Monthly Archives: October 2010

Planning with Contour

I have outlined two projects with Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 and remain uncertain about the product for several reasons. The program is marred by sloppy spelling errors in manuscript templates and a rigid approach to story plotting that falls short when writing a complex story or screenplay. What you are buying with Contour is one screenwriter’s idea of what constitutes a “blockbuster” movie structure. It’s a starting place for new screenwriters, certainly, but probably not suited for experienced screenwriters or novelists.

Contour Screenshot

Contour Screenplay Outlining

First, let me offer some background. Contour is based on the story development approach of screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Schechter. I can’t claim to be familiar with Schechter’s works (various Care Bear movies are listed on IMDB) and it seems a stretch to consider him a “big name” in screenwriting. He seems to earn a living teaching screenwriting seminars and providing script coverage to aspiring writers. Of course, I cannot claim to be a produced screenwriter, while Schechter definitely earns money at the craft.

I am serious about screenwriting, which has led me to read books, articles, and to try various software packages that might help me master the craft. Contour is definitely at the “baby steps” or “novice” end of the spectrum.

How Countour Works

Contour presents a series of questions to the user. With each answer, a green progress bar moves a step closer towards completion. You can use the progress bar to move backwards or forwards at any time, adjusting your script outline. Moving the progress marker rotates through the Contour questions.

On the righthand side of the Contour window, you are offered example answers to each question. The examples come from a number of Hollywood blockbusters. Some of these examples are stretched to fit the Contour model, one of my arguments against such a rigid template.

I’m not going to offer every question from Contour, which would be unfair to the developers. I’ll stick to the highlights.

Four Questions

Contour begins with questions common to writing guides. The questions Contour asks are:

1. Who is your main character?
2. What is he trying to accomplish?
3. Who is trying to stop him?
4. What happens if he fails?

Since I’m one to make the same “mistake,” I will concede that someone will quibble with the male pronouns, which would be easy enough for Mariner Software to expand. Honestly, it’s not a big deal to me and only English speakers would care so much about the gender issue. Let’s focus on the questions.

The main character in Contour is assumed to be one person. That’s generally a good approach in a screenplay, but there are exceptions. Also, there are rare movies without main characters, but they don’t tend to be the blockbusters. Remember, Contour is geared towards creating a hit, which means sticking to a basic formula.

Next, Contour asks about the task, goal, mission, or whatever else you might call what the main character must accomplish. Remember that the task must have a purpose. Why does the main character even care about the task?

Contour assumes an antagonist is trying to stop the main character from accomplishing his or her task. Again, this represent the blockbuster formula. You can make the antagonist nature, inner doubts, or something equally complex, but Contour is more suited for good vs. evil, two characters in conflict.

One thing I do like is the fourth question. It’s one many students and beginning writers forget to address clearly. Yes, the main character might fail, but what is the price of failure?

If you read the Tameri Guide pages on Plot and Story, we have created a detailed chart addressing these questions and others. I’m not sure Contour is better than blank notebook paper for answering such basic plot and story questions. I would have students work on paper even if they were going to enter their answers into Contour.

The Journey

Contour’s questions assume a blockbuster script will progress through four stages. These stages represent the emotional growth of the main character.

1. Orphan
2. Wanderer
3. Warrior
4. Martyr

I don’t object to following this plotting model, which definitely aids writers by clarifying how a character should evolve in 120 pages. It’s a good model and one that works for a formulaic script — which is what Hollywood likes.

The basic structure can be expanded as follows:

1. The main character is literally or metaphorically abandoned and isolated from others.

2. The main character wanders through events, looking for a place or role that will end the feeling of isolation.

3. The antagonist creates a situation that forces the main character to face any doubts and fears. The two characters engage in direct or indirect conflict.

4. The main character consciously chooses to make a personal sacrifice to accomplish the primary task of the story.

Contour breaks each of these four stages into a set number of plot beats. Within Contour, these are fixed beats, but there’s no reason they cannot be changed once you export a script outline to your choice of word processor or screenwriting software.

Because Contour doesn’t force you to create detailed character sketches, conflict maps, or other planning devices, I’m not convinced the application is of value to experienced writers. Contour isn’t a bad concept, but its surface flaws and lack of depth make it difficult to recommend. Contour would help some students or beginning writers, but after one or two Contour-guided scripts I believe most writers would abandon the program.

Maybe outgrowing the program is the point, but I would rather have a program that has a “simple” mode and an “advanced” mode. By comparison, Dramatica Pro offers far more flexibility and guidance for writers, regardless of the writer’s experience level.

I hope Contour 2.0 fixes the minor flaws and expands the program’s plotting methodology.

– Scott

Dramatica vs Contour vs Me

I am a believer in outlining and planning before, during, and after the drafting process for most long forms of creative writing. Generally, I’m always searching for a way to better organize my thoughts. As a writer, this means I experiment with various outlining and “story plotting” tools.

Two popular story plotting applications are Dramatica (B000H774K0) and Contour (B002ABL3IK). In addition to my thoughts on these tools, you can read reviews on Amazon and various writing-focused forums.

Bluntly, Dramatica Pro 4.1 is too precise and Contour 1.2 is not precise enough.

Contour guides you through a serious of basic questions based on a single “Blockbuster” template for screenplays and novels. There is one, and only one, Contour story structure. You can create a basic story outline in a few hours, assuming you follow the model.

Contour could be great. It looks a lot better than Dramatica, but the beauty is only skin deep.

The Contour application does nothing more than present a question and allow you to type any answer you want. It doesn’t check your work or enforce any rules. You could accomplish the same task with a list of questions on paper. Having a database of sample stories is nice, but Contour didn’t help me think about my writing.

Honestly, I can create a basic “template” of the plot points emphasized by Contour in any word processing application, from Final Draft to Word. I’ve even thought about doing just that to see how the process might work. I still might create an automatic Word template for this purpose.

At the other extreme is Dramatica Pro with its supposed 32,767 (32K) story structures. If you want too much detail, too much time spent planning, then Dramatica is the procrastinator’s best friend.

I spent an entire week, several hours a day, putting data into Dramatica Pro. I can’t easily explain the process in a short blog post, but suffice it to state that Dramatica’s approach was too much. I never finished the process.

After a week, I still didn’t have my story outline in Dramatica. I had a dozen or so pages of character notes, story notes, and rough ideas, but nothing close to a usable story structure. I finally exported what I had and went to work writing.

Dramatica Pro did help me think about characters and their relationships, but the “story forming” process was too intense. I started with the “Level One” form, which asks 75 questions. If you manage to get through to Level Three, you end up answering 250 questions about the story. I’m sure that’s great for some writers, but it didn’t work for me.

I ended up in a personal loop: changing one story form answer meant I had to change those plot points before and after the change. I ended up frustrated with the process, so tangled in the Dramatica approach to stories that I didn’t want to write the actual manuscript.

If I could trim Dramatica’s process and package it with Contour’s interface, I’d be pleased. If I had to choose between the two, I’d end up using Dramatica to think about a story of any serious complexity. I might even get used to Dramatica’s detailed approach to outlining and creating stories, but it would take a great deal of practice and patience.

Contour is a good, basic guide to story plotting. I would use it for a basic writing class without hesitation. However, it doesn’t really do anything I can’t do on my own. Yes, an “expert” helped create the questions, but the questions are similar to those in many books on creative writing.

I know some authors simply sit and write. After struggling with Dramatica, I was ready to find a typewriter and avoid computers entirely. Part of the problem is that Dramatica looks like an ancient application. The screens are difficult to read, a challenge to navigate, and remind me of old GEOS-based software. The Mac version is visually horrible on OS X.

Both Contour and Dramatica Pro were supposed to be updated in late 2009. The updates are late. In the case of Dramatica, the update is overdue by three years.

Theoretically, the appearance of Dramatica shouldn’t have bothered me so much. Realistically, hard to read is hard to use.

More detailed reviews will be coming in a few weeks. I’ll write about each application separately.

Dramatica: http://www.screenplay.com/

Contour: http://www.marinersoftware.com/