Randy Ingermanson: Snowflake method

A snowflake can be drawn by adding the same small element over and over again and repeating the pattern until it has grown into a snowflake.

Snowflakes built with repeating the same step over and over again are called Koch snowflake. It is upon this that Randy Ingermanson built the idea to create a plot—small iterations with the same premises, making the plot grow slow but steady. And he calls it the Snowflake method, simple and to the point.

4 steps to creating Koch snowflake
Creating a Koch snowflake

I might not explain all the exact details of the steps of the Snowflake method here, Mr Ingermanson explains it well enough on his website. What I’ll do instead is explain my twist to it. I will mention what I’ve changed or added or removed along the way. Or even things I’ve yet to try myself but will test next time I use the Snowflake method.

One thing to remember while going through the steps, it is always okay to retrace and make changes to previous levels if you come up with a better plan. I’d recommend never deleting anything but to write a new version for the step, but that is up to you.

There are 10 steps to the Snowflake method, so let’s get started!

Step 1: One sentence

To even use the Snowflake method at all you’ll need an idea. If you don’t have one yet, I’ll throw out the Tag method (I like to call it theme and ideas, instead of tags but it is the same thing) to get you started. Then come back here when you have an inkling to a plan.

Now, with a plan in mind, it is time to do the first step. Write a one-sentence summary of your whole plot. The sentence will be the big picture, and it will also serve you as a ten-second pitch, or a short elevator pitch. It can also be what becomes the one-line blurb for the New York Times Bestseller list!

Example and hints

The example is going to be from the first Harry Potter book by J. K. Rowling, and Mr Ingermanson has written these texts as an example for what each step in the Snowflake method can be.

An eleven-year-old wizard tries to stop an evil sorcerer from returning to life.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Some hints that Mr Ingermanson has laid out for us:

  • Try to keep it short, aim for less than 15 words.
  • Avoid character names; we do not know them yet, use descriptions instead.
  • Tell me what the character with the most to lose or win in the story, what they want to win.

Step 2: One paragraph

We have a one-sentence summary that we now will expand it into a one-paragraph summary of your plot. This paragraph should explain the story setup, major plot points, and the ending of the novel. Mr Ingermansson calls it “three disasters plus an ending” but the paragraph can also follow the Three-Act structure easily.

Try to make at least the second and third points be because of something the protagonist does, instead of external circumstances. The protagonist should aim to “fix things” and therefore affect the plot and what happens to them. And remember, things should get worse and worse as the book progresses.

It is okay not to know how exactly the story ends yet. But you probably already have some vague ideas on it—do they win? Do they get to return home? To they get their love? Do not confuse this paragraph with the back-cover or blurb of your book; it is not.

The back-cover summary should only be about the first quarter of the story.

You get to choose how you want to approach this, one sentence at a time or the whole paragraph immediately. The point is to think in broad terms, and not get into too many details. You only have about five sentences to tell your whole story!

Example and hints

Expanding on the sentence about Harry Potter into a paragraph, once again written by Mr Ingermanson.

On his eleventh birthday, orphaned Harry Potter is invited to leave his miserable life with his aunt and uncle to attend a school for witches and wizards. Harry learns that an evil wizard, Lord Voldemort, tried to kill him as a baby and lost all his own powers instead. When Harry nearly dies in a jinxed game of Quidditch, he suspects that sinister Professor Snape is responsible. When Harry has to do detention in the forbidden forest, he witnesses a shadowy figure drinking unicorn blood, a magical life preserver. Harry sets out to stop Snape from returning Voldemort to power, only to face Voldemort himself.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J. K. Rowling

Some guidelines to keep in mind when writing your paragraph:

  • Tell the backdrop and story setup in one sentence.
  • The beginning and first disaster/plot point in one sentence.
  • The second disaster/mid-point in one sentence.
  • The third disaster/plot point in one sentence.
  • Tell how the story ends.

Step 3: Basic characters

So far I have not changed anything from Mr Ingermanson’s version of the Snowflake method. But this is where it starts. The idea behind it is still the same, get to know your characters, the difference being that I have rearranged and prioritised what I think is most important/most natural to do first for each character.

I do like his approach too, but I found it too time-consuming to do. I had trouble figuring out the things he wanted me to write for all my characters. So I have come up with my version, which focuses on the characters uniqueness more than their goals and role in the story.

So for every character, I select a name and choose some pre-defined value, and if possible some hooks and quirks. It can be what kind of creature they are if you are writing a fantasy or science fiction. It can be which district they come from if you write something along the Hunger Games line.

The goals and more details have moved to a later step, instead of doing it here. Leaving this step to be quicker and come up with which characters belong in the story.

One thing that I have removed in my version is writing a one-sentence summary of what the character does in the book. But I’ve removed it cause it was way to hard to write. If I were to put it back it would more likely be a “life story”-version instead of story focused. But I’m not sure what that would give me that I need for the story. The biggest problem, however, is that later steps build upon this.

Example and hints

For this I’m not going to provide an example, it would take to much time and space. What I will do is write separate posts for my Character sheet, where I explain the different inputs in more details. I will link to it once it is available.

As you learn more about your story and your characters it is almost impossible to not come up with some new ideas or changes you want to make to earlier steps. Go ahead and make those changes and then come back, this is your story. It is more important that you get to the story you are proud of then it is for you to follow a method step by step in a linear order.

Step 4: One page

By now you should have a good grasp of what your story is about, and who lives in it—fitting since you are now going to expand on that paragraph from Step 3. This step is where we go back to the Koch snowflake metaphor. Each sentence from step three will soon become a full paragraph.

Each new paragraph should not have the same structure as the one from Step 3 since each disaster should not have three plot points in itself. Write a few sentences summary of each sentence, each plot point, and you will have five paragraphs worth of plot.

At this step, you will know if your story is working or not. Better to know that now instead of spending hundreds of hours trying to write, only to give up on the story altogether, draft only half written.

Example and hints

Again, I will not provide an example; I see no reason to. By this step, any examples I give you will differ from your plot so that it will be no more than a large section of text that is at the core unnecessary for you to read.

Each paragraph in this step should end with a disaster, except for the last one which will contain the ending of the book. The first sections should end with something terrible happening to the characters, preferably caused by actions and decisions made by the protagonist, which needs to resolve in the next paragraph.

Step 5: Character summaries

Now we get to a problem. This step in Mr Ingermanson’s version builds upon something I’ve removed in Step 3. So either write both a paragraph and a page or go directly to the one-page summary skipping the shorter version. Minor characters might have a different focus than the main plot, and this is an excellent way to discover subplots and things that can cause trouble later on. Not everything will go as the protagonist wants it to do.

The aim for this step is to write a one page summary for main characters, and half a page for minor ones. Write each of these in the point of view of that character, and follow along with what they do and think through the timeframe of the story. I wrote earlier that I’d probably do this with their life story instead, but I don’t know. Might skip this completely. Or do it cause it gives me insights and practice to write these characters.

One positive thing from doing this is that it will develop and give insights to potential subplots, character development, and the relationships between characters without having the protagonist present at all times.

Mr Ingermanson says that this step is the one he enjoys the most and using these as part of a proposal instead of the plot-based summary. This kind of brief, following the protagonist, gives the project a more character-driven summary instead of plot-based.

Step 6: Four-page synopsis

Let us return to the plot once more. We have expanded on multiple things already, so it should come as no shock that we will do the same one more time. Each paragraph from Step 4 should be a new page, just as we’ve done before.

Not all sentences will lead to the same length; each paragraph expands into lengthy descriptions. That is perfectly fine; some parts will be more developed than others. Strive to have a flow between sections, that there isn’t just “and then X and then Y and then Z” but that one thing logically and naturally leads to another.

You might also include more information that you’ve gained from getting to know your characters better. Maybe add a new subplot or conflict to the main plotline.

Step 7: Full character sheet

Filling out a sheet isn’t for everyone, but for me, it helps. So this is where I fill out the rest of my information about the characters. Mr Ingermanson has a more standard Character sheet with birthday, history, favourite things, etc.

For every major character, I choose goals and voices for them. I also figure out their central strength/flaw pair. Their goals are both their ambitions in life, and goals in the timeframe of the story, together with what is stopping them from achieving the goals now.

I might also head over to Pinterest and look for inspiration for how my characters look, maybe even open up Adobe Photoshop to create a profile picture for them so that I can easier visualise and describe them. Having this image means that I do not have to fill out things such as hair colour, eye colour, body shape etc. I have in on picture instead.

Step 8: Scenes list

In Step 7 we had a four-page summary of our plot. We will now return to that and split it into smaller parts. Go through the pages and make a list of scenes you have identified. Mr Ingermanson recommends adding them to a spreadsheet, but I don’t think that is necessary if you are entirely against it. I’d add them to Apple’s Numbers, but that is because I’m used to it and have no problems working with spreadsheets in this way.

The basics for a scene list is a few columns; one line summary for the scene, PoV, a review of what happens. These columns can be adjusted to what you find relevant, or use other outline templates than the one Mr Ingermanson purposes—there is so many available online.

I have a whole bunch of outlines that I use instead of this step (and the next), I’ll go through those in other posts so stay tuned for those. My process isn’t these steps in order either; it is a mixture of so many things in different stages that I don’t even know anymore. I’m currently in the process of re-planning a story, which makes me skip a lot of steps necessary for new novels.

Step 9: Narrative description

Mr Ingermanson puts this step as optional, and that he doesn’t do this anymore. I didn’t do this in the beginning, but now I do a version of this. I take each scene and write a summary of it, to see that it works. Mr Ingermanson writes that he used to write one or two pages per chapter, with each one starting on a new page.

He also calls this the prototype first draft, which I think is an interesting term for it. But it is up to you if you feel like you need it, how comfortable you are in your plot and how much you want to outline and plan before actually sitting down to write.

One thing Mr Ingermanson says to do is imagine some dialogue to put into your text, and what will happen in it and write the essential conflict. And remember, a scene isn’t worth having unless there is conflict, and it is better to realise missing friction and lacking scenes in this step than after having written 50 000 words.

Step 10: The first draft

About time, right? If following the Snowflake process, you have spent days on getting from an idea to an outline. But it is now time to sit down and write the first draft of your novel. This step is the essential step in any process, regardless of which one you follow. The end goal is to have a book, to reach it you have to write.

There isn’t much I’m going to write about this step; it is after all so much more than can fit into an already long blog-post. So I’m going to leave this here, and I wish you luck with your writing!