How To Use the Snowflake method to outline your novel fast and well
Includes a simple example of the Snowflake Method in action
When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea the project was hard. I didn’t write a plot outline. I didn’t sit down to plan my story. I didn’t actually do anything by of preparation at all.
I just sat down, and wrote a book.
As it happened, that book worked out well. It sold for plenty of money and went on to become a bestseller.
I thought, “Yep, I can do this. I’m a great writer. Of course I don’t need to plan my next novel. I’ll just figure it out as I go.”
My second book was so bad that my editor basically called me in and told me that it was completely unpublishable in its current form.
My editor was right. I knew he was. So I went home, opened up the file on my computer. Hit Ctrl-A for “select all”.
And hit delete.
My second novel – gone.
I rewrote that novel and this time it did fine. It got entered into one of the UK’s biggest summer book promotions. It aroused some film interest. (We got an offer actually, and accepted it, but the company went down in flames before I got any cash.)
And I date my writing career – my real writing career – from there. Not from my first novel, which did fine, but which just landed in my head and on the page thanks to some benevolent higher power. But from my second novel, which I had to wrestle into existence. Which I had to figure out and plan from scratch.
You’re reading this post because you’re smarter than I was back then. You’ve figured out not just that you want to start writing a novel, but that you want to plan it too. You’ve realised that:
If you have an outline of your novel – a structure in fact – you’re much less likely to go wrong as you write it.
Yes, I know that’s obvious. I was just dumb.
So this post is going to tell you how NOT to write a novel the way I tried to do it that second time. We’re going to plan out an entire structure for a novel – a complete story outline, in fact – and we’re going to do it easily.
We don’t want an easy way to write a bad story. We want an easy way to write a good one.
Are you with me? You are? Then let’s go.
How to plot a novel using the Snowflake method:
Write your story in one sentence
Decide on your protagonist
Write a paragraph on settings
Add a beginning, middle and end to your story description
Write short character summaries
Expand your story description to 2 pages
Keep adding details until you’re ready to write
What’s the Snowflake Method, and why use it?
So this post is going to tell you how to build up a novel outline, piece by piece. (For a reminder of plot basics, go here.) The idea of the “Snowflake” method is that it’s circular and incremental. So you don’t build your outline like this:
Chapter 1: X happens, then Y happens
Chapter 2: Something else happens
Chapter 3: and then something else
That way is really hard to pull off. I’ve written a lot of books and I’ve never once succeeded by attempting this technique. What you’re likely to find is a mess of a first draft. Yes, you can fix it, but it’s much easier to do things right in the first place.
The way the Snowflake Method works is much cleverer. It’s a much simpler way to structure your story . . . and will give you a much better story as well. (The idea, by the way, was first developed by Randy Ingermanson – so, thanks, Randy.)
Here’s the basic idea. You build your outline like this:
What’s the idea of your novel? Write it down in one sentence.
Who’s the protagonist (hero or heroine) of your story. Write that down in one sentence.
What’s the setting of your story? One sentence there, please
Then you go back to the idea of your story. This time you tease it out into five segments with 1 sentence (or so) for each one.
And so on
The reason this method works is that it works the way the human brain works. It doesn’t ask for a ton of detail upfront before it’s settled in your mind. It uses the actual process of working to generate more thoughts and more detail . . . so you only ever need to make incremental changes to what you did before.
How to plan out your novel: approach and mindset
We’re writing creatively, right?
That means two things:
It’s going to be slow and jumpy. It’s not like writing a report at work, where you just need to put in enough hours and the job will get done. Sure, you need to put some hours in front of a keyboard . . . but maybe you also need to go walk the dogs, listen to some music, have a swim. It’s often enough when you’re musing but not actually working that you get the breakthroughs you need. So sure, sit at a keyboard: that part is essential. But give yourself the space to do other things too. Make space for those breakthroughs.
You’ll make mistakes. And that’s good! Mistakes are good! The imagination has to be able to try stuff out. When you go clothes shopping, you see something you like,then try it on. When you look at yourself in the mirror, more often than not, you’ll think, “Nope, not quite right.” But if you don’t try stuff on, you won’t find what is right. So let yourself try out ideas. That’s what a first draft novel outline is for. Give those ideas space and time to show you what they’re made of. And don’t get upset if you throw things away. You’ll only get to the great stuff by sifting plenty of just-not-good-enough ideas first
Use the Snowflake Method: getting started
Before you start writing your novel, make sure you have something worth writing about!
The idea of the Snowflake Method is that you pen first the heart or core of your novel, so the rest can expand from here.
From here, you flesh out, building out to key milestones in plot, profiling how each main character views the story, and so on, and so on – until you’re ready to start.
Take a piece of paper or fire up a new document. This is how it’s done.
1 Write a one-sentence description for your novel
An easy starting point. This is the sum of your story, your protagonist’s journey. Where will they go, what will they achieve, how will they grow?
See if you can condense all that succinctly in a single sentence or two. That sentence is the whole point of the Snowflake Method.
So let’s say, you want to write a private eye type story set in 1940s Los Angeles. You love writers like Raymond Chandler, but you want to offer something new as well. So maybe you throw in one unexpected ingredient – you want to do something that Chandler himself would never have done.
So, in this example, you’ve chosen to add a ghost story element to your novel. Sure, that’s just an example, but we’ll work with that idea as we develop the way the Snowflake Method actually works.
Example: 1 sentence story description
A private eye (Bernie Brandon) is trying to track down the killer of beautiful murder victim Amy Adderley . . . but Amy’s ghost is stalking Bernie.
Does that work for you? It works for me, I think. I’d like to know more about that story.
2 Who’s the protagonist (hero or heroine) of your novel?
Now write down something – a sentence or two – about your protagonist. Don’t push yourself to write more here than you want, and remember that anything you do write can be scrubbed out and changed later. Changing your mind isn’t bad, remember. It shows that you’re approaching this task in a flexible and imaginative way.
But, OK, for now, let’s try something like this:
Example: Protagonist description in 1 sentence
Bernie Brandon is an ex-cop. Lives alone. Is a problem drinker. Has a soft spot for any beautiful woman, but can’t manage long term relationships. Somewhat lonely. Is an excellent cello player, and plays the cello when he’s feeling blue.
Did I say one sentence? I did.
Was that one sentence? It was not.
But if it comes, it comes. Don’t hold yourself back. The purpose of the Snowflake Method is to build incrementally from a simple starting point. It’s meant to remove the mental block of being asked to build too much scaffolding before you’re ready.
But if you’re ready, then let yourself rip. We need to build up your main characters at some point anyway.
Oh, and I originally thought that my protagonist was just going to be Bernie Brandon, only I realise I have an impulse to bring the victim / ghost more into the story as well. Maybe this story is going to be a two-hander, where Bernie and Amy both take turns to narrate?
I don’t yet know the answer to that, but if you want to write something additional down about your characters here, then do.
Example: 1 sentence about another major character
Amy Adderley is a rich girl, dead before the start of the story. She is (or was) a singer.
I didn’t find myself having more to say about Amy, so we’ll leave her there for now.
3 Write a paragraph or so about your major setting or settings
OK, we know what we’re doing here, right? We’re working with a 1940s Los Angeles noir. We want to evoke all that Bogart / Bacall smart-talking, hard-drinking era. So:
Example: Paragraph about settings
Los Angeles in the 1940s. The place is seedy, post-Prohibition, and most of the big money is dirty money. We’re thinking about big oceanfront homes, with glossy sedan cars outside. We’re thinking about squalid little diners up in the hills where lonely souls, like Brandon, can get meals after midnight and avoid going home. This is an LA where the girls are pretty, but fallen, and the cops can be bought.
And you know what? As I wrote that paragraph
Something clicked for me about Amy Adderley. I wasn’t looking for that to happen, but that’s how this outlining method works. You go round the various different elements of your novel (Story, Protagonists, Settings), step by step, adding detail as you go.
And pop! Working one one thing, you get an insight into another thing.
Those insights are what this outline process is all about. They’re why we use this method in the first place.
So I’m going to jump back to my description of Amy Adderley and add this:
Example: 1 sentence about another main character
Amy Adderley is a rich girl, dead before the start of the story. She is (or was) a singer – but classical. She loves Schubert lieder and opera. her father, however, is a brute. A nightclub guy who made his money dirtily during Prohibition. The father’s type of singing is strictly nightclub fare – and a lot of his girls will do more than just sing for the customers . . . if the customers pay enough.
Boom! You like it?
We have to have a reason for why Amy is killed, and her father’s background already provides more than half an answer. And also, we gave Bernie the cello to play, just because he’s a lonely but talented guy and we had to give him something to do in his hours at home. But now Amy is a singer, a classical one. So there’s this lovely link between them. Almost like they could be lovers, right? Except that she’s dead already . . . but that feels just right for the mood of this novel.
Notice that we haven’t yet said anything much about our actual story yet, but now that we have an outline of our major ingredients, we’re going to hurtle back with interest to the story itself.
So, round we go again. We’re hitting the same basic targets – story, character, settings – but this time we already know more about our ingredients, so we can add layers of detail that weren’t available to us before.
Using the Snowflake to build your story outline
We’ve got the ingredients for our novel now. So now we need to add layers of detail.
OK, so here we go again. And we’ll start by jumping back to the story that we started to create before.
4 Flesh out your story description, so it contains a beginning, middle and end
Our first draft story idea didn’t say a whole lot more than, “Let’s write a Raymond Chandler style novel . . . but include a ghost.”
As we started to build the other elements of our novel outline, though, the story itself jumped into view a little more. (We got data on Amy’s father, and possible reasons why his daughter might have got herself killed.)
So now we’re going to try to write a version of the story – still maybe only a single paragraph – but this time we’re going to give that story its basic structure: a beginning, middle and end. Already you can feel that first draft idea starting to wriggle into life. Exciting, right?
So we might go with something like this.
Example: Very short story outline, with beginning, middle and end
Beginning: Amy’s father (Dorcan Adderley) sends a henchman to hire Bernie Brandon to investigate the death of his daughter. Bernie rejects the henchman, but meets one to one with Dorcan, and agrees to take the job.
Middle: Bernie investigates. Keeps encountering / being pursued by Amy’s ghost. Bernie discovers that Amy had a fling with the son of some big wheel in the LA underworld. [Let’s call the son, Patrick Prettyboy – probably not a name that will end up in the final novel!] Bernie realises he’s meant to think Prettyboy killed Amy. He almost goes to the police with the news.
End. Amy’s actual killer was her father. The whole private investigation thing was just a way to throw the blame elsewhere (and win a turf war at the same time.) Bernie doesn’t have enough evidence to take Dorcan before a court, but he confronts him and there is a struggle, which results in Dorcan’s death. Amy & Bernie, by now ‘lovers’ across the ghostly divide, play music into the small hours.
How’s that? It’s not a finished story outline, by any means – but doesn’t this already feel like something that could have legs?
And I’ll tell you the truth: when I began this blog post, I had no idea what story example I was going to choose. I just made it up as I went along.
And presto: we already have the bones of a decent story here!
That’s how easy the Snowflake Method can be.
So now we cycle back to our characters again.
5 Write a short summary sheet for your main characters
OK, I think we now have three or four characters to play with:
Bernie Brandon, our PI
Amy Adderley, our ghost
Dorcan Adderley, our bad guy
Maybe Paul Prettyboy, though he’s certainly lesser than these other three.
So now we’d give them each a whole sheet of paper. We’d start to ask questions about them, and start to sketch out our answers.
This is a trial and error process. So maybe we start off by giving Paul Prettyboy his own nightclub to run, a gift from daddy. Except maybe that makes the whole story a little bit too nightclubby in tone. So how about we jump to the other end of things? Maybe Paul Prettyboy runs an upmarket art gallery, somewhere nice in Pasadena. He looks sauve, and sounds suave, but under it all, he’s still just a thug. A mini-me of his father.
Because we’re beginning to get more detailed – and because this is only a blog post! – I’m not going to give examples of everything from here on.
*** A word of warning ***
We’ll go on to develop the Snowflake Method as a tool for templating out your story or novel, but first let me make one thing clear.
I’m just writing a blog post, and I don’t want that post to splurge to some ridiculous length. But you are writing a book, not a blog post, so you can’t mess around. In fact, for the avoidance of doubt:
You have to do this exercise in full.
So, you’re going to write one page on each of your major characters, plus notes on whatever other ones pop into your brain.
And here’s one more guideline that you just have to follow as you go through this novel outline process. This rule is not optional and it takes precedence over all the others:
If you get an idea, write it down.
Until you have actually written it (handwritten or on screen, whichever), you haven’t captured it.
And you have to capture it: that’s what releases your brain to go on to the next stage.
That, in a nutshell, is why most of the people who want to write a novel, don’t write a novel. They think that dreaming around with characters and stories and scenes will produce a novel.
It won’t. It doesn’t.
What produces a novel is: work.
You write stuff down. You start thinking of the next thing. You write that down. You move on.
Yes, sure, at times you’ll go back and undo some of the stuff you did before. (So first we had Paul Prettyboy as a nightclub owner. Then we realised we weren’t satisfied with that and changed it to art dealer. But we had to specify ‘nightclub owner’ in order to get to the insight that produced ‘art gallery owner’. Even mistakes are rich in insight.)
Right. Lecture over. Back to the Story Outline process.
6 Expand your story to about two pages
Stick with those Beginning / Middle / End sections. They’re a helpful tool for organising your novel structure.
But now you want to get more detailed. So in our early attempt at sketching the story, we wrote:
Beginning: Amy’s father (Dorcan Adderley) sends a henchman to hire Bernie Brandon to investigate the death of his daughter. Bernie rejects the henchman, but meets one to one with Dorcan, and agrees to take the job.
And that was fine, for back then, but now we want to know more. So that little beginning description might expand to something like this.
Example: Story beginning in more detail
Beginning: Bernie Brandon is in his office. No work, nothing to do. There is whisky in his desk drawer and he is trying not to drink it.
A big scary guy – suit, colourful – comes to hire him. Plonks down a roll of dollar bills. Too much money for the job. There’s some wise-cracking interchange. Brandon refuses the job. Big scary guy leaves. Brandon gets the guys registration plate, phones it through to the cops – his former colleagues – and gets an ID.
Brandon finds the henchman’s car that evening, tails it to a nightclub. Realises henchman guy is working for Dorcan Adderley – with whom he, Brandon, has some history. Brandon barges his way into Adderley’s office and says, in effect, “I don’t work for the staff. If I work for anyone, I work for the boss.”
Adderley laughs and gets him a drink. [and so on.]
Oh, and you know I said that thing about writing stuff down? That just thinking about it isn’t good enough?
Well, I’m right, and here’s the proof.
As I was writing that little section above, I thought, “Hey, where’s Amy ghost in this? She needs to make an early entry.” So I almost edited the example above to make room for her, but then realised that this post is meant to give you an example of the Snowflake Method in action, and that means that I need to show you the bits I missed, the new insertions, the second thoughts . . . all the changes of direction that the Snowflake Method is there to permit.
So for that reason, here’s my second shot at that beginning section:
Beginning: Bernie Brandon is in his office – blah, blah, blah – all the same as before, right down to Brandon getting an ID for the henchperson.
Brandon finds the henchman’s car that evening, and waits outside. As he’s waiting, he hears music – classical singing. Schubert Lieder. Strangely, the (female) singer is singing the exact song that Brandon had been playing on the piano shortly before coming out. He tries to find the source of the music, but it proves elusive. He has a constant sense of being watched.
When Henchperson leaves the for the evening, Brandon tails him to a nightclub. [Then all as previously, except I think that ghostly presence has to vanish, almost petulantly, as she/Brandon get close to Dorcan Adderley.]
Yeah. That’s better, right? We’ve got a lovely double note coming into the start of that book. A contemporary reader would think, “Yep, this feels a little like Raymond Chandler, but with a subtle , strange different element that I can’t yet place. I like it.”
7 Keep going until you’re ready to stop planning, and starting writing your novel
The guy who popularised the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson, has a pretty fixed bunch of guidelines on how you’re meant to do this. So you’re meant to go from a one paragraph description of the story, to a one page / four paragraph description of the story / then onto a full four page description of the story.
Something similar applies to the other elements of your novel.
If that works for you, then go for it!
But really there are no fixed rules here, and no set end-goal. Or rather the only two fixed rules are:
You have to write stuff down
You have to circle round between story / characters / themes / settings, adding detail on every go round.
And the only end-goal that matters is this:
When you feel super-ready to start writing your novel – and not just ready, but actually impatient – then you can start writing your book.
Personally, I’m not much of a planner, so I tend to jump into my books sooner rather than later (and, I’ll admit, sometimes regret my decision.)
The mere fact that you’re reading this post suggests to me that you’ve got a good bit of planner in you (or you’re just procrastinating quite badly), in which case I think a reasonable stopping point would be as follows.
You will have:
Several pages of notes / ideas about your major characters
At least a page on your most important secondary characters
Several pages talking about settings, locations, themes, time of year, etc. All the background stuff that will make your novel live and breathe.
3-4 pages of notes on your story, and those pages will include . . .
A full page (or more) on the beginning / set-up phase of your book. That’ll include the Initiating Incident (in our example, that’s the henchman/Brandon meeting but, even more so, the Brandon/Dorcan Adderley one), but you’ll probably also find yourself describing the immediate consequences of that incident. The Set-Up Phase will probably account for about 25% of your actual final finished novel.
You will probably also have a page or so on the Climax and Resolution of your novel. In our example, it would involve the the denouement of the mystery (“Who killed Amy Adderley?”), the physical showdown between Dorcan Adderley and Brandon, and the romantic climax too (the ghost and the PI playing sad classical music into the small hours.) This Climax & Resolution Material will cover the final 25% of the novel
Then you’ll also have something on that awkward middle section – the middle 50% – that we just label ‘Developments’.
You want to know the truth here? Most authors – including pro authors with multiple books, and even perhaps multiple bestsellers under their belts – will tend to struggle with that ‘Developments’ section.
When writers complain about their work (and we mostly love it), the most frequent reason is that they’re encountering the rocks and white water that mark the transition from Set-up to Developments.
So, my own personal guidance (which you should tailor to suit your own personality and your own experience with your particular story) would be to make a decent shot at guessing what your developments section would look like. So I certainly wouldn’t advise that you just ignore it completely.
But when you start writing your novel, be aware that you may need to pause once the book is about 25% written, so you can come back to a version of this exercise and redo it.
Why redo it?
Because you’ll be returning to your story outline process with much greater feel for your characters, your settings, all the richness of that set-up material, and so on.
That richness will give you a ton of insight into how to navigate the rocks that lie ahead.
If you’re a planner, then you may want to synopsise the entire novel at that point. You might even find that you can do it chapter by chapter.
I can’t do it that way – never have, never will – but I do still take a moment at the 25% mark to rethink where I’m going. (Oh, and when I say “take a moment”, what I actually mean is “Spend two weeks grumbling around the house and looking for excuses to do anything else other than sit in front of my laptop and work.” I LOVE writing, and I love being a writer. But that part of the planning process? I do not love.)
Ready to start writing your novel?
Get help. It may make the difference between success or failure.
When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t write much of an outline. I didn’t plan anything very much.
I just sat and wrote.
And yes, that novel got published and did well. But yes, I also ended up doing a ton more work than I would have done if I’d planned properly from the start.
And my second novel? Well, it was just a total car crash, because I thought I knew how to write novels, when I really, really didn’t.
We’ve talked through a lot of the technique you’re going to bring to bear in your own writing journey, and – believe me – that technique is going to reward you a million times over.
But wouldn’t you like more help than that?
Of course you would! Writing is a pretty lonely business, and wouldn’t it be great if you could:
Get comments and feedback on your work from like-minded writers?
Get the benefit of a massive super-premium video course on How To Write?
Watch filmed masterclasses from top tutors teaching specific examples of writing technique?
Meet literary agents and editors online, so you can get a feel for the industry you want to be a part of?
Get an entire video course on Getting Published from a bunch of people who have helped hundreds of people like you get published?
Watch films & videos especially created for writers like you and focusing on the questions and issues that writers like you are interested in?
Have a kind of “Agony Aunt” for writers service, where you could just bring your questions and have them answered with tact and expertise?
That sounds good, doesn’t it . . . but surely not for real? Surely nothing like that actually exists?
Well, yes, it does. And you’re right here on the site that can make all that happen.
Jericho Writers is a club for writers like you and we welcome new members. Once you take out a membership, everything that we can provide digitally comes to you for free. Every course, every video, the entire community, everything. Membership is cheap and you can cancel any time. There are no restrictions at all on how much of our content you can access during the course of your membership.
The Snowflake Method is a truly great way to develop and plan your novel outline.
But Jericho Writers can help with absolutely everything: writing, publishing, self-publishing, everything.
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)