An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Planning Using the Snowflake Method
I've studied the art of storytelling over the years, and I'm always interested in learning new ways of doing things. A couple of years before I started on Absolution, I picked up a book by Randy Ingermanson titled How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. When Zarina gave me the opportunity to write something that would play out in real life, I thought it was the perfect time to try the method Randy presented in his book on something other than a novel.
Now, this wasn't the first time I used the Snowflake Method. I tried it out on another project and was happy with the results, and even found a few of my own tweaks to his system that worked better for me. For Absolution, I think it worked out quite well, so I'm going to walk you through what I did with it.
To begin, here's the basic idea behind the Snowflake Method, as taken from the description of Randy's book: a battle-tested series of ten steps that jump-start your creativity and help you quickly map out your story.
You can read more about this, including a detailed breakdown of the steps, right here on Randy's website. The idea is to do the planning upfront before you start writing scenes so that you don't have to clean everything up later.
There are plenty of methods people use to write, and each of them has its own pros and cons, but I chose The Snowflake Method for Absolution and stuck to it.
Here are the ten steps, greatly simplified:
- Single sentence synopsis. Write a one-sentence summary.
- Paragraph synopsis. Expand the one-sentence summary into a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel.
- Character summaries. For each major character, write a one-page summary sheet.
- One-page synopsis. Expand each sentence from step #2 into a full paragraph.
- Character synopses. Write a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters.
- Four-page synopsis. Expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis.
- Full character charts. Expand character synopses, detailing everything there is to know about each character.
- Scene list spreadsheet. Turn the four-page synopsis into a spreadsheet detailing every scene.
- Narrative description. Optional—expand each line from the scene list spreadsheet into a multi-paragraph description of the scene.
- Write the first draft. Exactly what it says.
Going into Absolution, I already had used the Snowflake Method and came up with a few deviations from Randy's formula that I found worked better for me. Note that, while the steps are linear, the method actually has you going back to previously completed steps and revising them as you discover more about your story.
"Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.
― Bruce Lee, Wisdom for the Way
Also, having used the method already, I knew where I needed to compress things to get the whole project done in such a short amount of time. What follows are the completed assets I created from the Snowflake Method. I've noted where I deviated from Randy's method and why. For anyone considering writing, I'd highly recommend How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson as an addition to your collection of writing studies. He has several other books, all of which are excellent.
Absolution Steps Using the Snowflake Method
1) Single sentence synopsis.
An ancestral grudge is about to unleash a terrible curse on an innocent young woman as she races to discover the truth to save her own life and humanity.
Sound familiar? It's the same line from the Absolution Table of Contents, the very first thing you read about this story.
2) Paragraph synopsis.
I deviated in step two and created a three-act outline to quickly identify areas that could be used as key puzzles for Zarina to solve. Had I been writing a traditional novel instead of an immersive story, I wouldn't have done this and instead would have simply written the paragraph. If I hadn't been under the extreme time constraint, I may also not have deviated here.
Three Act Outline
- Act 1. The Setup. Amon sends Zarina notes from her ancestor's journal. Amon gets attacked.
- Act 2. Confrontation. Zarina discoveres the truth. Delilah dies.
- Act 3. Showdown. Zarina prepares for the full moon. Does she survive? Does she break the curse?
3) Character summaries.
- Role: Heroine
- Motivation: To live life to the fullest.
- Goal: Figure out what is going on, who to trust, and how to protect herself.
- Conflict: She doubts she has the skills necessary to solve the mystery.
- Epiphany: Zarina learns to trust herself and that there are reliable friends in her life that she can call upon when she's in need.
- Summary: Zarina recently moved to Denver, Colorado. Her 25th birthday is coming, and she hopes to have a good one. She hasn't had many surreal adventures in her life or friends that were insane enough to put them for her to safely explore. She grew up in the South, but not once in her life has she ever even been shot at. Can you even imagine? Not even once.
- Role: Collaborator
- Motivation: To uncover the mysteries of the past.
- Goal: To help Zarina unravel her family’s past and protect her from harm.
- Conflict: Amon is torn between living a quiet life as a researcher and putting the historical information he uncovers to use.
- Epiphany: Amon learns that some knowledge can be dangerous and that he should exercise caution for the sake of his own personal safety.
- Summary: Amon finds an Italian journal written by Deacon Giovanni Rosiello in the 17th century. He thinks it is an important historical discovery and finds and contacts a descendant of Giovanni, Zarina Rosiello, to inform her of the exciting discovery. While working on his translations, he uncovers a bizarre encounter between Deacon Rosiello and a strange woman. After a tip from Delilah, Amon and Zarina discover a pattern of mayhem centered around the Rosiellos. They discover that the strange woman encountered by Deacon Rosiello placed a bloodline curse on the family so that Giovanni and certain descendants would become werewolves. He puts his own safety in jeopardy while helping Zarina uncover the truth and break the curse.
- Role: Sympathizer/Turncoat
- Motivation: To fulfill her duty as a Horvat and keep up the family traditions.
- Goal: Her first goal is to do what her grandfather asks of her. After finding out that he is hurting other people, her goal changes. Her changed goal is to help Zarina in any way she can without outwardly defying her family.
- Conflict: Delilah feels obligated to her family until she discovers that her grandfather is hurting innocent people. She is torn between turning on her family to protect the innocent and her own personal safety.
- Epiphany: Delilah realizes that her grandfather is violent, unreasonable, and stubborn. She decides that protecting the innocent is more important to her than unquestioning loyalty to her family.
- Summary: Delilah's family emigrated from Slovenia to the United States in the early 1900s. Delilah grew up in Slovenia and moved to Pepper Pike, OH, when she was a teenager. She has always loved riddles and is very artistic, especially with charcoal. Delilah has an uncle, Robert, living in Pueblo, Colorado, that she plans on staying with for a while as she explores the idea of moving to Colorado. Also, she drops a curse on Zarina, thinking it's fake. Sadly, for both her and Zarina, it's not. She ends up dead when she goes against her grandfather Gregor in an attempt to help Zarina.
Gregor Mendel Horvat
- Role: Villain
- Motivation: To make the Rosiellos miserable for what they did to his ancestor.
- Goal: Test his granddaughter’s loyalty to the family by asking her to set the current generation’s curse into motion on the Rosiellos.
- Conflict: Gregor doesn't think his granddaughter will rise to the occasion and carry out the family tradition.
- Epiphany: <<None>>
- Summary: Gregor is about to travel to Colorado to set the curse into motion when he hears that his granddaughter, Delilah, is planning on traveling there. He decides to save himself from the travel and test Delilah's loyalty to the family. Gregor gives her the necessary materials and information to set the curse into motion but doesn't tell her about the curse. After Gregor finds out that Delilah has been asking questions about how to break the curse, he goes into a fit of rage and drives non-stop from Cleveland to Denver. On the way, he calls his nephew Robert to find out where she is staying. Sleep-deprived and disgusted at his granddaughter's lack of familial loyalty, he resolves to make an example of her. Gregor breaks into Delilah's hotel room while she is on the phone and kills her.
- Role: Minor character, sympathetic to Delilah
- Motivation: To live out a quiet life in Pueblo, Colorado.
- Goal: To provide a place for Delilah to stay while she explores the idea of moving to Colorado. To make sure Delilah knows that Gregor is dangerous.
- Conflict: After hearing that Delilah was given a family task to perform by Gregor, Robert is concerned about her safety. He’s also terrified of Gregor and wants nothing to do with him.
- Epiphany: <<None>>
- Summary: Robert is Gregor's nephew. Robert's father (Gregor's brother) made sure to keep him away from Gregor while he was growing up. His father always used to tell him stories about the bad part of the family (like the family members Gregor took a liking to), and, as a result, Robert stayed far away from them.
- Role: Misunderstood by Ksenija. Progenitor of wolves.
- Motivation: Serve the Lord and spread the word of God.
- Goal: To do good on behalf of God, the parishioners of Naples, and be a good deacon for Santa Chiara.
- Conflict: Naples is quickly growing, and many immigrants from surrounding countries are seeking refuge from ongoing wars. Giovanni is fearful of strangers and only speaks Italian. He genuinely wants to help the refugees but doesn’t speak any of their languages.
- Epiphany: He really needs to learn to speak more than just Italian. Oops.
- Summary: Giovanni was brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic family in Italy during the early 1600s. He was taught to both fear and love God. He took to the Roman Catholic religion and found his calling as a deacon for Santa Chiara. One night, he has an unfortunate run-in with a woman who needs help. They have a horrible misunderstanding, and the woman curses him and the entire Rosiello family for all of eternity.
- Role: Misunderstood Giovanni. Origin of the curse.
- Motivation: To provide a good life for her two children.
- Goal: To find a safe place to raise her two children.
- Conflict: Ksenija simply to wants escape from her war-torn homeland and get to Naples, Italy, to raise her children. Her journey to Naples is full of tragedy, and when she arrives in Naples, she is violently turned away from God’s house by a cruel servant of Him.
- Epiphany: She knows that God is perfect. She learns that men who serve God are sinful, and she takes it upon herself to punish them.
- Summary: Ksenija was raised Roman Catholic. Ksenija and her husband lived on the outskirts of Ljubljana, Slovenia, where they had two boys, twins. Her husband fell victim to the ongoing wars in her home country of Slovenia. After his death, she travels to Naples, Italy, with her young twin boys. She's heard that Naples welcomes refugees and thinks it would be a safe place for her children to grow up. Her journey to Naples is full of tragedy, and when she arrives, she's turned away from a church by Giovanni Rosiello. With her last bit of strength, she curses Giovanni and his descendants.
4) One-page synopsis.
I ended up writing about a page and a half story synopsis that also identified key puzzles for Zarina to solve. Here it is: Absolution Synopsis.
5) Character synopses.
I thought I had pretty decent synopses already from step #3, so I decided to wait until step #7 (full character charts) to expand them.
6) Four-page synopsis.
I decided to skip this step as I didn't think it was necessary for this particular story.
7) Full character charts.
I had a lot of fun making these, especially Zarina's—because she's a real person. She got to see all of these after the immersive story was completed. The full character charts below are the result of expanding step #3 (character summaries) into every detail I needed to write the first draft. Of course, you're seeing the finished product, which includes changes I made after I began writing the first draft. However, most were minor tweaks, and there weren't any big pieces missing after I completed this step. These full character charts all follow the same template, which I created myself, taking advice from Randy and a few other sources.
- Character Chart for Zarina Rosiello
- Character Chart for Amon Nagi
- Character Chart for Delilah Horvat
- Character Chart for Gregor Mendel Horvat
- Character Chart for Robert Horvat
- Character Chart for Giovanni Rosiello
- Character Chart for Ksenija Horvat
8) Scene list spreadsheet.
I didn't do this because I wanted it to feel more like a play instead of a novel. So, instead, I created a "program." (See step 10.)
9) Narrative description.
I skipped this step as I didn't think it would add anything to what I already had.
10) Write the first draft.
This is where it all came together as a full story. I wrote the "program." My spouse Tae served as my editor and her watchful eyes ensured that my late night pounding away at the keyboard had continuity and no plot holes. Using the Snowflake Method for planning, I already knew so much about my story before I wrote the first draft, that hammering it out was fairly straightforward.
Here's a sample, which also served as the plan of execution for the immersive story:
I didn't include the full plan, as you've already seen it if you read through Absolution—the program really was exactly what you saw, missing only Zarina's parts because I didn't know how she would respond. Surprisingly, I didn't have to make any adjustments based on her responses.