Writing,  Writing Resources

The Snowflake Method. Step 2: A Story in a Paragraph

In the first step, you took your idea and tried to condense it into a single sentence. Saying a lot with few words can be a challenge to many writers, and if you fit into that camp, you’ll probably be relieved for step 2.

In this step, you take your single sentence and expand it into a full paragraph.

Sounds simple enough, but when you think about a novel’s worth of ideas and events, what do you include, and what do you leave out? This is the most important part of step two and what will ultimately help you flesh out the core of your story.

Luckily you’re not starting from scratch. Remember, you already crafted that amazing one-sentence summary. That’s the heart of your story: the essential nucleus of it. Start by considering the elements of your sentence and think about how you can expand that to include a bit more details. I say a bit, because even though a paragraph seems like a good chunk of writing, especially when compared to a single sentence, you may be surprised how quickly you can begin to stretch a paragraph to its limits.

But before you start to list your story in more detail, Mr. Ingermanson, the creator of this technique, recommends starting with a structure in mind: the three-act structure.

Three Acts, and Three Disasters

If you’re not familiar with this idea, it’s a popular way to organize narrative fiction into three distinct parts which come together to make the whole story. Act one serves as the setup where characters, setting, and conflict are introduced. Act two is where things her hairier and when the established conflicts begin to build and the stakes increase. The final act is where the conflict reaches its culmination, leading to the climax of the story, and then its resolution.

In order to create a sense of progress and keep the audience invested, the end of acts one and two will typically have a major plot point at the of each act that caps the act and sets up the following one. These plot points provide the energy to launch the reader into the story’s new arc and also give a semblance of resolution to the previous act. Even though the plot point may wrap up some of the threads of the act it concludes, it should also open up new threads or build on existing ones for the next act.

This organization ensures that major plot points are spread more evenly throughout a story, but at the same time ensures that the story continues to build to its climax near its end.

Ingermanson, however, recommends adding another major plot point in the middle of act two. He calls this “three disasters plus an ending.” According to Ingermanson, “Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter… The first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up.”

Ingermanson goes on to explain that while it’s appropriate to have external circumstances cause the first disaster, “the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist’s attempts to ‘fix things.'” But since conflict is the beating heart of most plots, this attempt by the protagonist should actually cause the conflict to worsen.

So with this in mind, let’s look at one way we can use this structure to help us come up with our paragraph. To help us be brief and effective, let’s also give ourselves a five-sentence limit for our summary.

  • Sentence 1: Set up the story and give some backdrop
  • Sentence 2: Disaster One (End of Act 1)
  • Sentence 3: Disaster Two (Middle of Act 2)
  • Sentence 4: Disaster Three (End of Act 2)
  • Sentence 5: Ending

Notice how we are explicitly stating the story’s main plot beats or “disasters” and spelling out the ending. This is because this summary paragraph will serve as a map for the bare bones of your story. You won’t be hiding anything here or trying to entice a reader. This isn’t a back of the book synopsis, this is a naked blueprint of your story for your eyes only and it should leave nothing to the imagination.

If we use this structure for our paragraph, then we can probably recycle most elements from our one-sentence summary and embed that into our first sentence and anywhere else that seems appropriate.


Let’s use the Lion King example I created for Step One and see how we could expand this into a five-sentence paragraph that follows the structure from earlier.

Here is that one-sentence summary that followed the logline method: 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.

We have the protagonist, his desire, and the main conflict of the story. Now, let’s take a look at our paragraph structure from earlier.

  • Sentence 1: Set up the story and give some backdrop
  • Sentence 2: Disaster One (End of Act 1)
  • Sentence 3: Disaster Two (Middle of Act 2)
  • Sentence 4: Disaster Three (End of Act 2)
  • Sentence 5: Ending

Let’s take what we know of the Lion King and our one-sentence summary to create our paragraph following this structure.

Sentence 1: Set up the story and give some backdrop

For this sentence, we can actually recycle our logline one sentence summary since it already does a nice job of setting up the story with a protagonist, their goals, and the main conflict/obstacle that’s in their way. There may be some loglines that make more sense to split up. Maybe the conflict shouldn’t be addressed until disaster one in some cases, but in this case, I think it works best to just re-use our once-sentence summary for our set up sentence.

Sentence 1: Simba, a young lion cub wants to be king of the Pride Lands one day but his uncle Scar will stop at nothing to make sure he’s the king instead.


Sentence 2: Disaster One

The first disaster should correspond to the end of act one. Now, it may be a good exercise to try to figure out exactly how the Lion King’s story fits into the three-act structure, but I’m a big believer in not trying to re-invent the wheel when there are so many great resources out there. After all, our purpose in using the snowflake method isn’t to make us experts in mapping out existing stories into their corresponding three acts, it’s to help us write a novel. I will look to people who have already put in the work to help us out. The Novel Smithy has a lot of great resources, one of these is the Movie Structure Archives. Lewis Jorstad, the author & editor who created The Novel Smithy website has written a solid analysis of The Lion King’s movie structure.

In Jorstad’s analysis, act one’s culmination establishes the first major plot point of the story: Scar’s murder of Mufasa and Simba’s exile. I think we can all agree that this counts as a “disaster” and to me, it is probably the most impactful disaster and twist in the story. Simba is left fatherless, exiled, and Scar appears to have won. Perhaps we thought that Mufasa would defeat Scar in the third act, perhaps with Simba’s help, but no. The tear-jerking end of act one turns the story on its head and leaves our protagonist destitute and alone. We can talk at length about the effectiveness of this disaster, but for our purpose, we just want to identify what these “disasters” are and fit them in our five-sentence summary.

Sentence 2: Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa, framing Simba for his death, and exiling the young prince to take the throne for himself.


Sentence 3: Disaster Two

The second disaster should correspond to the middle of act two. This is likely the trickiest of the disasters to pinpoint if we are following a three-act structure since while the ending of each act will have a clearly defined plot point/disaster, finding one in the middle of act two may prove more elusive. But let’s go back to Jorstad’s analysis and see what he says about act two of the lion king.

Off the bat. we see that Jorstad estimates act two taking up about 50% of the whole movie, a majority of the screentime. This is fairly common, and it makes sense. While act one sets up the story, and act three ends it, act two generally takes up the bulk of the plot as this is where we see all the twists, turns, and complications that will take us all the way to the story’s last setpieces.

We can also see a few pinch points and a plot point to mark the ending of act two. If you were to look at act two and point out a “disaster” in the middle of act two, what would it be?

If I was looking at act two holistically, I would say the midpoint “disaster” of act two would be a combination of the defined 1st pinch point and the midpoint. I would combine these two to create the following third sentence.

Sentence 3: Simba is confronted by the truth that the Pride Lands are suffering under Scar, but he refuses to return to help since he is still feeling guilty over the death of his father.

Notice how I have mentioned nothing about Timon and Pumba, eating bugs, hakuna matata, or Nala? Although these elements will become important later on as we build our snowflake out, at this stage these details would be excessive. We are still laser focused on the elements of our logline: the protagonist, their goals, and their relationship with the story’s main conflict.


Sentence 4: Disaster Three

Disaster three is a little more straightforward to pinpoint than two since it will correspond to the main plot point that occurs at the end of act two. Looking back at the act two analysis, we can see that Jorstad defines this moment as the scene where Scar confronts Simba, who still blames himself for his father’s death, and forces Simba to admit to everyone that he killed Mufasa.

We will summarize this “disaster” in a moment, but first I think it’s worthwhile to analyze this moment in the story and its impact on the overall plot. Notice how all of the disasters we have noted for The Lion King so far have been closely related? The first disaster is Mufasa dying, and Simba believing that he is to blame. The second disaster is that the feelings of guilt have been consuming Simba and this prevents him from taking action at a critical moment. The third disaster is that when confronted by the main antagonist, Scar, about this incident, Simba’s guilt allows Scar to get away with forcing Simba to publicly blame himself for Mufasa’s death, even though we, as the audience, know that is not true.

The first disaster is external, Scar kills Mufasa and frames Simba for the death, but each disaster after that deals with Simba’s actions or inactions as a result of this first disaster. The first disaster is the domino that topples the rest, each disaster in this movie is directly a cause for the next one, and an effect of the previous one. This is one of the reasons why the Lion King feels like such a well-constructed story at its core. Many people take issue with the additions of Timon and Pumba, but if you look at these disasters and see how they are carefully seeded through the movie, you see why Simba’s journey is so compelling and powerful and why the ending feels satisfying and earned.

When you think about your “disasters,” keep these observations in mind. Have them each connect to one another and the protagonist in a significant way.

Now for the sentence:

Sentence 4: Simba returns to the Pride Lands to confront Scar, but ends up being successfully manipulated by him into confessing his falsely held belief that he is responsible for Mufasa’s death to the rest of the pride.


Sentence 5: Ending

The ending should be fairly easy to pinpoint in a story, and chances are, you already have a pretty good idea of how your story will end, even if you have no clue what the three “disasters” that will define the plot will be.

Let’s summarize the ending of the Lion King into a sentence.

Sentence 5: Scar confesses to Simba that he killed Mufasa which gives Simba the motivation to finally fight Scar and defeat him for this crime and in doing so, frees the Pride Lands from his tyranny, and rightfully takes the role of king.


Your Turn!

Now that we’ve laid out a solid structure for our summary paragraph and looked at an example, it’s time to try expanding your one-sentence into a five-sentence summary. If five sentences feel like too much or too little, then feel free to start larger or smaller, and then edit to a strong but brief paragraph. After all, we don’t want to font load too much of the novel in our snowflake yet, we are still building the bare bones. Remember that in our paragraph summary of the Lion King, we only mentioned Simba, Scar, and Mufasa, and didn’t include any other details or characters but what was central to Simba’s goals and conflicts.

This step of the Snowflake Method is where the story can really start to shine. After all, in our log line for the Lion King we only include the information that Simba wants to be king but Scar wants the same. The ensuing disasters are what really bring that logline to life. After all, once we look at the main plot points in the story we see that for a majority of the story, it wasn’t Scar that was physically opposing Simba, but it was Simba’s own guilt and shame over what he thought he had done that created a majority of the conflicts in his story. Scar only really directly confronts Simba during the first disaster and the ending, the other disasters were all a product of Simba’s own internal struggle and the actions he took or refused to take as a result.

So keep this in mind as you create your paragraph summary.

What happens if you have no idea what you want your disasters or ending to be? That’s totally fine! This is where the creative process happens.

Once you have your one-sentence summary, it’s easier to try and expand the story from this central conflict.

Begin With the End

My advice if you don’t know where to go after your single sentence summary, is to start with the ending, then come up with possible disasters.

think about your protagonist’s goals and their obstacles. What kind of story do you want to tell? What possible endings can you foresee for this story? Does your protagonist succeed or fail? What endings are the most interesting for you, which are the most original, which are the most satisfying? What message would you be sending by ending the story in certain ways? Is this a cautionary tale about a broken and flawed individual who is doomed to fail, or a story where the protagonist comes out on top after a long and vicious fight with the audience cheering for them along the way? All of these are valid questions to ask and can help you decide on what kind of story you want to tell.

Let’s think about the Lion King’s ending and what that says about it as a story. Firstly, it’s a children’s movie by Disney. Even though it has dark scenes and themes, we can be fairly certain that the heroes will win and evil will lose, which they do.

The Impact of an Ending

What is the lesson, if any?

Well, Simba refuses to take responsibility for his pride and ends up running away from his responsibilities out of fear and shame. Fear and shame are very powerful and debilitating emotions that everyone will struggle with at some point in their lives, so although many of us will never have to fight to the death against a traitorous uncle for power, all of us can understand what it’s like to be paralyzed by fear, shame, and run from our responsibilities. It’s easier to live a life of Hakuna Matata than it is to face and overcome these feelings and do what’s right.

The fact that Simba does overcome these feelings and triumphs in his battle against Scar to become the rightful ruler sends a strong message to the audience. It is right and important to overcome our fears and shame to do what is right, even if it’s difficult. In the end, as Simba is victorious against Scar and his army of hyenas, rains cleanse the burning Pride Lands and wash away the skeletons and signs of suffering under Scar’s old kingdom. The clouds part and Simba stands in a beam of light, surrounded by his happy pride, watched over by his ancestors. Everything about this ending tells us without any doubt, that Simba won and that this triumph is good for the Pride Lands and celebrated by all. It’s a satisfying ending because Scar faces poetic justice, and Simba has overcome his struggles to grow as a character. We are rewarded for sitting through all of Simba’s disasters by seeing him claim the throne and bring balance to the Circle of Life once again.

How would the story change if Simba never overcame his fears? What if Scar had killed Simba in their fight? What if the pride had turned against Simba after his confession and exiled him once more? What if Simba becomes king but is worse than Scar?

All of those are different ways the same story could have ended, but each would have sent a very different message and had a different tone.

Once you have a possible ending, think about how to draw an interesting throughline from the setup to the ending. Remember, the first disaster can be external, as it is in the Lion King, but try to make the next two disasters before the ending a direct result of your protagonist’s actions or choices. Bonus points if you chain your disasters in a way that they are causally related and build on the theme that your ending will resolve.

Let the Story Breathe and Evolve

Remember that nothing is written in stone. You always have the ability to change your story, even these most basic elements. In fact, you most certainly will change these elements as you go through the creative process. Changing is okay, but staring at a blank page and refusing to make choices because you aren’t 100% convinced with your choices are perfect is not. Falling into this trap and staying there will ensure that your idea that will never become anything more.

Even if you’re not convinced, try writing a summary paragraph. Write several. Play around with disasters. Tweak the ending. See how it feels. This summary will never seem as good or carry the emotional impact of experiencing the story in its polished version. But that can not happen until the foundation is built.

Does Your Paragraph Summary Feel Hollow?

Chances are watching the Lion King for the first time gave you goosebumps. Maybe Mufasa’s death made you cry, perhaps the ending made your heart swell. These emotional payoffs are the result of all of the careful details and decisions that go into creating the final product. You won’t get that yet, so don’t fret if your paragraph summary doesn’t feel as gripping or exciting as the ideas in your head do.

Let’s see it for ourselves. Below is the five-paragraph summary of the Lion King again:

Simba, a young lion cub wants to be king of the Pride Lands one day but his uncle Scar will stop at nothing to make sure he’s the king instead. Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa, framing Simba for his death, and exiling the young prince to take the throne for himself. Simba is confronted by the truth that the Pride Lands are suffering under Scar, but he refuses to return to help since he is still feeling guilty over the death of his father. Simba returns to the Pride Lands to confront Scar, but ends up being successfully manipulated by him into confessing his falsely held belief that he is responsible for Mufasa's death to the rest of the pride. Scar confesses to Simba that he killed Mufasa which gives Simba the motivation to finally fight Scar and defeat him for this crime and in doing so, frees the Pride Lands from his tyranny, and rightfully takes the role of king.

I can bet you that if you had never seen the Lion King, reading this summary would not feel anywhere are satisfying as watching the movie. But why? It’s all there? At least the biggest moments in the movie are. As I said before, the biggest payoffs in an audience’s enjoyment can come from the sum of all the parts of the story. In a film, this includes the soundtrack, the acting, the art, the lighting, and the editing: all of it can make or break even the best story. When it comes to a novel, the same is true. You can have the best story, and have it fall flat with shoddy prose, grammar, organization, imagery, or dialogue. But we don’t want to worry about that yet! We are only interested in building the best foundation.

Snowflakes, Disasters, and Cakes, Oh My!

To follow a baking metaphor, right now we are choosing the basic ingredients to bake a cake.

These ingredients and how they are mixed and baked will determine the taste and structure of the cake. Without them, our cake has no chance of being good. These ingredients by themselves are not a finished cake, though. We still need to form it, stack it, and add frosting, and decorations. Those will eventually have a big impact on whether the cake will be a big hit or not, but you can’t put frosting on a plate.


But we aren’t worried about the frosting right now, we just want to know what kind of sponge we will create, and everything else will follow.

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