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Contour and Dramatica Follow-up

Two months ago I introduced the idea of using Contour or Dramatica to outline a novel or screenplay. These applications are marketed primarily for screenwriting, but they do mention novels in their promotional materials. I would only use Contour for screenwriting, but I would recommend Dramatica to anyone writing a long-form work.

Contour's questions assume a blockbuster script will progress through four stages. These stages represent the emotional growth of the main character.
  1. Orphan: The main character is literally or metaphorically abandoned and isolated from others.
  2. Wanderer: The main character wanders through events, looking for a place or role that will end the feeling of isolation.
  3. Warrior: 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. Martyr: The main character consciously chooses to make a personal sacrifice to accomplish the primary task of the story.
This is a "Hero's Journey" model, familiar to readers of Joseph Campbell. It's simple, familiar, and effective for a screenplay. It's not detailed enough, in my opinion, for a great novel or a complex film.

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.

Answering the 250 questions asked by Dramatica took most of a week (writing during the evenings). These are not simple questions; simple is not what Dramatica does. Dramatica is more than most people will ever use, I fear. It requires dedication to work through Dramatica, more dedication than I believe any of my students have exhibited. It took me nearly four hours to outline two characters in Dramatica, working from notes I had compiled while writing the rough draft. The "Hero's Journey" of Contour became a plausible meandering in Dramatica, with a depth that helped me reconsider several plot points.

I am not even going to try to explain Dramatica's questions or screens. I encourage you to visit the Write Brothers website and learn about the software.


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