Randy Ingermanson is author of the Advanced Fiction Writing series, including How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, which has become a classic writing guide beloved by writers around the world. We asked him about his methodology and to share his advice for aspiring novelists.
Q: Could you describe the novel-writing approach taught in your books?
RANDY INGERMANSON: The Snowflake Method is a list of ten steps that help you plan a novel and ultimately write the first draft. There are two core principles:
The first principle is what software people and math geeks call “divide-and-conquer.” You solve a large, complicated problem by dividing it up into smaller tasks that are easier to do.
The second principle is sometimes called “top-down design”. You start with a high-level view of the problem and you work your way down through the details, one level at a time.
So the Snowflake starts with the simple question: “What is your story about in 25 words or less?” This is hard, and you won’t get it right on the first try. But if you give yourself one hour to come up with your best answer for now, you’ll get something you can improve later. And in the meantime, you have enough to be going on with to begin step 2.
As an example, I can summarize my first published novel in 12 words: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”
Some people will be interested in this sentence. Those people are my target audience. The great majority of people will not be interested. They are outside my target audience. This sentence serves to guide me in how to delight my target audience. As an author, I don’t need to worry about anyone outside my target audience. I don’t have to make them happy. The only people I have to make happy are the ones in my target audience. This is incredibly freeing.
Q: Could you talk about your journey as a writer and what led you to develop the Snowflake Method?
RANDY INGERMANSON: I wrote my PhD thesis in physics back in 1986 using a nonfiction version of the Snowflake Method. Basically, I had the core idea for the thesis, and I wrote out a one-paragraph summary of that, expanded it out to a page, made a table of contents from that, and started writing sections. It felt like the thesis wrote itself. There were some gaps in my research, and the table of contents showed me where the gaps were, and I filled them in.
When I started writing fiction, I used a very similar approach. Start with a short summary of what the novel is, then expand that, expand it some more, expand it enough so that all the scenes are defined, and then go write the scenes.
I didn’t realize at the time that the Snowflake Method was anything new. It was the only way I could think of to write a book, so I just wrote it that way. And I thought everyone wrote the same way. Eventually, I learned that different people think different, and that a lot of people found the method useful. So I put it all on my website and it just took off. The Snowflake Method page on my site has been viewed more than 6.7 million times. And I hear from writers all the time who tell me that the Snowflake Method made it possible for them to fulfill their lifelong dream to write a novel. That makes me incredibly happy.
Q: On your website's Snowflake Method page, you frequently use the word "fun." Could you talk about how the process of planning a novel can be fun and creative?
RANDY INGERMANSON: Anything that you do in which your whole brain is fully engaged is usually fun. People talk a lot about “flow,” which is a heightened state of awareness in which you’re fully focused on the thing you’re doing, and the rest of the world disappears.
So when I say writing a novel (or planning it) should be fun, I mean that it should be done in that state of “flow.” That usually happens when you know approximately what you want to do next, but you have to work out the details. If you look at the Snowflake Method, it tells you at each step approximately what you want to achieve. “Write a one-sentence summary of your novel” or “write a one-paragraph summary of your novel.” But it doesn’t tell you what to write.
So you know WHAT to be creative on next. You have some boundaries, and that lets you be creative. Without boundaries, creativity tends to vanish—at least it does for me, and I think a lot of people are like me.
Q: You've said that the Snowflake Method was inspired by the way you write software. I've never written software, but the method reminds me of the way visual artists work, first blocking in shapes and proportions, and then gradually building up the whole canvas at once.
RANDY INGERMANSON: That makes sense to me. It’s divide-and-conquer. I’m no artist, but I did a bit of woodcarving when I was a kid, and that’s how I did the few bits of carving that I finished.
Q: How does the Snowflake Method help writers with the initial concept development of their novels?
RANDY INGERMANSON: It doesn’t. The initial concept comes to you in the usual way—when you are driving or taking a shower or going on a bike ride or ironing the cat. Initial concepts always come from out of the blue. Some “what if” that we realize could be a novel.
A lot of times, that initial concept is incomplete. I like to say that most of my good ideas are only about a third of an idea. It sounds good at first, but it’s not really enough. But if I just write it down and then mull on it for a bit, then I’ll get another third of an idea later on. And another third of an idea later on.
I don’t know how to control these bolts from the blue. They happen, and I write them down and ponder them.
When they finally are a whole 100% of an idea, that’s when it’s time to break out the Snowflake Method.
Those initial ideas are Vision, and you can’t control Vision. The Snowflake Method is a process for mapping out how to execute the Vision—which is Strategy. Once the Strategy is in place, then you can actually begin the execution phase, which is Tactics.
Let’s be clear that as you map out the Strategy, the Vision will change and get better. And as you execute the Tactics, the Strategy and the Vision will both get better. That’s natural and fine.
Q: Many writers struggle with outlining their stories, often feeling constrained by rigid structures. How does the Snowflake Method address this challenge and allow for organic storytelling?
There is a place for structure, but it comes second. What comes first is organic story development. The mistake to avoid is believing that your organically developed story will somehow magically “work.” It might work if you’re a genius. But I’m not, and my stories always need to be revised so they’ll “work.”
So for me, story development always goes in two phases, which alternate: Some creative organic development, followed by some analysis and revision. And the tool we use to analyze a story is called “structure.” A very famous structure for a novel is the “three-act structure” which is identical to the “four-act structure.” You don’t organically produce that structure (unless you’re a genius). You organically produce something and then you ask what’s broken by comparing it to the story structure. That tells you what’s missing. Then you organically go back and fill in what’s missing, and then analyze it for structure again.
At the scene level, a similar process plays out. You write the scene. Then you ask if it works. It usually doesn’t. Then you compare the scene to the two standard structures—Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes. That usually highlights why the scene doesn’t work, and now you can fix it. So you go back to organic mode and rewrite the scene. Then you check the structure again at the end.
That’s the magic key to being a productive writer. You alternate between phases of pure creativity where you don’t care about structure, and phases of pure analytic work where you do care about structure.
Q: Could you talk about the story structure you've described as "three disasters plus an ending"?
RANDY INGERMANSON: This is just a different description of the classic “three-act structure” or classic “four-act structure,” in which we focus attention on the glue between the joints of the various acts. Things are a little clearer in the language of the four-act structure, so I’ll use that below.
In this language, your first act introduces your lead character and presents that character with an opportunity for an adventure. The character could say no, but then that wouldn’t be a story. But saying yes is uncomfortable, so the character delays saying yes or no until some disaster forces their hand. In the original Star Wars movie, Luke has the opportunity to join the adventure to fight the Galactic Empire. But he’s promised to stay on his uncle’s farm for another season. Then Storm Troopers murder his aunt and uncle while searching for him and his droids. That’s a disaster, and it forces Luke to decide. He could run and hide, or he could join the Rebellion. He joins the Rebellion, and that’s the end of Act 1, roughly at the 25% mark in the story. The first Disaster commits your lead character to the adventure.
In Act 2, your character is pursuing the adventure in the wrong way, without the right skills. They could learn new skills, but that takes work, so why should they bother? But then a disaster comes along to force their hand. Now they must choose to learn new skills or die. So they decide to learn the new skills and purse the adventure in the right way. In Star Wars, Luke is expecting to defeat the Empire with his flying and shooting skills. Then his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader. That’s the second disaster in the movie. Now Luke is the only guy in the game with any knowledge of the Force. His mentor is gone, and he has to step up and be the good guy with the Force. For the rest of the movie, Luke pursues his adventure by stepping into the Force. This is now the right approach. So ends Act 2, right at the midpoint of the story. The second Disaster guides your lead character into the correct pursuit of the adventure.
In Act 3, your character develops their new skills and pursues the adventure in the right way. But this success has consequences. Now they are a threat to the Powers that Be, and those Powers will fight back. There will come a point where the Powers that Be throw down a challenge to come and duke it out, winner-takes-all. That is a disaster, because the challenge is do-or-die, and the lead character is not quite ready. The lead character must choose whether to accept the challenge or run away. In Star Wars, the Death Star has pursued Luke and his friends to the rebel planet. The Death Star means to destroy the planet. The Rebellion could scatter across the galaxy, but that would break their fighting cohesiveness, and the Rebellion would be over. They (and Luke) decide to stand and fight to the death. They’ll try to destroy the Death Star before it destroys them. That marks the end of Act 3, right at the 75% mark in the story. The third Disaster commits your lead character to try to bring the adventure to a successful ending.
In Act 4, your lead character now uses their newly developed skills to try to succeed in the adventure in the right way. This Final Battle consumes most of Act 4. It will end well or end badly, but it will end. The lead character should get what they deserve. And at that exact moment, the story is over. In Star Wars, Act 4 is mostly one long battle scene. The Rebellion loses a lot of fighters, but so does the Empire. It comes down to Luke, who uses the Force to put his proton torpedo right up the wazoo of the Death Star. Victory for the Rebellion, all thanks to Luke. There’s nothing left but the final ceremony where Luke and his friends get medals, and that’s the ending.
Q: Could you talk about how character and plot work together in the design of a novel?
RANDY INGERMANSON: Characters and plot are both essential. A story is characters in conflict. If you have conflict and no characters, that’s not a story. If you have characters and no conflict, that’s not a story.
In the Snowflake Method, you build your story in pieces. You work on the plot for a bit. Then you work on the characters. Then back to the plot, then back to the characters. So the characters grow into the plot and the plot grows into the characters. It’s like the two strands of the double-helix in DNA. You need both, and they grow naturally together.
Q: Sometimes authors feel overwhelmed when developing their novels because they're afraid of making wrong choices. Do you have any advice to help with this issue?
RANDY INGERMANSON: Nothing is final in a story until you press the Send button to email it to your editor, or until you click the Submit button to upload it to the online publisher.
It’s OK to make a bad choice and work on it for a bit and then backtrack. In most cases, you’ll never find the right story until you’ve worked for a bit on the wrong story. The wrong story is the natural stepping stone to get to the right story.
So my advice is to relax and enjoy the process of writing the wrong story the first time. And then get it righter (but still somewhat wrong) on the second draft.
In fact, if you think of the Snowflake Method as the zero-th draft, then you have an opportunity to get it very wrong on that draft, so that the first draft will be less wrong. A Snowflake document is typically much shorter than a first draft, so that initial wrong draft takes less time to write and less time to fix.
So go ahead and make wrong choices! Make lots of them. Then when you’ve figured out a better way, make a copy of that draft and work only on that. You’ll still have the original wrong draft, in case the second draft turns out worse than the first. But almost always, your second try will be better, and the third will be better yet. When you get to the twentieth draft (and I’m not kidding), that will be very likely better than the nineteenth.
I typically make a folder named “Draft 1” and all my work for the first draft goes in there. The manuscript plus any research stuff plus everything else. Then when it’s time to work on the next draft, I make a new folder right beside it named “Draft 2”. I copy any files from “Draft 1” into it and start work on the new draft. Then I never touch anything in Draft 1 again. It’s there to be read but not revised. The current four-books series I’m working on is organized like this. I finished Draft 15 with the publication of Book 1 in the series. And I finished Draft 23 with the publication of Book 2 in the series.
At some point, you’ll realize that you are “disimproving” the story with more revisions (as my long-ago mentor, Sol Stein, called it.) That’s when you stop. But it takes a long time to get to the disimproving stage.
Q: Do you have any other advice for aspiring novelists?
RANDY INGERMANSON: Writing is a tough business, and almost all the financial rewards go to the very few at the very top. Of the million-plus authors on Amazon, about 100 every year earn more than $1M. And maybe about 2000 earn more than $100k. Half of all the money goes to the top 1%. These are rough estimates based on real data from several years back, so take them as approximations to reality.
If you define your success by how much you earn, you’ll always be far behind somebody and you’ll always feel like a failure.
So I strongly advise you to not compare yourself to other writers. Because that way lies dragons that will chew you up and spit you out.
But if you define your success by whether you wrote the story you wanted, then you have a path to success. Because you always have control over whether you write the story you wanted. You have very little control over how much you earn.
This frees you up to be a decent human being to your fellow authors. If you define your success by comparison to others, you will always be tempted to not help anyone else out. In a zero-sum game, you have no incentive to be kind, gracious, or generous. But if you simply run your own race, then you’re free to help your friends run their best race too, and you will end up happy with the life you live. There are always more fellow authors to help, and there is no limit to how much you can help them. That’s not a zero-sum game, that’s a wonderful, energizing, joyful game.
You get to choose what game you will play.
And have fun!
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