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The Snowflake Method: How to Design Your Story from a Simple Premise


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When you're a writer, it's likely that you often daydream about the kinds of stories that you'd like to write down. You may be the type of writer where you have everything in your novel perfectly crafted in your head—from how you're going to introduce the characters to how they'll overcome the obstacles in the third act to how you'll end it (either resolve everything neat and tidy or leave it hanging for a second or third installment of the story). And the writing process is merely just your fingers doing the walking and pouring out everything that's in your brain.

Or you could be like the rest of us and not have the slightest idea of how you're going to attack the story in your novel, which makes the idea of sitting down to write a book pretty overwhelming (and let's face it, pretty scary). You can approach novel writing in many different ways, but one of our favorite processes is called The Snowflake Method. This approach is one of the best ways for writers—especially those writers who don't have a ton of experience in story drafting or plotting—to get a story on the page. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you're using theories and writing approaches you learned from your MFA or if this is your very first experience with writing. All that matters is that you get words on the page and let the characters tell their story.

Let's go over what the snowflake is, how to use it, why it's so beneficial to writers, and some concrete examples to look at so you can model your own writing after it.

What the Snowflake Method is

American author, writing coach, and physicist (yes, you read that right) Randy Ingermanson came up with the Snowflake Method to help writers create an outline by starting with the most basic information about the story and working your way up to the nitty gritty details like the plot and the character descriptions. Once you complete the Snowflake Method, you'll have yourself a pretty fleshed out story—with the idea that you'll easily be able to get drafting right away.

His writing method was based on the mathematical concept of fractals, and specifically focused on the Koch Snowflake. (For those of us who are not mathematically inclined, the easiest way to explain the Koch Snowflake is that it starts out as an equilateral triangle and eventually evolves into a snowflake that has never-ending infinitely complex shapes.) As you can imagine, your novel outline will start out as a simple shape and then get infinitely more complex as your progress through each planning stage.

So now that you have a loose idea of what the Snowflake Method is, let's dive into how it all exactly works—with detailed steps so you can follow along.

How the Snowflake Method works

When you're planning out your novel using the Snowflake Method, here are the steps you'll need to follow:

Step 1: Come up with a quick one-sentence summary of your novel

Begin with a one-sentence summary of your novel
Begin with a one-sentence summary of your novel. Avoid using overly descriptive phrases at this step.

You've had this idea in your head for a while now—your novel. Now it's actually time to put the idea onto paper (or Google Docs, Microsoft Word, your phone, etc.) by writing down a quick one-sentence summary of what your novel is about. You can also think of this as your "elevator speech" or your "hook" to get people interested in your story.


A woman locks eyes with someone and later finds out he's dating her best friend.


A boy runs away and helps a slave down the Mississippi to find his freedom.

This is a good exercise to start with because it not only helps you encapsulate your story and break it down to a very simple level, but it also helps you come up with the general theme of your story. Whenever the writing process begins to be too much and you start to lose the entire point, refer back to this one-sentence summary often so it can help guide you back into place and zoom out so you can remember what the whole story should be about.

If you can, try to avoid descriptions and keep it at 15 words or fewer. So, essentially don't include any names, specific information about characters or even in some cases where they're at (especially if you don't exactly know yet).

Step 2: Grow the one-sentence summary into a paragraph

Grow the summary into a paragraph, with multiple plot points
Grow the summary into a paragraph, with multiple plot points. What started out as a triangle should now evolve into a star shape.

Remember that Koch snowflake that we mentioned earlier? Well, if it started out as a triangle, now it's going to evolve into a star, which will be your one-paragraph summary. Now that we have a nice, neat sentence that describes what the book is about, we're going to expand it into a paragraph that gives more details about the story in five sentences.

This is going to be a meatier version that describes the major plot points and takes you from a simple idea into a proper three-act structure. If you're writing non-fiction, the Snowflake Method can also work for you—instead of three acts, you'll be determining the problem that your book will talk about, how to solve the problem (or some theories on how to solve), and then how to go about this solution.

For those writing traditional fiction, you'll want to cover all your plot points in the three-act structure, which include the following:

  • The setup: Your characters are in the status quo, and you get to learn about their everyday life and what current challenges they face.
  • Plot point #1 (or the inciting incident): This is the event that puts your character in the middle of an adventure. It either starts your character out on a journey or throws your character in action somehow.
  • The mid-point: Essentially this is what happens in the story when the story is progressing and things start to get worse.
  • Plot point #2 (or the hit rock bottom part): Your character was making progress on the goal, but now they've hit rock bottom and have to figure out a way to once and for all solve the conflict—for better or worse.
  • The climax and resolution: The final battle is being fought (literally or figuratively) and your character either triumphs or doesn't. Either way, the novel's loose ends will be tied up and the story will end.

You definitely want to spend more time on this second step than you did on the first step in the Snowflake Method. So, if you get stuck, don't be afraid to come back to it and try again. This is one of the most important building blocks for the rest of your "snowflake" plot.

Step 3: Adding character summaries

Add character summaries
Add character summaries, including their motivations. Who are they and what do they hope to achieve?

Now that you have a basic and more expanded version of your plot, it's time to focus on one of the other most important parts of your story: the characters. Our favorite characters can make us feel hopeful, make us downright angry, and even make us feel like we've made a friend.

In this step of the Snowflake Method, you'll be sketching out some basic facts about your character, including their name as well as their motivations (as in, what is driving them and keeps them going). In addition to names and motivations, you'll also want to write down their goals (what tangible things do they want or what do they want to achieve?) and their conflicts (what prevents them from obtaining this goal that they have).

You might also want to include information about how they solve these conflicts. Remember, if something doesn't quite fit or you decide that you actually hate the names you come up with, you can always change it up later.

Step 4: Take your one-paragraph summary and expand it into a full page

Expand the one-paragraph summary into a full page
Expand the one-paragraph summary into a full page. Your original triangle should now begin to look like a snowflake.

Your original triangle has now begun to take shape as a full-fledged snowflake—with increasingly complex edges. Now you'll be taking your paragraph summary of your plot that you wrote earlier and turning it into a full page of plot points.

This step will take you at least a few hours, especially if you haven't really thought out the finer details of your plot yet. To make your one-page plot summary useful, develop it into paragraphs that end with a major plot point or cliffhanger. By the last paragraph, you should know exactly how the novel will end (can you believe it?).

Step 5: Develop character "Bible" and synopses for major and minor players

Develop a character Bible and synopses for major and minor players
Develop a character "Bible" and synopses for major and minor players. This is a process of diving deeper into your characters.

Your triangular looking snowflake has now developed into a more realistic looking one—and now you're at the stage where you'll be adding some depth and drama to your characters. Now that you have your character summaries and your thoroughly explained plot, you're ready to dive deeper into who your characters are.

This step can be pretty challenging. You're essentially being asked to write down some fairly intimate details of people (or beings) that you've never met—all being harnessed by the creativity of your imagination.

The task for this step is to create a one-page profile for each major character and a half-page for each minor one (AKA a Character Bible). This can definitely take a while if you are planning on introducing a large cast of characters, but it's time well spent up front. This time-intensive step will also help you out later when you're trying to determine a character's motivation because you can refer to their backstory, history, personality, motivations, and most interesting of all, their desires.

Once you've completed the Character Bible, you'll now want to write a synopsis for every character—or the arc of every character's story for the entire novel. These synopses will help you know at any point in the book what each character should be doing and what they will know.

Step 6: Write a four-page summary and complete a scene list

Create a four-page summary and scene list
Create a four-page summary and scene list. The scene list will be invaluable as you begin to write your novel.

We've now created a one-sentence summary, a paragraph summary, added character summaries, written a one-page summary, and developed Character Bibles and synopses for all your major and minor characters. Whew! Are you feeling more prepared to write your novel or just feeling plain tired?

We've finally arrived at the last step, which is to write a four-page summary and a scene list. To help you out with the four-page summary, all you need to do is take those different paragraphs in your one-page summary and expand them to fill four pages. Just like in every step, try to keep it less flowery and more direct and to the point (in other words, this is not the time or place to flex that descriptive writer muscle).

If you get stuck trying to expand it, the easiest way to think about it is the following:

  • The first act is the first page of your summary
  • The second act is the second page of your summary
  • The third act is the third page of your summary
  • The ending is the fourth page of your summary

After you've completed the four-page summary, you'll now move on to a scene list. This is the part of the Snowflake Method where you will write out what happens in each scene in the novel—this could be separated by chapter, or you could have more than one scene per chapter (it all depends on how you'd like the pacing to go).

And after your scene list is complete, theoretically you'll be ready to write! Can you believe that you started out with just an idea for a novel and now it's been expanded to several pages of documentation that outline exactly how you'll need to write it?

Now all you'll need is a good strong cup of coffee and some motivation to sit down and get some words on the page.

The Snowflake Method steps beyond the first six

Loved what you saw in the first six steps of the Ingermanson process? There are a few more extra steps you can follow that are even more in-depth if you'd like to plot even more before you begin the actual writing process.

The seventh step involves writing and sketching out character charts. This step can be especially helpful to those who are more of a visual person—so don't be afraid to draw pictures or symbols that will assist you in literally drawing out the character even more.

The eighth step of the Snowflake Method involves taking that scene list and making a spreadsheet with one line per scene. (If you're more inclined to use analog tools, you could also write these down on note cards or a series of post-it notes that you can stick on or around your computer.) The main idea with this step is just that you'll always have an easily accessible list of your scenes right in front of you so it can guide you on the way to completing your novel.

The ninth step of the Ingermanson process is to take each scene from step eight and then write a multi-paragraph summary of the scene. If you decided to list each scene in a spreadsheet, copy and paste the line into a separate document and expand on what happens. This will really get you into the nitty gritty details of what's going on with your plot, what your characters are doing, and how they're feeling during a particular point in the story. Though this step may take a while, can you even imagine how immensely helpful it will be to have all of this information sorted out in front of you?

Having all of the scenes listed and in full detail will also be a prime opportunity for you to take a step back and look at everything together. When examining your scene descriptions, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the conflict get solved?
  • Are there any plot holes?
  • Do all of the characters have a defined arc? (As in, do you have any characters that seem to be out of place or who don't have definitive plots that wrap up in the end?)
  • Are the scenes in the correct order?
  • Is the tension of the plot sufficient?
  • Is the pacing pretty even, or could it stand to be sped up or slowed down in certain spots?

If you get brave enough, sending the expanded scene descriptions to a friend is a great way to get feedback on your plot before you even begin writing. This way, you can know if something needs to be revised before you've written thousands of words. At this point it'll be way easier to fix something in your planning phase rather than trying to comb through all of your words and edit in order to close up a loose plot point.

Finally, the tenth step is actually sitting down to write the first draft of the novel. The whole point of doing this exercise is so that once you have that blinking cursor on page one of your novel that you're much less likely to get stuck or have writer's block.

Plus, because you have everything plotted out, you could maybe even churn out a novel in just a few short weeks or months (as opposed to long, gregarious process that it ordinarily takes when you're still thinking of plot points and character development).

However, it's important to note that even though you've plotted everything out that you shouldn't be "married" to anything. You never know when one of your characters will do something unpredictable.

Why the Snowflake Method is beneficial to writers

If writing down plot points and sketching out characters doesn't sound like your idea of a fun day, then you may be wondering "Is the Snowflake Method really for me?"

The Snowflake Method certainly isn't for everyone, but it really works for those writers who need the following:

  • Help with plot holes
  • Creating a guide that takes you through the entire novel—without even having typed out a single sentence on your official draft
  • Something to refer back to if you get stuck during the (often frustrating) writing process
  • A spark of creativity when you hit a brick wall
  • A strategic plan that can give you the confidence to get started in your writing

The Snowflake Method can also be useful to someone who may have started writing a novel and who got completely stuck. This can guide you back to fixing plot holes that you may have created and help you understand why a certain character is motivated to do something (or not do something).

This method can also assist first-time writers or novelists start the process when they really have no idea how to begin or they've never had any formal instruction on story, character, or plot.

Some writers swear by this method and others wouldn't touch it with a nine-foot pole (preferring their own method or adopting another common writing process like a plot development chart), but until you try it you may never know the genius of Ingermanson's process.

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