How do you write a novel when you feel like you have too many options and you don’t know which direction to take?
Julia posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hey Randy, thanks a lot for the Snowflake Method, you are an angel sent from above! I have finally understood the importance of story structure and am eager to apply it to my WIP. However, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with stage 2 because to sumarize the main events in 5 sentences I first need to know what those events are. And unfortunally I suffer from a terrible issue called too many options. I think I might have writer’s commitment issues. I found this is a common trait in my writing, even my undergraduate thesis suffered from it (thankfully I managed to finish that!). Have you got any advice for that? It would save my life.
Randy sez: Thanks, Julia, I’m not often called an angel, and have sometimes been called the opposite, so I appreciate that.
The problem you’re having is a good problem to have—too many options. It means you’ve got a lot of creativity going, and now you’re having trouble settling down and making a decision.
A Review of Three-Act Structure
And you’re stuck on Step 2 of the Snowflake Method. Let’s review that step, just to bring all my blog readers onto the same page. The Snowflake Method is a 10-step method for getting your first draft down on paper. Step 1 is to write a single sentence that summarizes your story.
Step 2 is to expand that sentence out to a full paragraph with five sentences that sketch out the Three-Act Structure of your story, as follows:
- Sentence 1 gives a high-level overview of your lead character and your story world.
- Sentence 2 tells what happens in your first act, ending with a major disaster that will force your lead character to commmit to the story.
- Sentence 3 tells what happens in the first half of the second act, ending with a second major disaster that forces your lead character to completely rethink their approach.
- Sentence 4 tells what happens in the second half of the second act, ending with a third major disaster that forces your lead character to commit to ending the story.
- Sentence 5 tells what happens in the third act—there will be a final showdown and either a victory or a defeat for the lead character.
That’s a lot to expect of one paragraph! It’ll be a long paragraph, for sure, and bristling with ideas.
Breaking The Logjam of Too Many Options
Julia, your problem is that you’ve got too many ideas to get them all into a single paragraph.
That’s OK, really. I generally say that this paragraph should take about one hour to write. So what I’d recommend is that you just write up several paragraphs, each with one possibility for your Three-Act Structure. None of these are etched in stone. They’re just possibilities. You can make up as many as you want. Five or ten, if you’ve got that many possibilities in your head. The first one might take an hour, but after that, the others will probably take ten minutes.
Once you’ve got them all down on paper, let them stew in your mind for a bit. Give yourself a day or two to think about them.
Then choose one to take to the next step in the Snowflake Method. This is not a forever commitment, so choose the one that you think is strongest and run with it for a couple of more steps to see how it flies. If it flies well, then you’re on your way.
If it doesn’t fly so well, you can always come back to Step 2 and pick another path.
The beauty of this approach is that you might waste a few hours going down a wrong path, but you won’t waste five hundred hours writing the full manuscript for a story you’re eventually going to reject.
And also you won’t waste days and days staring at the blank screen, paralyzed by indecision. The Snowflake Method gives you the freedom to try things quickly and fail quickly.
How It Worked Out
I emailed the above suggestion to Julia awhile back. She emailed back not long after to say that she spent a few days and broke the logjam by doing the following:
- She wrote down a long list of all the events she thought should happen in the story. (This is Step 8 in the Snowflake Method).
- Then she pulled out the most important of these events (about 20) and wrote them on Post-It notes.
- Finally, she put the Post-It notes all on a big sheet of paper with three acts marked on it and moved them around until the story seemed right.
That works. And that’s the right way to do it for Julia. Different people have different ways of solving the problem. Whatever works for you is whatever works for you.
As you can see, Julia didn’t actually use my suggestion. She took my core idea (get something down on paper) and riffed in a different direction. And that got her to the solution. Yay!
The important thing is to keep moving forward and to get things down on paper. Once it’s on paper, you have a permanent record. And you can make a copy and revise it. You can do that as many times as you want until you get it the way you want it. That’s what the Snowflake Method is all about.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.