SAN FRANCISCO (01/24/2000) - Using desktop software to compose a novel or screenplay is nothing new; after all, word processing was among the first personal computer applications. But using software to conceive a story sounds like magic. Yet this is the promise of Screenplay Systems Inc.'s Dramatica Pro 4.0 and Ashleywilde Inc.'s Plots Unlimited 1.04, two Mac programs designed to act as fiction-writing coaches for wannabe Faulkners and Hemingways.
Using algorithms to craft a novel or screenplay will seem like sacrilege to many literary purists. Nevertheless, these programs can help you organize your thoughts and spot potential weaknesses in your story. But they don't necessarily make the process easier. Dramatica requires you to learn a difficult dramatic theory. And a primitive interface mars Plots Unlimited, an eight-year-old program with updated packaging.
Plots Unlimited, the brainchild of a veteran TV writer and producer, is based on the notion that there are no new stories, only different ways of telling the old ones. The core of the program is a database of 5,600 conflict situations, each linked with up to 18 related conflicts. Using the program, you can select a conflict that will occur at any point in the story and then add leadin or leadout conflicts; the former move backward in time, while the latter move forward. For example, one conflict situation, "Pretending to be Jack's friend, his rival, Gary, sets a deadly trap for Jack," leads to six potential leadouts, including, "Jack finds out that Gary has made him the fall guy in a con game.
Jack pretends to be duped in order to trap Gary in his own con game." This leadout has its own associated conflicts in turn; create enough conflict situations, and you end up with a plot.
Although it's a fascinating way to explore storytelling, Plots Unlimited seems like magic in a way the developers never intended: Using it, you might think you've taken a time machine to the mid-1980s. Created with FoxPro database software, it feels like a DOS application ported to the Mac; most shareware programs have slicker interfaces.
And the problems are more than cosmetic. You can't undo most operations, and simply changing the default character names is a byzantine process in which you have to click on one name, make the change, and then tell the program whether you're done or want to change any other names. Adding insult to injury, the program ships on floppies. In short, Plots Unlimited needs a serious overhaul, especially considering the $199 price tag.
Dramatica Pro 4.0, a recent upgrade, is based on the Dramatica Theory, a difficult but comprehensive drama theory. Describing the theory in detail is beyond the scope of this review, but Screenplay Systems offers a free guide in PDF format on its Web site; you should learn as much as you can about the theory before purchasing the program. The theory's beauty is that it lends itself to computerization while leaving a lot of room for creativity-if you're willing to buy into it.
Dramatica Pro includes examples of well-known movies to help you learn the program.
The core of Dramatica Pro is the Story Engine, where you answer 24 questions about your story. Based on your answers, the program generates a multitude of reports covering theme, plot, and character development. The Story Engine itself is unchanged, but additional modules guide you through the questions.
For example, this version includes Structure Templates-preformatted for a novel, short story, or screenplay-offering instruction specific to that story type.
But the most welcome change is the option to swap Dramatica's occasionally unintuitive terminology for a layperson's language. For example, previous versions of Dramatica used the words knowledge and understanding in very specific ways; if you choose the layperson's terms in Dramatica Pro 4.0, gathering information replaces knowledge. The upgrade ships on CD-ROM, and mercifully dispenses with the floppy-based copy protection of the previous version.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Of the two programs, Dramatica Pro is by far the more polished, but you'll need to spend considerable time learning the Dramatica Theory to take full advantage of the program. Plots Unlimited's learning curve isn't so steep, but the program is much more limited in the storytelling guidance it provides, and it suffers from a primitive DOS-like interface.
Dramatica Pro 4.0
RATING: 4.0 mice
PROS: Polished interface; excellent built-in learning aids; flexible use of terminology.
CONS: Underlying theory is difficult to learn.
COMPANY: Screenplay Systems Inc. (818/843-6557, http://www.dramatica.com).
ESTIMATED PRICE: $300.
Plots Unlimited 1.04
RATING: 2.5 mice
PROS: Easy to learn.
CONS: Primitive interface; ships on floppies.
COMPANY: Ashleywilde Inc. (800/833-7568, http://www.ashleywilde.com). COMPANY'S ESTIMATED PRICE: $199.