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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Outline It for Me

From the Tech Vault Dept.: What’s most amazing about this twelve-year-old piece is that all but one of the programs mentioned in it are still around (I’ve updated the links where necessary). Although there’s some rugged competition in the screenplay-writing category, I was so impressed with Movie Magic Screenwriter that I continue to use it, although chiefly for stage plays, for which I have customized a template. Outliners? Too much work for me.


I’VE GOT THIS TECH PIECE to write. I need to organize my thoughts. And I need a flash of inspiration to color it beyond the drab hues of computer geekishness.

The piece is about writing and specialized word-processing programs. It’s in two sections: a look at outliners and note-keepers, and a review of programs that offer more complicated formatting, such as what screenplays require.
1.    Outlining
    a.    Integrated
    b.    Stand-alone
2.    Note-keeping
3.    Etc.

[Keep active-voice excitement about these prosaic products.]
[Check definition of “prosaic.”]

How do you wring a story onto the page? Most writers develop a sense of the elements of a piece, possibly keeping notes as they write. Novelist P.G. Wodehouse fastened his pages-in-progress to the walls around him, noting what needed to be changed and, once the changes were made, moving the corrected page to a different height. Vladimir Nabokov worked with index cards, writing one sentence per card and rubber-banding the chapters into easy-to-edit clumps.
As if you hadn’t guessed, all of this can be done with a computer. Creating and maintaining the outline of a piece is an amusing mental exercise, but how much nicer to consult a page. Or screen. Computer-based outliners let you expand and collapse the hierarchy of your information, often with room for extensive annotations.

It’s a popular enough utility that you’ll find it built into the big word processing programs like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. Handy as the integrated outliners are, they’re not as full-featured as some of the stand-alone programs. ActionOutline, for example, not only builds hierarchical lists but also lets you assign priorities and other characteristics to the individual items, provides phone dialer support and gives you a side window for general note-taking. Look for similar facilities in [the long-vanished] Outline! (, which uses side-by-side windows to show both an outline and related notes.

Organizing those notes is the realm of another class of application, the best of which will find room for your texts and pictures. GoldenSection Notes does that and gives some scheduling features, too. More complex are the features of MindMapper, which does all of the above along with flow-chart features, the purpose of all of which is to let you enter info at random and organize it later, as the project becomes better defined. [MindMapper also has iPad and Android versions now.]

Creative writing has different demands, and Sol Stein has been at the forefront of offering computer assistance. FictionMaster reads your stuff and advises you on how to punch up your text, which reminds me of the grammar and style checkers of olden days – although in this case there are many more considerations that the program takes into account. Plot problems? Plots Unlimited will try to get you out of that rut.
StoryView for Windows [Now Outline 4D] calls itself a storyboarding outliner. Develop scenes, assign them to a timeline, track characters and plot ideas.

And for the sheer joy of index card-like idea assignment, Writer’s Blocks collects your ideas in what the program terms blocks and lets you edit, shuffle and store those thoughts, with outlining features available as well.

The nuts and bolts of writing call for different types of formatting, as anyone struggling through a term paper understands. Footnotes and bibliographies are made a lot simpler with the powerful options in today’s word processors, and you often can find helpful templates for your favorite word processors at any online shareware collection is a good place to start).

If your burden is the MLA (Modern Language Association) style, then work on your journal article or your thesis will be streamlined with StyleEase, which gives a set of templates for MS Word; from the same company comes FormatEase, in which the templates are tuned to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.

But lets go for the big money. The fabulous wealth of Hollywood will be yours when you finish that screenplay, and you probably already know how fanatical the formatting options are. Although a number of programs tackle this challenge – and there’s a WordPerfect template that also tries to help.

But the best of them all is Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 (formerly ScriptThing), a complete word processor that handles the screenplay form (and TV sitcoms) with such flair that it’s almost invisible.

Get a page of dialogue going and you’ll get a quick prompt for the most likely character name when you hit Enter. Search and replace, change technical features – whatever your script may need is easily accomplished. You can even insert variables in a scene for, say, an interactive product, and you can configure the program to read aloud what you write.

If you’re unfamiliar with the screenplay form, a scene always begins with a setting descriptor – INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE – DAY, for example. Movie Magic Screenwriter remembers what you’ve written and prompts with what’s likely as you type.

It includes an outline feature, and even allows you to keep and track notes. Although it’s weak on formatting for a stage play, which has different layout requirements, the screenplay development and tracking facility is amazing. The program lets you collaborate on a script on a network or Internet hookup, and it keeps track of screenplay versions, which is vital when the shoot is in progress. Analysis and breakdown tools also are included.

Sample scripts for a clutch of popular television shows are included in case you want to take a crack at a script for one of them, but if you’re like me you’re aiming for that movie sale. Assuming you’ve got some ideas, this program is a dream – one of my favorite applications. It’s so easy to get started that you might forget to check into more advanced features. Be sure to check: this program continues to open up like a cornucopia as you poke into its innards. This, specialized though it may be, is what a computer program should do for you. Like P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, it appears when needed, silently adjusts your layout, and intimidates you into thinking it’s smarter than you are.

Given my screenplay sales record, I’m not sure that isn’t true.

Metroland Magazine, 1 March 2001

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