December 8, 2014

The Snowflake Method of Novel Writing

Novelist Randy Ingermanson was a software developer who wanted to break into fiction writing.  He developed what he refers to as the “Snowflake Method” based on a mathematical principle called fractals.  To greatly simplify the concept, if you graph the data associated with a fractal, at its most basic level you might get a triangle.  As you calculate more and more data, that graph will begin changing shape to the point that it resembles a snowflake.  Ingermanson’s idea is to develop a novel similarly.  It goes something like this:

  • Start with a simple sentence that explains the story concept, like:  “A detective investigates a string of unsolved serial murders, unaware that his partner is involved in them.”
  • Expand that simple sentence out to a paragraph of about four sentences.
  • Expand that paragraph out into approximately a one-page description.
  • Brainstorm the characters who will appear in this story, their ambitions, their story goals, the epiphanies they’ll experience during the story, etc.
  • Brainstorm the scenes you’ll need in the book to tell the story.
  • Write the story.

Notice how the above list starts with a simple one-sentence view of the novel, then begins turning that one-sentence view into something more detailed.  By the time you get to the last step you should have a good idea of the overall story, the characters, and the scenes that need to exist in order to tell it.

The idea here is to flesh out as much of your story as possible before you really start writing.  This is intended to help you in a number of ways:

  • The one-sentence description is a great answer to the question “What’s the story about?”
  • The one-paragraph description might make a good blurb to use to pitch the book to an editor or publisher.
  • The one-page description might be enough to sell the story to an agent or publisher.
  • By brainstorming the characters and scenes in advance of writing, you have less chance of wasting your writing effort once you start.  You’ll know what each scene you write is trying to accomplish before you write it.

If there’s one thing that National Novel Writing Month has taught me, it’s that I get my best results when I have “the right amount of a plan” before I start writing.  For me, that means brainstorming things down to the individual scene level.  For each scene, I need a rough description of a couple of sentences that tell me what’s supposed to happen in the scene that moves the story forward.  Without that, I can go off the rails pretty quickly.  Things I intended to have happen in the story get overlooked, or happen too soon.  I go off on an unintended tangent that doesn’t move the story forward, or something like that.  But if I get too detailed in my planning, describing what happens in the scene in too much detail, by the time I’ve fleshed out the scenes I feel like I’ve written the book and lost my motivation to really write it.
That’s where I think this Snowflake approach might help me.  It’s all about gradually increasing the level of detail in your brainstorming until you’re ready to write.  It’s giving me a structured approach to brainstorming the story so that when I finally do feel ready to write it, I’ll have enough detail, but not so much that I feel like I’ve already written it.

You may want to check this approach out, too.  But as with any writing advice, discard it if it’s not working for you.

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