The Snowflake Method – What is it? Do I need it?

Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method

When it comes to writing a novel, there are a myriad and one different ways to go about it. Perhaps you’re a calculative individual, carefully outlining beginning to end of your future masterpiece. Or perhaps you’re a bit more like me, who might find a flash of inspiration, crafting an idea for something in your head and putting it down on paper; flying by the seat of your pants (as the term pantser comes from) while you paint your tale like an abstract picture.

Now, everyone has something that works for them. As is with art, one person might sketch the model of their finished product with light strokes, later erasing those guidelines and meshing out the finished product. Others might simply draw, creating exactly what comes into their head as they go. The finished result in that case might not have the flawless, mathematical proportions that some hold dear, but in the end, it might be far more creative. To some, that’s beautiful. To others, amateurish. As I’m bound to repeat in this post, to each his or her own.

Let’s bring a structured writing method into the spotlight: The Snowflake Method. If you’re an author, whether you write fiction, non-fiction, or anything in between, you’ve probably heard of this. Perhaps you’ve even used it. But for discussion’s sake, let’s pretend you’ve never heard the term in your life. This is my observations and opinions on the practice, as well as how I have seen others reactions to using it. If you’d rather hear exactly what the method entails before hearing a discussion on it, hop over here and read how it works for yourself (just be sure to come back after you’re done!).

Regardless, I’ll highlight a bit of a crash course in the ten-step process that the Snowflake Method utilizes. In short, it’s the ultimate progressively constructive way to build your novel from the ground up, from scratch. You’re starting with nothing, you’re laying down the idea, and then over the course of what will probably take a few weeks to a month, you’re slowly building the groundwork for your story. Some might be immediately turned off to that sort of commitment of time to not even writing your novel itself (I certainly was). When you’re inspired, sometimes you have to capitalize on that. When you have the idea in your head, you don’t always want to write about writing the idea later on, you want to write it now! That’s a major failing of this method, but that doesn’t make it a bad way to go about things.

Before I continue my analysis of the method, I’ll very briefly list the ten steps of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. Ready? Go!

  1. Take an hour to write a one-sentence summary of your novel.
  2. Take another hour to expand that sentence into a summary of the novel; the setup, disasters, and ending.
  3. Take an hour to write a one-page summary of each of your major characters.
  4. Take several hours to expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a paragraph of its own.
  5. Take a day or two to write a one-page synopsis of each of your major characters, and a half-page synopsis of the other important characters.
  6. Take a week to expand each paragraph of your story summary into a full page.
  7. Take another week to expand the character synopses into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character.
  8. Take your four-page story synopsis and place each scene involved into a spreadsheet list.
  9. Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene.
  10. Begin writing your first draft.

Right off the bat, you can tell how intensive this is. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preferences as a writer, and even your personality. We’re not here to debate whether the method is right or wrong, since it’s arguably the most popular method around for writing a novel. As was highlighted on Randy’s page, the directions for how the method works gets over a thousand views a day. If that’s not popular, I don’t know what is.

So let’s talk about the effectiveness of this practice. What’s good about it, what’s great about it, and what’s awful about it? Since I’m a rather positive guy (when I’m not trapped within the throes of agony and despair), we’ll start with what’s …

If you have a problem with focus; putting your mind to something and sticking with it; this method could very well be your salvation. Novels are long. Stephen King novels are longer. Who knows how long yours will be, but odds are that at some point in your unguided journey of authorial discovery, you will develop a bad case of writer’s block. The Snowflake Method is a painstaking process, and while it can be fun, it takes time. The upside to the month or so you will take to lay the groundwork for your novel is that when you finally get to writing your novel, it should come much more smoothly. While carrying out those ten steps, you’re creating the skeleton of your novel, then slowly fleshing it out. When you’re done, all you have to do is write it. It gives you a heavy dose of focus.

When it comes to characters, a lot of writers have a very hard time of making the character relatable. While they might have a good idea of the character they’re writing, and the emotions of that character, when they start writing their novel, those emotions simply don’t come across. Granted, this is my personal experience in reading, but I’d imagine many see the same thing. Utilizing the character building steps of the Snowflake Method literally drills your characters into your head. In step 3, you invite your characters over for dinner. In step 5, you let them spend the night on your sofa. By step 7, they’re literally snuggling in bed with you. This kind of extensive understanding of your characters and their emotions makes it far more likely that when you put them to paper, they will come alive. It’s not a sure thing, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’m going to choose my words carefully here. This is a timeless method, and the people who are committed to it sometimes preach its effectiveness with evangelical assurance. All the same, it’s easy for anyone to see how this method could be very counter-productive to certain writers. Let’s be honest, the entire process could take over a month. That’s a long time to be writing… about writing. While to some the process might be fun and exciting and amazing, other writers will burn themselves out with the method. The incredible idea that inspired them to write has now become a chore as they systematically carry out each step. By the time they are actually done, the passion they had for writing on their idea has dwindled. They have a model of point A to point B, not inspired, written chapters that they can look at and say “Wow, this looks good!”. To some, that’s a terrible reason for the method to be called awful, but if you’re sitting there thinking that, that’s because you’re a planner. No two writers are alike.

Since I’m an uneducated fool, I asked published author and teacher Steve Alcorn what he personally thought about the Snowflake Method. His response was:

” … You start with dramatic elements, and fill in the big plot details first, then the smaller ones. That’s really the only way to write a novel (other than simply starting at the beginning and hoping it goes somewhere). What it omits, however, is the important distinction between story and plot, and how they are reliant on each other, but with the story structure utmost.”

Let me try to decipher that. Basically, while it’s a simple process that explains itself and builds a novel from the ground up, it doesn’t take the story into consideration through the process. That might sound odd, since it’s helping you build… well, your story. However, there’s a clear difference between story and plot.

The plot of your story is what happens. If your protagonist is hurtling through country back-roads in his moonshine running hot-rod when suddenly his brakes go out, that’s plot. That’s what’s happening in your scene. When he slams on the brake pedal and realizes he’s headed straight for a tree, his heart pounding in his head, fear burning through his mind as he says a silent prayer for help, that’s story. The story (as opposed to plot) is the emotion behind your novel. It’s what your characters feel (since any novel worth it’s salt is going to be about a character or two).

So through the Snowflake Method, you’re building what? Your plot. You’re setting out what’s going to happen, when, and with who in your novel. That’s all well and good, but during this process, there’s not a whole lot of room for the emotion behind your writing. On your Snowflake spreadsheet, Amy and Jack are going to have an argument in front of their kids. That’s a scene. However that says nothing about their daughter, who hides her tears and sobs in her teddy bear and wishes she was at Grandma’s house.

... or HER own!

Regardless, it is true that this emotion (the story) can find life as you actually write the novel, once you’re finished with the ten step process. However through focusing on building exactly what is going to happen in your novel, it’s easy for the entire process to become robotic. It comes down to you, the writer, on how you will handle that. There are a great many methods of building a novel, but be forewarned that with the Snowflake Method, you do have to watch yourself for certain failings. There is a proper fit when it comes to any writer and any method of writing.

From what I can see, a lot of writers take pieces of the Snowflake Method. It’s a bit simple, but it’s also extensive. That relates well into fragmented systems using portions of the ten step process. For example, when I researched this, I found that the character building steps might be a great idea for me.

I do not plan. I do, but at the same time, I write by the seat of my pants. In my head, I know what’s going to happen at the end, and even some key events that will happen in between. However I leave myself a great deal of room so that my creative juices can flow, so to speak. It allows spontaneous action, honest character emotion and reaction, and a high level of leniency when it comes to the evolution of the story. In my working novel, Children of Solus, I know exactly what is going to happen at the end. I know quite a bit about my characters and what lies in store for them, but in between? The events sometimes surprise even me. However, like I said, the character building steps of the Snowflake method have inspired me to try them out. I’m all for getting to know my characters better, and I look forward to seeing how that helps my writing.

That’s my method, and it works for me. Some writers wouldn’t be able to get anything done if they did it my way, but that’s just how writing is. What works for one does not work for another. As you learn what sort of writer you are, you’ll find what method works for you too. If the Snowflake Method does, that’s great! If you try it and it doesn’t, that’s alright too. Feel free to use pieces of it that do work for you. Just remember not to force yourself into a mold with it comes to your writing style. When you feel your creativity and inspiration is becoming cramped, odds are that your writing is going to show it. That’s not a good thing.

So how about you? Have you used the Snowflake Method before? How did it work for you? Have you found another method (perhaps even your own) that has given you good results?

I invite you to leave a comment on your experiences!

About HT Sundance

I'm 20 years old and I'm a writing student living in Hawaii. Writing is my passion, and I'm striving to break into the market doing something I really love.

Posted on December 15, 2011, in Tips & Tricks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’ve never tried this method but I’ve heard of it. I think it sounds good if you’re strapped for ideas and want to start something completely new, or going into a new genre. For instance, I’m a fantasy writer, but if I wanted to go space opera sci fi or steam punk, I’d go for that method I think. Sadly, I have promised my husband to work on a book I’m avoiding the first chapters to (not because I’m not inspired, I think, but because I’m afraid of mucking up the first draft. Which is silly.)

    • Very true. It’s never a bad idea to give yourself a clear game-plan when your writing in uncharted waters. As for first drafts, I think it’s good to take your time, but don’t be afraid of making mistakes. There’s a reason it’s called the first draft! :)

  2. It’s all in my head! I kind of thought I was doing things wrong and was doomed for failure by not writing some sort of detailed plan or something. I mean, I’ve started to compile a few pages of visual prompts for each character (I am a very visual person for inspiration, as opposed to text) and have gathered a fair bit of research about the era. I’ve written a very basic timeline of my main character and thats about it! Although, I’m only up to chapter 2! So who knows!

    • Well, look at it this way. How old are you, and how many writing projects have you followed through to completion? If you have a laundry list of projects “in progress”, and next to none actually completed, maybe your way of going about things isn’t working out for you. On the other hand, if you’ve done fine so far, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

  3. thats a pretty awesome article.. I never knew about this method, but to begin with I am not a writer(though I do have a small blog). The article is well structured and I am sure that one day you will make your name in the writer’s world.
    personally this is what i would do if i ever write a novel. follow steps 1 to 3 and then start writing chapters in order keeping the whole thing in mind. I think when you have a idea, you have to put it down fast, otherwise the initial enthusiasm will go(atleast for me)..
    best of luck..

    • Thanks for the comment, and that’s a good point. For some people, it’s even harder to keep inspired unless they can sit down and look at their ideas (as complete or as unfinished as they might be). You just have to experiment with what works. The only “right” way is the way that works for you.

  4. Wow, that’s an extremely nice read!

  5. General Comment

    To be candid, I only looked at the Awful part of this article. The “expert” wrote two novels based on historical engineering events, but otherwise focuses on how to write and non-fiction. Ingermanson, describer of Snowflake, is slightly better published and focuses on fiction. One might say the two were competitors.

    The critique is “snowflake is about plot but not story.” This says, “this is about form not substance.” Being able to come up with an emotional story is not something you turn to a framework for. This is like me complaining that a hammer is not cutting the wood well enough, or that my snow blower is not cutting my grass. Compare the tool based upon its intended purpose.

    There are essentially three approaches to plotting a novel: pantsing, planning and flaking. That is, you either start writing (like S. King) and hope it goes somewhere in the rewrite, you describe every scene ad infinitum until you’re ready to dress it. Snowflake says, “start at the high level, then drill down to the appropriate level of detail for you.”

    Two bestselling novelists I’ve spoken to essentially dive down to Snowflake’s Step 7 (skipping step 6). They have a couple pages on their characters, a four-page synopsis…then they go for it. Snowflake accounts for that. You want more detail, go to Snowflake 9. Ingermanson himself says his method is meant to be the middle path…plan to the depth necessary to feel comfortable that you can move on. It is meant to be fluid and flexible.

    Assume you spent 1 day through step 4, then one day on each of the other steps… in a week you have a cohesive storyline. Mix that with a bit of talent and a lot of time and you have a novel.

    Snowflake is a way to shape a story into the typical plot format readers expect. It doesn’t promise anything else.

    • Thanks for your comment; it surprises me that people still read this.

      First off, I will definitely say that Alcorn and I have had our differences. His mindset certainly does follow that of a non-fiction writer and teacher if not only from a personality standpoint. He’s quite set upon his fundamentals and doesn’t easily praise another set of them if their originator is hard set in his or her own beliefs. Perhaps that’s just my own observation of him, but I will also say that the man does have a very good understanding and grasp of story and plot; emotion and hitting your reader where it counts, as well as structure. I would suppose you wouldn’t be able to discern that from a Google search though.

      Is he the most well published author out there? Obviously not, but neither is Ingermanson by that logic. Even if Ingermanson is better published, I’d probably value either of their opinions with the same amount of respect. I’ve read stories infinitely more entertaining and well written (if not always perfectly structured) by novice writers still in their teens than that of best-selling authors. It’s a simple sentiment that might not be respected by everyone, but take note that I don’t place my respect for another writer as writer based upon how many books they’ve sold or how many times they’ve been published and by who. Until I read their work, they’re just a writer who was well-connected enough and persistent enough to get published. That says very little about their skill in the craft.

      That aside though, you’ve basically summarized the point of this post (without reading all of it yourself). There are benefits to “flaking”, as you put. However there are also clear downsides. In the end though, those downsides do not always exist at all to some writers, just as those benefits do not exist at all to others. Call it a shoe that either fits or doesn’t fit; and if it only sort of fits, you’re free to tweak it as you need until your foot is nice and comfy. It seems like this is what your author friends did by skipping certain parts of the process.

      I do believe however that even an emotional story needs framework, and that the Snowflake Method isn’t useless in that regard. It certainly may take some personal tweaking to get it to accomplish that task for you, but it’s not so much a “snow blower not cutting the grass” as it is a fork trying to cut a steak. It’s not impossible, it just may not be the most appropriate tool for the job (unless you grind a sharp edge onto one side of the fork; though perhaps I’m taking the illustration too far).

      To each his own, as always. I come at writing from a very creative perspective, just as art. Some like the structure, some don’t. What works for one will clearly not always work for another, even if both party’s creations are just as terrible or amazing.

    Shares the pros and cons of the method. It hows but you have to really apply yourself

  7. Now that I’ve just spent three hours on your website reading your posts, I’m hooked on your blog.

    I added it as a favorite it into my bookmarks list and will
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