Tag Archives: outlining

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole “digital tools” when many other great applications exist — and “applications” for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet’s columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener’s outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page “Plot and Story”.

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the “perceived problem / challenge” and the “real problem” within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first “ten percent” of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.

Comments and Marginalia in Manuscripts

As I was writing a post about “comments” in computer programming source code, I noted that I like comments and marginalia when I write for “human” readers. Even when writing for myself, I like to preserve my notes. One of the things we lose with the transition from paper to digital media is the marginalia and other marks readers and writers leave as they read and write.

Reading and Marking

My wife and I both love books. We revere books. Because of this respect for the printed page, neither of us is an active highlighter, annotator, or scribbler. When I took a class that required marking in a book, it pained me to be destroying the pages with green and orange highlights.

When I buy a book, especially a textbook, I don’t want someone’s marks on the pages. First, the previous reader(s) might have marked the wrong passages as important. Second, it is distracting. I want to read and think about a text on my own, at least initially.

I do take notes, and I use Post-It flags to mark important passages. But, I cannot push myself to mark on the pages, no matter how useful that might be. I realize that most of the books I own have little resale value, but some are valuable. They are all valuable to me, regardless.

However, I realize that writing notes and highlighting strategically are good study skills. These are skills I wish my students possessed. It would help most of them earn better grades and, more importantly, consider texts more thoughtfully.

When I do see a student’s text marked, the pages are nearly solid markings. I have to explain to a student, yes, authors should make every word count, but you highlighting every word doesn’t help you focus on the most essential passages. If more than a quarter of a chapter is marked, there is no way to review and study the content effectively in the future.

Here are some suggestions for marking and marginalia I offer my classes:

  1. Limit marks to less than a third, ideally less than a quarter, of any chapter or section.
  2. Use more than one color to code the text in a meaningful manner.
  3. Mark words or phrases that represent the essence of the content, especially technical jargon.
  4. Annotate when a section refers back to another section, with a page number and word or phrase. (For example: “Ref’s c2p23: continental drift.”)
  5. Compare your notes to the index and table of contents, because titles and index references reflect major concepts in most texts.
  6. Outline using the marks you made, updating marginalia as necessary.

Marking a text seems tedious to many students. And, if they are avid readers and book lovers like me, they might resist marking directly on a page. That is why I also demonstrate using Post-It flags and notes for book lovers.

Unlike when I was an undergraduate, today students and teachers carry notebooks and tablet computers. I recommend using dedicated outlining software, either while reading or while reviewing marks. Many word processors have an outline mode, and you can use any text editor for notes, but a program such as OmniOutliner lets you organize and reorganize your thoughts. I demonstrate OmniOutliner and several free alternatives to my classes when I discuss the value of outlining after reading a text.

For books that are in digital formats, most e-reader software has highlighting and comment modes. I scan some older, more fragile texts and “mark” the PDF copy. When I can work with a digital copy of a text, I write a lot of notes to myself.

Notes While Writing

I make notes to myself while writing. Not a few notes, either. These notes help me when I edit, reorganize, and revise any text. Sadly, many writers working at computers don’t take notes. In the dark ages, a writer would write in longhand or type and make all manner of marks on the pages. Those marks and notes were helpful, but that practice is fading.

Tangent: My theory is that longhand and typing force writers to go slowly, to think about every word. When writing each word takes a bit of effort, I write less — but I write better. That’s why I write on legal pads and in notebooks, especially when writing fiction. There are fewer distractions and less temptation to generate high word counts on paper.

When I do open the laptop or pull out the keyboard drawer, I keep making notes while I enter text into my text editors and word processors. I spend part of a class meeting on using the “comments” feature in various programs because I want my students to develop this note taking habit. By the end of the semester, students are thanking me — as if some great mystery had been reveled to them. (Most claim to be masters of Word, yet have little awareness of templates, styles, macros, or basic automation tools.)

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages both support comments. When you print, you can control whether or not to print the comments — but there’s no need to delete the comments before you print the document! Too often, my students delete comments that might be useful later. If you must remove comments and other marks from a document before sending it to another person, make a copy of the file first.

Do not place notes as text within the document, not even as “hidden” or “non-printing” text. Comments in a document will alter the layout, page count, and word count. Learn to use your word processors and editors properly.

One reason I love Pages and Scrivener is that they save “versions” and “snapshots” of documents. If you decide that what you have been typing for the last four hours isn’t what you wanted, not a problem. You can “revert to previous” or “restore snapshot” and get back the version you liked. The edits are not lost, either — they are stored as comments and notes.

Additional Notes

I encourage using comments, and I also encourage keeping all other notes taken during the writing process.

Good writers plan. They outline. They research. As they write, they revise and reorganize what they’ve already written. I’ve always kept a physical folder for each writing project, and I try to use a single notebook or legal pad for my handwritten notes, that way the notes for more than one project don’t end up intermingled. I’m usually working on more than one project, so keeping organized is essential.

I advise all writers, especially my students, to keep everything for a project together, both physically and virtually. How you organize the materials should reflect your work style, but be organized. It never seems to fail that the notes you thought you didn’t need anymore become essential to a passage you are writing or revising. Even when you finish a project, keep the notes.

Every writing project has to potential to become another project. For example, I’ve had short stories become stage plays, and then morph into screenplays. I’ve taken novels and turned them into scripts, and vice-versa. The notes I’ve maintained along the way have enabled me to adapt works effectively. Adaptation is hard work, be it an old short story that inspires a novel or a novel that might work well as a film. Without my notes, I might not remember why I made various choices.

Non-fiction also changes. I’ve written articles that lead to other articles. You don’t want to “reuse” earlier works, but you do want to draw from them. Good research for an article remains valuable even if it is contradicted by later research findings. Having old notes, therefore, helps construct better arguments in later works.

While I love physical folders, notepad, and notecards, eventually you type a manuscript or research paper. Since my earliest computing days, I’ve organized my projects carefully. At first, each project was a single floppy disk — or set of disks with labels of the same color. Multicolored disks were a great invention, too! Once hard drives became affordable, I created a “writing” directory (folder) and created folders within that for each project.

Today, I sill keep folders within folders, carefully named for quick searches. The folder approach is good, but for a few years now I have taken this to the next step by using Scrivener for drafts of most writing projects. If you write a lot, buy Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com). I also suggest buying Bookends (http://www.sonnysoftware.com) if you need to prepare bibliographies and track sources. Without writing a review of Scrivener (there are many online, since it is a great program), I’ll explain my endorsement simply: it organizes any writing, and all the research for that project, in a nice “binder” with sections.

Whether a writer uses Scrivener and Bookends or some other combination of tools, keeping notes is invaluable.

It is easy, too easy, to delete a document or project from digital media. A click or a keystroke and away the file goes, the bits to be reclaimed and reused for other data. With hard drives, USB memory sticks, and other media so affordable, there really is no good reason to delete documents or other files. Resist the temptation, unless you have a very, very good, extremely good, reason to do so. And even then, I’d discourage deletion.

What if You Become Famous?

That might seem like a silly question, but it is serious to scholars.

When writers worked on paper, libraries and universities could archive the materials of famous individuals. While some writers’ notes were destroyed (Jane Austen) and others hoped their notes would be destroyed (Franz Kafka), the manuscripts, notes, journals, and correspondence left behind by writers are useful artifacts for scholars.

E-mail is unlikely to be saved, so we are likely losing the notes writers exchange with editors, publishers, and agents. We are also losing most of their personal correspondence. (Granted, most emails isn’t worthy of being archived, but not all handwritten or typed letters were important, either.) E-mail, text messages, and other electronic communications quickly fade, though some services like Twitter do offer their archives to the Library of Congress and universities for research.

Sadly, even archived data can be rendered useless.

The floppy disks, old hard drives, and other media stored in our basement cannot be accessed by our current computers. I have no floppy drives, no tower cases with IDE interfaces, no way to access the odd media that seemed so amazing 15 years ago (Zip and LS-120 drives).

I try to remember to migrate old documents and files, including those I haven’t used for years, to each new system I buy or hard drive I install. I’m sure I’ve missed some files over the years, though. In those cases, I should still have printed documents in file folders.

Do your part to keep comments and marginalia alive.

Thoughts on Dramatica Pro 4

Before I offer my views on Dramatica 4.1, especially in light of my Contour review, I want to express an important frustration sure to vex other Apple fanatics. I’ve been an Apple user since the IIe, and an OS X user since version 10.1 shipped. So, this is the complaint of a loyal Mac user:

Dramatica has not been updated since 2004. It looks like an ancient Apple System 7 application. Heck, it reminds me of a GEOS application, going back to the old MS-DOS 4.x days. It is that ugly. It’s barely better on Windows, where it feels like a Windows 3.11 application. Seriously, the publisher wouldn’t even have to update the logic — just update the interface to something like other OS X Leopard (10.5+) and Windows Vista/7.

I realize an interface shouldn’t matter so much, but Write Brothers have been promising updates to Dramatica since 2006. The forums last discuss Dramatica 5 shipping in 2008. It’s now 2010. Write Brothers even had to post special instructions for Windows Vista/7 and Snow Leopard users. Sorry, but software should work on two-year-old operating systems without fuss.

Okay, end of ranting on the cosmetics. The interface is lousy, and I’ve warned you about it.

Before I delve into the substance, there is a Dramatica article I suggest everyone read:



How and Why Dramatica is Different from Six Other Story Paradigms
by Chris Huntley, Revised July 2007

Dramatica is at least 16 years old. The guide to using Dramatica is Dramatica: A New Theory of Story Special Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. There is a reason it hasn’t been updated — it works for so many writers.

Huntley writes:

“Though the six non-Dramatica story paradigms I studied are different in their specifics, I was surprised to find that most more or less fit into one of two broad categories. The first category I call the post-Aristotelian story paradigm. This category finds its roots in the work of Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!) who significantly expanded the function of Character in story beyond Aristotle’s Poetics. Its adherents include Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Robert McKee. The second category I call The Hero’s Journey story paradigm and finds its roots in adaptations of Joseph Campbell’s work (Hero with a Thousand Faces). Its devotees include John Truby and Christopher Vogler. Linda Seger falls mostly into the first category, but acknowledges and incorporates the concepts of the hero’s journey as one of several “myth” forms a story may use.”

“By contrast, Dramatica does not fall neatly into either category. It appears to be a much broader story paradigm—one that encompasses elements from both categories and then some.”

“Another generalization is that each of the non-Dramatica story paradigms assumes your story has a Main Character (or Hero) who Changes and is also the Protagonist in a story with a happy ending (Success/Good). With Seger the exception, lip service was given to the idea of steadfast main characters. These structural elements seemed somewhat rigid and overly specific. I assumed that there was more to their understanding of story, so I dug further.”

Dramatica is not for the faint of heart. To really get the benefits of the program expect to spend at least 20 hours, probably more, using Dramatica to plan a screenplay or novel. You will have to answer somewhere between 50 to 250 questions, in some detail, to complete a story outline. By the time you finish with Dramatica, you have more than any traditional “outline” — you have much of the story in place and ready to go.

For screenshots of Dramatica:

When you start Dramatica, a toolbar offers a dozen options, from “Help” to “Brainstorming.” However, the program (and I) suggest you start with the “StoryGuide” process.

The StoryGuide allows three levels of Guide, from the “Level One” 50-60 question quick outline to the “Level Three” 250 question outline. I don’t agree with the software’s insistence that there are 32,768 “story forms” — that’s exactly 32K (2^15 = 16 bits), clearly reflecting a computational limit of 1993 more than writing theory of any time. I’m assuming that’s also why there are 256 actual questions (8 bits). Maybe a rewrite of the software would expand this array of potential stories, but I also can’t imagine writers need more than 32,768 possible outlines from which to create something.

The level of detail required by Dramatica forces you to consider writing in ways you might not have in the past. Dramatica isn’t for the writer who likes to sit and write, inspired by muses — or the writer who sits and waits for inspiration that never comes. This software is for those not only who want to plan, but can plan.

There are four major stages, or groups of questions, a writer works through in Dramatica, plus an optional epilogue:

  1. Setting the Stage: The basics of the characters, plot, and theme.
  2. Storyforming: The “Story Engine” guides you through the characters’ problems and choices.
  3. Illustrating: The details that propel the story, such as “time vs. option” formulas.
  4. Storyweaving: The various actions and choices of characters are “woven” together.

Comparing Dramatica to Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 is almost unfair. Contour offers only a single, simplistic story model: the Hero’s Journey. Contour is fine for that one story template, but it seems forced when you load the sample analyses of various movies and novels. Dramatica, however, handles almost any imaginable story structure.

If you want to learn Dramatica, load the sample stories, from the film classic Casablanca to the Toni Morrison novel Sula. Loading a story and then stepping through Dramatica helps make sense of the complex theories behind the program.

I had a half-finished manuscript sitting around that I decided to fix through Dramatica. It took a week to enter the characters, their personality traits, and various plot points. What Dramatica revealed to me was a problem with the characters: they were not distinct enough. There were minor differences, but not nearly enough contrast.

That is what Dramatica does best: point to the conflicts and contrasts necessary for a compelling story. If you have a logical character, you should have an emotional character to provide contrast. If you have a guide, you also need someone trying to mislead other characters. Sure, it seems simple and obvious, but it is easy to write what seems like a great story until you discover something is missing.

Dramatica forced me to realize I had a single story, instead of the “weave” necessary to make the characters more complex and compelling. Yes, my main character followed the Hero’s Journey from fall to redemption, but the other characters were boring. The story was also predictable, a common problem with first drafts. There was never any question the hero would choose self-sacrifice and redemption, but there should have been.

When I finally reached the “Illustrating” step of Dramatica, I was surprised that there were only two forms of climactic action: “Time Clock” and “Option Clock.” However, once you read the theory guide, which is included with Dramatica 4.1, you realize that most decisions in life are one or both of these: a definite clock running down or options slowly vanishing. Either way, the character(s) making choices are facing pressures to act. Even inaction is a choice that leads to consequences.

Dramatica is not cheap, certainly not attractive, and it requires time and effort to use. It can be overwhelming. Yet, I do believe the program is valuable. While I think anyone could use the Contour outline without any software, there is no way I would try to follow the Dramatica theories without software guidance.

There are many things I would change to make the software easier to use and understand, since even the terminology is unusual, but I believe most people will be comfortable with the software after two or three complete stories.

Here’s hoping that an upgrade does appear in 2011.

– Scott