Create a powerful structure for your novel with this 10-step method.
Like most authors, the first time someone suggested that I think about outlining my novels, my immediate instinct was to say no. Not only was I convinced this would take the magic out of the process, but I didn’t feel I had the capability to think through a whole story from beginning to end.
So, I started out writing fiction the way most first-time novelists do: opening up a blank page and wishing for the words to materialize.
It wasn’t until I discovered the Snowflake Method many years later that I realized my entire understanding of outlining had been flawed. That most of us, no matter whether we’re writing novels, short stories, or narrative nonfiction, identifying as plotters or pantsers, work off some version of an outline.
In fact, I’d been doing it in my journalism all along. Every story starts with a character or something happening and expands into a wider universe as the story develops. That’s what outlining is.
And the Snowflake Method made it endlessly easy for me to put my story through that framework.
What is the Snowflake Method?
The Snowflake Method is a structured approach to fiction writing and, in particular, writing a novel that helps authors design their stories from the ground up. It was created by award-winning author Randy Ingermanson, who was inspired by the fractal nature of a snowflake, where the complexity emerges step by step.
The method breaks down the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable steps, starting with a story idea and progressively expanding it to create a detailed plan. It offers a structured framework for storytelling while allowing room for creativity and adaptation.
Many writers find that the Snowflake Method provides a sense of direction, helps in overcoming writer’s block, and results in cleaner first drafts. This ultimately boosts their confidence and increases their chances of success in finishing the book.
These are the 10 steps of the Snowflake Method:
- Write a one-sentence summary
- Expand it to a one-paragraph summary
- Create character summary sheets
- Expand each sentence of the summary paragraph into a full paragraph
- Write a one-page description of all major characters
- Create a four-page synopsis
- Create character charts
- Make a list of scenes
- Describe each scene
- Write your first draft
Why the Snowflake Method works
The Snowflake Method is one of the most popular methods of outlining a novel because of its unique way of tackling story structure. It takes small elements and builds on them in a very easy-to-follow step-by-step process. The end result is a book that feels coherent and whole, right from the first sentence to the last scene.
Here’s why so many writers choose this method over others:
- Structure and organization: The Snowflake Method breaks down the novel-writing process into manageable steps, ensuring clarity, and effectively connecting vital story elements, such as plot points and character arcs.
- Character depth: This method allows writers to dig deep into characters’ motivations, backgrounds, and personalities before the actual writing, leading to the creation of multi-dimensional and relatable characters.
- Detailed scene planning: The Snowflake Method takes scene-planning to a higher level, requiring writers to not only list scenes, but also provide descriptions. This approach adds purpose and emotional impact to every scene, resulting in smoother drafts and consistent pacing.
- Flexibility and creativity: No writer wants to lose creative freedom in the writing process, and the Snowflake method allows for writers to explore and adapt their stories as they write, striking a balance between structure and imaginative flexibility.
- Overcoming writer’s block: Struggling from writer’s block? This method will help you eliminate writing blocks by acting as a roadmap and showing you what comes next, which minimizes the feeling of being lost in the story.
- Streamlined revisions: The Snowflake Method’s emphasis on planning and organization leads to cleaner first drafts and minimizes extensive rewrites during the revision stage.
- Faster writing: If you’re self-publishing on platforms like Amazon, you know you can’t keep readers waiting years for your next book. You need to write and you need to write fast. Working with methods like the Snowflake Method allows you to achieve that speed. You minimize inefficiencies when you know from the very first sentence what your story is and where it’s going.
How to write a novel using the Snowflake Method
Whether you’re a first-time author or a bestselling author with many books to your name, this outlining method can save you hours of time and months of frustration during the discovery stages of your novel. Here’s what each step in the process looks like.
Step 1: Write a one-sentence summary
The first step of the Snowflake Method is to create a single, succinct sentence that encapsulates your entire novel. Later, when your book is finished and ready to go to market, you can use this sentence as the elevator pitch for your book.
What this first step forces you to do is clarify the core of your narrative, including the central theme, main character, and primary conflict. Think of this single sentence as the starting point of your novel’s structural development.
Why this step matters:
- Creating a one-sentence summary of your novel challenges you to define the heart of your story and your central theme.
- It helps you to know why it will appeal to readers.
- You establish a clear direction for your novel and set the stage for its progression. For first novels especially, this can be the key to not romping all over the page in search of your story.
- You’ve made a clear decision about what your story is—and equally important, what it is not.
Step 2: Expand it to a one-paragraph summary
In this second step of the Snowflake Method, you take the one-sentence summary you’ve crafted and expand it into a more detailed one-paragraph summary. This single paragraph acts as a bridge between the initial sentence and the broader outline we’ll get to in the next few steps. This paragraph is to help you start giving your story more context, delve deeper into the central characters, and the main storyline.
If you’re using the Three-Act structure to plot your novel, Ingermanson recommends having four sentences in this paragraph, each of which sums up the three disasters and the ending.
Why this step matters:
- This step helps you flesh out your main character’s motivations, the primary obstacles they’ll face, and the overarching plot.
- It’s a critical reference point for keeping your narrative on track while giving you a clearer sense of your novel’s direction.
- This is an essential step in the outlining process, offering more detail to guide you without overwhelming you with specifics.
Step 3: Create character summary sheets
Once you’ve established the foundation of your story, it’s time to start thinking about your characters. In this step, you’ll create character summary sheets for each important character in your novel. Don’t worry about minor characters at this point. These sheets will serve as a character profile, detailing everything from character names to their physical appearances, birthdates, motivations, and desires.
You don’t need to think about each individual character’s storyline in detail at this point, though it’s helpful to know what each character’s conflict is and what drives them. Think of this as a 2-D representation of your characters or character archetypes. They may not all be real to you just yet, but you have some idea of who they are and what they’re doing in your story.
Here’s a tip from J.K. Rowling, the bestselling author of the Harry Potter books: “I made up the names of the characters on a sick bag while I was on an airplane. I told this to a group of kids and a boy said, ‘Ah, no, that’s disgusting.’ And I said, ‘Well, I hadn’t used the sick bag.’”
Why this step matters:
- Character summary sheets help you visualize your characters, even if you don’t understand them deeply yet.
- By documenting essential character details, you ensure consistency in how they’re portrayed throughout the novel.
- Your plot influences your characters, but your characters influence your plot, too. When you start getting to know who your characters are and what they want, the world of your book and what happens within it will start becoming clearer.
Step 4: Expand each sentence of the summary paragraph into a full paragraph
In this phase of the Snowflake Method, you’ll take the one-paragraph summary you’ve developed so far and unpack it into a more comprehensive, multi-paragraph overview. This expanded story summary is your opportunity to take each of those three acts and book ending and expand them into paragraphs of their own. At this stage, you’re looking for more character development and narrative description.
Why this step matters:
- Expanding your summary into a one-page plot is a logical progression in building your story step by step. By expanding your story into multiple paragraphs, you begin to see how your narrative will flow, as well as how different elements fit together.
- This process encourages fiction writers to think more deeply about story and the elements of plot, uncovering nuances and opportunities for additional subplots, character growth, and conflict.
- This expanded summary helps ensure a solid structure, making subsequent stages of the process even more effective.
Step 5: Write a one-page description of all major characters
In any method of outlining a novel, character development is a critical part of building a compelling and well-rounded story. For this step of the Snowflake Method, you’ll create comprehensive character profiles for all your major characters. These are character descriptions that encompass various facets of their lives, personalities, and roles in the story.
Why this step matters:
- Use these character synopses to build strong, believable characters. By understanding their backgrounds, motivations, and personalities at this point, not only are you better equipped to make your characters come alive on the page, but expand upon the roles they play in your story.
- This is also the step at which you want to consider who your main point of view characters are and in whose voice and perspective the story is being told.
- An understanding of your characters allows you to ensure that their intentions and actions throughout the story are consistent and feel authentic.
- A character profile is an evolving document. As you write and develop your story, you might find it necessary to update or adjust these profiles.
Step 6: Create a four-page synopsis
Now it’s time to craft a more comprehensive synopsis for your novel. While the one-page summary you created earlier provides a condensed view of the story’s main elements, this step involves expanding each of those elements (three disasters and an ending) into a page of their own.
Why this step matters:
- The four-page synopsis gives you the opportunity to flesh out your story further and explore key plot points, character developments, and thematic elements in greater detail.
- This step will allow you to understand how your story unfolds on a broader scale, which is crucial for maintaining consistency and coherence in your narrative.
- By going deeper into the plot and turning points, you can start getting a better sense of your story’s pacing and identify any potential plot holes or areas for improvement.
- This step is where most of the brainstorming ends and the deeper connection with the story begins, including expanding on characters and subplots.
Step 7: Create character charts
We now know who our main characters are, but you may still be a little fuzzy on some of the minor characters. For each of these secondary characters, compile full-page character charts that include details such as name, age, physical attributes, and background. Identify each character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts. What do they want? And what will they do to get it? You’ll also want to explore their relationships with other characters, noting how they interact and evolve together.
For your main characters, these full-fledged character charts will go even deeper than the last step. Now think about the backstory for each of these people. Make a note of each character’s epiphany, if there is one.
Why this step matters:
- Developing rich and multi-dimensional characters is crucial for crafting a compelling and relatable story. Through character charts, you delve into their past, present, and potential future, which, in turn, informs their actions and decisions throughout the narrative.
- These charts provide a ready reference during the writing process, ensuring consistency in character traits, behaviors, and development.
Step 8: Make a list of scenes
Once you have an in-depth understanding of your characters and a well-defined storyline, it’s time to create a list of scenes. This process will help you establish a clear roadmap for your novel and create a scene-by-scene outline that can guide you through the writing.
I’ll hasten to add that this is not a step all writers choose to follow. For writers who like to discover their story as they write, this might be the end of the process before the actual writing begins.
However, if you’re more of a planner and no outline is too stringent for you, then this step can be a crucial part of your planning process since it will allow you to visualize your entire narrative and make any necessary adjustments before you start writing.
Why this step matters:
- Compiling a list of scenes allows you to break down your story into manageable pieces. It offers a structured framework for your plot, helping you organize the narrative’s flow and pacing.
- It provides you with a sense of control over your story. You can visually map out how each scene connects to the next, ensuring that your plot remains cohesive and engaging.
- As you list your scenes, you’ll find you’re forced to think about the purpose of each one. This helps you foster a deeper understanding of how your characters’ arcs, motivations, and conflicts drive the plot forward.
- By sequencing your scenes logically and thinking about cause and effect, you’ll ensure that each scene leads naturally to the next. Keep this list flexible, though. You’ll find that you’ll add, remove, or modify scenes as your novel evolves.
Step 9: Describe each scene
If you’re not a serious plotter, look away now and go start writing your novel. This step isn’t for you. However, if you like extreme levels of planning and aren’t afraid to dig in super deep here, while understanding that things may still change as you start writing, then this is the step where you actually start expanding on each scene.
This expansion could be from a couple of sentences to half-page descriptions or more, but the point here is to have a basic idea of the setting, time, location, characters present, and what happens for each scene. This step helps you get clear on the purpose of each scene within the story.
Why this step matters:
- Describing each scene helps you really enter the world of the story. You’ll need to think about the setting, the characters involved, the central conflict, and what needs to be accomplished in each scene. This level of detail ensures your story remains engaging and well-structured.
- It allows you to identify any gaps or inconsistencies in your plot. As you flesh out your scenes, you might discover areas that require further development, conflict, or resolution.
- Scene descriptions help maintain a consistent tone and mood throughout your novel. You can ensure that each scene serves a purpose, whether it’s to build tension, reveal character traits, or advance the plot.
Step 10: Write your first draft
Finally! It’s time to write. Reaching this stage in the Snowflake Method means you’ve meticulously planned your novel, dissecting it into its smallest elements. Now it’s time to let your creativity flow and write the first draft.
Your prior planning will hopefully provide a sense of security and direction, making it easier to tackle the writing of the book. You’re far less likely to encounter writer’s block or get lost in the middle of your manuscript if you’ve followed this process. Play with voice, style, and writing techniques and see what comes naturally to you.
Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!
Other ways to outline a novel
The Snowflake Method is not the only way to outline a novel and there are several other plot outline templates available that may better suit your personality and process.
Here are a few that we love:
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is a powerful and widely recognized plot structure often attributed to the work of Joseph Campbell, who analyzed and identified common elements in myths and stories from various cultures.
The Hero’s Journey outlines the protagonist’s transformational journey through three main phases: Departure, Initiation, and Return.
In the Departure phase, the hero leaves their ordinary world to face adventure. The Initiation phase involves trials, challenges, and encounters that lead to personal growth and insights. Finally, the Return phase sees the hero return to the ordinary world, often changed and with newfound wisdom.
This structure resonates with audiences because it mirrors the universal human experience of leaving comfort zones, confronting obstacles, and returning as changed individuals.
The Three-Act Structure
The Three-Act Structure is a classic and widely used plot framework that divides a story into three primary acts: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution.
In the Setup, Act 1, the story begins by introducing the characters, setting, and initial conflicts. It provides the audience with essential background information, establishing the world and character dynamics.
Act 2, the Confrontation, forms the core of the story, containing rising action, character development, and the central problem’s evolution.
The final act, Act 3, the Resolution, showcases the climax, resolution of conflicts, and the story’s conclusion.
The Three-Act Structure provides a clear and effective framework for storytelling, maintaining a balanced flow of events while keeping audiences engaged.
Save the Cat
Save the Cat is a plot structure and screenwriting method popularized by Blake Snyder in his book of the same name. It offers a 15-beat guide to creating compelling stories. The name “Save the Cat” signifies an early scene where the hero performs a likable or heroic action to engage the audience’s empathy.
The 15 beats include key moments such as the Catalyst (an incident that sets the story in motion), Midpoint (a pivotal event), and All Is Lost (the lowest point for the hero). The structure also incorporates character development arcs, subplots, and a strong emphasis on audience engagement.
Save the Cat is beloved by screenwriters and novelists for its clarity, effective pacing, and character-driven storytelling, which aims to create a satisfying emotional experience for the audience.
Write your novel the easy way
Putting together a novel outline can be an excellent way to take the pressure off when you’re writing your first draft. However, sometimes you may find yourself in the middle of a messy draft that’s grown five legs and two heads, and you have no idea what to do with it or how to go on.
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Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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