M – Method in the Madness


April 15, 2013 by KWills

In my post on editing I mentioned the Snowflake Method, and promised I would have a have more to say on it later.  Today seems appropriate as, on the surface, the Snowflake method does seem a bit mad.  You tell your story five or six times over in plot outlines alone, and again for every major and minor character.  And that’s before you start on the first draft!  The planning stage can end up being almost novel-length in itself.  So why do it?  Surely it’s just making life more difficult, and holding up the process of getting on with the novel?

Well, no.  The planning stages are your warm-ups, the trial runs that tell you how – or maybe even if – this novel is going to work out.  It’s better to have fifty pages of notes that need work, than to have five hundred pages of badly thought out novel to re-write.  Add to that the nifty little extra that when you follow the Snowflake method you are writing the book jacket blurb, the elevator pitch and the dreaded synopsis as part of your outline.  When the time comes to sell your novel, the groundwork is already done.

The stages of the snowflake method (in brief) are as follows:
(see the original site for a detailed description of each step)

  1. Single sentence outline
  2. Single paragraph outline
  3. Character goals, conflicts, and arcs.
  4. Single page outline
  5. Character synopses
  6. Four page outline
  7. Detailed character sheets
  8. Scene list
  9. (optional) Scene list with detailed notes, everything from cool lines of dialogue to detailed conflict descriptions
  10. The first draft

On his website, Ingermanson talks about “composting”, that is, mulling the story over in your head and working out things like world-building and the general shape of the plot.  This is something you should do before starting to outline.  It is the day-dreaming stage, and may include some initial research.  Because he assumes that the world-building has been done already, he doesn’t include it in the Snowflake.  I, however, like to give myself time to work out the fine detail of the locations, so I’ve added “location” steps to complement the  “character” steps of the Snowflake method as given.  I also use my own version of character sheets for stage seven.

My own list, therefore, looks like this:

1. Single sentence outline
2. Single paragraph outline
3. Character goals, conflicts, and arcs.
3a. Location list, with brief description and/or sketches
4. Single page outline
5. Character synopses
5a. Cultural notes, pertaining to the characters.
6. Four page outline
7. Detailed character sheets
7a. Sketch maps, locations relative to each other, distances and travel times.
7b. Significant story “props”
8. Scene list with brief notes
9. Scenes broken down into components (more on this another day)
10. The first draft

As you can see, I have modified steps 8 and 9, and added in extras to steps 3, 5 and 7.  It took me a long time to really understand what is meant by a “scene”, so I’ll be devoting the letter S to an exploration of that topic, later in the month.

The Snowflake method is terrific for outlining, but it is also a good editing tool.  Deconstructing an existing draft into the stages of the Snowflake can highlight weak areas, and show what needs to be developed – as well as what can be done away with.  I wrote “The History of Haplow House” before I discovered the Snowflake method, so I never tried to sum up the story in one sentence, or one paragraph until I began to edit.  With “Beyond Imagining”, however, I’m using the Snowflake method from the start.  What will be interesting will be to compare the stages of the outlines with the stages of the same story come the edit.  Will the story have changed much in the telling?  I’m sure there will be differences, but I don’t know where they’ll be yet.  In the characters?  In the plot?  Who knows!


5 thoughts on “M – Method in the Madness

  1. Christina says:

    I’ve heard about the Snowflake Method but never really looked into it or had it explained. Now, I know. Thank you. Seems like a lot of work but the payoff is good. I outline with major plot points tacked on my cork board. Nothing fancy here. 🙂

  2. Zen A. says:

    I’ve tried the Snowflake method but didn’t get past the 2nd or 3rd steps. I have never been one for outlining and it didn’t work for me, though I understand why a planner would find it really useful!

  3. Ingrid Engen says:

    Great post on the Snowflake Method. I always struggle with outlines, especially with outlining prior to writing a first draft, but I should give it another shot. Usually when I do outline, I end up changing quite a bit while I write the first draft.

    Most often, I end up using an outlining method after a first draft but before a second draft, and it seems to work better for me (as a way to clarify the plot). Thanks for the suggestions and revealing your extra steps.


  4. I have read most of your posts for the A to Z challenge, which I am also taking part in. I do not write fiction, apart from occasional children’s stories, but am still finding your writing interesting. I also used method and madness in my post for M.
    Sue’s Trifles

  5. jeremy bates says:

    everything u said is very true!
    however, ive tried outlines before and i find i just dont have the patience or energy
    i try to write and, yeah, ur right, sometimes ive ended up pretty far in and no way out! lol
    but usually i can work through the sludge…………..
    -knock on wood-

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