in Writing

The snowball method of writing stories

While mindlessly browsing the web this morning, I happened this 15-year-old comment at AskMetafilter. It is, in essence, a description of what I’m going to call “the snowball method” for writing a story.

Why snowball? Because the writing process builds upon itself, gaining size and speed as the work progresses. Here’s the entire comment from /u/unSane (with some editing by me to make it read more easily):

Context: I’m a professional screenwriter. I wrote the movie SYLVIA. The following works for me. I’m not saying it will work for anything else.

Start with three sentences representing the beginning, middle and end of your story:

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Woman buys house. House turns out to be haunted. Woman defeats ghosts.

Those are dumb examples but you get the idea.

You already have a finished story. You just need to expand it now. You expand it by doing the exact same thing. Take each sentence and expand it into three sentences.

So, you write the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, and the end of the beginning. Thus, boy meets girl becomes:

Family moves house. Boy is lonely. Boy meets girl who is next-door-neighbor.

Or whatever.

You know where I am going with this next, right? You keep doing the beginning/middle/end thing over and over again.

Family moves house becomes:

Boy lives with parents. Parents divorce. Boy forced to move with mother to new town.

And so on. Pretty soon you have every event in your story mapped out. Then you can write it for real. In fact, you will discover that you have already written most of it.

The great, huge virtue of this is that you always have a finished story, and you are just filling it out. Of course sometimes things change, and at a certain point you just write, forgetting about the top-down thing… but it’s like scaffolding that you can eventually discard.

I’ve used this for every script I’ve ever written.

Serious writing is a serious business, like building a house. You don’t expect a builder to just get out of bed and start building.

This snowball writing method appeals to me. I think this is primarily because this isn’t how I work. I’m a professional writer, but almost zero percent of my work is planned top-down like this. Mostly, I just start writing and I see where things take me.

That’s what I’m doing right now. It’s what I did last year. It’s what I did yesterday.

(When I started writing yesterday’s post, it was about my recent fascination with mid-century modern homes. I have some strong opinions on the subject. But while researching and writing that post, I discovered Japandi design, and ultimately that’s what I wrote about.)

But I can’t help but wonder if taking a top-down approach to writing wouldn’t help me be more productive and more effective at communication. This snowball method of writing sounds like a great way for me to experiment with top-down writing.

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