Tag Archives: Snowflake Method

Novel Planning #1 – Chapters

Back in February (wow, February, almost pre-pregnancy), I posted about my intention to produce a series of planning-related posts. Since then, other things have got in the way, and now it’s October, the time when lots of writers are planning their NaNoWriMo novels, so it seems like time to revive that idea. And as I have 5 possible suggestions for planning, I’m going to publish one a day for the next week. If you prefer to write without planning, these posts are unlikely to be for you, but you might still find something of interest for editing and redrafting stages. I’d love to hear what you think about any of these methods; or other planning techniques that have worked for you!

I posted a long time ago about the snowflake method. This first method of the week is similar, but slightly less time-consuming. It features our old favourites: the Beginning, Middle and End.

Step 1: One sentence story

Many planned novels start with a single sentence premise, or a question, or a hypothesis. What would happen if…? This is the single sentence story. It contains nothing close to everything, and may not even be a spoiler. I was reading today, for example about the plot of the film Hook, which apparently came about when the writer’s kids asked him “What would happen if Peter Pan grew up?”

Step 2: One paragraph about each of the beginning, middle and end.
These paragraphs don’t have to be long, but they should give you an idea of where the story is going. The paragraph about the End should definitely include a spoiler – what happens? What’s your resolution?
For Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, a condensed version of Step 2, might look something like this:
    Beginning: Luke Skywalker wants to be a famous and heroic Jedi Knight. He buys a droid which holds a strange message addressed to Obi Wan Kenobi. He takes the message to OWK and when he gets home, finds his farm and family destroyed. The two men set out on a quest to help the beautiful Princess who sent the message.
    Middle: There’s an evil force ruling the galaxy known as the Empire – lead by the Emperor, but his right-hand man is the cruel and powerful Darth Vadar. Good is represented by the Rebels, led by Princess Leia (of the message in part 1). She and Luke must join together, with rogue pilot Han Solo to fight the Empire.
   End: The message contains plans for the Death Star, the Empire’s big and scary weapon. The Rebels launch a campaign to destroy the Death Star, but it all proves to be harder than it looked and many pilots die. Ultimately, Luke is one of few remaining pilots but the enemy forces are upon him. Han reappears, destroys the enemy ships and Luke manages to blow up the Death Star. Everyone celebrates the victory.
Step 3: Expand the middle to the 3 (or more) major events which take place in the middle of the story. Give each one a paragraph of its own.
It’s a myth that stories divide into thirds. If you look at the beginning, middle and end model, the beginning and end will probably each take up maybe a tenth of the final novel, possibly not even that. The bulk of the story, and the place where a lot of writers suffer from writer’s block (or a bad case of tangentitis) is in the middle. Many people who write without a plan know where they want the story to start (Luke has to leave home and become a Jedi Knight) and end (Good conquers evil), but they don’t really know how to get from A to B, or how to put enough interesting obstacles in the way to make a good story.
This method recognises that plotting is mostly about the middle, and gives it a lot of attention. Think about various challenges the characters are going to come across in getting from the beginning to the end. Make each one different and ideally escalating. Perhaps some of internal challenges (the main character feels like giving up) and some are external (he comes across a difficult obstacle or a new enemy).
Even a pretty basic novel will need at least three of these challenges, most will need many more. If in doubt, add more not less – you can always take them out once you start writing. For each obstacle, include how it comes about and how the main characters overcome it.
Step 4: Work out roughly how many chapters each part (beginning, middle 1, middle 2, middle 3, end) needs and write one sentence (or very short paragraph) for each chapter.
The chances are, once you start writing, this portion will largely go out of the window. It’s hard to plan chapters in advance, and I feel it hampers the writing a lot. So if you prefer, stop after Step 3. However, if you do go ahead and write a chapter plan, it will help prevent writer’s block and of course it doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to the plan once you come to write.
If you do use Step 4, I suggest you stick to short descriptions for each chapter, along the lines of an old-fashioned Jerome K Jerome heading: “In which Luke first meets Yoda”, rather than trying to plot out the whole chapter in detail.

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Planning 101

As promised, in previous posts (see https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/planning-by-the-seat/), I’m going to try to lay some groundwork here about the planning process for writers who choose to plan in advance. I am not advocating planning as the only method of writing, but when the project is big, or time-pressured, or simply when the writer has a good idea in advance of where the story is going, it can help to get that down on paper before the writing starts in earnest.

Today’s post is about Plot planning, there are other kinds of planning which I’ll deal with another time.

Some of these ideas are based on what is known as the Snowflake Method, which you can read about in more detail here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Stage 1: Elevator Pitch

When the novel(1) is finished, the writer may want to pitch it to a publisher, agent or editor. But even from the beginning, it’s a great idea to have a clue vision of the basic premise of the story. Ideally, we’re going for no more than 25 words and a single sentence.

EG “An old woman looks back at a love affair from her youth and the disaster which separated her from her lover forever.”(2)

Stage 2: Paragraph Pitch

This stage is in many ways just a part of Stage 1. The idea is to expand the single sentence pitch into a paragraph, but it’s still very much a pitch. It will still leave the reader guessing about a huge number of things. It shouldn’t be more than about 100 words and 4 or 5 sentences. It will start to identify the themes and focus points of the novel.

EG “Four boys facing challenges in their daily lives, learn the location of a body in the woods. Set out on foot to see it, but a rival group of older boys is heading the same way. On their journey, the heroes face experiences and dangers which test not only their friendship but their own strengths and personalities. The boys who find the body are not the ones who set out to look for it. This coming of age drama tells the story of childhood friendships and innocence on the verge of discovery.”

Stage 3: Paragraph Story

This is where the plotting really starts. Stages 1 and 2 did little more than identify the  themes and ideas. They were deliberately vague and enticing, but this is the time when that stops. From Stage 3 onwards, the plan is not for the eyes of anyone except the writer. It absolutely should contain spoilers and answers to the questions the first two stages raised. This paragraph should be around the same length as the previous one, but this time be clearly plot driven. The first sentence should deal with the opening scenes, the last sentence with the ending, and the middle of the paragraph three key events that happen in between.

**SPOILER ALERT: This example contains spoilers for a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard.**

EG: “A 19th century village, surrounded by woods populated by scary monsters that keep the inhabitants trapped in their otherwise idyllic lifestyle. A young couple falls in love, but a mentally handicapped boy who had hoped to marry the girl himself stabs the lover repeatedly in the chest. The girl’s only hope of saving her fiance is to travel through the woods to the nearby town to get medicine. Giving his blessing, her father admits to her that the monsters are not real, created by the elders of the village to protect its inhabitants from straying to the tempting but dangerous town. When she travels to the town, the girl realises that she and the villagers have in fact been living in a secret enclave in modern America, set up by the elders to escape the dangers and excesses of 21st century society.”

Stage 4: Expansion

From here, the process is simply one of expansion. Each sentence in that paragraph can be turned into a paragraph of its own. Each of these new paragraphs into a page, and so on. In some ways, this process could be repeated forever until the story was novel-length, but it is my view that to do so would be to create a much flatter story than is possible by writing more organically. Therefore once I have a collection of about 25 scenes, I tend to stop and write from scratch, using this plan as no more than a guideline. I might add in more scenes, or flesh some out more than others, depending on the flow of the writing and the scenes which lend themselves more to tension or action.

Taking the example above, this film incorporates a huge amount of set up; the first sentence alone takes up something like half the length of the film, with the second sentence creeping in and taking up most of the rest. The third and fourth are brushed over relatively quickly and then the final sentence is the denouement and ties together all the threads that have been spun out by elements either only hinted at or not mentioned in this summary.

Expansion is over when the writer says it is. They may do little more than chapter headings, or they may write a page or two of notes for each chapter. They may even not break the book into chapters until after it is written.

 

Footnotes:
1: For convenience, I’m referring to the story / work as a novel. This could equally apply to a shorter story, a memoir or whatever piece of creative writing is being carried out. I’m not sure it works so well for non-fiction, but I imagine it is quite easily modified to do so.
2: Feel free to play the game of identifying the famous books or movies I’m using for my examples.

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