How to Plot and Pants Your Novel

Use What Process Works for You

Plotting Your Novel Using the Snowflake Method

One of the best ways to plot your novel is to use the Snowflake Method, which was developed by Randy Ingermanson. The method mimics the formation of a snowflake by starting with a simple structure. It develops more complicated structures just as a snowflake. Ingermanson’s method outlines ten steps. I’m going to shorten to six and give my modified version.

1. One Sentence Summary

The start of any novel should involve a one sentence summary. This is usually the spark that gives you the idea. When you are asked about your novel you should have a one liner, and I would call this sentence your thesis. It should include two parts with a descriptive subject doing an action. This form mimics James Bonnet’s critique of the Three Act Structure from last week. He argued if a story were to be broken down into parts then it should be only two: a problem (antagonist) and someone (hero) overcoming it. The one sentence for James Cameron’s Titanic:

A woman, born in high society and arranged to marry a man she does not love, falls in love with a poor man on a ship before it sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

This has everything you need to write a book. It has the main character and some details about her, the antagonist or problem, and the crisis at the end. Many books and movies have been made with such a simple premise. Write down your single sentence that would encompass the whole book.

2. One Paragraph Summary

Ingermanson calls for a whole hour to be given to this step in the Snowflake Method. I’m not going to give you a time limit, but you should take that full sentence from above and expand it into a 5 sentence paragraph following the premise: subject doing something. These five sentences will correspond to each of the parts in the three act structure: introduction, inciting event, confrontation, crisis, and resolution. This is the beginning framework of your novel and where I slightly differ from Ingermanson. Still, the point is to go from one sentence to a whole paragraph with a little more detail. No names are mentioned at this point. That will be covered in the next step.

A woman born into a wealthy family boards a ship to America with her parents and betrothed. One night she flees dinner to commit suicide to avoid being married to a wretched man she does not love and is saved by a poor man. The woman must sneak around her parents to be with the man whom she has fallen in love with. The ship begins to sink and the woman must choose between the man she loves, doomed to die, and the man she hates, who would provide her passage from the sinking ship. The woman chooses the poor man and they find a piece of driftwood to float on as the ship goes down, saving her.

This paragraph has all of the major content and plot points. The first sentence introduces the main character, the setting, and the antagonists. The second details her inciting incident and the moment she meets another man signifying the beginning of Act Two. The third sentence summarizes Act Two with the woman spending much time with the other man. Sentence four shows the climax of the story as the woman chooses the poor man and the sinking ship over the wealthy man and life she hates. Finally, the story concluded with the ship going down and the woman is safe on the driftwood.

3. Character Profiles

After you have the general idea of the story with your step two paragraph then you can begin to get into the details of the story. The first detail should be main characters. We know from the summary paragraph there should be a minimum of five characters: the woman protagonist, the betrothed (antagonist), the family (antagonists), and the love interest. I’m counting the family as two characters. Here you can begin to craft their character profiles. The length and breadth of details can be as much as you want or even in bullet point format, but there should be a minimum of items you should cover:

Summary of the Character’s History
Internal Motivations
External Motivations
Character’s Conflict
Character’s Epiphany
Summary of the Character’s Storyline

Ingermanson names these steps differently but their content remains the same. Begin with the character’s name. In the story of Titanic, it is Rose. The character’s history would be a summary of the character’s backstory prior to your book’s opening chapter. The internal motivations of the character should be more abstract. In Rose’s case, it would be to love someone who truly loves her and permission from her parents to marry who she wants. The second motivation is external and more concrete. She wants to be with the poor man, Jack, and to survive the sinking Titanic. These are very real conflicts Rose has to overcome. The conflict(s) stand in the way of the character from obtaining both the internal and external conflicts. Rose has to overcome Cal, her aggressive betrothed as well as the chaos of the sinking ship. The conflict would mean nothing without the epiphany. Your character, in order to be complex, needs to undergo a transformation. She must learn something. For Rose, she learns she would rather die with Jack than live with Cal. The final part is a summary storyline of the character’s actions and plot points throughout the story. Remember to keep this simple. You can expand later in step five. Repeat this step for every major character.

4. Paragraph the Acts

This stage in the Snowflake Method revisits the one paragraph summary with five sentences. It is time to break the one paragraph into five since you have the high-level of the story’s plot, the main characters, and their motivations. Take each sentence and copy it out again. These will act as the headings for each section of your book. Then proceed to write a small paragraph for each section. Some paragraphs will be shorter than others, particularly the first and last. The three in the middle should be larger with the third being the largest as this is where most of the action takes place. I won’t give an example here. You get the idea.

5. More Character Description

For step three, Character Profiles, you wrote a small bullet pointed form. Now expand everything you have onto a whole page per character. Now is the time to be descriptive. Describe what they look like, the clothes the wear, their favorite music (if it pertains to your story), or anything to help build their profile in your head. Next, take their motivations you wrote out as bullet points and expand them. Ask yourself, “Why does my character feel this way?” or “Why does she want this?” There should be a reason for every one of your character.actions. These reasons could stem from the childhood background you just wrote to events that happen in the beginning of the book. If your character’s internal motivation is to see abused foster kids rescued from bad foster homes then it makes sense they could have once been an abused foster child. Do this for all of the step three bullet points and write a physical description for all of your main characters.

5. Whole Pages

Much like step five, you will now take your paragraphs and turn them into whole pages. Go back to each paragraph and write out a minimum of one whole page. You should have a minimum of five pages of story summary when you’re done.

6. Chapters and Scenes

This is the point where I fully deviate from Ingermanson. His final steps are great, but if I spend too much time plotting every-single-little-thing, then I’ll get hung up on the plotting and never actually get to the story.

The next and my final step in plotting is to break down those one page summaries of the story arch into the chapters and possibly scenes of the book. I try not to get too detailed since I am a recovering pantser. Some mystery in developing the plot is important. As Stephen King said, if he’s surprised what happens in the book, then the reader will too. At this point you should have a good idea of where the story begins, who’s involved, who’s the bad guy(s), and how the story ends with one side winning.

When you are constructing your one-page paragraphs, make sure that every chapter and scene is plotted out in relation to your one-page summary. Every word of your summary should reflect your one sentence that you started with. Also, at this point, your one sentence may have changed and that’s okay. Go ahead and change it to reflect what you have brainstormed up until this point. Still, it should always be: characters(s) do(es) something to overcome some opposing force(s). Your character(s) should always be in action.

At the end of this step, you should have small paragraphs of every chapter or even very scene if you want to get into the gritty details. These chapter summaries should include the action(s) your characters(s) take; information they learn about themselves, the world or the enemy; what they attain or lose or friends; and the outcomes of their actions.

If you want to keep going down the Ingermanson rabbit hole then feel free. I’ll post a link to his article at the end. Make sure you finish this one first!


More from Wednesday Writer’s Workshop

Plotting, Pantsing, and the Three Act Structure

How to Get Inspired and Write Your First Book


How to Pants Your Book

“Flying by the seat of your pants” is a viable and effective way to write a book. Don’t let the fact that this section is shorter than the first convince you that pantsing is easier or the quicker way to write a novel because it’s not. I’m a former pantser and I still include some pantsing in my storytelling between the planned plot points. We’ve also seen examples of famous pantsers from bestselling authors like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. Here is what I did and what some other pantsers do to write their books.

One Sentence Summary

I know this was a step in the plotting section but pantsers need this too. You need to have some idea of what you’re doing. I argue that no story is 100% pants. Something in your world sparked [cite best wings in town] your interest. Whether you saw someone at the grocery store and you thought they would make an interesting character or reading about a side plot point in a book and thinking it should be a whole book in itself. You should have your general idea and the journey matters: the character must overcome adversity to achieve something. That’s your story arc.

Character Profile

Character profiles are extremely important when pantsing a story. Pantsed stories rely on the character to drive the action. This is a positive element of pantsing since nothing happens without the characters doing something. Seldom are they victims of the plot, which can happen in plotted books.

Having a detailed and fully discovered character profile will help guide their decisions as you’re writing the story. Stephen King in his book, On Writing, talks about creating a character, putting them in different situations, and seeing how they react. This should be your objective when you’re pantsing. You should know your characters inside and out so no matter what happens they have a reaction or action that goes in conjunction with their personality. This will make sure that they are satisfying to the reader.


When pantsing a novel the main idea is to have your characters constantly moving in and out of action and reaction, which is governed by their characteristics. Something happens in the story then they react and take action against whatever stimulus entered the scene based on their character profiles. You should be looking for chances for your characters to act and react truly as you designed them to be. Your story could take any matter of twists and turns much like King’s Darktower Series, but your characters should stay true to who they are.

There should be a trigger that changes your characters. The main character should learn something at the end of their quest. We read books, watch movies, binge watch whole seasons of TV shows, and try to do something outside of themselves in hopes the main character becomes a better person. Your readers want to see growth. With a firm grasp of who your characters are you should make sure they slightly change in your book.

What Works for You

No matter whether you are a plotter or pantser, there still must be a method to the writing process. Learn what works for you and even try to do the other method you may not be used to. There are many different ways to plot and to pants. These are the two that work for me. Experiment and try what works for you.


Thank you for reading this installment of Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. Please like, share on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ if you liked it. You can follow me, Ryan A. Ross, on Twitter @ryanthebossross. Don’t forget to check out the Archives, there’s a lot of great stuff including the Daily Download and Friday Fiction Breakdown.

Please comment below on things you would like to see me explain How To write.

The question of the day: What’s your method of plotting or pantsing? Please comment below.

Randy Ingermanson’s article on the Snowflake Method.

Featured Image Credit


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