My Take on the Snowflake Method 

I want to point your attention towards a basic story-structuring method I’ve used since the beginning of my journey as an aspiring author. When I first had that little spark of insanity ignite in my brain, fueling the thought of “I’m going to write a novel!”, what followed quickly after was the question, “Uh…how?”

Thankfully, Google let me wing this question into the virtual netherscape, and I swiftly had hundreds of thousands of websites clamoring to give me the answer. After a bit of research and trial-and-error, I eventually settled on what’s known as the Snowflake Method, and have since used it (and variations of it) for pretty much every manuscript I’ve toiled upon.

The Snowflake Method comes from sci-fi author Randall Ingermanson, who has a marvelous website chock full of advice for fiction writers.

The method itself is simple enough when you break it down, plus you can modify it to your liking, which works perfectly for me. I enjoy a mix of structure and flexibility in my writing…just enough structure that I don’t lose my way or writing momentum, just enough flexibility to leave room for the fickle muse.

Here are the basics, plus my own notes on variations I sometimes include:

  1. You start with a one-sentence idea. Yes. One sentence. If you can’t boil the concept of your story down to one sentence, you might be in trouble. Plus, having that one-sentence plug will come in handy later on when pitching at writing conferences or writing queries for literary agents.
  2. Now, take an hour, write down that one-sentence idea and then expand it into a paragraph. Randy suggests this paragraph mirror the Three-Act structure (Big topic for another time. Got questions now? Ask me!) of a novel, with each sentence noting a disaster that occurs in the story, while the last sentence is the resolution.
  3. The third step involves character development. While the larger story stews in the back of your head, what you do now is figure out your cast of major characters and create a one-page summary for each.The summary covers the basics of who the character is, their motivation, role in the story, etc.
  4. Back to the story! Remember that paragraph? Time to expand it to a full page. Take the paragraph and break it up into four paragraphs, which you then fill out into a more comprehensive plot, complete with “three disasters/acts and a resolution.”
  5. Each major character gets a larger look, where you define their physical characters and delve deeper into their goals, backstory, etc. Minor characters also get little summaries, if you are so inclined. (I normally skip this step and go to step 7 for characters)
  6. That one-page synopsis you did for step 4? Time to take it and expand it once more. Your goal now is to take the one page and turn it into a four-page synopsis. This forces you to consider the more detailed elements of the story, and gives you a mental map of the plot.
  7. Character charts. Make one for each major character. What eye color? Height? Birthday? Favorite food? Scars? Sense of humor? Biggest fear? This is where your character begins to take on a life of their own. There are tons of these circulating through fiction websites, and you fill out whatever one you like best. This one is similar to the one I use.
  8. Scene spreadsheet. This is an optional step, but I usually take it. Here, you convert your four-page synopsis into a spreadsheet listing around 100 individual scenes connecting the beginning to end. Optionally, you can include columns for things like noting what point of view the scene is written in, what happens in it, the emotional tone, etc. This not only helps you anchor the plot, but can act as a reference if you get stuck somewhere in the first draft. “What happens next? Oh, yeah!”
  9. Randy includes this, but notes he doesn’t do this anymore (and I never have). For this step, you take that scene spreadsheet and turn each scene line into several paragraphs of content description. Again, not something I’ve ever actually done, but if you want to go even further into the structuring process, go crazy!
  10. Start writing! After all this setup, you should have an incredibly good idea of how the story is laid out. Often, by the time I have done all this preparation, my mind is bubbling over with ideas, scenes, characters, and I can just tell the story is ready to flow.

I will add one big step on my end, which relates mostly to science fiction and fantasy writers. Worldbuilding. I have a particular document I fill out whenever I need to develop a new culture/system of magic, and I will share that soon for anyone interested. This usually is an ongoing step while I’m doing the rest of the Snowflake Method, though I often wrap it up by the time I finish detailing my characters.

(For a more complete, detailed guide through the process, make sure to visit Randy’s Snowflake Method page)

The great thing about the Snowflake Method is it doesn’t force you to SIT DOWN AND FIGURE EVERYTHING OUT RIGHT NOW! That kind of pressure doesn’t usually help the creative process. Instead, with this method, you gradually evolve from a single core idea into a fully fleshed-out novel structure, complete with characters, plot pacing, and so on. It teases the story out of you, bit by bit, and by the end, I’m often surprised by how much detail I’ve infused the story with before I’ve even begun writing.

Also, don’t feel like you are committed to your structure once you’ve begun writing. Every one of my stories–without fail–has seen at least one big deviation from the outline I created with the Snowflake Method. That’s okay. In fact, that’s good! It means you’re continuing to find better ways of writing the story you originally conceived. Plot twists, new characters popping in, original characters dropping out…all of these will leave you with a story at least slightly, if not largely different from the synopsis and spreadsheet you first developed.

The Snowflake Method is meant to help, not dictate.

Again, I’ve used this method for every novel I’ve written, and it’s never failed to help me lay the groundwork I need to get a first draft done. Will it work for everyone? Of course not. I know many writers who hate the thought of outlining their story, and prefer to discover how the plot plays out as they write it. That’s a perfectly valid approach.

But the Snowflake Method works for me, and maybe it’ll help you too!

Visit Randy’s Snowflake Method page for the full process.