Friday, May 22, 2009

Script Development Software Review: Contour for Windows

Contour For Windows is a software program which offers you a structural model to follow in developing your screenplay idea. It belongs to the same category as John Truby's Blockbuster and Blake Snyder's Save The Cat software.

Like Blockbuster did until John Truby published his book, Contour actually presents a screenwriting theoretical model which cannot be found elsewhere than in the software. Developed by Jeff Schechter, the screenwriter who previously had created the Totally Write script development program, Contour is published by Mariner Software. Schechter is a succesful screenwriter, and the model on which Contour is built is the structural model he used while writing his scripts.

Contour was originally a Mac app, but the Windows version under review here swiftly followed. The Mac version seamlessly integrates with Montage, Mariner's screenplay formatting software. Apart from this, though, the Windows version has everything the Mac version has.

Contour basically helps you develop your story from basic logline to very detailed step outline or treatment. I'll take you through the process so you can get a feel for how the software works.

Contour starts you off by having you answer 4 questions about your script. As these can be found on the website, I don't think I'll ruin anything by listing them here:

1) Who is your main character?
2) What is he trying to accomplish?
3) Who is trying to stop him?
4) What will happen if he fails?

The answers to these four questions are then linked together in a logline following a specific formula. This logline acts as the lynchpin of your entire script, and the formula is intended to ensure you do not lose track of the basic elements and their relationship to one another. Note that this logline, though a single sentence, can be fairly long.

Once you have the logline, it's time to look at the arc of your main character. According to Schecht, people in real life live by six archetypes: Innocent, Orphan, Magician, Wanderer, Martyr and Warrior. In Contour, four of these are used to chart the development of the main character: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior and Martyr. Each corresponds with either an act or half an act. The manual and the software explain these archetypes and what they mean for the character's development in detail. What is not explained, however, is why the other two archetypes are not used in the main character's arc. Nor do we get any information about what these archetypes represent and how they differ from the other four.

In any case, you now fill in how your main character acts and develops during each of these four stages. This gives you a good idea of how your character is going to evolve and will help you decide on the correct steps to take along the way to make certain the character arc happens the way you want it to.

Then it's time to get to the real meat and potatoes of the program: structuring your story. Here, you basically have two options with which to start: you can either immediately try to start filling in the plot points in the main window, or you can click on the Guide tab, which will bring up 12 sequences, each with a page count and a specific title (for instance: If Life Gives You Lemons...) which indicates what type of events are supposed to happen at this point in the model.

The manual recommends you start out with using the Guide to chart the overall story, and then to go into greater detail by filling in the plot points. But you can also just go to the plot points immediately. If you then open the Guide when your script project is loaded, you'll discover that their description has been added into the Guide as well.

And there are a lot of plot points: 44 to be precise. This makes Contour the most detailed screenplay structure model of all.

Now, for some writers out there this will be heaven: it's literally impossible to get lost in the story development stage (once you've decided on the way you're going to tell your story and develop the main conflict) with this many road signs to guide you to your destination. If you do get stuck, it's because you're still not sure where you want to go.

Other screenwriters will consider this to be the death of all creative endeavour, and refuse to shackle their genius in such a mechanical manner.

What do I think? For me, this type of approach works, as long as I can 'get behind' the system. Some screenplay models feel very natural to me, others seem to be more artificial, the result of someone deliberately looking for a new approach.

Can I get behind Contour's model? I'll go into this in more detail later on, when I recount my experience with the program, but fundamentally I'd say yes. Not that I don't have a few questions or quibbles here and there, nor have I been able to internalize the model like I have done with the Syd Field/Aristotle hybrid or the Hero's Journey. But that's because it's new, it's BIG, and the software is here to take you by the hand and lead you through all the steps in a painless manner.

The 44 plot points are divided as follows: 12 in act 1, 14 in act 2 part I, 14 in act 2 part II and (only) 4 in act 3.

The plot points in act 1 are very detailed. They really tell you what sort of event should take place at this point in the story (though rest assured, these descriptions are still wide-ranging enough to account for literally thousands of variations, if not more).

Once you get to act 2, though, big surprise: the plot points are no longer detailed. They form a continous dialectic, and following them will make sure that there are more than enough obstacles and twists in your story to keep it from being too linear and monotonous. But after the great detail in act 1, the change is jarring at first. I must point out, however, that there are a lot of suggestions on what type of events usually happen at this point in the script, so you're not left to flounder. It's just a very different approach from act 1, and to be honest, if I'd developed this software I'd have tried to go for more specific plot points throughout the script.

However, on the Contour forum, Jeff Schechter has explained his reasoning behind this: to him it's the perfect balance between being too restrictive/controlling and having such a detailed model.

And I have to admit, to my own surprise even - it works.

I decided to test the Contour model by putting a high concept comedy idea I had just come up with into it, and see how far I got by just following the steps one after another.

The opening parts (questions, archetypes, formula) of the program came quite quickly and easily - only the four archetypes took some thinking because it was an approach I wasn't used to, and the explanations in the software itself (I hadn't looked at the 81-page manual yet - and 81 pages for this type of program is very reasonable) were clear enough to help me wrap my head around the concepts.

Then I started on the plot points. Without thinking things through, and actually using a story which wasn't a perfect fit for Contour's model. And I just flew through the first act - things fell into place at an amazing speed, the plot points stimulated my imagination to come up with concrete information - this approach really worked for me.

Then came the dreaded second act, and the huge amount of less defined plot points. I'll admit I felt some trepidation when I started out - but it turned out to be (largely) unnecessary. Once I got into the flow of things (and read the description of the sequence content as well as the act overview) I found that I could keep the story going. I was near the midpoint when I stopped my first session - and all this without ever sitting down, brainstorming or spending weeks coming up with sufficient ideas to start building the story.

The second and third session went better than expected, though here of course my improvisational approach started causing problems. Getting to the third act proved to be more difficult - but only because of my deliberate lack of preparation, this was merely a test of the new system. If I had put the usual amount of preparatory work into the project, I would probably have finished the outline in two session at most, and I'd have an extremely detailed workable basis for writing a scenic synopsis or treatment. So yes, Contour's approach works, and it forces the writer to come up with a lot of specific incidents and twists to keep the narrative going. That's a very good thing.

I must also mention there's an idea tab, where you can store ideas that come to you at any time. Unlike the other tabs, this one isn't linked to a particular project, but

The Contour model is not only explained in the manual and in the software itself, but the program also contains 14 script analyses using the theoretical framework. These include recent megahits like The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire, so it's really up-to-date in this respect. Seeing the model applied to these films is a potent training tool. And if these 14 examples aren't enough, Jeff Schechter regularly analyzes more movies in the Contour way at his blog, Contour At The Movies. And if you want to know even more, check out the Contour forum at Mariner Software.

So, to sum up: Contour succeeds admirably at what it sets out to do. I've not yet had any technical hassles with the app, and I've found it to be a well-thought out, effective aid in developing a screenplay story. It's not for every movie - it won't do multiple storyline-films like Crash, and it's also not suited to highly experimental screenwriting attempts - but then, what structural model ever is? Best of all, you can try it out for free for 30 days, to see whether it works for you. If you're excited by the thought of getting your hands on the most detailed and extensive screenplay structure yet, I absolutely recommend you give it a try. I'm certainly glad I did - and I haven't yet used the system to its fullest capacity. A download sets you back $44.99, and you can get it here from Mariner Software.


Thomas Blees said...

i can only confirm your impressions: Contour is really very, very helpful - and of all the programs I tried (Dramatica, Blockbuster, MyNovel, ywriter, Marshall Plan etc.) it has definitely the best price value-ratio!
It really fits well to John Trubys BOOK (not the Blockbuster software, which I find far too expensive and just not good) "The 22 steps" - I recommend strongly this Book (and I read already 30 or 40 other books on creative writing), which sums up the whole novel writing process very, very good.
Thomas (Germany)

Anonymous said...

Contour has the potential to be a helpful tool, but the font size is so small on my screen that I can barely read it without a magnifying glass.

I emailed the company asking for advice on whether or not there was a tool available to adjust the font size/type (something I was missing). A week later, and they have not answered my mail. I used the demo for its allotted time, but won't buy the program. If I can't read the screen, no amount of "potential" will save it.

Anonymous said...

I am the one who wrote the above comment about fonts. I have since heard back from Mariner, and they confirmed that as of now, there is no way to change font or text size, but that based on my concern, they have forwarded the idea to their developers, and plan to explore adding this function in future versions.

Hope for Contour! Now I will reconsider buying it. Except for the fonts, it is a good program.

Andreas said...

Would you be able to make an overview where The Writers journey 12 steps fit onto the Contour model? Im curious how they relate.
Great blogs! I love to read them!

John Lewis said...

I probably started the wrong end. I just wrote my first story out on paper and then used Dragon to get it into Word. When I looked at Contour for structure I was pleasantly surprised to learn taht I was nearly spot on. Having said that I am now rewriting and find it a great help. One of the things that helps is to consider the story as a film as you goes and this helps in the descritive parts.
As I'm writing a seri8ers of stories (seven) I also find that I can keep the links better. Right now I am reviewing how I use Contour and geting better version control throough Alfresco.
John Lewis