In Search of Tools for Story Constructors

In the break between Christmas and the New Year, I’ve been thinking (yet again*) about writing, and structure.

It’s often struck me as odd that most products, services and tools that seem to be available for ‘writers’ are a) aimed at novelists and essay writers, rather than those involved in TV/Film/Radio production, and even if they are, then b) they tend to be, essentially, tweaked and augmented versions of word processors. I’m looking at you, Scrivener.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it all seems to be focused around the experience of writing-as-typing, rather than designing, constructing, architecting, structuring a story. Sure, there are nods to this kind of thing in some tools, but the ones I’ve encountered so far tend to go not much further than recreating the index-card-and-string-on-corkboard experience.

Similarly, when I look at media production tools, those focus, understandably, on the practicalities and logistics of bringing a story to life. If the script is used for anything, it’s mostly to form the basis for shooting schedules, prop lists, and continuity editing. All of which is perfectly decent and presumably extremely useful.

There is no question that this is the toughest challenge in mastering screenwriting. As a story editor, it's what I am most often called upon to help with - I have to start with a grasp of the whole, and then help the writer to understand the relationships of its parts.

The key is that a story, like other forms of life, must be understood as a system - a set of interrelated parts woven together in a mutually enhancing whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Any intervention in a system will have effects throughout the whole, and not only at the point of intervention. This simple fact poses enormous challenges, which our technologies
- whether of medicine, war, or storytelling - have yet to fully grasp.
An extract from Amnon Buchbinders ‘The Way of the Screenwriter’

And yet… whenever I read about the craft of storytelling, of structuring narratives, of designing the way in which one wants to tell a story, reveal information, explore the world, there are structures, templates, models. Not all of this is used by everyone – and shouldn’t be forced. I’m also not talking about ‘save the cat’ style rules to create identikit ‘hits’. It just strikes me that there seems to be a gap in the market between writing-as-typing (and getting beyond the blank page); digital index cards and string; and full on keep-track-of-production-logistics tools.

As an aside, I’d also contend that journalism, suffers from this too – ‘tools for journalists’ too often means either ‘Google Docs/Trello/Airtable’ for planning, or ‘fancy word processors’ for publishing. But very little in terms of designing and architecting the telling of a story.

Coming from the world of digital product development, it feels like there are little to no digital product development teams focused on writers as their core user base, at least when it comes to this ‘architecture’ side of things. “As a writer, I want to…” and so on.

Surely in this day and age of writing teams, show-runners, shared universes, and long running plot arcs, tools must be needed, not only to help keep a track of narrative information, not just to ensure intended consistency (whilst leaving room for nuance & ambiguity, of course), but to share that knowledge amongst the writing and production teams, and to make sure that it all hangs together to form a coherent, meaningful and effective vehicle for a story?

To me at least, there are surely opportunities here, and writers, teams of writers, production teams, with unmet needs. I’ve seen it first hand, played a part in building some of these – but nothing as far as I can see has really taken off. Which I still think is a massive shame.

I’m still convinced there’s a future in this. I suspect some of the big tech and media giants have something in house, or at least have taken steps to explore this area, but it’s never really been publicly talked about.

But maybe I’m wrong – have I missed some great examples of this kind of tool, these kinds of teams, who are tasked with solving problems for writers, assigned to do more than just recreate the word processor and post it notes? Maybe there are no problems left to solve for these kinds of ‘users’? Maybe they’re happy enough with what they have, thank you very much.

Until that’s settled, though, I remain in search of opportunities to build a multi-disciplinary, creative technology team that is hyper-focused on the writer, the story-constructor, and builds tools to help them – with the larger goal of making the most of that structured information further down the line, both for production teams, and audiences.

Do you know of tools out there? Of teams working on this kind of thing? Are you a screenwriter who has been frustrated with things that digital tools just can’t do, or lack? I’d love to chat & find out more, because ultimately I want to help. Leave a comment or get in touch with me if so.

*it’s striking how similar the sentiment of today’s piece is to that which I wrote in 2014. Yet more striking, of course, is that this is still playing on my mind, nine years later.

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