Process: Writing on Snowflakes
The second in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with evolving your story ideas from one powerful sentence to a completed novel, using the Snowflake Method.
Here’s a writing process we used in just about every intermediate and advanced writing class I attended in college (and I must have taken them all), from creating fiction to essays to screenplays, and it really did the trick to get us writing.
We never named it out loud in class, but it is the practice of evolving ideas by expanding them outward, like a snowflake. And it’s lovely. In fact there’s a wonderful Snowflake Metaphor, where the simplest evolution of a triangle (triangles again!) becomes the most complex structure of nature itself . . . in the form of a Fractal: a creature with a finite area, but an infinitely large perimeter. Much the way your own brain makes space for new ideas on its rippling surface, you can use those ideas for your story by expanding the perimeter of one simple story idea.
So many of the writing books on my shelf also seem to use this technique in some form or another, I presume because it simply makes sense. Stick with me Pantsers, you’ll probably like this. Like in class, most of the time we just did it without going into the how or why of it.
But one veteran author, Randy Ingermason, did, and he calls it–appropriately enough–the Snowflake Method. Ingermason came up with 10 steps he himself goes through to evolve an idea for a book into the actual book, by building outward.
Basically these steps are:
- Start with a one-sentence description of the story – what screenwriters call the Logline. Many of them swear this is the most important sentence you will ever write. There are whole books about Loglines.
- Expand Step 1 into a paragraph – Ingermason writes 4 sentences here: 3 disasters and the ending. They conform, once more, with the 3 Act structure mentioned before.
- Write a one-page summary of characters in the story.
- Expand each sentence in Step 2 into a paragraph.
- Expand each character in Step 3 into a one-page synopsis.
- Expand each paragraph in Step 4 into a full page.
- Expand Step 5 into separate Character Charts, which he describes in more detail in his book.
- Expand Step 6 into a list of scenes.
- (Optional) Expand Step 8 into a Chapter Outline.
- Write the First Draft!
Ingermason describes the form and purpose of these steps with a lot more detail, as well as how they build that ever-present triangular plot structure, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist of it. Notice how he alternates between plotting and character development here, which makes a lot of sense to me on a few levels:
- Character development (character arc) is the backbone and heart of every good story.
- Shifting back and forth between story and characters gives you a break and a little distance, which
- Gives your subconscious room to come up with even more awesome ideas!
Throughout this entire process, Ingermason makes it very clear that the material you generate here is mutable and fluid. In fact, one major benefit of doing it this way is to identify the holes and logic-bloopers that typically only become evident after the First Draft; an ugly mess to revise after the fact. But here you can catch them early and fix them as you go, quickly adjusting backwards through the steps–all the way back to the Logline, if need be.
For Pantsers and Outliners
The Snowflake Method isn’t an outlining structure meant to constrict you, though it ends up creating a lovely map in the end. Instead it is a liberating idea-generating house party, where the beer cans and bottles somehow end up in the right recycling bin by themselves. Uhm… okay, not my best metaphor, but it is cool to have so many ideas grow on each other and be able to know exactly where to put them, rather than that big ugly pile of notes you have to bribe yourself with chocolates just to get through.
And here’s another cool benefit: when you do get to Step 10, make sure you sit down next to a NaNoRiMo person when you start, because:
- You are going to write FAST!! A Snowflaker already knows exactly where they are going, with all the details of every scene. You’ll have to get a water cooled keyboard to keep up with you.
- The resulting draft is going to be TIGHT, unlike the meandering monster the NaNo writer will have to deal with at the end. (I’m not dissing NaNo-writers at all–I respect that they are at least writing, unlike a few “writers” I’ve met. Including me at times…)
- Writers Block will be scared to death of you, since you will be too busy to be impressed by it. Poor thing.
Hopefully this gives you a tantalizing taste of the Snowflake Method. If you’d like to learn more about it, check out Randy Ingermason’s book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method (Advanced Fiction Writing Book 1)*.
Next Week: Alexandra Sokoloff’s 8-Sequence Structure.