Why You’ll Love the Snowflake, Too

The snowflake I’m blogging about today doesn’t have much to do with winter weather, but instead a writing method developed by author Dr. Randy Ingermanson.  I won’t go through his method here, since he does a much better job describing it on his site than I could, but I’ll just discuss why I like it and why I think you will, too.

First, a snowflake is a good metaphor for a story (no two alike, many quite intricate and beautiful), but that’s not how Dr. Ingermanson means it.  He’s referring to the mathematical fractal construction that starts with a simple shape, adds to the shape according to certain rules, and beautiful complexity emerges, with the final shape looking like a snowflake.

In the same way, he’s suggesting you start with very basic ideas about your story, then add to those ideas in a logical manner, building more detail with each step.  Near the end of his ten-step process, you’ve got a thorough plan for your story.  The tenth step is to write the story, which is much easier when you have your plan in front of you.  You’ll find you don’t get stuck as often, or frustrated at boxing yourself into a plot situation your characters can’t get out of, at least without major changes.

I’ve discussed earlier how plot, characters, and setting have to fit together such that the story couldn’t really take place with any other characters, and the plot actions seem both inevitable and surprising, and the setting is the necessary one for the story.  Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method makes this happen for you, by incrementally developing plot, characters, and setting, starting with sketchy concepts and adding more detail to each in turn until you end up with a comprehensive plan for your story and everything seems to fit.

How do I use the Snowflake Method?  First, I’ve been writing short stories, and the Snowflake is intended for novels, so I abbreviate it a bit, sometimes using mind maps for some of the steps instead of writing them out fully.  Second, I add a step concentrating just on the story’s hook, the opening sentence and paragraph.  Third, I sometimes add a step to construct a motivation chart using a modified Root Cause Analysis chart to make sure my characters take believable actions in accordance with their personalities.

One downside to the Snowflake is the fact that it requires so much time for planning the story, and actually writing it must wait until the last step.  Meantime, your muse may be screaming at you to cease all this planning stuff and get on with things.  A screaming muse is actually good, much better than what comes next.  If your muse starts feeling ignored, she will get bored and go away, or start looking for other story ideas to intrigue her.  So keep thinking of the Snowflake as a method for getting to know your story better and better, not as a dreary planning exercise.  Focus on the emerging details; promise your muse that you’ll be doing actual writing soon.

Dr. Ingermanson has come up with software to make the Snowflake Method easy and fun.  Cheapskate that I am, I have not yet purchased it, but that package might be right for you, especially if you are struggling to accomplish the steps using word processors and spreadsheet programs.

Consider giving the Snowflake Method a try.  Visit Dr. Ingermanson’s site.  Whether it works for you or not, I’m sure he’d like to hear about your experiences with it.  And of course, if you’d click on the “leave a comment” link below, so would—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 28, 2012Permalink

The Modular Author

I’ve written before about the conflict between the way readers want authors to be, and the way authors’ muses want them to be.  Now I’ll carry those thoughts forward to conclusion.

As a reminder, readers want you (as an author) to be consistent in genre and style so when they pick up one of your books, they know what they’re getting and aren’t surprised.  On the other hand, writers’ muses are creative and get bored with sameness; they’re always seeking something new and different; it’s always possible for an author’s ideas to run dry, and that’s another reason for writing in several genres.

There’s a conflict, a disconnect, between the desires of the people in each camp.  I think it’s a little much to expect readers to change.  They’re the customer, after all, and the customer is always right.

One possible answer is the use of pen names, also called nom de plumes or pseudonyms.  There are many other reasons you might use one, but we’ll just discuss one today.  The idea is to create a persona, an alter ego, another version of yourself.   The author going by that fictitious name is a specialist in a particular genre, a specific type of story.  That’s that persona’s brand.

A downside of pen names these days results from (1) our lives being recorded on the Internet to a great degree, and (2) readers’ desire to know their favorite authors in as personal a way as possible.  Those facts make it difficult to prevent people from finding out the real author behind the pen name.  Authors these days are expected to have their own websites, with their picture and a list of future appearances; some of those things might be difficult for a nom de plume to pull off.  Further, curious and persistent readers even go to the extent of analyzing writing to determine if two apparently different authors are really one person.

But to dismiss these disadvantages for a moment, are we headed for an end state where most authors actually have multiple names, several personas, each cranking out stories according to his or her particular brand?  That would seem to please both authors and readers.  This was foreseen, in a way, by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock.  After observing the increasing number and amount of temporary, throw-away material products, Toffler introduced the concept of the “Modular Man,” a disposable person.  In the future, all people would form several personas, try them out, and discard them as they please.

Is the literary world now reaching Toffler’s future?  What if you created a separate name under which you wrote romances, another name for horror, and one more for science fiction.  For each name, there would be a website for which you wrote blogs and connected with curious readers by e-mail.  Perhaps with some photo manipulation you could get away with posting pictures of these ‘virtual authors.’  Some of them might be male, others female–in fact all of them might be the opposite gender from your real one.  Each one could write stories and blog entries in a different style according to their various personalities.

Difficult?  As a fiction author, you’re used to creating multiple and varied people.  The only difference here is you’re not creating characters in stories; you’re creating other versions of yourself, where each version is an author.  One or more of those versions could be quite outrageous, edgy, and controversial.  Why not?

As of today (so far as you know) I have not plunged into that future/present to any significant extent.  I’m sure others already have.  As for the one who signs my blog entries, that’s really a job title, not a name.  It is my attempt at an alternate persona, my nod at creating a modular author.  Leave a comment and let me know if you would like to have a portfolio of alternate writing personas, if you do it already, and how many such modular authors you maintain.  Though it’s not really me, but kind of is, I’m—

                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe


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October 21, 2012Permalink

Character, Plot, or Setting—Which Comes First?

Today’s question is about whether story-writers think about characters, plot, or setting when they first conceive the idea for a story.  If you’ve written fiction, or thought about doing so, which did you start with?

Of these three story elements, perhaps character is most important to the reader.  For readers, vivid and interesting characters linger in the memory long after plot or setting details fade.  Some writers form a complete mental image of one or more characters, and then wonder what to have them do, and where to have them do it.

For other authors, the first image is of a setting.  The scenery is sharp and distinct in their minds.  Perhaps they have a photograph or painting to inspire them, and they decide to craft a tale around that image.  Some story contests use pictures to prompt stories.

Still others think of the action or story-line or basic situation first.  Only after that do they wonder what sort of people should take those actions and where the events should take place.

The image is my attempt to illustrate some of the possibilities graphically.

I’m talking here only about the initial impetus for the story.  That’s not what the readers reads.  In the end, the story must form a complete, coherent, integral whole.  Characters, plot, and setting should fit together and complement each other.  This is especially true of characters and plot.  In a sense, plot and character determine each other.  In a well-written tale, those are the only characters for which the plot makes sense, and vice versa.  You can’t take any characters at random and fit them in any situation.

I doubt there is any right answer to my question about which element writers should think of first.  I’d be shocked to learn if the greatest writers all started with the same element, but I suspect we’ll never know.

I considered the question with respect to my own short stories, and thought at first I had some stories in each category.  Then I reflected on each tale one by one and discovered I had thought of plot first in almost every case.  There were three stories in which the plot immediately determined the characters.  In “Alexander’s Odyssey” and “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the characters were historical or mythological figures.  In the case of “The Steam Elephant,” my sequel to a pair of Jules Verne novels, the characters had been established by Verne.

The single exception to my usual practice of dreaming up a plot first is my story, “Against All Gods,” and I must admit I thought of the setting first there.  I’d wanted to set a story aboard a trireme for some time, and also the Wonders of the Ancient World, so I started with those and conjured up a plot and characters to fit those settings.

Not that it matters to readers, who only see your finished product, but which do you think of first—characters, plot, or setting?  Let me know by leaving a comment.  It’s a question of interest to—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe



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October 14, 2012Permalink

Is Fiction Dialogue Different from Plain Old Yakking?

Dialogue through verbal speech is as important to your fictional characters as it is to us flesh-and-blood folks, though for somewhat different reasons.  For both fictional and real people, speaking is the most common form of communication, and communication is, of course, not only vital but is something we humans do a lot.

However, real people engage in spoken dialogue for only a few reasons, and among them are:

  • to inform
  • to persuade
  • to establish a relationship
  • to argue
  • to direct or command

When our fictional characters talk, it is for these reasons, too, but also several more.  This is due to the difference in their situation.  For example, we often speak ‘off the cuff’ without much preparation or forethought; characters never do that, though they seem to.  Characters only exist due to the efforts of an entity called a ‘writer,’ of whom they are unaware.  They exist solely for the benefit and enjoyment of another entity called a ‘reader,’ of whom they are also unaware.  So dialogue between characters also serves these purposes:

  • to set the scene; that is, help the reader ‘see’ the scene
  • to establish a character’s personality
  • to advance the plot by introducing or heightening the conflict
  • to create suspense or add tension
  • to remind the reader of previous events or characters
  • to foreshadow future events
  • to provide easy-to-read ‘white space’ in between narration paragraphs

Most of the time, fictional dialogue is accomplishing many of these functions at once.  That might seem a daunting task for the beginning writer, and you may be wondering how you’ll ever write dialogue that does so much.  As an author not too far removed from beginner status, all I can say is, I’m told the task gets easier with practice, like any good habit.

Now that we’ve covered the differences in purpose, let’s cover the differences in form between real and fictional dialogue.

  • In the first place, fictional dialogue is less dull.  As much as we try not to be dull in real life, much of our conversation is, frankly, boring.  Fiction can’t afford to be dull, so leave out all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of real speech.  Cast out all the little pleasantries like ‘how are you doing?’ ‘fine,’ etc.  Ever notice fictional characters rarely say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye?’ Now you know why.
  • Fictional characters shouldn’t have as strong an accent as real people, at least as it’s depicted in written dialogue.  Whether your character is from the deep South, New England, or speaks English with a strong foreign accent, don’t attempt to replicate every word by spelling it as your character would pronounce it.  Just do that with a couple of words per sentence at most.  Your readers’ imaginations will do the rest, and you don’t want to make it difficult for them to decipher your prose.

And that’s it.  In other words, fictional dialogue isn’t too different from everyday speaking, at least on the surface.  If it were significantly different, readers wouldn’t find it believable.  It’s only beneath the surface where fictional dialogue serves purposes beyond what’s going on in real conversation.   Here are three links to great articles giving helpful guidance about fictional dialogue:  here, here, and here.

“Hope you enjoyed my blog entry on how dialogue is different from plain old yakking.  Feel free to leave a comment whether you agree or disagree,” said—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe



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