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/

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt


6 thoughts on “Dramatica vs Contour vs Me”

  1. I have nev­er used Contour, but for $45 bucks, I was con­sid­er­ing try­ing it out.

    I have used Dramatica, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I felt like I was nev­er going to get through all the ques­tions. And it was very hard on the eyes…everything was too busy.

    What I do now is I use a tem­plate I’ve cre­at­ed from Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” in Word. After my plot points are done, I cre­ate the out­line, and after the out­line, I write.

  2. Wow, I find I am in the same sit­u­a­tion!

    One is overkill, the oth­er, too vague… :/

    Someone, devel­op a sto­ry sys­tem that mar­ries Dramatica Pro w/ Contour with a 21st cen­tu­ry mod­ern look and sim­plic­i­ty!

  3. How pop­u­lar is Dramatica any­way? How many (suc­cess­ful) screen­plays were writ­ten with it? Most reviews empha­size its com­plex­i­ty. Failure to update might well be relat­ed to poor sales, espe­cial­ly as the cur­rent price seems to be near­er to half what it was a year or two ago.

    Just as thought.

  4. Footnore: I could be wrong about the price. Reading things in my own cur­ren­cy — I’m not a US res­i­dent — ren­ders mem­o­ry slight­ly unre­li­able at this dis­tance. I thought it was around the $300 mark but, again, don’t quote me.

  5. It is over­priced in the cur­rent mar­ket. Mariner had (or has) an oppor­tu­ni­ty with the com­bi­na­tion of Montage and Contour, at least on the OS X side.

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