process, Revision, Writing Exercises

The Snowflake Method

TLDR: Planning a novel isn’t any easier than writing one, but it might save you time in the long run.

I was once a curmudgeonly writer like you. Writing is fun, I said! Creating is fun! Planning? That takes all the fun and surprise out of it.

And it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried the Snowflake Method. I followed the steps… most of them.

  1. Write a slamming one-sentence summary.
  2. Expand your sentence into one paragraph with inciting incident, 3 acts, and an ending.
  3. Summarize each character’s storyline.
  4. Expand each sentence of the summary paragraph into its own paragraph.
  5. Write one page of how the story looks from each major character’s perspective, something shorter for minor characters.
  6. Expand each paragraph from step 4 into a full page.
  7. Expand your character descriptions. Fill in backstory, birthdays, whether they squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube or not.
  8. Make a spreadsheet with each and every scene in one row.
  9. Write a narrative description of each scene, a little summary of the environs, the conflict, the action, the dialogue. What happens?
  10. Write the novel.

Because we’re talking about the Koch snowflake fractal here as seen in the image at the top. This fractal is created by repeatedly adding finer and finer details to each edge, and so it is with this method of planning a novel.

I failed the first time I tried the Snowflake Method because I was unwilling to kill my darlings and I was impatient to move on.

I’ve worked with more patience this time around. I actually put in the time to rewrite my one-sentence summary. Here’s how that looked:

A blue-collar miner sparks rebellion when he steals a ghost.

A naive, clumsy, miner with delusions of grandeur stumbles between misadventures in his attempt at freedom, eventually sparking rebellion and the dawning of a second apocalypse.

A naive and clumsy miner of ghosts steals one of the pre-apocalypse intelligences, sparking rebellion and leading him to become the blue-collar hero of his boasts and overthrow a tyranny.

THIS IS THE ONE: A naive and self-centered miner steals a ghost, sparking a rebellion he is utterly unprepared to lead.

I think that final sentence captures the story, but it’s not perfect. I may go back and rewrite it and that’s one key to the Snowflake Method: Be prepared to return to earlier steps regularly.

That has made all the difference for me, especially when I reached step 5: Write how the story looks from each major character’s perspective.

If you’re used to writing by the seat of your pants, this is the step that will sting, but it will ultimately save you immense time. I’ve written a whole novel, over 100 thousand words, in which a main character conveniently drops out of the latter half of Act 2 for no reason other than to get him out of the way of the plot I envisioned.

That’s bad and I don’t know how to fix it. If I had used the Snowflake Method, I would have caught this problem early.

And the method doesn’t get any easier on step 6: Expand each paragraph from step 4 into a full page. Because it’s not simply a matter of expansion, it’s also a matter of revision. This step is revision and we haven’t even written the novel yet, but it’s a time to reflect on motives, logical consistency, and basic questions of “does this story make any sense?” It’s what I wrote about last week.

And I must admit that I’m not finished with step 7 yet because I’ve doubled back to step 6 with questions like:

  • How can I make the stakes more personal?
  • Why does the ghost character disappear from the narrative?
  • Shouldn’t the payoff for the memory dust be more significant?
  • How can these three characters have actual arcs?

These are tough questions, but ones that I am glad to address sooner rather than later. Even better, I tend to get glimpses of solutions while running the dog or washing the dishes, which means I’m making writing progress even when I’m not sitting at a computer “doing writing”.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll share one final insight from the creator of the Snowflake Method: Keep your forward momentum.

Sure I have paused step 7 to double back to step 6, but filling in character details on step 7 will help guide my thoughts to solutions to the problems in step 6. I plan on revising step 5, even as I push on to step 8.

The mind is non-linear. The subconscious processes information in hidden, but insightful ways. As much as I want the novel to come out in one linear flow, that is simply not how things work. So regardless of what your process is, keep writing, keep moving forward!


8 thoughts on “The Snowflake Method”

  1. This is a great method Neil, and I’m gazing at my book now trying to apply it. A lot of the stuff here I’ve heard before, for instance making the stakes personal. I think that’s happening so far in my book. But I am trying to create a slamming one sentence summary, then the basic outline. I might be doing that for a few days. It’s definitely better than flailing.


      1. Hmmm. I dunno how “slamming” this is, but this is what I came up with last night:

        Bonnie McGuinness, a paranormal woman living a comfortable family life in Albuquerque, is dragged into a conflict that threatens to drive the city crazy with its own dreams.


  2. Your summary for the shorty story you’ree doing is excellent. I could go for something like,
    “A powerful paranormal woman is dragged from her comfortable family life in Albuquerque into a conflict that threatens to drive the city crazy with its own dreams.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is great. If I had to criticize it, I’d say that “dragged” isn’t my favorite verb. It makes it sound like she’s Luke being dragged into trouble by Old Ben Kenobi, which isn’t my perception, but move on! Or double back! Maybe something different will come to you while washing dishes, or in a dream.


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