Software narratives: write better software by watching movies


Without any exception I can think of: every top-notch software developer I know is also a skilled technical writer. Technical writing requires skill in choosing words, constructing sentences and paragraphs, and putting together the pieces in the right order to most effectively present the material.

In contrast, narrative writing requires an eye towards the bigger picture, an overall story arc. To put it another way, beginnings, middles, and ends. Hollywood screenwriters have got this down to a science, dividing screenplays into three acts. Next time you visit the movies, look for the parts and how the connect.

Act I, comprising about 1/4 of the whole work, introduces the characters and situation. Between Act I and Act II a key even happens to propel the story forward. Neo swallows the pill. Luke Skywalker finds his Aunt and Uncle killed. In Act II, comprising about 1/2 of the story, the “real story” begins. Another key moment happens to introduce the final Act III, which culminates during the final 1/4 of the story. Three acts: beginning, middle, and end. Other aspects of fiction writing, say characterization, are relatively less important in technical narratives.

A great introduction to these concepts is Syd Field’s Screenplay, to give one a broader view on what story is really all about, and why some stories move people more than others. Many of the concepts apply equally to software narratives. And like I wrote about earlier, such narratives are a powerful (if underused) tool in software development. -m

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