Randy Ingermanson holding a crystal snowflake in his hand

Snowflake Method: 10 Powerful Steps to Outline a Story

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In the heart of most people lies a dormant universe brimming with untold stories waiting to be brought to life. The journey from a mere spark of imagination to a full-fledged, captivating tale is a formidable one, however, and very few of us manage to complete it successfully.

One method that stands out amidst the myriad of storytelling techniques is the Snowflake Method, which offers a way to craft our literary masterpieces from the tiniest ideas. Like the delicate snowflakes that fall from the heavens and accumulate on the ground, it can produce a beautiful landscape that captures the imagination.

So, let us delve into the realm of storytelling magic as we uncover the secrets of the Snowflake Method and witness how this remarkable technique can breathe life into your literary dreams.

What is the Snowflake Method?

Snowflake Method Definition: The Snowflake Method is a systematic approach that guides writers in expanding a simple story idea into a fully-fledged novel through layers of development.

The Snowflake Method is a popular story structure. More precisely, it is a structured approach to designing and outlining a story. The method is designed to help writers build their stories step by step, starting from a single core idea and gradually expanding it into a complete and coherent narrative.

Developed by Randy Ingermanson, a renowned American physicist and award-winning author, it takes its inspiration from the intricate beauty of a snowflake. Each snowflake begins as a simple crystal, and as it falls through the sky, it gradually grows more complex and unique in its structure.

Similarly, Ingermanson suggests that a writer should start with a simple, central idea and then build upon it layer by layer, adding depth and complexity until the story takes shape.

Through the systematic Snowflake Method, writers can build on the core of their story, understand their characters intimately, and craft a compelling narrative that resonates with readers. The method has since gained widespread popularity among writers of many different genres.

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10 Steps of the Snowflake Method

10 Steps of the Snowflake Method - Story Structure Diagram

The Snowflake Method consists of ten steps, each building upon the previous one to expand and flesh out the story gradually. You will notice that the story and the characters develop in tandem. In the following, we take a closer look at each step.

Step 1: One-Sentence Story Summary

In this initial stage, you distill your entire novel idea into a single, clear, and concise sentence that captures the essence of your story. This summary should introduce the following:

Using the Snowflake Method for a spine-chilling ghost story, let’s create a fictional example.

“An unsuspecting family moves into a remote, haunted mansion, and as malevolent spirits awaken, they must unravel the mansion’s dark history to survive a dark period of terror.”

Step 2: One-Paragraph Story Summary

Expanding on the one-sentence summary, you now write a paragraph that provides more detail about the story. This paragraph should include:

  • An introduction to the key characters and the setting
  • Around three major conflict points that drive the narrative
  • Some hint at a resolution, even if it ends up changing later

We can continue developing our horror novel as follows:

“The Johnson family, seeking a fresh start after the tragic loss of their youngest daughter, moves into an old Victorian mansion nestled deep in the countryside. Initially enchanted by the grandeur and beauty of their new home, they soon sense a pervasive feeling of unease. Strange occurrences escalate: whispers in the shadows, objects moving on their own, and ghostly apparitions haunting their dreams.

As the nights grow darker, the family becomes entangled in a web of malevolent spirits trapped within the mansion’s walls. With each passing hour, the house’s grim history unravels, revealing a sinister past that connects to the family’s own tragedy. In a race against time, the family must confront their deepest fears and unravel the mansion’s mysteries to survive the darkness and break free from the clutches of the vengeful spirits.”

Step 3: Character Outlines

Take time to develop basic character profiles for each major character in your story. Understand a bit about their backgrounds, personalities, desires, and how they contribute to the overall plot. You don’t have to go overboard with character development here. Once the story develops further, your characters will develop with it in later steps.


  • Their names, roles, and a very general background
  • A bit of personality
  • The main conflict they face
  • Their motivations and goals
  • What they contribute to the plot

For our ghost story, we need five main character outlines: father, mother, teenage daughter, young son, and ghosts. Let’s have a look at the mother and the ghosts as examples.

Example – Emily Johnson, Mother, Age 39:

  • Background: A cold and insensitive mother who is angry about the relocation and focuses on starting her new business.
  • Personality: Distant, self-centered.
  • Conflicts: To dismiss the supernatural events happening around her. Her poor relationships with her children. Her struggles with guilt over the events in the house.
  • Goals: To distance herself from her family’s tragedy and apparent irrationality and to prioritize her own interests.
  • Contribution: Psychological unraveling because of the secrets she keeps. A sacrificial act close to the end of the story to protect her family.

Example – The Tormented Souls:

  • Background: The malevolent spirits haunting the mansion are the tormented souls of individuals who suffered unspeakable horrors within its walls. Each spirit is connected to a specific tragic event that occurred in the house, reliving their torment.
  • Personality: They are bound to the house, trapped in perpetual anguish and rage.
  • Goals: The spirits seek vengeance for the atrocities inflicted upon them during their lifetime. They want to inflict the same torture on anyone who dares to cross their domain. They embody an evil force that will stop at nothing to ensure that the family remains trapped in the mansion forever, becoming part of the dark legacy that continues to fuel their bitter existence.
  • Contribution: Hauntings. They represent more than external threats; they also symbolize the family’s internal struggles and personal demons. Their tragic past connects them to the Johnson family’s own tragedy.

Step 4: One-Page Story Summary

In this step, you further expand the one-paragraph summary into a page-long synopsis. Dive deeper into the story’s major events, character arcs, and how the plot unfolds. Take each of the sentences in the one-paragraph summary and expand them.

In our story, let’s say the haunted house is situated on top of a water-filled pool where criminals were drowned in the 17th century. The Johnson’s youngest child, Emma, drowned in a backyard pond while the rest of the family enjoyed a party. That’s the connection between the mansion’s spirits and the family.

This connection allows us to expand on the ghostly events. Objects in the house seem to be pulled toward water sources. The family pet drowns in the swimming pool. The son feels his head held under water in the bathtub. The father wakes up choking on water in his mouth.

This synopsis should also reveal the strained relationship between Emily and the rest of the family. Let’s say that she heard about the mansion’s reputation as haunted and visited it before the family moved in. She had hoped to communicate with the spirits, desperate to find a way to connect with Emma in the afterlife. However, her misguided attempts at contacting the spirits unwittingly unleashed their malevolence upon the family, making them vulnerable to the haunting.

Given that she feels responsible for it, she performs some heroic act that ends it all and saves her family right at the end.

Step 5: Deeper Character Synopses

Each character’s story arc deserves attention. Write a page-long synopsis for each main character, outlining their personal journeys and how they evolve throughout the story.

Combine the character outlines in step 3 and the one-page story summary in step 4, and imagine how the characters grow through the story. How do they respond to external and internal conflicts? How do they relate to one another? Write these synopses from each character’s perspective so that you can spend some time in their heads.

You already have a substantial amount of information to start building. Use Mother Emily in our story.

Her cold and insensitive demeanor is meant to mask her grief over Emma’s drowning and her guilt over her poor supervision of the little girl. Her dismissal of the supernatural events stems from her horror over the consequences of her secretive visit to the mansion. The revelation of her concealed visit to the mansion and her responsibility for the aggression of the tormented spirits drive her and her family apart.

As the malevolent spirits’ presence becomes more pronounced, Emily’s façade of indifference begins to crumble. The haunting experiences start to take a toll on her emotionally, leading to her psychological unraveling. This emotional journey may lead to reconciliation with her family as they work together to face the malevolent spirits and confront their shared grief.

Step 6: Four-Page Story Summary

Expand the one-page summary to four pages that include more detail on major conflict points, character arcs, and resolution. Take each paragraph in the one-page story summary and expand them into a full page.

Here, we’ll have to add a resolution to our story, which has, up to now, been left vague.

As the haunting intensifies and the family’s safety becomes increasingly jeopardized, Emily begins to feel profound guilt for her earlier indifference and for inadvertently unleashing the malevolence upon her family.

In the climax of the story, as the spirits seek to claim the family as their own, Emily invites them to possess her to draw the malevolence away from her loved ones. The others escape the house while she summons her last independence to set it alight. The inferno consumes not only her but also the bitter spirits fighting for vengeance.

Step 7: Full Character Narratives

In light of your completed story summary, write a full narrative for each character, covering their individual storylines from beginning to end while ensuring they intertwine with the main plot.

You already have almost all the information to complete your characters, but given your full story outline in step 6, you may have learned a little more about them. It also helps to have a full, explicit account of each character that you can refer back to while writing your scenes in the next step.

Step 8: Scene List

Now that you know the main points of your story and the characters that populate it, you can compile a list of scenes that will tell the story you want to tell. Arrange them in a way that builds suspense and conflict.

Take your four-page summary and imagine what scenes will tell that story best. Name them and arrange them chronologically. You can place them on index cards on a picture board, in a spreadsheet, or in various story-writing apps like Plottr, Scrivener, Plot Factory, or Novel Factory. The point is that they should be easily visible in their correct chronological order so you can re-arrange or write them when the time comes.

Step 9: Scene Summaries

Describe each scene in your list in a bit more detail by specifying which characters are involved, what they do, and how they do it. This is another opportunity to ensure that your scenes are in order for the story to make sense. Then divide them into chapters to keep the events in chronological order.

This is a step that Randy Ingermanson himself states he no longer follows, as he prefers to write complete scenes in his first draft instead of summarizing them here.

Step 10: First Draft

Using the listed scenes or the scene summaries as a guide, start writing your first draft, focusing on telling the story from beginning to end. Don’t be overly concerned about perfection. Silence that inner critic. You can edit it later. Just write a good story.

The most important previous steps to keep in mind to ensure that the draft remains true to your outline are the one-sentence summary (step 1), the detailed outline (step 6), the character profiles (step 7), and the scene list (step 8). But you must also remain open to surprises that might lead you away from your outline, as good ideas often emerge while writing.

If this happens, follow the new ideas and check if there is a way they can lead back to your outline. If they take you in a completely different direction, update the parts of your outline that you feel you need as a guide for writing.

The most important thing is to maintain momentum. Write consistently, even if it’s less than 1,000 words per day. Keeping your momentum helps you stay connected to the story and characters. If you encounter a challenging scene, don’t get bogged down trying to perfect it. Make a note to revisit it during the polishing phase.

The same holds for prose and style. They can be refined in the editing stages. Prioritize the story and get it down.

How to Use the Snowflake Method

Randy Ingermanson in motivated pose with two fountain pens in front of a desk

Each step in this method builds on the previous one, making it an extremely simple, user-friendly story-writing approach. But there are some matters to keep in mind while you follow it.

Develop Story and Characters in Tandem

It is not accidental that the Snowflake Method’s steps alternate between story and character development. It ensures that you will not just write characters or a story but actually a character-driven story.

As you complete the steps, ensure that plot developments are influenced by the characters’ personalities, motivations, and actions. And from the other direction, check that your characters develop in response to the story’s twists and conflicts.

By considering both story and character arcs simultaneously, you can ensure that these arcs complement and intertwine with each other. This approach prevents disjointed storytelling and creates a seamless flow from beginning to end.

Return and Revise Previous Steps

Because you don’t know what ideas you will have in future steps, you must always consider the earlier steps preliminary. As the narrative evolves, new insights and ideas will arise, leading to stronger plotlines, more developed characters, and improved overall coherence. This is a great thing, even though it might seem annoying at the time.

Constantly checking back on character profiles, plot points, and subplots also helps maintain a cohesive narrative, reducing the likelihood of plot holes or inconsistencies.

Keep Moving Forward

While it is important to keep revising previous steps as you move along, it is crucial not to get bogged down in a circular analysis that actually prevents you from writing anything. Overanalyzing can hinder progress and drain creative energy.

Keep moving forward through the steps and start writing the first draft once you have the details more or less together. You can revise and refine it later during the editing process.

No matter how well you plan while following these steps, you will discover more about your characters and story when you start writing. Accordingly, don’t put it off indefinitely, as it will allow you to discover the story’s nuances and gain insights you might have missed during the initial planning stages.

Deviate Where Necessary

While the Snowflake Method provides a structured and effective approach to story development, you should remember that writing is a creative process, and deviation from the method is not only acceptable but often necessary. Deviating from the method can allow you to explore uncharted territories and take unexpected creative leaps that may lead to more innovative and engaging narratives.

As characters evolve during the writing process, they may take the story in new directions not initially planned in the Snowflake Method. Allowing characters to influence the plot can create more genuine and emotionally resonant storytelling.

Sometimes, during the writing process, you may experience moments of inspiration or discover new ideas that feel right for the story. Deviating from the method to accommodate these moments can result in richer storytelling and more satisfying plot twists.

Pros and Cons of the Snowflake Method

As with any writing technique, the snowflake method offers both advantages and potential challenges for authors. In this section, we delve into the various ways this structured approach can enhance your storytelling journey while exploring the aspects requiring thoughtful consideration.

Benefits of the Snowflake Method

Benefits of the Snowflake Method Overview

The Snowflake Method offers several valuable benefits for authors, making it a popular and effective approach to story development:

  • Structured Approach: The method provides a structured and step-by-step process for outlining a story, giving you a clear roadmap throughout the writing journey.
  • Focus and Clarity: By beginning with a straightforward one-sentence summary and progressively adding to it, you develop a clear focus on the main topic and plot points, stopping the narrative from veering off course.
  • Early Problem Identification: By fleshing out character arcs and plot points early on, the method helps you identify potential plot holes, inconsistencies, and weaknesses in the story, allowing for timely revisions and improvements.
  • Character Depth: The focus on creating deep characters enables you to produce protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters who are more relatable and interesting.
  • Balanced Subplots: The approach permits the insertion of subplots that support the main tale without dominating it, giving the narrative more depth and complexity.
  • Efficient Writing Process: Because the method streamlines the planning process, it reduces the chances of getting stuck or facing writer’s block during the writing stage.
  • Faster Completion: Having a clear outline and scene list can help you write more efficiently, potentially leading to faster completion of the novel.
  • Improved Writer Confidence: Following the Snowflake Method’s systematic approach gives authors a sense of direction and confidence, making tackling a large writing project less intimidating.
  • Suitable for All Genres: Unlike specific story structures like the hero’s journey or the Freytag’s Pyramid, the Snowflake Method is universal and compatible with any story genre.

Drawbacks of the Snowflake Method

Drawbacks of the Snowflake Method Overview

While the Snowflake Method offers numerous benefits, a super-structured approach like this is not for everyone and can sometimes lead to inferior stories. Here are some possible drawbacks of this method:

  • Rigidity and Limitation: Some authors who favor a more natural and free-flowing writing process may not find the Snowflake Method’s structure appealing. If you thrive on spontaneity, strict adherence to the method could feel constricting and impede creativity.
  • Time-Consuming: The detailed planning and outlining involved in the Snowflake Method can be time-consuming, especially if you are eager to dive into the writing process. This meticulous approach may delay the actual drafting of the novel.
  • Risk of Overthinking: There’s a chance you’ll overanalyze and overplan and become too hung up on your original outlines. This might deter you from exploring new ideas or following unexpected creative paths that arise during the writing process.
  • Reduced Surprises: Because you know how the story will unfold and end, extensive planning might lessen the sense of surprise. This could result in a loss of enthusiasm for the writing process.
  • Character Rigidity: Creating in-depth character profiles early on may prevent the characters from naturally developing and changing as the story is written. They might limit themselves to specific traits, which would stop their organic growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Below, we address common questions and concerns about this innovative approach to novel writing, from its origin to its use.

What is the Main Goal of the Snowflake Method?

The main goal of the Snowflake Method is to guide authors in designing and developing a well-structured and compelling story from its initial idea to a comprehensive outline. By starting with a simple one-sentence summary and gradually expanding it into a detailed plan, the method helps writers build a strong foundation for their novel, including key plot points, character arcs, and themes.

Can I Modify the Steps of the Snowflake Method?

Absolutely. The method serves as a guideline rather than a rigid set of rules, and it’s designed to be personalized according to each writer’s needs. If you feel like skipping or combining the steps, you can do so. For example, it is possible to combine steps 5 and 7 into one character development stage or steps 8 and 9 into one scene description stage.

Can I Skip Some Steps of the Snowflake Method?

Yes, you can skip some steps of the Snowflake Method if they don’t align with your writing process. Randy Ingermanson, who designed the method, no longer follows step 9 because he doesn’t find it helpful to summarize every scene before writing. You can skip steps if you already feel familiar with your story or want parts of your story to grow naturally as you write.

Can the Snowflake Method Be Applied to Any Genre?

The Snowflake Method can be applied to any genre of fiction writing. The method’s core principles of starting with a simple one-sentence summary and gradually expanding it into a detailed outline can be applied to any type of story. Its emphasis on story development, character building, and plot coherence is valuable across genres.

Can the Snowflake Method Help in Developing Subplots?

Yes, you can use the snowflake method to develop subplots. Some of the characters you develop can become integral to your subplots, providing them with their own arcs and motivations. Further, as you outline the scenes in your main plot, you can identify opportunities to introduce subplots that are separate from—but thematically connected to—the main plot.

Who Invented the Snowflake Method?

The Snowflake Method was invented by Randy Ingermanson, an award-winning American author and theoretical physicist. He is well-known for his expertise in both fiction writing and scientific fields and is the author of several novels, including “The Fifth Man” and “Double Vision.”

What Are Other Popular Story Structures?

Other popular story structures include the Three-Act Structure, the Five-Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, the Fichtean Curve, In Medias Res, and Freytag’s Pyramid.

Final Thoughts

The Snowflake Method is a catalyst for creativity, guiding authors to transform a single idea into a fully-fledged masterpiece. For writers who aren’t capable of making up coherent stories on the fly, it is a godsend that provides a systematic and thorough way to develop the plot, characters, and themes.

As such, the value of this revolutionary approach is to allow people who need a bit of hand-holding through the creative process to write. And that can unleash many great novels on the world that would otherwise die as simple ideas.

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