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Mon 18 Jan 2010

Designing Software Cinematically

Category : Commentary/Story.txt

Actually there's one book I'd like to recommend that software developers read (okay, only if you also love movies) and that's Robert McKee's "Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting".

Long ago in the '80s, Brenda Laurel made the analogy that designing computer systems is a lot like figuring out the manifold activities that go towards putting together a play. That was in her book, "Computers as Theatre" which, though rather dated by now, is still a classic. And one can argue that with the Internet, YouTube and all, its time has come.

So, if you're of such a persuasion, you can find much of relevance in Robert McKee's exhortation to tell good stories always. For in telling good stories, you pare away at the details, so that what you have left is all that you need to keep the viewer on the message.

Where computer-systems design and story-telling diverges is when after you've set up a sense of expectation (via the layout of the "scene"), in computer-systems you must go on to fulfill the expectations, but in a play, the playwright often does just the opposite, building suspense and creating the drama that keeps the audience transfixed.

But the point is, the principal creative activity in both endeavours is the setting up of the scene (because in computer-systems, if you create in the user the right expectations, he will already know what to do, and you save yourself the bother of having to write a thick user guide). And the principles are quite similar in both cases, which shouldn't be surprising if you're a software designer who also loves watching movies.

Just one more thing. Reading the book, you'll enjoy movies a lot more because Robert McKee deconstructs famous scenes from e.g., Casablanca and also one from Chinatown, which struck me because, watch this. In the scene the detective slaps the woman, saying, "You're lying. Tell me who she is!". "She's my daughter." Slap. "She's my sister." Slap. "She's my daughter." Slap. "She's my daughter. And my sister!" Slaps. Then the horror, as the truth dawns on the detective (and also on us, the audience).

Now watch how Steve Jobs uses this technique, in the launch of the iPhone. "We're launching three products today. An iPod. A phone. And an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone. Are you getting it?" And the crowd goes wild.

Posted at 1:50AM UTC | permalink


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