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

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt