British historical novelist Richard Denning explains the very popular Snowflake Method for planning and writing novels, illustrated by examples from one of his seven YA (young adult) novels, The Last Seal.
As a a self-published author of historical fiction and historical fantasy, I use the Snowflake Method to help me write novels. It was invented by Randy Ingermanson, the multiple-award-winning US novelist and teacher of writing crafts.
The idea of the Snowflake Method is that, if it is done well, you can avoid major plot issues requiring major rewrites because you already have done that work. Furthermore you should spend less time staring at a blank page. You wrench the story idea out of your head at the start. Once you have built the snowflake it makes the writing easier. This does not mean you lose creativity. You have to be creative at the start as you make the snowflake. As you go along you often find new ideas pop up – indeed these can often be stimulated more because you already know the direction the novel is going and so your flakes of inspiration can link in better.
How To Use The Snowflake Method
I summarise the main steps here, using my YA historical novel The Last Seal as an example:
STEP 1 ONE SENTENCE SUMMARY
Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. This sentence could become the hook that will sell your book. A good sentence is shorter rather than longer – ideally fewer than 15 words. It should not contain character names. It is better to say “a mercenary time travelling adventurer” than “Septimus Mason”. This sentence should aim to tie together the big picture of the book with the personal picture of the main character. We should learn which character has the most to lose in this story and what he or she wants to gain. Here's a one sentence summary of my YA novel, The Last Seal:
“London 1666: a schoolboy and a thief brave the perils of the Great Fire to prevent an even more terrible catastrophe!”
STEP 2 ONE PARAGRAPH PLOT
You now need to expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the background, the major disasters, and the ending of the novel.
It is a good idea to think about the a story as “three disasters plus an ending”. Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. If you are approaching publishers you can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Or alternatively if you self-publish this could easily become the back cover blurb. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences: one sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup, one sentence each for your three disasters, then one more sentence to tell the ending. Here's my one-paragraph plot for The Last Seal:
“In September 1666 a schoolboy playing truant and a local thief blunder into a struggle between rival secret societies. They discover that the Liberati serve a powerful demon which was locked under London by their opponents the Praesidum who created magical seals round the city which now the Liberati aim to destroy when they start the fire at Pudding Lane. As the fire spreads, the two youths and the Praesidum must evade the deadly Liberati as they try to locate the remaining seals. They discover that the location of the final seal is given on a secret key hidden somewhere in the city. A desperate race ensues to find the key, locate the final seal and prevent the demon being freed.”
STEP 3 DEVELOP CHARACTERS
Plots are all very good but the book is going to need compelling characters. So you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. For each of your major characters, we need this information:
- The character's name
- A one-sentence summary of the character's storyline
- The character's goal (what does he/she want?)
- The character's conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
- The character's epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change? A one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline
I developed this profile for my character Freya in The Last Seal:
- Summary: Cheerful , cheeky but , selfish young thief finds a purpose through perilous adventure.
- Goal: To survive each day and get as much as she can. To gain wealth, avoid responsibility
- Obstacles: Uneducated, orphan gutter snipe with no prospects
- Epiphany: There are things more important than self, higher purposes which are worth risking self for
- Synopsis of character story line: Freya scrapes a living thieving and pick-pocketing. One day she is caught red handed and shifts the blame on Benjamin a school boy playing truant who runs with her to escape capture right into an encounter with agents of the Liberati who threaten them both. Escaping with Ben they encountering the Praesidum. Initially she refuses to help the Praesidum unless she gains a reward but gradually comes to realise that the Liberati must be opposed and in so doing her shallow existence gains meaning. Helps reforms the Praesidum at the end and resolves to continue its mission.
STEP 4 PLOT SUMMARY
The snow flake grows. You now expand the one paragraph summary of the plot. Each sentence expands into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends. So you now have maybe a full sheet with your plot on.
STEP 5 CHARACTER CHARTS
Take your character synopsis and now expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts. Detail everything there is to know about each character, such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goals, etc.
STEP 6 EXPAND THE PLOT SYNOPSIS
By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page. Take that four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes that you'll need to turn the story into a novel. Make a list of each scene throughout the whole books and organise them into chapters. Here's how I did it for The Last Seal:
At this point I open up Word and slap in all those scenes. Then I just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel. If I follow this process well (and I confess I don’t always manage to be quite so elaborate), I am often astounded at how fast the story flies out of my fingers at this stage.
- I KNOW the story
- I KNOW the characters
- I KNOW the scenes
- I can just get writing!
Seat of pants writers may not like this approach but I find I need the framework to get me started.
Randy Ingermanson offers more information about his Snowflake Method and much more writing advice at his excellent website, www.advancedfictionwriting. com.