Daily Archives: October 24, 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