Story Software?Complications Ensue
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Q. Are you a fan of any software that helps organize and structure story elements before you go to script? I've heard of some (Power Structure, StoryView), but I don't know much about their reputations.
Nah. And I've never heard of anyone I know using them.

I tried out Dramatic, years and years ago. It didn't sing to me.

It's pretty rare to hear of writers using any system, frankly. A friend of mine was using the SAVE THE CAT formula on a MOW last year, but the most I do, usually, is try to write my features in seven acts, with acts outs.

My fear would be that I'd put so much energy into the story software that I'd feel that I was doing good work, without getting anything good on the page.

Has anyone used story software (as opposed to screenplay formatting software) to good effect?



from my experience, nothing is better than your own gut instinct and the eyes of a few friends who have the gumption to tell you the truth.

I'd say just study good movies, good books, good shows and figure out what they're doing so that it becomes second nature to you.

- Andrew

By Blogger Andrew Kosarko - Screenwriter, at 10:55 AM  

I've tried most of the story software, found all of them lacking.

I've had my most success with WriteRoom, OmniOutliner, and Scrivener.

WriteRoom is simply a word processor that fills your whole screen. It's super simple. I customized the look to look like the old WordPerfect, which reminds me of watching Dougie Howser, MD, with my dad.

OmniOutliner is a powerful outliner program. If anything, I might switch to something less powerful and featurefull in the future, although if you need power, that's the way to go.

Scrivener is another powerful outliner, but one that uses the note card metaphor. It's pretty awesome to use, especially if you are collaborating with a cowriter and want to type up your outline to share, digitally.

Personally, I outline 20 times or so a project. I believe strongly in having a hook, as I know you do, Alex, but I struggle to turn that hook into something that feels real, with real characters behaving authentically and embodied with real emotion. So I outline over and over and over until it feels right.

My first draft usually is quite a departure from the outline, but it's usually better for all those outlines. I think Eisenhower once said that all the planning in the world is thrown aside once you start, but all that preperation makes sure you know everything about what you're doing.

I think the appeal of software like Dramatica and checklist style structures, like Save the Cat, is that the left side of the brain feels in control. It's a logical, mathematic formula to explain how you should write a movie. But I think the best writing comes from instinct and intuition, trained by years of trial and error and thinking about structure, internalizing it.

By Blogger Dan, at 11:47 AM  

My experience is very similar to Dan's (though I speak from the perspective of a non-screenwriter). Writeroom and Scrivener's full-screen modes are both fantastic for avoiding distractions, and more and more progras are starting to realize how useful that is, but that's not really a story specific benefit.

One thing I'll say about a lot of these writing programs is that they are very useful for material you are _not_ writing. If you do a lot of research and you want to keep it on hand, or if you like writing background and notes that inform on your understanding but may never make it into the finished product then these can be great. They're really good at keeping all that stuff right on hand.

Another subtle advantage of these programs comes from the fact that they are sometimes built on top of databases, which means they handle the information as you write much more intelligently. This has two big practical advantages. First, you never have to worry about saving your work because it saves as you go. Second it can handle things like reverting to earlier versions, forking a piece of writing and other manipulations much more easily than you can by constantly saving and renaming things in hopes of keeping them straight.

I'm a big booster of this type of software in a general sense (I love Scrivener on the Mac and I'm testing out PageFour on Windows) but I am intensely skeptical of the versions that have their own preset structures for _how_ to write (whether its for screenwriting or novelists). They are much more useful as general tools which the writer can tune to his needs.

-Rob D.

By Blogger rdonoghue, at 12:43 PM  

I find story software is the same thing as being obsessed with every screenwriting contest -- ultimately, it's the writer's version of having lots and lots of meetings.

Window dressing doesn't help you with a script. I can't imagaine using the software to help me do what I do. That sounds like something you muck with if you're a dilletante. Ass in seat time. That's the only way. No shortcuts, no quick fixes. Ass in seat.

By Blogger DMc, at 3:24 PM  

Any ordinary text processor can help with the story stuff. Or a free mind-mapping tool such as FreeMind.

Personally I like PowerStructure and Movie Outline. They're simple, both allow to write your scenes and export directly into script format, while keeping the birds eye perspective.

Writers I work with like these and I like them too.

They allow a simple, critical examination of what you REALLY have in terms of story. Many have found that their 'gut instinct' often leaves LOTS of holes in the story.

I find writers wasting a lot of time writing in Final Draft without doing any proper story work. These packages turn your focus to what matters, before it's time to write that first draft.

Obviously the problem is with the writer rather than the tools, but still...

By Blogger Karel, at 12:29 AM  

I like using the index card feature in MovieMagic. It's just like real index cards, except I don't have to look at my crappy handwriting.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 10:52 PM  

An Excel spreadsheet with the requisite number of cells helps me with beat sheets. Anything else is distracting.

By Blogger blogward, at 4:49 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Kody Chamberlain, at 5:26 PM  

I've tried a few, but none of them stuck. So I still use the notecards, but I pin them to a huge cork wall instead of just stacking them on my desk.

By Blogger Kody Chamberlain, at 5:28 PM  

I've been thinking about investing in Scrivener (although for novel, not screenplay, writing); anyone have any specific complaints about it that I should know?

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 12:26 AM  

I'm with Emily Blake. Excel does everything I need it to. I've never been a fan of index cards because I rarely shuffle my scenes.

By Blogger Barkalounger, at 4:12 PM  

I tried Scrivener for a long time, but never got used to it. I did not like it at all. I found its interface inconsistent, cluttered, and confusing. I've talked with the developer of Scrivener and he said that the interface is going to be completely revamped from scratch in version 2, so we'll see what happens.

On the other hand, I'd like to second Dan's praise above for OmniOutliner. This program is my absolute favorite program for outlining a screenplay.

OmniOutliner makes it incredibly easy to organize your thoughts, outline all of your script notes, and move your ideas around in any order that you'd like... all before bringing them into a scriptwriting program like Final Draft.

Not only can you drag-and-drop any idea within the main body of your document itself, but the utility drawer in OmniOutliner's left-hand margin functions like index cards which you can drag-and-drop in any order that you want.

You can also "attach" (i.e. "import") any external documents that you want to be a part of your outline; for example, stuff that may help you with your research or notes that are in different type of media format. You can import photos, images, URL's, audio, videos, word processing documents... ANY type of document that you have sitting on your hard drive. These attachments then live in your outline, so you're free to delete them from anywhere else on your hard drive where they may live.

What this means is that you brilliantly end up with ONE MASTER OUTLINE that contains *ALL* of your notes & external media in one simple document.

Even better, the professional version of OmniOutliner lets you make live audio recordings within your document itself. So if you're having a brainstorming session with your screenwriting partner about a certain part of your screenplay, you can just click on that part of your outline and then click record. Your recording then becomes a part of the outline.

OmniOutliner Pro is simple yet powerful, clean yet elegant, inspiring yet unobtrusive... just like a good Mac program should be. It also is one of the rare programs that received a full 5-star rating from MacWorld Magazine.Damn, I sound like I work for The Omni Group. I don't work for them... I'm just a huge fan! :) I'm even a fan of their user manual!

By the way, to address Dan's comment above about WriteRoom that fills your whole screen in a "full screen" mode, OmniOutliner may be adding this feature in a future version, but in the meantime, you can add this functionality to ANY Mac program with the free program Think.

By Blogger Scott Rose, at 11:42 PM  

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