Planning your novel – Part 1 of 2

Planning your novel – Part 1 of 2

I am a planner by nature but writing a novel was something totally new. I went looking for something that made sense to me and settled on what is known as the “Snowflake Method.” I will let the original article explain each section and then make some of my own comments in italics.

Some people don’t do up front design and planning. They just start writing. That is not me. The creator of this method, Randy Ingermanson, uses 10 steps.

Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool.

When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It’s the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can!

Some hints on what makes a good sentence:

  • Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words.
  • No character names, please! Better to say “a handicapped trapeze artist” than “Jane Doe”.
  • Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win.
  • Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form.

I loved this first step and am still using my sentence to answer the question, “what’s your novel about?”

My sentence is: Daughter of successful prosperity preacher is diagnosed with cancer, aged twenty-eight. 12 words that set up the tension and conflict.

The sentence should make people smile and nod and say, “Yes, I can see that will cause a problem,” and then to want to read how it’s sorted out.

Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as “three disasters plus an ending”. Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. I don’t know if this is the ideal structure, it’s just my personal taste.

If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist’s attempts to “fix things”. Things just get worse and worse.

You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. Don’t confuse this paragraph with the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story.

I went with this three-act structure. I won’t tell you what are my three disaster’s because I don’t want to spoil the story but I found this structure made it easier to plan the individual chapters.

Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:

  • The character’s name
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
  • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
  • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
  • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
  • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good–it means your characters are teaching you things about your story. It’s always okay at any stage of the design process to go back and revise earlier stages. In fact, it’s not just okay–it’s inevitable. And it’s good. Any revisions you make now are revisions you won’t need to make later on to a clunky 400 page manuscript.

Another important point: It doesn’t have to be perfect. The purpose of each step in the design process is to advance you to the next step. Keep your forward momentum! You can always come back later and fix it when you understand the story better. You will do this too, unless you’re a lot smarter than I am.

I enjoyed this stage but I think I rushed it. For the first many drafts I didn’t know my characters well enough. Some other ways I’ve found helpful to do this is to add a few steps.

  • What does you character look like?
  • Interview your character in different ages/stages of their life? How do they change?
  • A question I came across later – via Jess Everingham – What does this person value more than what is right?

It’s fun to see this coming together. I have just reread mine which was written in July 2014. The 5 main characters are amazingly true to my notes (and I’ve never looked back at them until today). The minor characters are less so and many of them had names and details changed. I later added a totally new character at the suggestion of a beta reader. She became someone that my point of view character could talk through issues with.

Step 4) By this stage, you should have a good idea of the large-scale structure of your novel, and you have only spent a day or two. Well, truthfully, you may have spent as much as a week, but it doesn’t matter. If the story is broken, you know it now, rather than after investing 500 hours in a rambling first draft. So now just keep growing the story. Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends.

This is a lot of fun, and at the end of the exercise, you have a pretty decent one-page skeleton of your novel. It’s okay if you can’t get it all onto one single-spaced page. What matters is that you are growing the ideas that will go into your story. You are expanding the conflict. You should now have a synopsis suitable for a proposal, although there is a better alternative for proposals . . .

Mine is very accurate to the final story. So the ‘crises’ didn’t change it was details that changed.


Step 5) Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These “character synopses” should tell the story from the point of view of each character. As always, feel free to cycle back to the earlier steps and make revisions as you learn cool stuff about your characters. I usually enjoy this step the most and lately, I have been putting the resulting “character synopses” into my proposals instead of a plot-based synopsis. Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction.

Yes, this was my favorite part too. I obviously should have looked again at some of them because many are my best writing.

The final 5 steps next time.


One thought on “Planning your novel – Part 1 of 2

  1. Hi Chris
    Thanks for sharing the ‘Snowflake ‘method. I enjoyed reading through the steps in writing a novel even though it is just a part of it. Looking forward to the next part.

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