Sunday, January 29, 2012

Developing Your Story Using Software Applications

by Ian Walkley, author of the action thriller, No Remorse   

Does anyone still use a typewriter or write their stories by hand? 
I’m something of a software application junkie, and if there is something out there that claims to help writers write, plot, develop characters, improve vocab or whatever, I’ve probably tried it. Pity there’s not something to help debut authors get published. 

Anyway, I thought I’d give a quick overview of some of the apps available for writers and aspiring writers. But I do want to emphasize that these applications can only ever facilitate the writer’s journey. It is the writer that must determine the story’s route, the travelers, and the destination.

Scrivener’s corkboard provides flexibility with chapter and scene structure.

While I used Microsoft Word to write my first novel, No Remorse, I’m enjoying using Scrivener to write my second. I bought it because I was getting frustrated using index cards. I would spread them out on our dining table, only to have to collate them at mealtime. I had previously tried Curio, which is great for brainstorming and mindmapping, but doesn’t offer flexible index cards, and Throughline, which has index cards but is very basic (and stopped working when I upgraded my iMac to the Lion operating system). Scrivener is a Mac application that has recently become available for Windows for only $45. It has a word processing function and allows easy restructuring of chapters, brainstorming, plot structure, character data sheets and many other great features.
For character development, I use Character Writer. It gives prompts on demographics, appearance, personality, relationships, dialogue and psychology. There is an Enneagram personality typology option, which helps with the understanding of character motivations and behaviour. My only beef is that Character Writer doesn’t automatically update the overall description when I edit one of the sub-categories.

For plot development, I’ve tried lots of different apps, including Dramatica Pro, which I had trouble understanding and seemed to limit my options. It also stopped working when I upgraded my iMac to the Lion. (I’m still cursing Apple about its Lion “downgrade”).
I also use a fairly inexpensive app designed for movie scripts, called Contour. It allows me to fit my story into a classic three-act plot structure. With about 26 plot points, Contour is useful for identifying where to place obstacles to confront the protagonist, and add plot twists.

If you’re just starting a story, you might consider Storyweaver, a program from the co-creator of Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips, which uses a series of prompts to help build the story. I haven’t used it from scratch, but I might give it a try next time.
For vocab, I have Master Writer, which offers some helpful extensions to a traditional dictionary/thesaurus, including a pop culture reference, but is a little on the expensive side for what it offers.
And finally, if you’re considering converting your story into a movie, there are two apps that will help with the screenplay layout: Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, which is the one I use.
There are, of course, many other products competing out there for the writer’s dollar, most easily searchable and most offering trial periods for free.

Of course, if your computer screen starts to make you feel like you’re Captain Kirk in Star Trek, there’s always the default—good ol’ MS Word, which is somewhat configurable and has a dictionary and thesaurus. You’ll probably end up using this to format your story into a document to send to agents and publishers, most of whom now require the manuscript to be sent by email. That pretty much rules out a typewriter or hand-written manuscript. 
These days, I can barely hand write enough to scrawl a greeting in one of my books. What I’d like to know is, how the Dickens did writers manage before computers?

Thanks to Jodie Renner, my editor, for inviting me to be a guest blogger here today.

  Ian’s debut action thriller, No Remorse, is available at
and will be available FREE as an ebook in a special Amazon promotion for two days only, on February 1 and 2, at the above link. 
If you don't have an e-reader, you can download the free Kindle reader for PC or iPad or phone at:


  1. Welcome, Ian! This is a great resource of software to help aspiring authors, and even established novelists who are looking for tools to help them organize their ideas and get their books out faster.

  2. (The above comment was posted from my BlackBerry from the SDSU writers' Conference in San Diego, while listening to a talk by Mark Coker of Smashwords.) - Jodie Renner

  3. L. Sue Eggerton-DurkinJanuary 29, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    What a helpful article! Thank you for your knowledge of writing apps.

  4. Welcome Ian. I used Scrivener for my last novel, and while I haven't quite figured out all its features yet, I did like the ability to move chapters around with ease--something that can be difficult to do with Word. I haven't heard of the others you've mentioned, but I think I'll check them out. Thanks for the heads up, and best of luck with your novel.

  5. Informative post. I used Scrivener for my last two novels, but have always relied on my own workout-inspired brainstorming sessions for my plots. Still, I'll check some of these out. I love resources.

  6. I wrote a manuscript or two without Scrivener, but I can't imagine doing it again.

    Another potential program I've heard good things about is Snowflake.

    I hand write three pages every morning as a result of reading THE ARTIST'S WAY. Initially my hand got tired very fast. Now, it's just a matter of deciphering my handwriting when I've come up with some nifty idea.

    Thanks for such an interesting post, Ian.

  7. Thanks everyone for your kind welcome and comments. I was surprised to see so many users of Scrivener. I just checked out Snowflake and it looks like it might be useful as a storybuilder tool too, like Storyweaver. You can find it at:

  8. Thanks Ian. Very interesting post.

    I wish I'd discovered these apps before I invested so much time developing my own methods with traditional office products.

    I might be an old dog at this point. I love the tools I've developed, but if I were starting out, I'd buy scrivner in a heartbeat.

    Thanks for the overview!


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