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The Snowflake Method by Harry Bingham

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Getting Started | Plotting and Planning
Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham

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5 Ways A Snowflake Method Can Help Fresh Authors Succeed

The snowflake method offers a solution to the writer’s perennial problem – that of going all the way from simple idea to fully fledged plan.

That process is challenging because we tend to approach it in a sequential way. Roughly: “OK. I know I want to write a book about an orphan who goes to wizard school – but what the heck do I need to put into chapter one? And what’s my midpoint? And how does everything resolve? Yikes!”

It’s too big a leap, and you can’t sensibly accomplish it in one step.

The snowflake method takes that basic problem and forces you to slow right down. To face your challenges sequentially, not all in one big mess. So here’s one version of how it works. You start by writing down:

  • One sentence describing the basic idea of your novel
  • One sentence describing the protagonist
  • One sentence describing the setting

Then, all you have to do is repeat the process, adding another sentence each time. With every pass you make, you’ll add details, building complex, well-thought-out plots, heroes, and places. Your story will slowly crystallize in front of your eyes into a complex, unique snowflake.

Neat, right? And you can see instantly how that process (or something very like it) provides a disciplined and practical solution to the whole challenge of planning a novel.

But it’s more than that. People think of the snowflake approach as essentially a plotting tool, but there’s no reason why it can’t be more than that. In fact, because the best novels have something holographic about them – every part of the novel lives in every part – the snowflake approach is a rewarding way to try different ideas, to explore your theme, to learn about character and much more.

Here are some ideas to inspire you.

Use the snowflake method to develop ideas

Because plotting is arduous, writers are reluctant to develop multiple different plots in order to select the one that works the best.

But trying out different ideas? Or multiple variants on the same idea? It would be criminal not to explore. So, to pick up our Harry Potter theme, we might have used a variety of approaches to that first encapsulating sentence. We might have tried:

  • Orphan boy lives in non-magical world but finds he has magic powers
  • Orphan son to two great wizards is summoned to wizard school
  • Orphan living with non-magical family finds himself being invited to wizard school

And so on.

You could develop other versions of the same idea and notice that they all pull in slightly different directions. My first sentence there suggests a story about what it’s like to be magic in muggle world (as we now know to call it.) My second sentence suggests something rather grander – the arrival of a princeling, not a nervous first year. And my third sentence – well, that roughly hints at the version of Harry Potter that finally emerged.

When you’re at that very first stage of exploration, don’t over-commit to that first snowflake-type sentence. Try variants. See what appeals.

Figure out the character your story needs

A lot of disciplined plotting approaches end up creating the kind of story that I think of as a proper 3-star movie. Competent. Well-structured. Efficient. Bland.

The kind of story that might, in movie terms, give you an adequate evening’s entertainment, but which you won’t be thinking about the following day. That’s not, I hope you agree, the kind of book you want to write.

And the problem with those stories is that they are so efficiently plot-led, their characters just get squeezed into whatever shape the story needs. You can get particularly clearly if you too closely follow a template, such as Campbell’s famous hero’s journey.

Now, I don’t want to pick a fight with Campbell, but I do want a character who emerges with as much force and character and personality as the story he or she is going to inhabit. By giving equal voice to the character upfront, the character has as much say as the story when it comes to your final plan.

So let’s say you were developing a story of Arctic espionage and adventure. And, in the course of your research, you came across a real-life figure, a woman, who was a brilliant naturalist and a friend to the Inuit. Maybe you just attach to that character. You want her on the page. All of a sudden, your character has grown as powerful as your story. The plan that arises will end up combining the best of both.

Figure out setting

I hope you have also noticed that in picking a non-standard character for our Arctic tale, we’ve also done something to illuminate our setting too.

We’re going to be encountering our Arctic wastes, not simply through the eyes of spies and military men, but through eyes that understand the natural landscape itself.

You realise that picking up the natural world type aspects of your setting will give it a depth and beauty and richness you wouldn’t otherwise achieve. All of a sudden, you have some elements (in character and setting) that will push hard against your espionage story, forcing it to become something stranger and richer than you first envisaged. (You will almost certainly find some plotting jewels in all this too. Your character makes an escape because she understands something – about seals, polar bears, or something­ – that her pursuers don’t.)

How themes arise

… And I hope you’ve also noticed that although I’ve only talked about plot, character and setting so far, something else – theme – has already forced its way in. Those themes can’t be forced into your story via crowbar. Much more likely, they arise from the combination of ingredients you use at this planning stage.

They often arise out of tension. A book which is about nature can’t quite have nature as a theme – it’s too direct. But if you have a spy story set in and around the Arctic, the reader isn’t expecting the natural world to be important. Then you bring in your naturalist protagonist, and your amazing descriptions of (uh) snow hares nibbling on the first blades of Arctic bristle-grass in spring. And all of a sudden theme has arisen, rich and strange. From the alchemy of your imagination and the magic of the snowflake method.

Sell your stories

From the sublime to the – practical.

No good writing a great story if you can’t sell the damn thing. But the snowflake method tackles that issue too. Those first sentences of yours? The seeds for the fully developed plan that follows

They’re your elevator pitch, as near as dammit.

Take a look back at those different versions of our Harry Potter story. Three versions of a great idea, but only one had real pull as an elevator pitch – the one that JK Rowling effectively chose. I suggested earlier that you needed to use your snowflake approach as a way to test different variants of the same basic idea.

And yes. You do. But you weren’t just testing what worked in terms of plot and story. You were also – and at the same time and via the same process – figuring out the most commercial possible version of your idea. Amazing, huh? And kind of comforting.

Use the snowflake method to succeed

The snowflake method – adapted as you like to fit your approach and temperament – is an extraordinarily powerful and versatile tool. Yes, there thousands of ways to plan, develop, and push your stories. The snowflake method is one of the best-known for a reason. Personally, I don’t follow any strict template and my actual specific approach varies a bit with every book I write. But the basic idea? That circular, incremental, holistic approach? It’s the only way to plot, if you ask me.

So have a go. Build your own snowflake.

(c) Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for more than 20 years and has been published in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, and Japan (and lots of other places!) by the three largest publishers in the world. His work has been named on bestseller lists, received critical acclaim, and been adapted for the screen. As head of Jericho Writers (and, previously, the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next!

About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for more than 20 years and has been published in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, and Japan (and lots of other places!) by the three largest publishers in the world. His work has been named on bestseller lists, received critical acclaim, and been adapted for the screen. As head of Jericho Writers (and, previously, the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next!

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  • www.designforwriters.com

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