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Slowly Revealing Characters With the Snowflake Method

A little while back I reported that I was attempting to use the Snowflake Method (or parts of it, anyway) as I develop my new novel. My progress has been slow, to say the least: unfortunately, the novel can’t take priority over a variety of other things I’m doing in my life at this point, so I’ve had to be satisfied to this point with gradually building the story as time allows. I’ve been researching Russian and Soviet history (important in understanding some of the characters and events in my story) and planning out my novel step by small step in the Snowflake fashion.
So far, I have to admit, Snowflake has been unexpectedly valuable to me. I had expected it to give me some structure and keep me on track, but it has done much beyond that.

Snowflake forces me to delve deeper before moving ahead. For instance, in the first step, it required me to know and state in a sentence what my novel was about. Then I had to settle on the major turns in the story and come up with an ending, neither of which I was particularly inclined to do at that point if I had been left to my own devices, but both of which have given me a much deeper understanding of where the story was going. In the current step, which requires a period of focus on each major character in turn, it’s forcing me to understand all of my characters well enough to see where they are headed in the course of the novel. What are they each after? How do they change? What are their biggest obstacles? (If you want to read the specific questions instead of my generalizations, you can read about the Snowflake Method on Randy Ingermanson’s Web site.)

I haven’t generally been a fan of cataloging everything there is to know about a character. Yes, it’s nice to know what the character had for breakfast that morning, but that doesn’t really give me much to go on when I’m trying to envision what a character will do or say next. The questions I’m forced to answer for my Snowflake outlining are much more telling and basic: I find out that Nancy, a mother and wife in my story, is trying to get her husband to move their family out of a war zone and getting nowhere with it, which helps me know Nancy much better than if I just knew that she had dry rye toast for breakfast and wanted to marry the postman when she was three. Since goals very often have to do with other people, like in this case, it also tells me some useful things about Nancy’s husband and son and their relationships. Building a web of strong relationships that have built-in conflicts like this yields a story that has a chance of breaking out and writing itself. That’s one reason I’ve gotten so much enjoyment out of Joss Whedon’s star-crossed TV series Firefly: the central characters were a tightly-knit group, but they also had built-in conflicts with one another.

To come at it from another angle: I sometimes get the chance to talk with my father, an actor, about what acting and writing fiction might have in common. I gather from these conversations that one of the things he and many other actors do is to find a specific goal in every scene, a process that can furnish drive, focus, and direction. If you’ve ever seen grade school actors just stand there and fidget, unsure what to do until their next line comes along, you’ll see why I value this kind of point of view, and why a goal-focused view of characters, as Dr. Ingermanson’s approach requires me to take, is promising me something beyond just a better familiarity with my cast.


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Slowflake: Structure vs Diving In


In recent posts like “A Novel in One Sentence” I’ve mentioned that I’m trying out the Snowflake method for writing my current novel. This is a much more deliberate and structured way to go about it than I’ve ever used before (although I have outlined large writing projects in the past), and in a way is an experiment in doing something in a structured way when I could have chosen just to dive in instead.

Is all this structure helping? So far, absolutely yes. In step 1 I got a clear picture of what my novel is really about, which is extremely useful. Step 2 forced me to figure out the major turns in the story and my ending. The ending especially was difficult to see, but now that I’ve gotten an idea of what it will be I find I have more confidence in the book, and I have an important bit of planning done in a way that will allow it to do a lot of good.

I’m currently on Step 3, and it’s taking me forever. Why? Because I have to have all of my characters fleshed out in some major respects here in Step 3. I’m used to my characters either appearing full-fledged in my mind or to getting to know them through writing them. They often surprise me and step in to become much more interesting than anything I could have planned out. (I’m not a fan of the “come up with all kinds of detailed information about your character” approach because I feel like this focuses things on trivia and not on the character’s personality and driving needs, but your mileage may vary.)

I have to admit, though, stopping and figuring out some basic questions about each character (as distinct from trivial details) forces me to have a whole set of characters with goals, needs, and perspectives from the beginning. Also, I have little details that would be annoying and distracting to come up with as I write taken care of: for instance, I’m spending the time up front figuring out names for each character, which are something that have to feel exactly right for me to write them well.

Despite all of these benefits, I still am itching to just start writing the book. It’s writing fiction, after all, not planning it, that is the delight and the meat of the task for me. I’m frankly not sure I’ll last through the rest of the snowflake steps, especially considering that step 7, for instance, is about cataloging all of those character details I don’t much care for. At what point does a useful structure become too confining and get in the way of going organically forward?

From the point of view of the quality of the book, I’m not sure how long I should ideally stick with the structure, though I am sure that at a certain point I want to be able to plunge into the story and live there: I don’t want to construct every shoe and blade of grass and drop of blood first and then fit everything together like a jigsaw. At some point I’ll want to have some forward motion.

Yet when that point comes, I suspect I’ll be very glad that I stuck to structuring as long as I did. I guess we’ll see.

Photo by Juliancolton2

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