How to Use the Snowflake Method: 10 Easy Steps to Outline Your Novel

brainstorming plotting
How to use the snowflake method: 10 easy steps to outline your novel

Writing a novel is never easy! Most people dream of writing a book, but many writers struggle to even finish the first draft. If this is your first novel, having an outline with a solid story structure and character profiles can help you finish your draft and bring you closer to making your dream a reality. 

From the Hero’s Journey to the Save the Cat method to the snowflake method, there are many ways you can structure your novel. Not every method will work for everyone, so you have to find the one that best suits you. In today’s post, we’ll be looking at the snowflake method and how to structure your novel using these ten steps. 

What is the snowflake method?

The snowflake method is a story structure template created by award-winning author and theoretical physicist Randy Ingermanson. Using this method, you’d start small with a single sentence summary of your story and build from there, adding more details about the characters and plot until you have a fully fleshed-out outline with a list of every scene in the story and full character charts.

How to outline using the snowflake method

Step 1: One-sentence summary

If someone were to ask you, “What is your book about?” could you describe it to them in just one sentence? The first step in the snowflake method is to write a one-sentence summary that tells us what your book is about. This is the hook you’ll use to sell your novel to an agent, publisher, and even to readers.

Example: To save her sister, a teen girl enters a televised fight-to-the-death competition. —The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Here are a few tips for writing your summary:

  • Keep it brief. Try to use 15 words or less in your sentence. 
  • Use your hero’s role or goal in the story instead of mentioning their name.
  • Connect the internal with the external. Why does this character’s story matter most?
  • Read and study one-line summaries from popular books and practice, practice, practice!

If you need more help developing your initial summary, check out our tips for writing a killer logline or our post on developing a high-concept idea.

Step 2: One-paragraph summary

Once you’ve got your short summary, take that and expand it into one paragraph or five sentences. This should include your setup, major plot points—or what Ingermanson calls “disasters,”—and the ending. If you use the Three-Act structure, your paragraph should look like this:

Sentence one - Setup (the status quo world)

Sentence two - Disaster One (catalyst)

Sentence three - Disaster Two (halfway through act 2–the midpoint)

Sentence four - Disaster Three (end of act 2–dark night of the soul)

Sentence five - the Climax and Resolution (finale

Example: The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 with her mother and sister, where she tries but struggles to provide food for her family (setup). When her younger sister’s name is selected for the Hunger Games—a televised fight-to-the-death competition with two competitors selected from each district— Katniss volunteers to enter the Games in order to save her sister (disaster one). The Hunger Games begin and Katniss must find a way to survive against 23 other competitors (disaster two). To add a dramatic twist for those watching the Games, the game makers announce a rule change, allowing for the first time TWO competitors from the same district to win—until they change the rules again later once Katniss and Peeta (both from District 12) are the last two left in the Games (disaster three). Rather than play by the game makers’ rules, Katniss and Peeta both threaten to eat the poisonous berries, leaving no winner for the Games, which forces the game makers to allow them both to win and return home (climax and resolution).

Step 3: Character summary

Now that you have a summary of the plot, it’s time to look at your characters. For each of your main characters, write a one-page summary sheet.

Your sheet should include:

  • Character’s name and appearance
  • Character’s motivations (what drives them?)
  • Character’s goals (what do they want?)
  • Character’s conflict (who or what obstacles prevent them from achieving their goals?)
  • Character’s epiphany (what will they learn or how will they change?)
  • A one-paragraph summary of your character’s storyline

Remember to consider both the internal and external conflicts in the story. In The Hunger Games, the external conflict is Katniss trying to survive the games. The internal conflict is Katniss having to decide what she’s willing to do in order to survive (pretend to love Peeta to survive the games).

Step 4: One-page synopsis

In this step, you’ll take each sentence from your summary paragraph (step 2), and expand it into a full paragraph. The last paragraph should tell us how your novel ends. This step is where you’ll grow your ideas and expand on the conflict. By the time you’re done with this, you should have a 1-2 page skeleton outline of your story.

Step 5: Character arc

Now it’s time to expand on your character synopsis. For each major character, you’ll write a one page description and for each supporting character, you’ll write a half-page description. With each of these synopses, you’ll be telling the story from the point of view (POV) of that character. By the end of this step, you should have a character arc mapped out for each major character.

Step 6: Full synopsis

Once you get to this step, you’ll take that one-page synopsis you created in Step Four, and expand on it again until you have a brief four-page summary. Each paragraph from your synopsis earlier will be turned into a full page. This will help you spot plot holes and character inconsistencies before you begin writing, saving you time later when you’re drafting and revising your novel. By the end of this step, you’ll have a full synopsis that you can use to query an agent or publisher.

Step 7: Character chart

In this step, you’ll take the character summary from step 3 and expand on it. Here’s where you’ll get to know everything about your character, all the nitty-gritty details. Think of their background and history, their personality traits, likes, and dislikes, but most importantly, how your character changes and grows by the end of your novel. By the end of this step, you may find yourself going back and revising steps 1-6. That’s perfectly fine. It’ll help you craft an even better story, especially if you’re writing a character-driven story.

Step 8: Scene list

This step in the method is the scene list. You’ll take your four-page synopsis from step 6 and break it down into a list of all the scenes in your novel. You can do this with a spreadsheet or a storyboard, but either way, you’ll need to write one line that summarizes the scene and list the POV character the scene is from. Using a scene list or storyboard lets you see your story from a distance and move scenes around or reorder them as necessary.

Step 9: Detailed outline

For the hard-core plotters out there, you’ll want to take each line from your spreadsheet or storyboard and expand it once again into a multi-paragraph description of your scene. Include any lines of dialogue you think of and describe the essential conflict that occurs in this scene. This step will help you figure out if each of your scenes includes a conflict and if there’s enough tension in the scene. If there’s not, you’ll either have to rework the scene to include the conflict and/or more tension or possibly cut the scene out completely.

Step 10: Start writing your novel!

The final step in the snowflake method is perhaps the most important: it's now time to write your book! Don't fall into the trap of procrastinating by trying to plan out every single story element. Once you've completed the snowflake method story outline, you have plenty to get started!

Things to keep in mind when using the snowflake method

You can go back and revise your summaries or outline at any time—they can and will change throughout the process, and you don’t need everything to be perfect before you start.

While this plotting method can save you a lot of time in the drafting and revision phase if used up front, you can still use this method after you’ve completed your first draft.

You’re ready to write!

This is a brief overview of Ingermanson’s snowflake method. To learn more, check out his book: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. Now that you’re familiar with this method, it’s time to grab your pen and notebook or dust off your keyboards and get to outlining!

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