The Snowflake Method: 10 Steps to Outline a Story

The snowflake method of writing is a way of designing a novel that is based on a fractal structure known as the Koch snowflake, made famous by Randy Ingermanson.

This planning process starts with a one sentence story summary that crystallizes into a perfect first draft with a three act structure.

The 10 steps to novel writing in this fashion are described in further detail in this article.

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What the snowflake method is
  2. What to do before you write
  3. The 10 step process to the snowflake method

Side note: I recommend Plottr as my top plotting tool to fabricate stories using the Snowflake Method and many other Story Structures. If you purchase Plottr, I do get a small commission from that, but there is no extra cost and every bit goes to the coffee fund. More on Plottr later.

What is a Koch Snowflake?

koch snowflake

The Koch Snowflake is a fluid diagram of a visual fractal curve that helps us understand how one event can lead to another.

This fractal has an image of a large equilateral triangle. Additional identical triangles are then added to the inner third of each of the triangle's sides. This process continues in perpetuity, eventually creating an elaborate, six-sided snowflake shape.

The snowflake is not only self-referential in all ways, but it also repeats, and mirrors itself in any direction. It is finite in form, but infinite in meaning; exactly how to write a novel.

This geometric visual is used to help you create a blueprint of your novel that is balanced, tight, and that always refers back to your original theme.

Every novel starts with one big central idea. The big idea then duplicates itself to create a succession of “offspring” ideas, including ones about structure, character and plot.

The snowflake method helps you to stay on track while fleshing out the basic structure of your book. This saves hours of rewriting, should your story stray off course.

Before You Start The Writing Process

Before you start writing, do a little brainstorming. All you need for this is your brain, a pen and a notebook.

Most people come into readiness for a project with a flurry of ideas in their head, for what the novel should be about. Take a couple of hours and write out every idea for a main character, scenario or plot point that comes to mind.

This helps get your ideas out of your mind and down on paper so that you can remember them. This is the raw creative material that you will draw from to create your full blown novel using the snowflake method.

Don't worry about the order of the ideas or anything else. Just get it all down, in point form, so you can peruse them later as you are creating your first draft.

This is not a first step, but a process that is ongoing every day as your brain is triggered to come up with more ideas while designing your novel outline.

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Brainstorm With Pen and Paper

“Thinking with your hands” is crucial to the writing life, which is why it is important to dispense with your computer keys, until you are ready to craft your one sentence summary.

According to an interesting article in Psychology Today, there is a connection between our brain and our hands called embodied cognition. The feel of the pen in our hand allows the free flow of ideas from the human brain to the paper, enhancing memory and creativity during a brainstorming session.

While brainstorming your mind will organically take you from a point of free association to detailed description, there is no need to worry about organizing your novel just yet. You are going to use the snowflake method to do that.

The Snowflake Method Ten Step Process

Here is how to use the Snowflake method to design your novel.

1. Craft A One Sentence Summary

step 1 of the snowflake method

Write a succinct one sentence description of the entire novel that is about 10 to 15 words long. It should also have just one subject and one predicate with no qualifiers.

The one sentence is a brief summary that includes:

  • A main character's dilemma, choice, conflict or goal
  • What's at stake for the character
  • The action or challenge that faces the protagonist
  • A reference to the setting or historical period (optional)

Here are ways to write a one sentence along with examples as how they would apply to Rosemary's Baby (1967) by Ira Levin

Structure 1

Here are two examples of first sentence structure when the story is driven by a character conflict between a protagonist and antagonist.

A (protagonist) must ( do an action) to (protagonist's goal)

Example: A pregnant woman must escape a satanic cult to keep her baby.

A (protagonist) must stop an (antagonist) from (antagonist's goal.)

Example: A pregnant woman must stop a satanic cult from taking her baby.

Structure 2

This type of single sentence structure works as a thematic or situational approach to storytelling.

A (protagonist) tries to (protagonist's goal) but (this happens instead.)

Example: A woman tries to conceive a baby with her husband but is impregnated by Satan instead.

Structure 3

This type of single sentence summary is more complex, referring to what is at risk if the conflict or problem is not resolved.

A (protagonist) with a (problem) tries to (protagonist's goal), but the (stakes) may (possibility of an ending.)

Example: A woman carrying the devil's child tries to escape a satanic cult, but the price of freedom may be her life.

Getting the one sentence summary right is crucial to the snowflake method as it is the seed idea that sows the development of the rest of the book. It is the original fractal triangle that assists with generating more detail for your novel.

2. Write A One Paragraph Summary

step 2 of the snowflake method

Expand the single sentence summary idea to a single paragraph that describes the entire story. When writing this single paragraph, think of your novel as having a plot with a simple three act structure and three crisis plot points.

The Classic Three Act Structure

Writing your summary paragraph is easy, if you follow the classic three act structure.

  • The first crisis plot point happens at the midpoint of Act 1.
  • The second crisis plot point happens at the midpoint of Act 2.
  • The third crisis is at the end of Act 2
  • Act 3 is the resolution of all crisis in the first three acts

Your book is now a developing fractal snowflake. The easiest way to write this part of the “snowflake” is to think of it as five sentences.

The first sentence is devoted to the background and set up of the plot. The following three sentences describe each crisis. A final sentence concludes the whole story.

3. Create Character Synopsis

step 3 of the snowflake method

This step requires writing one paragraph of character descriptions for each of the main characters and minor characters in the novel.

Each paragraph in your character sheet should include one sentence summaries that describe :

  • Character names and appearance
  • The character's motivation
  • The character's goal
  • The character's conflict or challenge
  • How the character's epiphany moves the plot forward
  • How the character's existence lends forward momentum to the plot

Writing a character chart out like this can help you decide on important characters and which character's storyline makes it to the first draft.

4. Grow Your Story to A One Page Description

step 4 of the snowflake method

Take each line of your one paragraph summary and flesh it out to be a full one-page summary. All but the last paragraph should end in a crisis. The final paragraph reveals how the story ends.

This provides a one page synopsis of your main story. You should now have the skeleton of a novel in place.

5. Review and Refine Your Character Descriptions

step 5 of the snowflake method

Refer back to your character notes and make sure they still fit into your story idea. It is very common at this point to change characters or even discard them if their perspectives or motivations do not quite fit into your four page synopsis.

6. Create a Four Page Plot Outline

step 6 of the snowflake method

Take each paragraph that you have written for your one page paragraph and expand each into a full page.

Any plot holes or character inconsistencies should be obvious at this stage. It is better to notice these flaws now, rather than when you are halfway through writing a novel.

Once you have refined your list of characters, you can submit it and a polished four page synopsis to a publisher. This is how to get an advance to start writing a first novel.

7. Create Full Fledged Character Charts

Create quick reference charts that fully detail the backstory for each character from your full paragraph descriptions. Include a detailed description of how main characters may have reacted to each other in the past.

Think of them as imaginary friends that you are going to spend a lot of time with while you get your story ideas down on paper.

8. Breakdown All of Your Story Scenes

This step requires you to either use an excel sheet or story cards to create a visual outline of your story ideas. The story cards that you create and arrange come from your four page outline.

Title each card or Excel field and arrange each in the order you think they should go to optimize the building to each crisis point in your three acts.

9. Sketch Out Your Novel Chapters

Once you know where each crisis and act goes you can write paragraphs for each scene card. First draft paragraphs do not have to be perfectly thought out detailed descriptions. They can be jotted down thoughts, bits of dialogue or location ideas.

The source for this material can come from the pen-on-paper brainstorming sessions that you did before writing one sentence summaries.

10. Write The Novel's First Draft

By this point, using the snowflake method will have shaped the major character in your novel. You will be so familiar with the story and the major characters that you will be able to quickly write out the first draft.

There is no doubt that the snowflake method works when it comes to developing a main character and writing that first draft in record time!

Should You Use the Snowflake Method?

To devise a novel using the snowflake method, simply follow the ten steps to writing a good story above. Know that it is quite common to have to rewrite all of the scenes quite a few times, before you get it right.

The great thing about using the snowflake method for fiction writing is that it allows you to speed up the writing process. Once you make a change to your one sentence summary or paragraph story summary, the fractal nature of the snowflake method helps all the scenes fall organically into place.

If you want to use the Snowflake Method, I highly recommend Plottr as a way of helping you structure your story.

Plottr has templates for dozens of different storytelling techniques. It uses helpful prompts and guides to help you outline each scene in your story, each character that you need to build, etc.

It is also my choice for the best outlining software

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Is the one sentence summary the same thing as a tagline?

A tag line is similar to a sentence summary, except that a tagline is the one-liner you would see on a movie poster. A great example of a tagline is the one for the movie Alien (1979): “In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Scream!”

Can a one paragraph summary be used as the back cover copy for a book?

A novel's back cover copy is meant to persuade a reader to buy it. By contrast, a summary paragraph is a blueprint created by the snowflake method that guides you to write a character's storyline.

What is a character epiphany?

A character epiphany is a dramatic device that is used in fiction writing to drive the plot forward.

The term describes a character that has a great revelation, either provoking a crisis point in any of the first three acts or resolving the main character conflict at the end of the novel.

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