Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X

 

Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Fiction Elements by Genre

In earlier posts I’ve blogged about the various elements of fiction (Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, and Style). I’ve also blogged a bit about the various genres of fiction. Here I thought I’d explore how the various genres emphasize certain elements and de-emphasize others.

For the chart, I used the genres listed in the Wikipedia “List of Genres” entry. As the entry itself points out, people will never agree on this list. Even more contentious will be my rankings in the chart for how much each genre makes use of each fiction element.

Fiction elements vs GenreFor each genre, I assigned my own rough score for each fiction element. I’ve placed the genres in approximate order from the ones emphasizing character and plot more, to the ones emphasizing style and theme more.

Go ahead and quibble about the numbers I assigned. That’s fine. There’s considerable variation within a genre. Also, the percentages of the elements vary over time. If we took one hundred experts in literature and had them each do the rankings, then averaged them, the resulting chart would have more validity than what I’m presenting, which is based on my scoring alone.

But the larger point is that the different genres do focus on different elements of fiction. In my view, character is probably the primary element for all but a few genres. Theme is probably the least important, except for a limited number of genres.

Of what use is such a chart? First, please don’t draw an unintended conclusion. If you happen to know which elements of fiction are your fortes, and which you’re least skilled in, I wouldn’t advise you to choose a genre based on that.

Instead, look at the chart the opposite way. Find the genre in which you’d like to write, and work to strengthen your use of its primary fiction elements in your own work. You might even glance at the genres on either side of your favorite one and consider writing in those genres too.

I can’t seem to find online where anybody else has constructed a chart like mine. Perhaps the only one you’ll see is this one made by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 28, 2014Permalink

Life is But a Theme

Long-time readers of this blog have noted that I’ve explored four of the five components of fiction—character, plot, setting, and style. There’s been quite a clamoring for me to complete the set, and today I’ll do so by discussing theme.

You can think of the theme of a story as the central topic, the universal idea or message, the overall lesson or moral. I’ve said before that all stories are about the human condition and that’s because we choose human themes. Until we deal with other sentient entities, that’s all we really have.

ThemeHere’s another way to think about theme. It’s easy to identify the characters, plot, and setting of a story. Think of those as the ‘real life’ parts of the story, the parts you can visualize with ease. Now imagine key parts of that ‘real life’ getting mapped to a different plane, a place of Platonic ideals. Imagine lines connecting specifics in the story to generalizations in the other plane, concrete items linked to a realm of abstract concepts.

For example, an old woman in a story is linked to the idea of Age itself. A young man going through his first experience of adulthood is linked to the idea of Coming of Age. The growing love between two characters maps to the idea of Falling in Love. You get the idea.

There needn’t be only one theme in a story, and often you can identify more than one. Also, it isn’t necessary for the writer to spell out what the story’s themes are; in fact it’s much better to allow readers to infer them.

Let’s identify some themes in famous literature. Take 1984 by George Orwell. It includes themes such as ever-increasing government control, the loss of individual freedom, and the dangers of advanced technology.

Consider Love Story by Erich Segal. Some of its themes include the idea of opposites being attracted to each other, the sacrifices made for love, the rebellion of a child against his parents, and the notion of love conquering all adversities.

One of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, also contains themes. These include the dangers of advanced technology, aiding the oppressed against oppressors, and the notion that revenge can drive you insane.

Is it possible to write a story without a theme? I’m not sure. Even if the writer has no particular theme in mind, readers and critics can likely discover themes the author didn’t intend, but are nevertheless present.

For a beginning writer who’s overwhelmed by the amount of writing stuff to remember, I suggest concentrating on character, plot, and setting (in that order of importance) without focusing on theme or style as much. Chances are a well-written story will have one or more themes, even if the writer doesn’t consciously strive toward one.

As always, post a comment if you agree, disagree, remain confused, or are just thankful that all five components of fiction have finally been addressed by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Readers on My Mind

Just a few thoughts today about the relationship between writers like you and the readers you aim to delight.  Much of this will sound simplistic, but if you hang with me, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

writer-reader 2Years ago I took a classroom course in communication.  In essence, all communication is an attempt to convey one or more ideas from one mind to another, the trouble being that there are all sorts of filters in between so communication is never perfect.  In the class they asked, “Given that there’s a person transmitting and a person receiving, who is responsible for the quality of the communication?”

It’s not necessarily the transmitter, nor the receiver.  The Zen-like answer they were looking for is you.  Whether you are the transmitter or receiver, you need to strive toward a clear conveyance of the idea from one mind to another.

When we consider writing, it’s different from other forms of communication.  Some forms, like talking, dramatic plays, stand-up comedy, or musical concerts have an advantage in that the receiver is present in the room with the transmitter.  The transmitter gets instant visual feedback about the quality of the communication, allowing her to alter her approach in real-time to improve it.

Obviously that’s not the case with writing.  The writer and reader are almost never present in the same room.  In fact, thanks to the permanence of the medium, the writer need not even be alive when the communication takes place.  The writer gets no immediate feedback from the reader, and certainly cannot adjust the communication on the fly.

So the measure of your success as a fiction writer is how well you transfer emotionally appealing ideas from your mind to the reader’s with minimal loss of clarity.  Using written words alone, you must convey the following things I’ve discussed in earlier blog posts:

It should be apparent, then, that you must keep the reader ever in your mind as you write.  Form a mental picture of someone reading your story.  That clever turn of phrase you’re so proud of—would a reader stumble over it?  That little plot detour you stuck in to show off your knowledge of some arcane fact—will it bore the reader?  You must be willing to sacrifice them all for the reader.

In the end, only readers can determine the quality of your story.  Editors can’t; reviewers can’t.  Certainly you can’t.  Readers are your customers, and the customer is always right.

I mentioned that fiction writers don’t get immediate reader feedback, and that’s true.  However, you will get valuable delayed feedback that is useful for altering your approach in later stories.  This feedback comes in several possible ways:

  • Virtual feedback from the reader you’re imagining as you write, the one looking over your shoulder
  • Feedback from members of your critique group
  • Feedback from an editor
  • Feedback from reviewers
  • Sales figures from your earlier stories

All of these can be useful for improving your writing, making that mind-to-mind communication as clear and enjoyable as possible.  Speaking of feedback, I’d welcome some concerning this blog post, so feel free to comment.  With my mind full of imagined readers, I’m—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

September 8, 2013Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

How to Assemble a Planet

Oh, did you really think you could surf to this blog entry and learn how to design and construct an entire planet?  Well, okay, you were right.  So long as you’re expecting a how-to about fictional planets.

transparent-planetAuthors call this ‘world-building’ and they sometimes use the term ‘world’ in a different sense than the term ‘planet.’  In fiction, the world is not just the physical planet, but its inhabitants, their culture, and their environment too.

In most fiction, it’s not necessary to build a world, since the authors use the present-day (or historical) world we already inhabit.  They can assume readers are familiar with Planet Earth.  Such authors are free to focus on key aspects of Earth that are relevant to their story, to paint a biased picture of our world as seen by the author or one (or more) characters.

But in fantasy fiction or science fiction, it’s often interesting and fun to imagine and create very different worlds from Earth, or a very changed Earth.

Memorable, classic, examples of world-building include (1) Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, (2) the planet Arrakis from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and its sequels, and (3) the strangely-shaped structure of Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld.

If you set out to build a world for your fiction story, what things might you consider?  A partial list includes the particular laws of physics, the solar system, the planet’s size and gravity, configuration of solids and liquids internally and on the surface, the atmosphere, geography, climate, plants, animals, and sentient creatures.  If your world has sentient creatures, then you could consider such things as cultures, languages, religion, art, education, economics, government, law, traditions, taboos, and technology.

Although Wikipedia has an interesting article on World-building, there are two other sites that I found more beneficial:  this one, and this one.  The latter site is run by Melanie Simet, who has come up with four cardinal rules of world-building that I really like, starting with zero:

0.  Be Original.

1.  Don’t distract your reader.

2.  Make your world coherent.

3.  Know at least one level of detail deeper than you need to.

She explains these in more depth on her website, so I won’t repeat those details here.  I would like to emphasize Rule 1, though.  It can be a temptation to get so involved with world-building that you forget it’s just a setting.  Stories are about characters dealing with problems, so don’t give your readers a documentary.

I’m sure this world-building is starting to sound like an awful lot of work, when all you set out to do was write a story.  It can be involved, but it needn’t consume you if you keep Simet’s cardinal rules in mind as you go.  If you write short stories, like me, you don’t have as much need for comprehensive world-building as a novelist would, unless you’re planning a long series of stories set on the same world.

That’s a glimpse at the basics of world-building.  Have fun.  Make your world an interesting one to read about.  Enjoy your taste of God-like power.  If this blog entry has inspired you, and you end up selling your story set in a fascinating new world, please let me know.  Your world could well be visited by—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

February 24, 2013Permalink

Details,Details…

When I said I’d blog about choosing details wisely in writing fiction, I meant it; I just didn’t say how soon I’d get around to it!  Writers often have to describe scenes, characters, or objects in their stories.  Which details do they choose to mention, and why?

First let’s examine some of the things writers try to accomplish in their descriptions:

  • First and foremost, create an image in the reader’s mind
  • Convey the mood and theme of the story
  • Show the attitude, personality, and mood of the point-of-view character
  • Foreshadow a later event
  • Illustrate connections to, or separations from, other scenes, characters, or objects in the story

That seems like a lot to accomplish, a lot of baggage to weigh down a few words.  Partly for that reason, in books written in the Nineteenth Century and earlier, descriptions were long and tedious.  Writers weren’t as selective about details; they threw them all in.  Today’s readers won’t stand for that, so as a modern writer you’ll have to keep your descriptions brief.

Say you’re writing about something or someone and you want to convey the image to the reader’s mind.  How do you choose the details?  Here are some guidelines:

1.  Three is a magic number, as far as the number of details to pick.  Don’t stray too far from it either way.

2.  Specific details beat general ones every time.

3.  Nouns and verbs are better than adjectives, and adjectives are better than adverbs.

4.  Consider using a mind map to mentally play with all the details you can think of, then select the few that best serve your purposes.

5.  You don’t have to gather all the details together in one place, in one solid paragraph.  You can sprinkle some of them around later in the scene; that helps break up the narration and keeps the image fresh in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an exercise you can do to improve your skills in selecting details for your descriptions.  Pick something to describe–the scene out your window, a movie or TV character, a household object.  Now create a mind map filled with key words about your chosen thing.  Next write two description paragraphs, one in a happy mood and one in a sad mood.  Write two more paragraphs, each as if narrated by characters with opposite personalities.  Write another one that contrasts your chosen thing with some other.  Just as no two witnesses describe a traffic accident the same way, using the same details, there are innumerable ways to describe anything.

Let’s analyze how George Orwell described the scene outside a character’s window at the beginning of his novel, 1984.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, big_brother_is_watching_you_by_teabladezz-d20dgysthere seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs…

In addition to giving a concrete image, this certainly conveys mood and theme, and also foreshadows.   I like the contrast between nature (shining sun, blue sky) and man-made items (torn paper, poster flapping, commanding corners).  Well-chosen details.

More practice will increase your skills at picking details to include.  Leave me a detailed comment if you got something out of this blog post.  Knowing the devil is in the details, I’m—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 9, 2013Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Sorry, New Rule. You Can’t Do That!

In the original Star Trek TV series, there’s an episode where Captain Kirk invents a card game called Fizzbin in which he makes up the rules as he goes along.  The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes featured a game called Calvinball which may never be played by the same rules twice.

If you’re a writer of fiction, you might consider yourself to be playing such a game, too.  According to W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  With apologies to the famous novelist, I’d say the game has too many rules to memorize and they change with time, according to the tastes of readers.  Only by playing the game well can you can make money selling books.

You might try to emulate great writers of the past and imitate their writing styles, in an effort to achieve success.  Bad idea.  The rules were different in their time.  Let’s cover some of those former rules.

1.  Take all the time you need to create a vivid description, to ‘paint’  with words.  Writers of the 19th Century and earlier used extensive portrayals to convey the appearance of a scene or character, multi-paragraph descriptions abounding in adjectives.  That worked well in an era without movies or TV, but readers won’t wade through such long-winded descriptions today.

2.  Adverbs exist for a reason; use them.  Authors once used adverbs with abandon. Adverbs modify adjectives or verbs and often end in ‘ly’ like ‘crazily.’  These days it’s considered lazy to use too many adverbs, a sign you didn’t take time to select a powerful enough verb.

3.  Demonstrate your skill as an author in your narrative paragraphs; dialogue only interferes with that.  At one time, fiction was mostly narration, with occasional dialogue.  We’re now in an age of character-driven stories, and readers want characters to talk more.  No long, boring narrative paragraphs, and less narration overall.

4.  Incorporate a rather dull character who needs everything explained to him (even things he already knows); that’s a clever way to explain things to the reader. There was an era when authors could use this technique even if it strained the conversation a bit.  These days, that’s no longer tolerated and there’s even a term for it–As You Know, Bob or AYKB.  AYKB’s are tempting, an easy trap to fall into even if you make every effort to avoid them.

5.  Bring the narrator in as an entity the reader can trust, as one who helps foreshadow future events.  In a bygone past, writers could have the narrator speak directly to the reader.  And now, Gentle Reader, let us discover what Annabel must be thinking about this latest development.  That voice could be used to foreshadow future events in an ominous tone.  Little did Frank know, but his secure life would soon be altered forever.  Understand, it’s still okay to use foreshadowing, but do it with subtlety, and not with the narrator speaking to the reader.  Today that’s referred to as narrative intrusion.

6.  Find clever new ways to express your ideas.  As centuries of writers did this, many of the word combinations they used were so good the first time, they got used again, and re-used many times over.  And became clichés.  Now you don’t get to use those clichés, unless you add some twist on them.  Go think of your own clever word combo that might become a future cliché.  This rule didn’t change, but sorry, you can’t use the same tired clichés.

7.  Ease into your story by introducing the reader to the setting, time period, and major characters before any action occurs.  Readers in those times had nothing to compete with books for entertainment, and had the time to curl up near the fire and read a cozy story by its light.  Times are different.  You must grab your reader by the throat with a first sentence or paragraph that demands attention.  It’s called a hook, and stories without a good one stay un-bought.

So, are you up for a game like Fizzbin or Calvinball?  May the best writer win!  Unfortunately, the game’s rules aren’t known by you or—

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

November 25, 2012Permalink

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

October 28, 2012Permalink