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.

Word Counter

One of my favorite writing tools is Word Counter 2.1, from Supermagnus Software.

The price? Free. The value? To quote a popular credit card company, “Priceless.”

If you’re like most of my students, you’re asking yourself, “Doesn’t every word processor include a word count function? What’s the big deal?”

Yes, most editing and word processing applications do count words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, I’m more interested in two features that are either incomplete or missing from word processors and layout applications: word frequency counts and readability analyses. Again, most applications provide at least the ability to create these reports, but none of them match the speed or ease of Word Counter.

There are several reason I use Word Counter:

  • Not every text editor I use provides real-time word counts;
  • Word counts are curiously inaccurate within some applications;
  • Macros for Word that provide frequency counts are painfully slow with long documents; and
  • Readability statistics from within programs are limited to one or two methodologies.

The application website explains Word Counter’s basic functions:

About Word Counter

Word Counter is a Macintosh OS X application that performs a word count and a character count, but it can do much more. It can be used independently or in conjunction with other applications such as TextEdit, Microsoft Word, Pages, TextWrangler, and others.

Word Counter can automatically update the count based on a user-defined time interval. It can show the progress achieved towards a set goal for the total number of words and characters. It also can perform bulk counts on multiple files and folders simply by dropping them onto the window. Word Counter can count the number of times a particular word appears in a document. It can even create a sortable summary table of all words in the document, with the number of times each word appears and the length of each word. Word Counter can also calculate estimates for readability statistics using the well known Flesch-Kincaid readability formula and many others.

Word Counter can handle various file types including plain text (txt, text), rich text (rtf, rtfd), Hypertext Markup Language (htm, html), Microsoft Word (doc), Microsoft Word XML (wordml), Apple’s web archive (webarchive), the Adobe Portable Document Format (pdf), and others. This program may be useful for writing a manuscript or an abstract with a strict limit on the number of words or characters allowed.

I do not live in Microsoft Word, though it is one of my primary tools. I write most drafts of documents in Scrivener (see my overview of Scrivener). Scrivener has excellent word count and document length “target” features, far better than those of Word, but I have had some minor issues with its Project > Text Statistics function. Don’t misunderstand, I consider Scrivener to be as close to ideal a writing environment as exists, though the menu structure can be a pain to navigate. Enough about Scrivener. Try it (and buy it) if you don’t already use it.

Since I create documents in Scrivener, Final Draft, Movie Magic Screenwriter, InDesign, Dreamweaver, and a half-dozen other applications, it is great to have a single application to generate word count and readability stats. Most of my documents are eventually “printed” to Adobe PDF files. Word Counter will analyze a PDF or even a folder filled with PDFs in mere seconds. I’ve had Word Counter analyze 45 files, all very long documents, in under a minute.

Most of my students aspire to being professional writers or designers. Some writers, including me, accept jobs that pay by the word. A good, indisputable word count is important so clients can’t argue with the billing statement. Word Counter is definitely the most accurate counting system I’ve used. For example, is “J.C. Smith” one word, two words, or three? One of my clients would argue it is one word and I can set Word Counter’s preferences for that standard.

In Word Counter’s preferences, I can tell the application to count only words with two or more letters. I can tell it that hyphenated words are one word or that Word Counter should consider each segment as a word. Is an email address one or more words, since there is at least one punctuation mark (the @ sign)? You can even create an “exceptions” list to exclude minor words from counts. Yes, some publishers do not pay you for a, and, an, the, and similar words.

Another tangent. I would rather bill by the hour, since research and document design can take as long as the writing and editing. Friendly advice to writers: avoid per-word payments except for simple assignments with minimal research and design requirements.

Word Frequencies

Counts are great, but my primary reason for using Word Counter is its Word Frequencies function. When we speak and write, most of us have definite patterns of word usage. My writing patterns include several problem words and phrases that I overuse. Examples include any, every, just, and so. I have a long list of adverbs I’d like to remove from my writing. By obtaining a report of how often words appear in a text, I can revise the text to reduce the counts of problem words.

The Supermagnus website explains its frequency function:

Word Frequencies

Word Counter also provides an interesting feature that summarizes the frequency of every word in a document.

To use the frequency option, the document to be summarized must be open in either the main Word Counter window or in the TextEdit window (depending on the current data source for the counts). The Word Frequency window can be accessed from the main menu. Press the Count button to begin the analysis. Once the count is complete, Word Counter will display every word that appears in the document as well as how many times each word appears and how long each word is. Columns can be sorted by clicking on the column name/column header. This can be useful if you want to know how many words longer than 10 characters you are using, or to see if your choice of words may be repetitive.

My students tend to doubt their writings reflect personal patterns. Word Counter enables me to quickly and easily demonstrate to students their patterns. I can generate the Word Counter frequency report and email a copy to the student author of a project. Students are surprised to see how predictable writing patterns are. A student using “however” six times per page in one paper is likely to repeat the pattern in another.


The final feature of Word Counter I want to highlight is its Readability Statistic reporting. Yes, Word generates some basic readability statistics, but nothing I’ve seen matches what Word Counter reports. The report from Word Counter includes more than 40 statics, including more than a dozen “grade level” calculations. As a writing instructor, this is wonderful.

When writing for some audiences, the text cannot be too complex. When I explain to students that writing at a college level is not always desirable, they are stunned. But, it is logical that some writing needs to be simplified. Legal warnings, for example, must have a high probability of being read and understood by the majority of consumers. Courts have used readability calculations to determine if instructions and warnings were dangerously complex.

The Word Counter website explains its Readability Statistics function:

>> Readability Statistics

Word Counter can provide various statistics to help judge the readability of text.

Many formulas exist to judge readability and caution must be exercised when applying a readability test to a document. Some tests are more appropriate for certain types of documents and it is important to think carefully when choosing a test. Some tests are better for text written at a grade school level, some are better for technical manuals, and some are considered flexible enough to judge the readability of almost any type of text.

Word Counter makes estimates for various elements of the text including the number of syllables and number of sentences. These estimates might deviate from counts done manually. In addition, even though many of the readability scores require a short passage of around 100 words, Word Counter will make its estimates based on the entire text. This should help average out any of the discrepancies in the estimates. In testing Word Counter and comparing the results to other online tools, some of the estimates were found to vary widely, probably because of differing underlying computer algorithms to make the estimates.

Keep in mind that all of the measures are simply standardized ways to judge the readability of text and none are perfect, and their pros and cons have been debated for years. A 1939 article by Irving Lorge in The Elementary English Reviewappropriately states: “It seems reasonable to conclude that reading difficulty is a difficult criterion to define.” If you would like to learn more about readability, there are multiple online references describing these measures and the appropriate uses for them. A very good reference is The Principles of Readability, by William H. DuBay.

Along with Grammarian Pro and Scrivener, Word Counter is a tool I recommend to professional writers, students, and writing instructors. Best of all, it is a free tool (donations accepted).

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

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.