Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Get Real Method (or why I don’t snowflake)

You no doubt have heard of the Snowflake Method that Randy Ingermanson recommends. For those of you who have heard of it, but haven’t taken the time to understand it, here it is in a nutshell:

    1. Write a one-sentence summary of your novel.
    2. Expand the sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters and ending of the novel.
    3. Write a summary sheet for each major character.
    4. Expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph.
    5. Write a one page description of each major character and a half page description of each minor character.
    6. Expand one-page synopsis into a four-page synopsis.
    7. Create full-fledged character charts.
    8. Take a hiatus and wait for the book to sell. In the meantime, make a spreadsheet showing the scenes.
    9. (optional) Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand into a multi-paragraph description of the scene.
    10. Write the first draft.

The basic idea behind this method is to develop a novel by creating progressively more detail with with step. For you software engineering folks out there, this method follows what we might call a Spiral Development Model. Some people really like the Snowflake Method. There’s plenty to like about it. It is similar to some other approaches I’ve seen and it has to be a whole lot better than a strict seat of your pants approach, but I don’t use it. Now, if you do and it works for you, my goal isn’t to try to convince you that you are doing the wrong thing. The purpose of this article is to say why I don’t use it and to describe the method I use.


Step one is great. Every good method I’ve seen starts with this same step. They may be worded differently, but the first thing you must do is to know what your novel is about. In my method, I also do something similar to step two, I do it differently. At this point, I use FreeMind with a generic outline based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, which is based on the three act structure. I figure a story is a story is a story, so I see no reason to go all the way back to Beginning, Middle and End, as the Snowflake Method seems to suggest, and break it down again when every Beginning breaks the same way, every Middle breaks the same way and every End breaks the same way. So, the first difference is that my framework is more detailed. For each major section, I write a short paragraph that describes what happens.

He loses me completely at step three. He calls for writing a summary sheet for each major character. If we have six major characters, that is six hours, plus the two hours we spent on the previous two steps. Basically, we’ve spent a day. I don’t write summary sheets. Still in FreeMind, I list all of characters major and minor. As I become aware of their traits, I add information. If the character is from another book, I simply copy the information. For example: next to Cora Gallant’s name I added “Kelly’s Confidant,” “Makeup Artist,” and “Kelly’s Childhood Friend.” Next to Carla’s name it says only, “Manager at Ellen’s Cafe.” There’s a lot more I could say about these characters, but I don’t need to. These guys are like friends. I know them well. I don’t need to go into a lot of detail, just enough to keep me from  changing the important points. Besides, what good will a paragraph do me if I’m not going to read it? I want everything on one diagram so I can glance at it.

To recap, at this point in my method, we have a logline for the story. We also have descriptions of what happens within every major part of the story. We know, for example, that the inciting incident for And Thy House is when our protagonist hears a Down’s syndrome man tell him that he is going to hell. We have details about the characters, but only that stuff we’re afraid we’ll forget if we don’t write it down. We have enough that we can go write the synopsis, if we like, just by pulling the stuff from FreeMind and writing it in a slightly better form. My method takes half a day to get to this point. The Snowflake Method takes two days.

In the past, I have gone and broken each major section into more detailed scenes, but for the most part, I’m not ready to do that yet. Anymore, if I know how a scene will play out, I’ll go ahead and describe it in FreeMind, but I’m ready to start writing. I know how large each segment should be, based on my total word count goal and I have a rough idea of what must happen. I find that if I try to define things too much before I begin writing that the scenes tend to be disconnected. There’s something about getting to page 160 and realizing that you have to have the guy ask the woman to marry him by page 166 that forces you to find a way to link stuff to his day to day activities.

At this point, the Snowflake Method calls for us to spend a few more weeks writing a more detailed synopsis. In fact, if you add it all up, the Snowflake Method calls for about five weeks of work before we begin the first draft. Agatha Christie thought a month was plenty of time to write a novel. It is a safe bet that she didn’t use the Snowflake Method. 

If you haven’t been keeping track, here is the Get Real Method in a nutshell:

  1. Write a Logline
  2. Fill out the basic story structure with our story.
  3. Record important character details.
  4. Write First Draft