You’ve got an amazing story concept, and you’re excited to start writing.
But. . .you’ve decided you need to outline. Where to start? How do you outline your novel?
You feel lost, and you wonder, “How does this work?”
Well, fear no more! In this article, I’m going to go through three ways to outline your novel, and how they work.
Method 1: What Is The Snowflake Method?
Created by Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method is an in-depth outlining process.
There are ten total steps to this method, each building off of one another.
The premise of the Snowflake method is to build layer, after layer, after layer of information and your novel.
The first step is to write a sentence to describe your story. One sentence. Ingermanson suggests spending an hour on this and using less than fifteen words.
Then you build a paragraph with about five sentences, then you build a one-page summary, and so on.
Ingermanson goes through his method more fully on his website, AdvancedFictionWriting.com. I would recommend reading through his method in his article here, to get a better idea of what each step includes.
Why Does The Snowflake Method Work?
As an outlining method, why has the Snowflake Method become popular, and why does it work for so many people?
Simple: it gets down to the very recesses of your story and it makes you think. So often people will pound out an outline or a draft without really even sitting down to think hard about their story. They just run through it.
The problem with this is, that there are all kinds of plot holes that can be in the middle of the story, or the story can fall flat, and readers won’t be impressed. Not only that, but the work put into the draft and/or outline can be wasted, either through editing or just through the simple fact that the story does not work.
The Snowflake Method builds. It targets plot holes and it can obliterate them. It makes you think and be thoughtful about your story, and where your story is going.
Why Doesn’t The Snowflake Method Always Work?
However, every outlining method has its pitfalls, and this method isn’t perfect. It doesn’t work for everyone.
This may be for several factors. Maybe you don’t work well in layers. Or, maybe this method is too time-consuming.
While the amount of time used to make this outline will be well-used, maybe you’re on a deadline, and you work better with a quicker method that requires the same amount of thought.
Ingermanson suggests that you spend an hour or more on each step of the Snowflake, plus the time it takes for revisions if need be.
For an author on a deadline, this may not be feasible.
Illustrating The Snowflake Method
Let’s have an example, to see how this method can apply to a real life story.
Throughout this article, I will be using J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as an example.
The Snowflake Method first starts with a premise sentence, not even naming the character.
Here’s how I would best describe the simple premise of The Hobbit:
“A hobbit travels on an unexpected journey to help thirteen dwarves defeat the dragon terrorizing their homeland.”
One sentence. That’s it. Seems simple, right?
However, simple is not the case for most stories. Ingermanson suggests taking an hour to write your first premise sentence, and to use ideally less than fifteen words. While this may not be the case for all writers, it is good to think about your story premise, because that is the foundation for your entire story.
Not only this, but this sentence can be used to pitch your book when you start the publishing and marketing process.
After the premise sentence, Ingermanson instructs you to write a full paragraph about your story, again, using another hour, and using less than five sentences, ideally.
The second step of the Snowflake Method could be illustrated as this:
“A hobbit leaves his comfortable home to travel across Middle Earth to help thirteen dwarves regain their homeland from the terrifying dragon, Smaug. He’s faced danger several times, including an encounter with trolls, ginormous spiders, and an attack on the village of LakeTown by Smaug. After a final battle with Smaug, the hobbit finally helps the dwarves reclaim their ancient home.”
Then Ingermanson says to write a one page summary for your novel, then to write a one page description of every character, then build off of that, and so one.
For a more in-depth explanation of the snowflake method, go here to Ingermanson’s website.
Method 2: The List Method
The second outline method we will discuss is the list method.
This method is seemingly simple, but it works.
What does it involve? Simply, lists!
To use this method, you write down everything about a certain element of your story. It can be everything you know about a certain element, everything you don’t know, and everything you want to be a part of that element.
Allow me to give an example.
Let’s say we have a character, and we know:
That she struggles with a fear of the future
That she desires forgiveness
That she plays an important role in our story
But what we don’t know is:
Her lie (what she believes isn’t true)
Her backstory (why does she desire forgiveness?)
But we want her to:
Be the hero and save her world
Overcome her fears and her lie
Accomplish her goal
This method could be applied to many different elements in a story, such as the setting, the plot, and the theme.
The main goal behind this method is concision and a clear view of all the elements of your story.
Why Does The List Method Work?
Why is this method outstanding?
Because it helps you to see your story as a whole and it can help you keep track of all of your story elements. As writers, a lot is going through our heads, and our story elements can get jumbled up! The list method is amazing to get all of those elements down on paper, so when you write your first draft, you aren’t leaving out any details, and you have a clear view of how everything in your story fits together.
After working out several different elements of your story, you can even create a spider web of how all your different elements connect. A computer program like Scapple may be useful in a situation like this.
This method can also help you to see what you are missing, and what’s important in a story. Therefore, this can help you draft better because after outlining, you can see what is important, and what is extraneous.
Why Doesn’t The List Method Always Work?
This method is extremely helpful, but there are a few cons to this type of outlining.
First, as I mentioned above, there can be many lists and sublists to this outlining method. While this may work for other people, for some it can become overwhelming and disorganized (that opposite of what outlining is supposed to do!).
The spider web of lists and connections can also quickly become confusing for some, instead of fitting together as the lists may do for others.
Because of this, using a list outlining method may not work for you.
Illustrating The List Method
While I’ve already given a bit of an example above, let’s go ahead and flesh out this method by using Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Let’s start with a list titled Characters.
Bilbo’s family (The Bagginses, the Tooks, the Sackville Bagginses, etc.)
The other twelve dwarves
And other side characters throughout the book (There is a lot, so I will not name them all).
Then let’s break this down into sublists:
- Desire: Victory for the dwarves, but also to get back to the comforts of his home
- Fear: That his life will be extinguished by these adventures
- Goal: To help the dwarves
- Weakness: Not very experienced in battle
Character arc and growth: Bilbo grows to become a very confident hobbit, who still wants to be back at home, but realizes that adventures are quite nice too (We see later in The Lord of the Rings that Bilbo really becomes restless after being at home for several more years, and his desire changes to where he wants adventure). He becomes much more experienced in battle, and he eventually isn’t as afraid anymore, and he helps many people in ways he never thought were possible.
This could be fleshed out into many different lists. I could have a list for plot, I could have a list for themes, I could have a list for each character, each act in the story, and each setting. Lists can be as complex or as simple as you want, as long as you can see the big picture and interconnecting points.
Method 3: The Paragraph Method
We are now to the final of our three, outstanding outlining methods!
Method three is probably the most unique out of the three methods, and the most common, as well.
While that may seem like an oxymoron, I promise you, it’s not.
This method is different from the other two methods mentioned above. The Snowflake Methods builds sentence on sentence, paragraph on paragraph, then eventually, pages upon pages.
In the paragraph method, your novel is outlined using paragraphs instead of bullet points and sentences.
This method is used by many writers and is probably the most used method out of the three.
In the paragraph method, in-depth paragraphs are written about each point in the three-act story structure. For example, for the hook of your story, you write several paragraphs about your protagonist, what she does, and what sets off the story, hooking the reader.
There can be several paragraphs to communicate several different scenes. In this method, paragraphs can include not only events of the story but also character struggles and themes that occur at a certain point of the story.
This method by far covers the most points of your story out of all three outlining methods. This is the method where planners like to get the most in-depth, creating long outlines up to ten thousand words.
Why Does The Paragraph Method Work?
This method works and is outstanding not for just the reason above, but because most anyone can use it.
Not everyone likes to use The Snowflake method, with nitty gritty, slow-going overlapping work. Not everyone likes to list the details of their story. But everyone can write a paragraph summarizing their work (we are writers, after all!).
Moreover, the paragraph method can be applied to virtually any story and to dual point-of-view (the list method can also be applied to dual POV, but with the Snowflake Method, it is harder).
The Paragraph Method can also cover a wide range of details in a natural way, without feeling stiff, though, it is recommended to use the Three Act Story Structure to give you a starting point of where to place events in your story.
K.M. Weiland (helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com)has written an amazing book about the Three Act Story Structure, called Structuring Your Novel that I’d suggest be added to your reading list.
However, let me give you a short example of what the paragraph method might look like, utilizing Three Act Story Structure.
Start with the hook. What happens at the very beginning of your story? What hooks the reader in? How is your main character introduced? What does he/she do? All of this is simply written out as a paragraph.
These steps are repeated throughout the different points of your novel until you have an outline for the whole of your novel.
Keep in mind, that this doesn’t have to be super in-depth. This doesn’t have to include a detailed description of every scene, though, you can do that. But it is not necessary for an outline, or to know where you are going to go in the drafting stage.
You just have to know the major plot points of your novel, how your character learns to grow, and what themes may be shown through your characters and the events of your story.
Why Doesn’t The Paragraph Method Always Work?
But why doesn’t this method work for some people?
First off, because of the reason I mentioned above. This method can get long.
Pages and pages of paragraphs for each point in the story can be written, and because of this, it can be harder sometimes to keep track of where the dots connect.
You may miss a ginormous plot hole easier in this method than in the others (and that’s why we have other writers critique our work!). Why? Simply because there are often a large number of words and paragraphs.
Not only that, a lot of pages and paragraphs could be overwhelming for someone who doesn’t simply enjoy reading back over their work over and over again.
Illustrating The Paragraph Method
Let’s go ahead and illustrate this method, continuing to use The Hobbit as an example.
I’m going to use the Three Act Story Structure to structure this outline, so I have a basis of where different events should go. This example may be much briefer than most outlines, but it can depend on the writer.
Bilbo Baggins lives a peaceful, comfortable life in The Shire, deep in his little hobbit hole. But when a mysterious man named Gandalf visits Hobbiton and carves a strange mark on Bilbo’s front door, hobbits are off-put, including Bilbo. Hobbits are quiet folk who do not like adventures, and Gandalf spoke of adventures, only adding to his mysteriousness.
Bilbo and Gandalf schedule tea, but when Bilbo opens the door, expecting Gandalf for tea, a dwarf walks in. Then another dwarf. Then another dwarf. Bilbo is quite irked at this, especially when they all ask for food and make a big mess out of Bilbo’s kitchen.
But when Gandalf finally arises, the dwarves–thirteen of them–explain to Bilbo that they need his help to reclaim the mountain that Thorin’s grandfather claimed for the dwarves, along with all the treasure in it. But there is a catch: a dragon named Smaug is watching over the mountain, and capturing the mountain would include killing Smaug, a perilous task.
That’s the hook and inciting incident for The Hobbit outlined briefly. There is much more to the rest of the outline, but hopefully that gives an idea of how the paragraph method is used.
Troubleshooting Your Outline
While these outline methods will ninety percent of the time give you a good, solid outline to help you draft your novel, this doesn’t mean that you won’t run into problems.
So what do you do when you have writer’s block, plot holes, or other various problems?
You go find another writer.
Every article I’ve written for The Young Writer Blog has mentioned the beauty of having other writers to help and support you on your writing journey.
When you look for another writer to help you, look for a writer who has a few outlines and drafts behind them, and who is good at their craft. Most of the time, another writer can help you brainstorm ideas to fill in plot holes and solve any other problems you may have.
The Young Writer’s Workshop Community has a lot of wonderful writers that have helped me brainstorm, fix outlines, and critique my works. Not only that, but they always are so gracious and kind when I know my writing is rough. They are always so gracious with critiques and feedback.
Your Next Steps
You may be wondering, “What do I do now? What are my next steps?”
Well, now it’s time to outline your next project! Below I’ve attached a troubleshooting guide, to help you as you implement the methods above. As you outline your novel, do so with confidence, because it’s the framework for the next world-changing book.