Ann Patchett famously said about getting that first draft on paper, “I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death…”
If you’re still in the stages of protecting and coddling that thing of beauty that is Your Great Idea For a Novel, living in fear of the carnage of that first draft, the Snowflake Method might be just what you’re looking for to make the process as painless and dare I say, rewarding as it can get.
You also might just avoid that wilderness which is fifty pages of writing that is like the hero of a Balzac novel: a flaneur who has a lot of bright ideas but spends most of his time wandering aimlessly. Great for a 19th century protagonist but not so great for a dynamic narrative framework.
The snowflake method helps you find the fundamentals of your story and then build up, in a gradual and organized way, to the first draft.
What is the Snowflake Method?
It is an approach that helps you go from a single sentence all the way to the scenes necessary to start the first draft. It is a deep dive into plot and character development using a step-by-step method that helps you do the work sans the distress of coming empty-handed to a blinking cursor on a white page.
Originally developed by Randy Ingermanson, it refers to the method for drawing a snowflake fractal. The short answer is you do it little by little, starting with a couple of lines and then expanding on that outline. You can think about it as a series of Russian dolls but you’re starting with the smaller ones and fitting it into the larger ones until you end up holding the matriarch in your hands.
How can it help you be a better author?
Every writer has a weakness. If you’ve been doing this long enough, you probably know what yours are.
- Do you procrastinate for days and weeks at a time because you’re afraid of falling into the black hole which is your computer screen?
- Do you write frenetically for months and then realize you have plot holes the size of Elon Musk’s ego?
- Have both of these happened to you and you’re rocking soothingly to the sound of your own cackling as you read this article?
Good, then the Snowflake method might just get your writing on track.
It is a way to approach the planning process rationally. Even though the word ‘rationally’ might conjure thoughts of Excel spreadsheets, tax forms, or high school geometry, don’t let that frighten you. What is much more frightening is how long ago you’ve had that Great Idea for a Novel and how little of it has materialized on paper.
Let the Snowflake method help you with the scaffolding of that first draft, help you clarify who your characters are, and let your plot take form organically. Now stop that rhythmic rocking and take note.
Step 1: Sum up your story in one sentence
This is the line you’d come up with if your dream publisher was standing next to you waving a gun and a book contract and all you had to do was come up with one line that summarizes your story. It’s the elevator pitch, the premise, the hook. Call it what you will, it’s the entire plot boiled down into one sentence.
Here are a few examples:
- A penniless soldier reinvents himself as a party-throwing magnate to get the girl. – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- A young girl’s lie at the end of a summer’s day brings life-long remorse and alters the fates of three young people. – Atonement by Ian McEwan
- When an underachiever is dismissed as a ‘bore’ by a new acquaintance, he gets rid of him and usurps his identity. – The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
If you need practice getting there, have some fun summing up your favorite books and getting a friend to guess at the titles. Also keep in mind that as you continue with the method, this one sentence might change and gain in precision.
Step 2: Expand that sentence into a one-paragraph synopsis
That great one-liner now needs to be built out into a paragraph of plot points. Many stories, especially genre fiction, fall into a three-act structure.
Act 1 is the setup, your protagonist’s world and life up to the turning point that launches him or her into action. Think Neo up to the scene where he chooses the red pill to discover the true nature of the Matrix.
Next comes Act 2, the conflict which is where continuing disasters lead to a crisis. There’s an increase in pressure, stakes that keep on getting higher and at the end of this act, it might look like it’s all over for your hero/ine. In The Matrix it’s the fighting and drama leading up to Agent Smith ambushing and killing Neo.
And finally Act 3, the resolution where your protagonist overcomes the odds before things settle down into a new normal. It’s Neo fulfilling the prophecy and accomplishing the feats only possible by the One.
Keep the paragraph short and focused, ideally a very manageable five sentences.
Step 3: Profile your main characters
In this step, you will write a one-page summary of each major character.
- What is their name?
- What motivates them?
- What do they want and what is stopping them from getting what they want?
It’s important to remember that for a story to be emotionally satisfying, the characters need to face both internal and external conflict, which are both needed to drive the story.
For example, Hamlet had to deal with the external, conniving uncle Claudius and his father’s pesky ghost but also with his own internal, moral questions.
Step 4: Expand each sentence of your plot synopsis into a paragraph
Take each sentence of the plot synopsis from step 2 and write a paragraph for it. This is where you build the skeleton of your novel figuring out how one event drives the protagonist to the next one. Where do the disasters occur and how do they come about? How do these build on each other to lead to the inevitable climax?
This is the step where you avoid plot holes, where you make sure that your plot makes sense. Think bamboo scaffolding as it’s used in Asia, it’s strong and flexible, and durable. It can also be assembled pretty fast and taken down easily. So if this stage is intimidating, remember that this part can still change and be revised as you progress.
Step 5: Write down the story arc of each main character
Now is the time to write a one-page synopsis about each major character (and a half page for each minor character), bringing together the character profile you wrote in step 3 and the one-page plot synopsis you completed in step 4.
Just as your story has an overall arc, in the same way, each major character should have their personal story arc.
- How do they change or not change as they face disaster upon disaster?
- What impact do these events have on them, both physically and emotionally?
This is a great step to make sure your characters are multifaceted and also to get to know each one better.
Step 6: Go from a one-page plot synopsis to a four-page synopsis
This is the step where you build on the one-page synopsis you wrote in step 4. Take each paragraph and expand it to a page.
Each paragraph of the original synopsis serves as a foundation, allowing you to delve deeper into the narrative. Embrace the character arcs you constructed earlier, allowing them to steer the development and growth of your story across these expanded pages.
By expanding upon the initial outline, you’ll gain a richer understanding of your plot’s intricacies and provide a solid framework for the next stages of your writing process.
Step 7: Make a list of the necessary scenes using the four-page synopsis
Now that you have a detailed outline of your plot, think of the scenes required to move your novel from one plot point to the next. Write down a list of these, using a one-line description for each scene.
An example: At the changing of the guards on a castle battlement, an apparition appears looking like the dead King of Denmark.
If you are willing to work through the 7 steps outlined above, you will have:
- a solid outline of your plot
- intimate knowledge of your characters
- a list of scenes that will seamlessly move the action of your plot along
No more writing wilderness and getting lost in scenes that you’ll need to hack out of your manuscript. And no more writing paralysis because you’re coming to the page with a handful of nothing. You can now write your first draft with confidence.
If you’re seeking a guided approach and personalized feedback to refine your first draft, an online creative writing course can provide valuable support and guidance.
Harry Bingham is the founder of Jericho Writers, a company offering writers expert editorial assistance. He has written a variety of books over the years, notching up multiple six-figure deals and relationships with each of the world’s three largest trade publishers. His work has been critically acclaimed across the globe and has been adapted for TV. He’s also written non-fiction, short stories, and has worked as a ghost/editor on a number of exciting projects. Harry also self-publishes some of his work, and loves doing so.