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Inputting a story arc

A computer program helps screenwriters with key questions.

March 13, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

IN L.A., everyone seems to have a screenplay tucked away in a desk drawer. And why not? It is, after all, difficult to live for any length of time in the belly of the beast of the movie biz without feeling its lure -- the sense that you too can be a player.

Yet few of these screenplays ever make it to the big screen. The reason: Most stink. Whether it's gaping plot holes, sleep-inducing story lines or cardboard characters, the scripts simply don't work.

There are, of course, a number of solutions to the problem. Wannabe screenwriters can take a class, form a writers' group, consult with professionals. And they can use Dramatica, a software program that puts writers in touch with the true intent of their stories by asking them, literally, hundreds of pesky questions. Questions like, "Who is the main character?" "What are his motivations?" "What is the take-home message for the audience?"

Using the program is simple. Dramatica asks questions, and the user answers. The hard part is making the right decisions.

"Some people think the program is going to make their writing so much easier, and in many ways it actually makes it more difficult," said Chris Huntley, who co-developed the program that's sold more than 40,000 copies since 1994, when it was first published. "It asks, 'Did you think about this? Did you think about that?' They're like, 'No.' ... The audience is going to pick up on [these things] right away, but writers in their own world have blind spots."

That was the experience of Roger Rignack, a Dramatica user who also participates in the free, semimonthly writers' group meetings Huntley's company offers users of the program.

On a recent Tuesday, half a dozen aspiring screenwriters sat in a classroom picking apart "Blackbirds," the screenplay Rignack had written about a group of African American Air Force pilots.

"I like the idea, but I think it needs a lot of work," a gray-haired man said.

"I had a problem with predictability and unbelievability," another group member said.

For more than an hour, the class hammered out various aspects of the story. The class instructor then input the information into the Dramatica program, which spat out a story form for Rignack to take home.

"Dramatica, Rignack said, "will answer any questions you have about your story, but there's no one there to say, 'Hey, I liked it' or 'This worked for me.' The interaction is the only thing that's not there."

The other thing that isn't there is judgment. With Dramatica, there are no wrong answers, meaning the program could lead a writer in the wrong direction.

"Like an automobile, it's only as good as the driver," said Huntley, vice president of Write Brothers, the Glendale company that publishes the software and holds the meetings. "You can have an automobile that has the potential to win the Grand Prix, but it can also run over pedestrians."

*

Dramatica Pro 4.0

Cost: About $219

Meetings: Free writers' meetings are held the first and third Tuesday of each month, 7-9 p.m., at Write Brothers Inc., Exchange Building, 138 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale

Info: www.dramatica.com or (818) 843-6557.

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