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Screenwriting software - what it is, what it does, and do you need it?

7 minute read

ShutterstockNow comes the hard bit...

 What is screenwriting software supposed to do? The simplest answer we could think of is: make our lives easier. Peter J. Haas provides a round up of the more popular screenwriting software packages available.

Since screenwriters migrated from typewriters to computers, the idea was always about finding an easier, more effective tool to pound words into. Screenwriting software is an extension of the modern word processor that ensures that your screenplay's margins stick to the industry standard screenplay format.

The benefits of these programs is the undeniable fact that we no longer have to memorise margins (or keep a cheat-sheet next to our typewriters!) and interrupt the flow of a good writing session just to change the margin for a quick action description. In general, much of the workflow has been simplified into an easy to remember “enter-tab” methodology: which by instituting the use of only two keys (in this case enter and tab) you can quickly scroll through your margins to get the element (Character Name, Dialogue, Action Description, Transition etc) you're looking for.

Modern screenplay software has evolved into more than simply rearranging our margins, however.. It has added a number of extra features including sophisticated revision tracking, advanced collaboration options, and tools that break down the script in terms of locations, characters, props and more

The market for this software has boomed in the past seven years; from the past where a handful of premium price industry-standard options dominated, to a wild west of software applications. These newer applications run the gamut in features as well as pricing – in fact some of them are free.

The Heavy Hitters

Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are the two heavy hitters when it comes to “industry standard” screenwriting applications.

One of the things that make them immediately attractive is the fact that both these titles have been around for some time — in the case of Movie Magic over thirty years. Although we know nothing is guaranteed future-proof in the world of computing, the idea that these companies have been around for a while is comforting. Both companies also have a really good reputation for making their new file formats compatible with their older ones.

The file formats for these major titles tend to be more universally accepted across other third party applications, such as budgeting, breakdown and scheduling software. Many of the smaller screenwriting software titles also can open and save in Final Draft's screenplay format.

Both Movie Magic and Final Draft have sophisticated story building (ie index card modes), version / pink-sheet tracking modes (once production has started this is an invaluable tool), and direct collaboration tools that allow other users to view and work on the same script at the same time. I'm not going into the nitty-gritty details here because they will tell you all about the specifics on their respective sites. These are the sorts of tools that professionals who are interested in keeping their lives as paper-free and streamlined as possible love.

All of these features do come with a premium price, often retailing for over $200, with major version upgrades costing less than half the original price, although to be fair these companies employ teams of developers and customer service support staff that you're not going to find with the freeware applications. Additionally, these companies are interested in teaching up-and-coming talent how to use their software and offer hefty academic discounts to students and institutions. Both Movie Magic and Final Draft also offer “competitive upgrades” that encourage you to switch allegiances for typically less than $100.

Mid-weight packages

Fade In
When it comes to standing up against the traditional titles, Fade In is possibly the largest contender in the ring.

Developed by Kent Tessman, a writer who openly pronounced to the world that he had “given up” on software such as Final Draft as well as the potential replacements. The software focuses on including the features of the industry standard titles while “getting out of the writer's way,” by giving the user a cleaner, more modern interface.

I downloaded Fade In and found the software to work extremely well on both OS X and Windows machines. The interface is, as Tessman promised, clean and easy to use. The dark grey interface was easy on the eyes (although there is still that issue of terrifying glaring white, blank, “digital” paper) I appreciate the full screen mode, which quickly removes all the clutter from your screen.

The ability to save and export copies of your screenplay in various formats such as Final Draft, Movie Magic, PDF, etc is a big plus. This is great if you're working with other screenwriters if or when the time comes to move your script to a different application. Fade In also supports Fountain, but more on that in a bit.

Of particular note: Version 2 of Fade In is expected in the near future, and amazingly it's a free upgrade. It is also insinuated on the site that there will be a number of free upgrades in the future. This is a big deal, and is refreshing to see a company offering complimentary upgrades, even across full versions.

Celtx is a long standing freeware application that has recently added pay-for-use features that expand it into an “all-in-one production studio,” and a cloud user service. Over the years Celtx has gone a long way from being a simple, freeware fringe application to a very power collection of applications that go well beyond screenwriting into the realm of production planning.

The interface of Celtx hasn't changed much over time, and remains a solid implementation of the standard tab-enter system. I like the software's folder structure window, that helps me keep multiple versions of a treatment, script and notes in one file.

The software does have a couple weaknesses I found unforgivable: The most frustrating of which is that in order to export your screenplay in a properly formatted document you must be connected to the internet, send the script over the Celtx server and have it beamed back to you. As a writer, I will be frank and say that when it comes to distraction, there is no greater enemy than the internet. Additionally, the idea of being stranded in a location without WiFi service and thus having no way to correctly format or print my document sends chills up my spine.

Equally disappointing has been the slow migration of the Celtx software from a completely free software to a subscription model, pay-per-additional service software. The website makes it very difficult to find the “free desktop” version of the software and pushes hard to get you to download the more easily discoverable paid applications.

The Markdown Movement

Over the past few years a new trend has emerged among the screenwriting community: the adoption of an open markdown standard called Fountain. Markdown is a way of creating formatted documents by using a predetermined plain text syntax.

Using Fountain, a writer can create a simple plain text file, and by following some very basic rules, write their screenplay while ignoring the exact details of margins and spacing and later parse the file and create a perfectly formatted screenplay.

I find this interesting for a number of reasons, but mainly I'm interested in the idea of writing a screenplay in plain text. A plain text file is probably the most future-proof file format you could ever want. The files are small and universally read on all computer platforms, and are such a basic implementation of word processing and computing that it's unlikely to go anywhere in in the future.. They also can easily be passed from software to software without any ill effects.

Fountain itself is not an application, but a language that allows you to tell your computer how to correctly format the text into screenplay format later. There are a number of software titles, such as Slugline and Highland that act as a front end to Fountain.

Aside from the natural benefits of using a Fountain-based application, I found that a majority of these programs are very straightforward, minimalist writing environments. When it comes to writing software, minimalism can be a double-edged sword.

Both Slugline and Highland have gorgeous modern looking user interfaces. While Highland is more focused on the native syntax of Fountain, Slugline works more akin to the classic tab-enter workflow and a basic scene navigator that allows you to quickly jump between Location Slug-lines. This minimalism can also be seen as a drawback, as most of these applications have little functionality beyond correcting your format.

These Fountain front-end applications tend to be much less expensive than Final Draft or Movie Magic, but, as I said, they also tend to lack any form of advanced featured (with a notable exception being Fade In). Additionally, these programs are written by smaller companies, many of whom haven't been around for very long and have yet to create a track record of application upgrades. I suppose this is another reason why a universe plain text format comes in handy!

There are some limitations with Markdown. While learning the “language” of Fountain is pretty easy, you still have to get the hang of typing in certain commands, and I could easily see how many writers would see this as an interruption to their writing flow. There are some other advanced features missing such as the ability to create foot or end notes for a document, but these are pretty uncommon for screenplays anyway. I personally find these only minor shortcomings, as most screenwriting work follows a pretty rigid format.

The Cloud

As internet-based applications are becoming more popular it's natural that screenwriting applications would start cropping up.

There are a number of interesting ones out there including Adobe Story, Google Docs, Scrippted and a seemingly endless pool of more in development.

The benefits of these programs are akin to most of the applications you find floating up in the cloud. The application doesn't take up any space on your local hard drive, the files themselves are stored remotely and are easily accessible from any number of workstations. Since the files are in the cloud you don't have to worry about making your own backups and they are easily shared with others.

On the flip side of the argument for the cloud is the fact that you must be connected to the internet (remember your biggest enemy when it comes to distraction), and you have to put your completed good faith in the companies that are hosting your files.

It's only fair to note here that in past articles I've talked about my hesitant opinion regarding the cult of the “cloud.” That being said, I found that none of these web-based applications lived up to the functionality of the full-blown desktop software.

What Do You Want From Your Software?

With so many options out there, the most important question to be asking is what is going to work best for you. Out of all the endless options and features available, you have to ask yourself what do you want and need from your software?

If you're working on a well-budgeted TV series, that requires lots of revision tracking, rewrites, and tight collaboration among a number of writers, producers and show runners, larger titles like Final Draft or Movie Magic will most likely be your best choice as the extra bells and whistles will certainly come in handy. One cannot deny the power tools these applications offer.

As for the lone screenwriter, it really comes down to their individual process. There are a number of writers out there who have become accustomed to the “Tab-Return-Tab-Return” style of writing their scripts, and there is something to be said about the convenience of having your character name automatically pop up for you. If you're used to something like Final Draft, then by all means, stick to it! There is nothing more irritating to the creative process than being forced to change the method in which you work.

On the other hand, many writers don't want or need a number of the extra features and prefer to have much more control over the details of their writing. There is contingent of writers out there who use much simpler (or in some cases, such as George R.R. Martin's using of WordStar 4, out of print) tools because if they want something to appear on the page, they'll put it there themselves. For this group of people I highly recommend Highland (which I will admit, it's my current screenwriting software of choice) or Slugline.

If you're on the fence about what exactly you need, or if you're just getting started with screenwriting, I'd highly recommend you take a look at Fade In.

So, if you're new to the game and are looking for something to get started, find yourself unhappy with your current software situation, there are a number of great options out there that are both affordable and will aid you in formatting your script correctly.

Now for the hard bit: get writing!

Tags: Production