer holidays, and the beaches are filled with thousands of tourists. Students, families and retired couples are all here to take a break. 2 Days into her family vacation, Abigail starts feeling sick. Locked in her hotel room, bored out of her mind, things soon take a turn for the worse on the tropical island.
Plot sorted. Setting sorted. It’s now time to dig deeper into our characters by creating detailed character profiles for each character from step 3. A good character profile consists of a range of information including the following details:
- Name: Full name, including any middle or maiden names, as well as nicknames
- Age: How old are they, and when is their birthday?
- Occupation: What is their current job title or role?
- Values: What does this character value in life or care about most?
- Motivations: What do they want? What motivates them to do something?
- Goals: Is there anything specific that they want to achieve in the story?
- Conflict: What obstacles or challenges will they face when they try to achieve their goal/s?
- Epiphany: What things will they learn in your story? How will they change from beginning to end?
- Relations: Are they related to anyone in the story? If yes, how are they related? What other relationships does this character have?
- Fears: What is this character scared of?
- Appearance: Is there anything important to note about their appearance?
- Tone of Voice: How does the character speak? Are they confident talkers or shy?
- Personality Traits: List of words to describe the character’s personality, such as shy, confident, short-tempered, forgetful, clumsy etc.
Here is an example character profile for Harry Potter in the first book, Philosopher’s of Stone:
- Name: Harry James Potter
- Age: 11 Years Old
- Occupation: Student at Hogwarts
- Values: Family, Loyal Friendships, Doing the right thing
- Motivations: Good vs evil. Harry wants to protect the family he has gained from any danger. Lord Voldemort has already killed Harry’s original family, so he must protect his new family and loved ones.
- Goals: To leave home, and to leave the Dursley family household. And to destroy Lord Voldemort.
- Conflict: Harry needs to stop Lord Voldemort from stealing the Philopsher’s stone. Harry also feels like an outsider in the Muggle world and wants to fit in somewhere.
- Epiphany: Harry becomes more trusting and patient with others, as he finds new friends at Hogwarts.
- Relations: Harry is the son of James and Lily Potter (Both died when Harry was a year old). In the Muggle world, Harry lives with the Dursleys who are abusive towards him. At Hogwarts Harry quickly befriends Hermoine Granger and Ron Weasley. Both Ron and Hermoine become Harry’s best friends in the first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s rival at Hogwarts is Draco Malfroy – Who is also the school bully at Hogwarts.
- Fears: Scared of losing his friends.
- Appearance: His father’s untidy black hair. His mother’s bright green eyes. A lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Very small and skinny for his age and wears glasses.
- Tone of Voice: He Stumbles a lot on his words. Quite quiet and reserved. There’s an uncertainty in his voice.
- Personality Traits: Modest, short-tempered, impulsive, competitive and humble.
A detailed character profile will help you understand a character’s place in your story, and how they deal with different situations. This can be very handy when it comes to writing your first draft.
At this point, you should have a clear idea of what your story is about. It’s now time to add some structure to your ideas. Begin by jotting down some ideas for key scenes in your story. For each scene idea, write down a one-sentence summary to describe it.
When doing your scene list, think about the beginning, middle and end of your story. What key moments will happen at each stage? You can use your paragraph summary from step 4 and break this down into multiple smaller scenes. An extra tip we find useful is to note each scene idea on a separate sticky note. This way you can easily re-arrange the order of scenes to best suit your story. This also helps you visualise the timeline of your story.
According to Randy, a typical novel could have up to 100 scenes. We recommend aiming to spilt your paragraph summary from step 4 into at least 50 different scenes if possible.
Here is a preview of the scene list of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone:
- Opens with a description of the Dursley family, a middle-class family that lives in Little Whinging, Surrey.
- Vernon and Petunia Dursley argue about Petunia’s sister Lily, and her young son, Harry.
- It is revealed that Lily and her husband James Potter have been murdered by a dark wizard named, Voldemort.
- 10 years later, Harry is a grown skinny boy.
- Harry is bulled by Dudley and his friends.
- Harry is neglected by his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia who make him sleep in a cupboard under the stairs.
- It’s Dudley’s 11th birthday, and the whole family including Harry go to the zoo.
All the nitty-gritty details of your novel have now been noted down. The final step in the snowflake method is to expand your paragraph summary from step 4 into a 2 page summary of your story. This 2-page summary is also called a synopsis. A synopsis is a detailed overview of what your story is about. Professional authors usually need to provide a synopsis when they are looking to publish and sell their books. Most synopses are between one and two pages long.
This 2-page summary (or synopsis) should ideally include the following information:
- Overview of the beginning, middle and ending of your story.
- Avoid including too much detail about the actual plot – A brief summary will do.
- It should clearly mention the names of important characters in bold.
- Not all the characters need to be mentioned – Just the key characters.
- Include any exciting plot twists .
- A detailed description of the setting.
- It should be written in the third person.
Here is an example synopsis for Harry Potter and the Philosophers of Stone:
That’s it! Once you completed all 8 steps, you should have a complete outline of your story idea. You can then use this outline to start writing the first draft of your story.
Why is the snowflake plotting method used by writers? There are many benefits for using the snowflake method in writing, such as :
- Considers all the key elements of storytelling . Alternative methods to story planning sometimes forget to include character profiles, scene lists and settings. With the snowflake method, you are clearly considering each of these elements in great detail at every step.
- Easier to manage the planning process. The snowflake plotting method breaks the big task of planning a novel down into easy-to-complete, smaller tasks. And this itself could give you the much-needed motivation to keep on going with your novel.
- Better quality of story-telling. Because the snowflake plotting method encourages you to think in great detail about your idea, there is less chance of having plot holes and other plot issues later on when actually writing your novel.
- Good for idea generation. As you work through each step of the technique, you might even notice some new opportunities for including plot twists or for better utilising secondary characters in your story.
Ultimately with the snowflake method, you are able to write stories with a clear purpose. Since this method, from the very beginning encourages you to summarise your idea in as few words as possible. This not only helps when it comes to selling your novel idea but is also useful in developing unique ideas for stories.
Now that you know everything about the snowflake plotting method, it’s time to put it into action! Here we have included two different snowflake method templates:
- Snowflake method spreadsheet template
- Snowflake method PDF worksheet template
Both these free templates, follow the 8 steps discussed above. Just follow the instructions, and soon you will have the snowflake method plan for your story idea!
Did you find this guide on the snowflake method useful? Let us know in the comments below!
Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.
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Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels... Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and... Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your ...
How to Use the Snowflake Method to Outline Your Novel Written by MasterClass Last updated: Aug 31, 2021 • 3 min read As a snowflake grows from its center core, it expands in all directions, breaking off into additional branches that give it greater volume and spatial scope.