Writing a novel is no easy task. It can take countless hours, endless cups of coffee, and more than a few drafts to get it right.
But there is one thing you can do to save yourself some headaches: outlining.
Creating an outline before starting your first draft will help you identify plot holes and determine the general direction your story needs to take. If there are any areas that just aren’t going to work, it’s better to know before you’re waist-deep in crumpled up drafts and your own tears.
While there are many ways to outline a story’s structure, the snowflake method is perhaps the most detailed and involved. It requires more planning on the front end, but if done properly, you’ll actually save yourself quite a bit of time and frustration.
Outlining a Novel: How Much Is Too Much?
When it comes to planning and outlining a story, the best method can vary from writer to writer.
Some authors work best when they have a detailed, in-depth plot outline to guide them through their writing. Others thrive with more creative freedom and find that their best ideas come to them as they write.
Regardless of your preferred style, having some sort of outline ready, however general or detailed, is highly recommended before you jump in to the writing process.
The benefits of an outline are myriad. You’ll save time, money, and the eventual tears that would spring when you run into writer’s block as a result of poor planning.
Popular options for plotting include the Hero’s Journey or the three-act structure. Today, however, we’ll focus on the snowflake method, a model that starts with the simplest idea or theme before developing into a more complex scheme, which will become your novel.
What Is the Snowflake Method?
With the snowflake method, you’ll start with a simple premise (usually a single sentence) and systemically expand it to include greater details regarding plot and characters.
Developed by award-winning author and physicist Randy Ingermanson, this method is perhaps best-suited for more detailed planners, as you’ll outline basically the entirety of your novel.
How to Use the Snowflake Method in 10 Steps
1. Write a one-sentence summary.
Start by writing a one-sentence summary of your novel. Focus on the big picture—this should serve as a hook for your potential publisher, editor, and eventual readers.
Make it brief (aim for under 15 words) and general (don’t include specific character names). This should answer the question “What is your book about?” in the most concise manner, but without missing the central theme.
This sentence should essentially be your logline, a one or two sentence description that condenses a script or novel down to its essential dramatic narrative. All film scripts have loglines.
Two con artists are forced to help the FBI entrap a corrupt politician. (Logline for the American Hustle screenplay.)
2. Turn your sentence into a paragraph.
Building on your first sentence, fill in the picture by summarizing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of your novel.
If you’re familiar with the three-act structure, you’ll recognize the first “disaster” as the end of Act 1, the second as the mid-point, the third as the end of Act 2, and the ending as your resolution of Act 3.
Like your one-sentence summary, this paragraph should summarize the most essential parts of your novel, without throwing in too many details yet.
3. Create your main characters.
For each of your main characters, create a brief character profile that summarizes their most important traits and their place in the plot.
Include the following information for each major character:
- On sentence summarizing their storyline
- Their motivation
- Their goal
- The primary obstacle in their way (conflict)
- The lesson they will learn
- One paragraph summarizing their storyline
4. Expand your first paragraph.
Returning to your five-sentence paragraph from Step 2, expand each of those five sentences into its own paragraph.
This may seem like tedious work, but it can actually save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Imagine discovering an unanticipated plot hole after months of writing! This process should help you to efficiently plan your story and work out any kinks that could cause you trouble later on.
Establishing your “big picture” will allow you to better fill in the details as you move along.
5. Develop your characters.
Your characters are perhaps the most important force in your novel, so don’t skimp when it comes to developing them.
Return to the brief outlines you created for your major characters in Step 3. Expand your paragraph into a full page for each major character, and a half-page for other important supporting characters.
Basically, these one-page descriptions should summarize the story from the character’s perspective. How do the events affect them? How do their desires, motivations, and personalities evolve (if at all)?
6. Expand your one-page synopsis.
Returning to your one-page synopsis from Step 4, take some time to expand that summary into four pages. You can take each paragraph and expand it into roughly a page, adding more details as you go.
If you come across any snags, that’s perfectly okay. Make adjustments as needed. (Again, it’s much better that you find them now, after writing only a few pages, than weeks or months from now when you’ve written dozens).
7. Create detailed character charts.
It’s time to revisit your characters and plump them up with as many details as you can.
You most likely won’t reveal all of these details to your readers (when was the last time you learned a character’s birth date?) but that’s not the point. This exercise will help you see your characters as real, fully-developed people, which will make them more relatable and realistic for your readers.
Fill in details about their histories, from their childhoods to past relationships or struggles. Figure out what made them the character we meet in your novel. Figure out their motivations, their flaws, their strengths—get to know them like your best friend.
Determine how they will change by the end of your story. Take as much time as you need here, because, like we said, your story is nothing without great characters.
8. Brainstorm your scenes.
Take your four-page synopsis and use it to make a list of every scene you’ll need to write. Ingermanson recommends doing this with a spreadsheet.
You don’t actually need to write the scenes at this point, but you should decide a few basic details, like from which point of view the scene will be written, and the essentials of what will actually happen in that scene.
This is another great way to spot potential plot holes and smooth out the remaining details, and it gives you a solid outline with which to analyze your story.
9. Write narrative descriptions for each scene.
Now that you have your scenes planned out in a spreadsheet, start writing a narrative description—roughly several paragraphs—for each. (This is your first step toward actually “writing” your novel.)
Plan out the main conflict of each scene, and fill in any lines of dialogue that you might have thought of.
Try separating your scenes into chapters and then print out each page. This will allow you to really get a good look at your story while still enabling you to switch the order, swap out some scenes, or make any changes you feel are necessary.
Make notes in the margins as new ideas come to you. Once you do this, actually completing your first draft should feel like a breeze.
10. Write your first draft.
Using the outline you printed out in the previous step, you can actually start churning out your “real” first draft.
You’ll still have the creative freedom to make decisions at the plot-level (like the “hows” of your story, but you’re far less likely to get stuck along the way compared to a writer who only conducted minimal planning.
Benefits of the Snowflake Method
One of the primary benefits of the snowflake method is the structure it offers to writers.
While this might provide little comfort to more free-spirited writers, it certainly helps to spot and fix most plot holes before they become major problems.
If you follow the steps properly, the snowflake method should also help you to complete your first draft in less time, since your ideas will be pretty clear before you start typing.
Start Planning Your Plot
Whichever method you choose, it’s always a good idea to do some planning before you put your pen to paper.
Find a process that works best for you so you can spend less time rewriting and more time working on your next bestseller.
What is your outlining process? Share your tips in the comments below!