Beginning a novel can be intimidating for anyone—from writers who are just starting out, to experienced writers. Do you painstakingly outline each stage of your story, beat by beat, leaving no room for error? Or do you fly by the seat of your pants, throwing down one word after another until they (hopefully) come together into a cohesive whole?
If you have a story idea for a first novel and aren’t sure where to begin, the snowflake method might be the right approach for you. Here we’ll define the snowflake method, why it’s a great way to flesh out your story ideas, and how you can use it to create powerful narratives.
What is the snowflake method?
The snowflake method is an organic approach to story construction that begins with a very simple premise that is slowly fleshed out, layer by layer, into a full-fledged story. Each layer of the snowflake explores story nuances like character development, setting, and narrative arc, until they are fully fleshed out into an entire novel.
The snowflake method was originally created by novelist Randy Ingermanson. With a background as a software designer, Ingermanson was able to see parallels in the mathematical structure from which computer software is born and the way stories naturally evolve.
In this article we’ll walk you through each of the steps to develop your own story idea and first draft using the snowflake method. Instead of being intimidating, you might find that (shh… trade secret) writing can actually be fun.
Why is the snowflake method effective?
As you begin your writing journey, you’ll find numerous plotting methods and techniques for getting to know your story. What makes this one so effective? Here are a few reasons using the snowflake method in your writing might be the right choice for you.
It’s not intimidating
If standard story-plotting techniques are like drafting architectural blueprints, this one is kind of like using a coloring book. You discover lines, edges, and parameters as you go, filling them in with color that brings your plot and characters to life, but it’s all very mellow and zen. Think lazy summer mornings, cozy-yet-Instagrammable pajamas, and your favorite notebook.
It imitates the brain’s natural process
Human beings have been telling stories for many, many generations before there were story structure techniques (or pajamas). The snowflake method is a standardized way of crafting a story that reflects the way they form naturally in our brain. We begin with an idea, look at it from different angles, and get to know a little bit more about it with every exploration.
All writers do this on a subconscious level; the snowflake method is about getting that subconscious exploration down on the page to make your writing process easier.
It’s basically foolproof
It’s been said that everyone has a novel inside of them. With the snowflake method, you’ll be astonished at how much of your story is already there, waiting to come out. Because this method allows you to build up your story in slow, manageable steps, you won’t hit that dreaded writer’s block; in fact, it may seem like the story is writing itself.
10 steps to plotting a story using the snowflake method
Ready to use the snowflake method to open up your story world? Let’s dive into the ten-step process for crafting your plot.
1. Write a one-sentence summary (your hook)
The first step is your premise, or idea. The goal is to write a one-sentence summary of what your book is going to be. Ingermanson recommends spending about an hour on this step.
Your one-sentence story summary will become your “hook,” or the thing that gets people (read: agents, publishers, and readers) interested in your book. When your friends ask you what you’re writing about, this is what you can give them.
Try to keep your one-sentence summary general at this point. Rather than naming specific characters and places, you can use generalizations like “a war-ravaged young soldier” or “a scullery maid with big dreams.”
An example of a single-sentence summary might be, “After being told she can’t sail because her long hair would get caught in the rigging, a sea captain’s daughter chops off all her hair and stows away on his merchant ship.” (This is the story of real-life pirate queen Grace O’Malley.)
2. Expand your hook into a one-paragraph summary
Now you want to take that first sentence and expand it into a full paragraph. This is where the “snowflake” metaphor comes in; much like a snowflake forms increasingly intricate layers around a single ice crystal, this paragraph is your first layer of story.
Your one-paragraph summary should briefly explain who the main character is, what their world looks like at the beginning, what it will look like by the end of the novel, and three major plot points that will get them from point A to point B.
In a three-act structure, this would be your inciting incident, your midpoint, and your climax. Ingermanson calls these points “major disasters.” Put together, your single paragraph will give a wide overview of your plot.
If you’re writing a biopic about our favorite lady pirate, your major plot points might include her sneaking onto her father’s ship, saving his life during an attack by pirates/sea monsters/mutineers, and finally coming into her power as a leader to protect those she loves. That already sounds like a pretty cool story, and we’re only a few sentences in.
3. Create a one-paragraph summary of all major characters
Now you get to learn a bit more about the people who populate this story world. Start writing a paragraph describing each of the important characters. Aim for about five character names to begin with: your protagonist, your primary antagonist (the villain), friends, love interests, supporting players.
See if you can pinpoint what each character’s goal is over the course of the story, what motivates them to pursue those goals, what’s standing in the way of achieving them, and what their major strengths and weaknesses are.
You may not have all the answers right away, and that’s okay. Just write down what comes naturally; you’ll often find that the empty spaces fill themselves in as you learn more and more about your story, so you can add more detail later on as you go.
4. Expand your story summary into a synopsis
Still have your one-sentence summary and your summary paragraph on hand? Great, because now you’re going to expand those ideas into a one-page summary of your plot. Each of the plot points you found when you wrote your paragraph will now be fleshed out into a paragraph of its own.
This is where you get to dig a little deeper into each plot point and turning point of the story. For example, if the first plot point is “Grace sneaks onto her father’s ship,” explore a bit more about what that moment looks like.
What obstacles does she overcome? What happens just before, after, or as a result of it? Write a single paragraph with your thoughts for each big moment in the story. This one-page synopsis will become a brief summary of your entire novel.
5. Create character-based story synopses
Now you have a reasonably clear idea of the path your story is going to take from beginning to end from the point of view of your main character. The next step is to explore the story through the eyes of the other main characters of the novel.
You’ll want approximately five one-page character synopses, and a few single-paragraph synopses for your minor characters (if you’ve met any so far).
This is a powerful and fascinating way to gain further insight into each major character, and it can reveal facets to your story you didn’t know existed. Write a one-page description of each character’s storyline, including each character’s conflict, motivations, setbacks, and victories.
Ingermanson advises looking for the character’s “epiphany,” or the moment of new enlightenment and understanding. Finding these moments of upheaval is what gives us our character development.
Imagine that they’re the main character of the story. For example, what does your story synopsis look like from Grace’s father’s point of view? Seen through his eyes, the story becomes one of failing to protect his daughter and watching her become the thing he fears most. What does each major plot point look like through this lens? This stage of the snowflake method can teach you some amazing new things about your story.
6. Expand your synopsis into scene and event summaries
At this point you should have a pretty good idea of the nooks and crannies of your story—what happens at each pivotal moment and why, and how each stage of the narrative affects your main character.
Now it’s time to really deep dive. At this step, you’ll take your single-page summary and expand it into a four-page synopsis.
The four-page plot outline will help you see the grand scope of your story so you can catch any snags or potential plot holes now—instead of after writing your first draft.
This is a good time to check that your major turning points align with key points in the three- or five-act structure (this is how you ensure your plot has steady pacing), that your main characters undergo some sort of growth, and that all your pieces are in place.
Because of the summarizing and character work you’ve done so far, this stage should be a breeze; it’s just taking everything you’ve assembled in your head and getting it onto the page where you can see everything clearly.
7. Create detailed character analyses
Just like we’ve taken a deep dive into our plot, we’re now going to do the same with our important characters. Now, you get to create character charts that detail everything you’ve ever wanted to know about each of these unique, multifaceted people.
For many writers, creating full-fledged character charts is their favorite part of the creative process.
Here are some things you’ll want to look at in your character analyses:
Your character’s motivation
Character descriptions, such as physical appearance and mannerisms
Age and birth date
Level of education
Secrets they may be hiding
State of health
Etc, etc. These are only a few ideas; feel free to explore your character’s relationship with the world you’ve created. Your goal is to make this person as crystalline and real to you as possible—because that’s the only way they’re going to become real to your reader.
8. List the major scenes of your story
We’re getting close to the finish line! This step is going to make the writing process super quick and easy for you. Looking back at your four-page outline, you’re going to make a list of each individual event and scene that carries your story.
You can do your scene list with a spreadsheet if you’re fancy, or you can do it with post-it notes stuck together with a pin (not ideal, because post-it notes get lost easily).
Find a method that’s comfortable for you and write a single sentence summary or phrase that defines each beat of the story. When you’re finished, you’ll have a super-detailed outline of all the scenes of your whole story.
9. Create a summary of each scene
Here we go, we’re hitting our home stretch. The last step of the snowflake method is to expand each of those beats from your scene list into a full paragraph that describes what happens in the scene.
This can take a while, but laying this groundwork is essential. The more detail you’re able to include—snatches of dialogue, details of setting, narrative description—the more your future self will thank you. By the end of this stage, you’ll have your entire novel down on paper (or word processor).
10. Write your first draft
BURN RUBBER, WRITERLY FRIENDS!! Now you get to start writing the first draft of your novel—which is going to be a breeze and a half because of all the preliminary work you’ve done to get to this point.
While many writers find writing the first draft of a novel intimidating, these steps will ensure that when it’s finally time to begin, your story will come barrelling out onto the page. All of your snags have already been smoothed out so you can relax and focus on the most important part: telling the story.
Is the snowflake method right for you?
Authors love to use the snowflake method when they write novels because it takes the pressure and guesswork out of the novel outline. If you’ve been one of the writers struggling to get new ideas onto the page, this technique could change your writing life.
Try out the snowflake method of fiction writing if you:
Have a great central idea but have trouble turning it into a novel-length story
Find the idea of pantsing a whole novel on the fly terrifying
Find the idea of meticulously plotting a novel outline according to Aristotlean ideologies equally terrifying
Often find yourself getting stuck part way through your first draft
Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method of writing is low pressure, low stress, and a foolproof tool for turning a one-sentence summary into an entire narrative. Next time you stumble upon an idea and think, “that would make a great story!” you can use the snowflake method to build it up one inspiring layer at a time.