Mapping out a novel with Manuskript and the snowflake method

Plan Your Epic

Article from Issue 262/2022

The Manuskript editor is all you need to jump start your next writing project.

Have you ever wanted to write a novel, an essay, or anything more complex than a school report? In this tutorial, I explain a technique for organizing your writing project efficiently: the snowflake method. I'll also introduce you to Manuskript [1], a multi-platform, open source tool you can use for implementing the snowflake method for your own writing work, made to order for it. The goal of Manuskript is to help writers "create their first draft and then further refine and edit their masterpiece."

The snowflake method, which was created by Randy Ingermanson, sits in the middle between adhering to a complete, traditional outline and "freewriting," or deliberately writing without any plan, which can facilitate discovery but is also sometimes very unproductive.

Details and tips about the snowflake method are available online [2] [3], but the concept is extremely simple: Start with a really basic story summary and add little elements to it in a circular, incremental way, just like particles of ice attach to each other to form complex snowflakes. In other words, start by writing down the basic idea of the book, then the main character or characters, and then the setting – using just one sentence for each entry.

Then you go back to the description and transform it into three very short paragraphs that outline the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Next you write equally short descriptions of each main character, or add minor ones, then expand the description of the setting in the same way, adding details to every description until you have all you need to actually write your story.


As of May 2022, Manuskript is still under extensive development, with its website officially recommending that users "create frequent backups to minimize data loss due to software bugs, power outages, or hardware failure."

Installation is easy. On Ubuntu and Debian-based systems, you can download the binary package in .deb format, and then install it from your file manager or, in the worst case, from a shell prompt, with the following commands:

sudo apt update
sudo dpkg -i manuskript-0.13.1-1.deb

Packages in .rpm, Flatpak, and Snap formats are also available, as well as installers for non-Linux systems.

Main Features and Workflow

Unless you tell Manuskript to always reopen the last project you worked on, the first thing you see when you start it is the pop-up window shown in Figure 1, from which you can choose among several templates for both fiction and nonfiction works. After that, you are expected to configure the structure of the book and optionally the target word count for every section, as shown in Figure 2. Of course, you may add or remove sections as you wish later on.

Figure 1: Manuskript supports both fiction and nonfiction projects, all customizable.
Figure 2: The first step in writing a book with Manuskript is to estimate the number of chapters and word count.

The left toolbar in Figures 3 to 8 shows why and how Manuskript is a perfect tool for applying the snowflake method: Each of the top six buttons in that toolbar opens a panel that either corresponds to some side of that workflow or completes it. From top to bottom, the buttons are General (information and metadata), Summary, Characters, Plots (and subplots), World (i.e., the settings and outline), Outline, and Editor.

By entering and incrementally refining all the data that those panels support, you can organize, plan, and above all, document for yourself, before writing, everything from plot twists to the appearance, motivation, and background history of each character, and the whole society she lives in. Even after you have started writing, you may expand or update as you wish in any moment any part of this "database" that Manuskript creates for each of your writing projects.

A Practical Example

For an example of Manuskript at work, I will pretend to be J.R.R. Tolkien, rewriting The Lord of the Rings (LotR) with Manuskript. I will show you how to create and organize a complex story by entering the relevant data or text snippets from LotR into Manuskript. I will take the information from Wikipedia, the LotR Fandom wiki [4], and when I just need some filler, from LotR-themed random text by LotRem Ipsum [5].

The General button (the topmost button) in Manuskript's left toolbar is for the basic, self-describing metadata shown in Figure 3. Another thing to notice in Figure 3 is the toolbar on the right. From there, you can open Manuskript's search function of Manuskript, hide or show the left (Navigation) toolbar, and depending on which panel you are in, activate other auxiliary functions.

Figure 3: Entering the data a library would need to catalog your work.

The Summary panel (Figure 4) matches exactly the very first step of the snowflake method: Write what your story is about, first with one sentence, and then gradually expand it. Then Manuskript can quickly show you that summary whenever you need it while you write.

Figure 4: The first step of the snowflake method: Describe your story, in one sentence!

The Characters panel, which is only partially visible in Figure 5, likely has all the sections you may ever need and then some: You can order your characters by importance; classify them with the colored, customizable labels visible in the top right corner; and generally archive in a well-ordered manner everything that makes them "real," from their personality to their background.

Figure 5: The Characters panel lets you build full profiles of all the characters of a story.

The Plots panel (Figure 6) may be the most important one, at least for complex novels. It allows the definition of many overlapping storylines, each with its own description, intended conclusion, involved characters, and resolution steps. Also note how, when this panel is open, the right toolbar includes a button to open the Book Summary. The Book Summary allows you to see your summary and plot lines sides by side, and thus verify that they still match each other.

Figure 6: Creating all the plots and subplots of the story, which will then be visible in the Story line panel.

Manuskript's default World panel, which is only partially visible in Figure 7, is frankly overwhelming, at least for trilogies. There are so many categories to fill that one may be forgiven for thinking "this will take much more time than actually writing my book!" Don't despair though. First of all, you are not forced to fill every one of those boxes before you start writing. Besides, you can, and probably should, delete as many of them as desired, if you are sure they are not needed for your particular story.

Figure 7: In Manuskript, you can archive and keep handy all aspects of the worlds you create, not just mere lists of people and places.

At the same time, gathering enough patience and discipline to completely describe a world using those boxes, as early as possible, would very likely improve the quality of the result, as well as save time in the long run. This is true especially for series spanning multiple books, where it would be much harder to avoid plot holes and maintain continuity and coherence without having all the necessary information always at hand, inside those boxes.

Good usage of the Plots and World panels is absolutely essential for writing good fiction with Manuskript, but the one panel that you will almost always use, for any writing project, is likely the Outline panel in Figure 8. In it you may list every section of your work in hierarchical order and assign each a Status, Word count, Label, and from whose point of view (POV) each part should be written. The Outline also shows very clearly which parts still need the most work, but its essential function is to make it really easy and quick to add, remove, or rearrange chapters and subchapters. For nonfiction projects, this may very well be the greatest help Manuskript can give authors.

Figure 8: The Manuskript Outline panel shows the status of all chapters and makes it easy to rearrange them.

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