The Snowflake Method. Step 1: The Dreaded One-Sentence Summary

It’s going to snow in a few hours where I am in Connecticut, so it only seems appropriate to start with this: the Snowflake Method.

Created by Randy Ingermanson, this method for planning a story has been gaining traction among amateur writers and is a good tool to use when outlining and organizing the structure of a story. The basic idea is to approach writing much as a visual designer would: start with the rough big-picture and build upon that central idea with details until you have a novel. It’s like starting by drawing a triangle and branching with more points until your structure resembles a snowflake.

For today’s post, I’m only going to focus on the first part: writing a one-sentence summary of the story you’re trying to tell.

This is an incredibly difficult task for most writers, myself included. Our kind isn’t known for being terrible concise, so to boil down such an enormous nest of characters, ideas, plotlines, twists, and turns, into one sentence seems counterproductive. But let me sell you on why it’s an important exercise to try.

Whether you have a completed manuscript or have yet to write the first sentence of your story, being able to boil down the big picture of your story into one compelling sentence will help you find the heart of your novel. Even if you have a labyrinthine plot-structure (not recommended for a debut novel if you’re looking for representation), if you can’t find a simple way to pitch it in one sentence, then you’ve lost the forest for the trees. Any one-sentence summary will and should leave out a lot of good stuff from your story, but what it contains has the burden of being able to stand on its own. But even this one-sentence summary needs its own structure.

One good way to organize this summary is to use the old Hollywood logline method I learned from a college screenwriting course—shout out to Professor Grimaldi! In the early days of film, if you wanted to pitch a movie to a studio exec, you needed a short and snappy way to get their attention. And so the logline was born. Here it is:

(Character) wants (goal/motivation) but (antagonist/barrier is in the way).

This is a simple formula but establishes your main character, their motivation, and the central conflict at play. Think about popular stories and movies and how they can be boiled down in this way:

The Lion King: Simba, a young lion cub wants to be king of the Pridelands one day but his uncle Scar will stop at nothing to make sure he’s the king instead.

Harry Potter: Harry, a fledgling wizard wants to have a normal teenage-wizard life but the rise of the dark wizard Lord Voldemort thrusts him back into the spotlight as the “boy who lived” and threatens the lives of he and his closest friends.

I had to think about the Harry Potter one for a bit, but I wanted to show that it’s not only possible to condense an entire novel into one sentence, but a seven-book series as well.

Now, even with the help of this logline formula, this sentence may not come to you right away, and that’s okay. In fact, Randy recommends that you spend an hour writing this one-sentence summary. It’s okay to go through some duds before arriving at a decent summary. If after an hour you still can’t write a compelling one-sentence summary, then maybe that’s a sign that your story needs a better “big picture” focus, or maybe you just need to take a nap, refresh your brain, and come back to it later.

I recently did this for a YA fantasy manuscript I just finished outlining based on Maya and Aztec mythology. It took some fine-tuning, but I think it’s pitchable, still leaves a lot of mystery, and will help ground me to the heart of the story as I write so I don’t get sidetracked by tangents and side-plots.

Here is what I came up with: An exiled prince and necromancer with heretical ideas challenge the powerful Elowi Empire at the height of its failing war against the gods.

Now, please don’t yell at me. I know I’m not even following my own advice. This summary technically doesn’t follow the traditional logline method I just advised you to consider. This is because I want to focus on two equally important protagonists rather than make two separate loglines for each. I had to get creative and find a way to make their motivations and struggles implicit and tied together without having to say them.

Because I told you that our prince is exiled, the assumption is that part of his motivation may be to restore his or his family’s standing, at the very least, it should imply a conflict between him and the society that has exiled him.

The necromancer has heretical ideas, which already brings about a sense of motivation: she is committed to these beliefs, whatever they are, even though they are dangerous to hold.

In true YA fantasy form, they challenge some powerful Empire—but wait! This Empire is also embroiled in a conflict of their own, and against the gods, no less. These few words tell you that the struggle our main characters will have against the powers-that-be will be a little messier than just a simple A-to-B conflict. When you throw in a potentially dangerous third-party hostile to the antagonist, that opens some intriguing possibilities.

Since it’s fantasy, I thought it was important to at least give a taste of the fantastical aspects of this world. I mentioned that our second protagonist is a necromancer: that tells you that there’s some form of magic in this world and that the dead will also play an important role. By mentioning heresy, I’m implying that there is a strong religious or dogmatic force in power, and by mentioning princes and Empires, it’s clear that we’re also dealing with a world with nobility, bloodlines, and political turmoil.

Phew, that’s a lot of crap to cram into a single sentence. That’s why it may take up to an hour to write it!

I’m not saying my logline is perfect by any means, or even the most original. I just wanted to show a little bit of my own thought process and an example that deviates from the formula while still having those all-important elements of good storytelling (conflict and motivation).

As a challenge, think about critically acclaimed or popular stories that may not be possible to boil down into one a formulaic one-sentence logline. One-Hundred Years of Solitude comes to mind, as well as literally most postmodern or more experimental literature—but that’s also by design.

Try it out!

You can visit Randy’s website here, and you can read more about his snowflake method here.


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