Storyist 2 Brings Out the Story Teller

| In-Depth Review

Storyist is the sixth novel (and screenplay) writing application covered in this series of reviews. Storyist, for many writers, may be just the kind of application they were expecting. A major focus is on the creation and linking of the a novel's elements, plot outline, characters and settings. Storyist requires mastery to exploit fully, but the rewards are great.

A recap of the novel writing apps reviewed previously was published in May.

One of the things that stood out when I started this series of reviews is that each application has a defining characteristic or two. Storyist has two. First, it's a charming application that creates a sense of excitement about doing what one wants to be doing. That is, for most of us Macintosh users, if we were to design a novel writing program, we would want it to create a je ne sais quoi feeling, a sense of excitement, and a feeling of joyous professionalism. Think of it as a finely crafted tool inside of a finely crafted tool: a Macintosh.

Second, Storyist employs a methodology that's well considered. If you take the time to subscribe to and understand the design methodology, then the tool provides much needed leverage for the writer. After all, writing a novel or a screenplay is hard work and demands the mastery of a craft. In that sense, Storyist also demands that you master its power as well as its nuances. That means that casual pointing and clicking by the new user won't be as productive as hoped for.

Storyist Main

Storyist main window

Storyist provides these features:

  • A word processor with the ability to lay out a page as it will appear in print by using style sheets
  • A story outliner
  • A storyboard with support for virtual index cards and photos
  • Customizable story sheets for characters and settings
  • Global search
  • A full screen "typewriter" mode
  • Bookmarks, notes and hyperlinks
  • Split screen, vertical or horizontal
  • Autosave with Growl support and named backups
  • A rich selection of export formats
  • A printed manual
  • Project goal and session goal tracking, in words and time
  • Voice playback of selected text

If I were to compare Storyist to one of the applications previously reviewed, I would say that it's most like Scrivener. However, Scrivener, in my view is oriented more towards the management of text while Storyist is a bit more technical and designed to extract benefits for the user by virtue of its features and construction. Scrivener may be easier to approach, but that's deceptive. Storyist, on the other hand, expects that the writer is working at a high professional level and honors the writer's need to work at the same high level in terms of mastery - providing commensurate rewards. In that regard, Storyist is somewhat like StoryMill, but friendlier.

Design

In a fashion similar to many of these applications, Storyist has a main window that's broken up into three panes: A Project View, The Word Processing View and the Storyboard. (See the screen shot above.)

The Project View is a list of elements of the project and serves as a both a naming and launching point to access the elements: the manuscript, chapters, settings (locations), characters, images, bookmarks and so on. The Word Processing pane can be split, vertically or horizontally, and makes strong use of style sheets to dictate the look. The Storyboard is a place to view story sheets -- which define various elements -- or virtual index cards that can be used to summarize plot ideas. Images can also be dragged in from the Finder.

Storyist outlining

Outlining

At first, the new user may be overwhelmed by the visual design. There is a Navigation Bar at the top and a Control Bar at the bottom. There are functions, icons in the Cocoa Toolbar, with specific nomenclature, like Project, Manuscript, Notebook and Workspaces that the users should familiarize themselves with. (The app is 100 percent Cocoa.) In addition, some functions are sensitive to the physical location of the live cursor. As a result, one must know where the cursor is, the active view, before clicking on some functions, like View -> Split -> Split Active View... or the desired result won't be achieved.

Storyist Style Sheet

Storyist Style Sheet (with sample at bottom)

One of the things to like about Storyist is that the default template already looks a lot like a page from a novel. That has the effect, described above, of generating subliminal enthusiasm (at least for me), because one can immediately visualize how one's work is going to look in print. However, if any element of the body needs changing, it's easy to adjust the style with Format -> Style -> Edit Current Style.

Any active view can be viewed as text, outline or storyboard.  How the outline view is associated with elements of the text, such as chapters and sections, does take some getting used to. Also, the use of the index cards may be an acquired taste for some; their use is certainly not essential to the development of the manuscript. The same goes for all the on-screen controls -- subsume them in a leisurely, incremental fashion.

Storboard 

Storyboard set above text (one option)

Something that's essential, I think for Storyist users, is to experiment first with story building elements. Asking relevant questions is a good warm up. For example, "How do I create and define characters? Assign a photo?" Then use the manual, help, and UI design to step through that process. The same goes for settings (locations) or style sheets. Seeing the result of such experimental activities is important so that one doesn't struggle later on during the act of writing. In other words, reading comprehension of the manual is a valuable skill.

Documentation

One of the purchase options is to receive a boxed product with CD and a printed manual. The 5 x 7 inch manual is 66 pages and uses a step by step, tutorial approach to explaining various operations. For example:

To add a custom field to a story sheet:

  1. Click an existing field name. A popup menu appears
  2. Chose Add Field -> Custom. A dialog appears.
  3. Enter the name of the new field in the Label: Field...

Manual cover

 Manual cover

The only complaint I have about the manual is that, in my opinion, some additional space could have been used to go into the nuances of the User Interface starting on page 7. Providing some step by step examples on how to achieve certain screen configurations is just as important as the tactical detail provided later in the manual.

One of my pet peeves about other apps in this class is that the application purports to be the tool of your trade. To be a proper tool, it needs a PDF of a proper manual, and a paper manual for browsing off-line is even better. For an app like this to not have a complete manual reveals that the developer isn't 100 percent serious about providing you with a professional tool of your trade. On that basis, Storyist gets high marks.

Tactical Details

Storyist's full power is best revealed on a large screen. It's true that many screenplay or novel writers use a notebook computer, but if you're one of those fortunate ones who has a Cinema display attached to a MacBook, you'll benefit. That's because of the size of the default typeface, simulating a real page. Plus, having a Storyboard always open to accompany the manuscript is fun, productive and saves time.

The rest of the details are fairly standard for this kind of program. The full screen "typewriter" mode is considered a must have for this class of application. The user can set a frequency for a named backup so that, for example, one can conveniently revert to the project saved the previous day. In any case, saves of the current named version can happen as often as every minute, and Growl pops up to provide essential warm fuzzies.

Comments and Inspector 

Comments and Inspector

Of course, the act of creative writing often requires coming back to a section armed with new research. That means that notes and bookmarks are essential. In Storyist, yellow icons can be inserted into the text that reveal notes, much like the Finder's colored stickies. Just click on the note to reveal it. Named notes as well as bookmarks are unlimited.

One of the things to consider when writing a novel is that the reader silently hears herself when reading. The author needs to be attuned to this effect so as to avoid unintentional rhymes, repeated words or awkward word combinations. To help with this, Storyist can read sections of text out loud with a nicely done speech synthesizer, male voice. Hearing your work read back to you is a powerful tool to recognize problems with how the text sounds in the reader's mind.

Finally, when it's time to deliver the manuscript, the text can be exported as:

  • Rich Text (.rtf)
  • Rich Text with attachments (.rtfd)
  • Plain Text (.txt)
  • HTML (.html)
  • Microsoft Word (.doc or .docx)
  • Open Document Text (.odt)
  • Final Draft (.fdx or .fcx)

An Export Assistant steps the author through a sequence that can lead to a saved workflow for future use. For example, the author may need to replace certain style sheets, quotes or other typographic marks with new ones defined later. One can argue that this is a more elegant method than the semantic technique used by Ulysses.

Nits

I should mention that I was provided a copy for beta testing before the release. That's not unusual for the review process of a new version of an application, and I've also looked at a beta of Ulysses 2.0. While there were certainly some crashes in the Storyist beta phase and some clarification in the UI logic to work out, it appears that they're all fixed in the current release, version 2.0.1. I haven't had any app crashes with the release version.

If I were to mention anything negative, and there isn't much to complain about, it's the balance between intuitiveness and power. The author is a perfectionist and has a deep understanding of the rationale for every feature and function. If it were up to me, I'd lean more towards simplicity of use, but then I have to weigh that against the reviewer's job. I'm just reviewing the app. You will be earning a living with it, so you'll make a significantly larger investment in time and mastery.

Full Window

Time to write!

Summary

Storyist, for me, was more fun to use than any of the other novel/screenplay creation tools. I felt that the author was thinking really hard about how to deliver essential tools to the writer, being a writer himself.

Because of that intangible feeling of using a thoughtful, finely crafted tool, the scope of the features, and the (available) printed manual, I'm rating Storyist one notch above all the rest. If I were to write a novel, Storyist has supplanted Scrivener as my tool of choice.

In the final analysis, the choice of tool depends on the personality of the user. Hopefully, this review, along with all the others, will provide enough information to guide you to a few candidates -- so that you won't feel overwhelmed by choice.

The upgrade to version 2.0 is US$29.00 unless version 1.x was purchased after September 1, 2008. Then it's free. The Internet download price is US$59.00. A boxed product with CD and printed manual is $79.00.

Storyist 2.0 requires Tiger, 10.4.11, and is a Universal app. However, some features such as grammar checking, picture editing and some Project View features require Leopard.

Product: Storyist 2.0

Company: Storyist

List Price: US$59.00 for Internet download

Pros:

Unique feel based on handling of all story components: characters, settings, plot.  Text to speech. Unlimited comments and bookmarks. Style sheets for composition and output.  Export Assistant. Auto-named archive backups. Paper manual available. Growl support. Cork style storyboard. Sensible pricing. 

Cons:

None observed. High level of mastery required, however.

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