Trouble At StoryMill

I’m try­ing a rather dif­fer­ent approach to the writ­ing of my next book. That is, I’m going to plan it. Not in great detail; just at a level of gran­u­lar­ity that should help me avoid some of the more cata­clys­mic culs de sac that I’ve wandered down in the past.

This thing I’m typ­ing on isn’t just a type writer. It also com­putes. So I’ve attemp­ted — vari­ously — to engage it in the busi­ness of help­ing me organ­ise the nov­el.

Organising a nov­el is like herd­ing cats remotely using yet anoth­er cat who is com­pletely indif­fer­ent to your whistles, hollers of “Come by!” and attempts to use your crook as a javelin on those mad­den­ingly unco­oper­at­ive but ulti­mately charm­ing mog­gies.

I’ve spent a couple of hours today with an applic­a­tion called StoryMill, released by Mariner Software. It’s an applic­a­tion that some­what takes after Scrivener (though I wouldn’t want to sug­gest pla­gi­ar­ism; the three-paned, data­base-like organ­isa­tion­al approach is a good way to approach the nov­el).


My impres­sion was favour­able at first. It’s a very Mac-like applic­a­tion that observes Apple’s human-inter­face guidelines.

On the left­most pan­el, above, you’ll notice the break­down into chapters, act­ors, scenes, loc­a­tions and so on. This is a great idea. You can cre­ate a list of act­ors, for example, and select one from the drop-down list when you’re in a giv­en chapter — sig­ni­fy­ing that the act­or is present in the chapter. Likewise, you can then return to ‘act­or’ list and see all the chapters that con­tain a giv­en act­or. So far so good; this is an excel­lent and intu­it­ive imple­ment­a­tion.

The bit I was most des­per­ate to try — and the bit that has sub­sequently brought my mood quite, quite low — is the timeline option on the menu bar. Doesn’t it look beau­ti­ful? Here, let’s click on it:


If only the bug­ger­some thing worked.

Allow me to set up just how dis­ap­point­ing this is. For months, I’ve been search­ing high and low for an applic­a­tion that will allow me to graph­ic­ally rep­res­ent a story: a ‘flow­able chart’, if you dig, that indic­ates the main- and sub-plots of a nov­el; uses con­nect­ing arrows; and degrades grace­fully when inform­a­tion is removed. Having looked at OmniGraffle, Keynote, Lord knoweth how many free mind-map applic­a­tions, and even the stag­ger­ingly expens­ive Final Draft, there still does not seem to be a story plot­ting applic­a­tion avail­able for the Mac.

What you see in the above screen­shot bears about the same rela­tion to the actu­al func­tion­ing of the timeline fea­ture as…oh, I’m too weary for an out­land­ish meta­phor. Make up your own. Involving mon­keys, I’d sug­gest.

What it should do is this: Allow you set real-time start and fin­ish times for a scene; assign it to a plot thread; and link it through such that click­ing on a scene title brings up the text com­pris­ing the scene. Brilliant! Authors like me can then finally stop re-draw­ing huge plot maps whose iter­a­tions take about a week and become stead­ily less tidy.

What it actu­ally does:

  • Allows you to cre­ate scene but, unless the scene is very long, its rep­res­ent­a­tion becomes invis­ible. Then you have to switch to a list view in order to edit the scene, or manu­ally change the scale. How this should be fixed: The timeline should auto­mat­ic­ally scale to the earli­est and latest times in the story.
  • Brings up the scene rep­res­ent­a­tion one minute, then removes it the next. It does so with such imp­ish ran­dom­ness that you really hope that the thing is actu­ally work­ing — then it breaks. How this should be fixed: It’s just a bug; fix it before releas­ing the soft­ware.
  • It does not live update inform­a­tion about the scenes when inform­a­tion about them is altered in oth­er win­dows. So, if you change the start time of a scene else­where, this new start time is not reflec­ted in the timeline view. Closing the win­dow and open­ing it again doesn’t seem to help. How this should be fixed: If the applic­a­tion will not syn­chron­ise between ele­ments that should be syn­chron­ised, con­strain the user so only one ele­ment can be altered at a time.
  • Some of the fields relat­ing to the scenes seem to be broken. For example, I can set up a smart list (good idea) that accur­ately uses data like who is in the scene, but the date field won’t work. I can’t set up a smart field that pro­duces a timeline of dates between 1907 and 1908, say. How this should be fixed: it’s just anoth­er bug.

Overall, I really tried to like this applic­a­tion. It appears — par­don my ultra-cas­u­al glance at the web­site — to be a new iter­a­tion of an older pro­gram called Avenir, so you’d think that it would actu­ally work. Why is this a final release can­did­ate? Parts of the soft­ware fun­da­ment­ally don’t work. Moreover, the tri­al peri­od is meas­ured in terms of open-close cycles, not days or weeks, and since I’ve had to open and close my doc­u­ment about twenty times try­ing to get parts of the pro­gram talk­ing to one anoth­er, I’m at the point where I need to make a decision about buy­ing it. I won’t, I sus­pect, be doing so.

Anyone else using soft­ware to rep­res­ent story plots? Surely there must be at least one pro­gram out there that works.

Post script: I feel quite bad about this post, by the way. I’ve spent a longish time on the for­ums try­ing to find work­arounds and the chap who wrote the soft­ware seems very nice. The applic­a­tion does have sev­er­al excel­lent features…I’m just too grumpy to list them right now. Alright, just one: the pro­gress bar on the tool­bar is great. And one more: and there are some unusu­al proof­ing aids, such as a lex­ic­al fre­quency indic­at­or. What’s that? Oh, it’s like the flux capa­cit­or, only more so.

Post post script: I should point out that I’m run­ning OS X Leopard 10.5.2 on a 2 GHz first-gen MacBook Pro in a lovely red Speck case. My mouse mat is from the Kennedy Space Center.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

4 thoughts on “Trouble At StoryMill”

  1. Yeah…and since I’m con­tinu­ally demon­strat­ing to myself how bad I am at it, it’s prob­ably time to aban­don the whole thing!

  2. Hello Ian,

    The timeline view in StoryMill is designed for scenes that take place rel­at­ively close togeth­er in time. It does not cur­rently work very well for epic storylines that take place over time scales of sev­er­al years or for scenes that last less than 10 minutes or so.

    This is a dif­fi­cult prob­lem (rep­res­ent­ing scenes in such widely vary­ing time scales) and we chose to tar­get what 90% of writers would need for our first ver­sion of the timeline. We are eval­u­at­ing solu­tions so we can make the timeline use­ful to more people in the future.

    We would love to hear more about your spe­cif­ic needs. You can con­tact us at

    Thanks for tak­ing the time to eval­u­ate StoryMill and we hope we can make it more use­ful for you in the future.

    Todd Ransom
    StoryMill developer
    Mariner Software

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