The Snowflake Method: 10 Steps to Outline a Novel

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A year or so ago, I finally admitted that my ‘seat of the pants’ (or ‘pantser’) approach to writing wasn’t getting my novel written. It was a hard admission to make. After more than 30 years of just writing, and letting the magic happen, I was stuck. And the thought of writing an outline filled me with dread. Then someone suggested I try the Snowflake Method.

What is the Snowflake Method?

The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method was created by novelist, Randy Ingermanson. It consists of 10 steps, the first of which is to write a 15 to 20 word summary of the novel. (It gets easier, I promise!) Each of the following steps develops the idea further, either through plot or characterisation. By the time you reach Step 10 (Write It!), you have a detailed, scene-by-scene breakdown of every aspect of your novel.

This might seem as if it stifles creativity, but I found the opposite, as I’ll explain in a bit. For now, here are the 10 steps:

  1. Write a one sentence, 15 to 20 word summary of your story.
  2. Expand the one sentence summary to a paragraph of about 5 sentences, covering the major plot points.
  3. Create a one page summary for each major character. (This includes a one paragraph summary of that character’s personal story, rather like the one you created for the whole plot in step 2.)
  4. Take the one paragraph summary from step 2, and expand each sentence into a paragraph of its own, giving a one page summary.
  5. Write a one page description for each character that covers their background and role in the story.
  6. Expand each paragraph of the one page summary from step 4 into a full page, giving a detailed summary of the whole plot.
  7. Create a detailed character bible for each character.
  8. Go back to the detailed summary and create a list of every scene.
  9. Flesh out the scenes with more detail – type of scene, goals and conflicts, and outcomes.
  10. Write it!

Randy covers the method in much more detail on his website, but I followed the method in his book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, and that’s what I’ve summarised here. (He’s updated the method on the website slightly, so there are minor differences.)

The Snowflake Method
One page character summary – created in step 3.

Does the Snowflake Method work?

Oh, yes! Indeed, it does.

I was sceptical. Very sceptical, in fact. I hesitated a long time before I started the method. When I did start, I was careless. I threw together my one sentence summary in about 5 minutes.

Then I got into it, and I found it’s exactly as Randy says. It’s fun! I started to fall in love with my characters before I even wrote a word. As I came to the climax in step 6, my heart started to race with the excitement. (I did get a bit tired of writing character bibles, but that’s probably my fault. I didn’t need to go into so much detail for characters who only appear in one scene!)

For me, it works very well. It doesn’t stifle my creativity – in fact, I’m so excited to start writing that I can hardly bear to pause and write this blog post. It’s fun. And I know my characters at least as well as I do after 200k words of ‘seat of the pants’ writing.

The only thing that doesn’t work quite so well for me, for two reasons, is the scene-by-scene breakdown. I’ll try to explain why.

The big leap from outline to scene design

There’s a big jump between step 6 (the detailed plot summary) and step 8 (the scene list) that isn’t covered by step 7. I needed something in between to make the transition.

For me, that something was a chapter list. When I realised my list of scenes wasn’t working, I took a step back, and started writing a list of chapters. Each chapter had a theme and a little sub-plot. For example:

  1. On the road – reaching the border with Kovia.
  2. Refugee status (or not) – getting processed.
  3. Somewhere to live – entering the city and finding accommodation.
  4. Settling in.

And so on.

I broke the story down into 26 chapters (I was aiming for 25, but I tweaked the story a little and ended up with one extra). Then I broke each chapter down into about 5 to 10 short scenes, covering the events from the points of view of my 3 viewpoint characters. Knowing what my goal was for each chapter helped me to design the scenes I needed to achieve that goal.

A scene plan – this one is from chapter 8.

Scene design is over simplified

This may not matter if you’re used to outlining, and you know how to design a scene, but the Snowflake Method is intended for writers who are new to outlining.

In his book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy touches briefly on scene design, suggesting that there are two types of scene – proactive and reactive. Proactive scenes are goal based. The viewpoint character has a goal, and obstacles to overcome to achieve it. Reactive scenes are – yeah – reaction based. The character reacts to events in a previous scene with a dilemma that leads to a decision.

I found this too simple. Characters don’t always know what their goals will be until they have all the information. Sometimes there’s no decision to be made because there’s nothing they can do about their situation.

Can it be made to work? Yes … kind of. If you can call a character ‘learning something they didn’t know they were going to be learning until they learned it’ a ‘goal’. Or ‘deciding to do nothing because there’s nothing they can do’ a ‘decision’. Personally, I don’t, but maybe that’s just me.

In search of something more informative, I bought Randy’s book on writing a scene using the Snowflake Method. It goes into more detail about the two scene types, but I didn’t find it any more useful. In the end, I bought Jordan Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene: Writing a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, which I found to be more in depth and helpful. It covers several different types of scene, and gives guidelines for writing all of them.

Would I recommend the Snowflake Method?

Yes, with the caveat that you may need to adapt it for your own use.

I also recommend getting Randy’s Book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, which is available in a variety of formats. I have mine on Kindle, so I can refer to it easily using the Kindle app on my phone.

The book tells the story of an aspiring writer learning the method as she outlines her first novel. It shows the method in practice, and he also includes the ‘snowflake’ for that novel at the end of the book. I found this invaluable. Seeing the method demonstrated helped me to understand and learn it.

The Snowflake Method
My completed ‘snowflake’, complete with sticky notes to mark character bibles and chapters.

The Snowflake Method has two great things going for it:

  • It’s flexible.
  • It’s fun.

I followed it quite closely this time. Next time, I may adapt it to better suit my own needs. You can do that quite simply.

And I enjoyed it. A lot. It hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for my story. In fact, I think it’s strengthened it. Now I know I have something great, and I can’t wait to start writing.

1 comment

  • Good job on the post relating the Snowflake Method.
    I’ve just recently started the Snowflake Method myself with my WIP and I’m really digging it.

    I’m planning on using the method for a book I’m co-writing with a friend too.

    Cheers,
    Jase

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