I’m (slowly) writing the script for a stage play. During my first draft, I sampled the various software apps that are designed to help a writer to produce a stage play, screen play, comic book script, etc. I thought I would blog some of my thoughts, in case anybody else out there finds them interesting.
Ideal Screenwriting Software Features
When I’m writing, I want a comfortable, intuitive interface. I don’t want to fuss around with a bunch of complicated interface controls. I don’t want to spend my time on the formatting of the script; that’s the software’s job. This is very important to me, because I want to be comfortable when I write. It’s worth noting too, that in an age when I can buy a beautifully designed and intuitive app for $1 on my phone, I’m really not impressed by a $300 program that looks like it was designed when I was in High School (i.e. Windows 95). Design is a small point in this case, I know, but it matters to me. Perhaps the price is more to the point.
I also want to be sure that whatever I’m writing in this special software is “portable” so that I can export it to an industry standard file type, change the margins and typesetting, or edit the document in another software application altogether. More technically speaking, I need my software to import/export file formats like Final Draft, Microsoft Word, Movie Magic Screenwriter, PDF, TXT or RTF. Why? Because I’m just now drafting my script, and I’m unsure what I’ll need to do with it later. I want my options open. (an interesting new markup standard for screnplays, called fountain, may someday become the standard for all the software to use. That would be nice.)
Overview of Screenwriting Apps
I tried out a lot of different apps, with help from demo versions and from friends. Here is a list.
Final Draft is one of the “industry standard” script writing apps. It’s also very expensive. For your money, you get a word processor with minimal features to make it unique for writing scripts. The features that are there are very powerful. For example, the large number of formatting templates, the character names database, and collaboration mode. You’ll be able to dive right in here and get the work done. It’s also worth noting that this app’s native file type is a very popular one. Most of the apps on this list can export your script into the format that was invented for Final Draft. That’s why Final Draft is on this list: you’ll need to know about it, even if you don’t use it.
My current favorite is Trelby, a strong, multi-platform option that offers compatibility with most of the major file formats. The best part: it’s free. This would be a great option for someone who just wants to get started right away. You can switch formats and use something more advanced later on.
Any Plain-Text Editor
Many writers prefer to write in a text-only environment, at least for early drafts, to avoid distracting buttons that change margins, font size, color, or conjure up animated dancing paper clip cartoons. For those plain text writers, there’s a very simple syntax called Fountain that lets you make all the structural and semantic indications needed in a script, without your hands ever leaving the keys. That sounds complicated, but it only took me about an hour to get the hang of it. There are plugins available for text editors like Sublime Text and Atom to help make it even easier to write using Fountain. Many apps understand the format, and can convert it to other formats like PDF or Final Draft XML (.fdx).
Fade In is not free but this one has all the basic features you could want. It runs on nearly any platform. You should definitely consider this one. It may not have all of the advanced features like some of the others, but you may not miss them anyway.
I have a lot of fun using this application for a variety of writing projects. It’s available for Windows and Mac, although the mac version has more features. In addition to “word processor” mode, Scrivener also has tools to help you organize your notes, scenes and even the other documents you might be using as source material, etc. I found those extra features to be very helpful with my first draft. The price is nicely affordable, too. You will want to go through the tutorial on this one, to learn all the useful features, but then you can get right down to writing with a nice interface. Scrivener is a wonderful app for gathering notes and drafts, but you may switch from it, after your first draft, to a dedicated script writing application.
This is more like a web app. It supports standard formats. Adobe Story is easy to use. It works online and offline. It’s definitely worth a try. It’s free, for now, I guess? There was once a way to download an app for this onto your computer for offline work, but this seems to have gone away. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t want to be required to be connected to the Internet in order to write.
If you’re a writer with a computer, you may already have Microsoft Word. Of course, you can use a word processor to write anything, but with Word it may help to have a formatting template to get you started. This one has built-in styles, for the various elements of a properly formatted script. Save your script as an .rtf file and you should be able to open it in any script writing app, later on. Word is also great for getting started, but over time you may way to have some of the features unique to script writing apps, such as the keyboard shortcuts that make it easier to switch from writing one character’s dialogue to another.
This one topped my list of favorites for a while, but they’ve changed from a free software model to a paid web app. Celtx is designed to help you write a variety of scripts. The basic package is free with the ability to add extra features for a monthly fee. In addition to basic script writing, Celtx also has features for storing notes, visualization, formatting templates. They also have an iPhone app, but I don’t want to write on my phone, thanks.
Despite the “screenwriter” name of this app, I liked it for writing for the stage as well. The word processing features are easy to use. The support for file formats is good. MovieMagic Screenwriter handles notes and scenes fairly well. It also integrates with Dramatica, so you can start there to hash out a rough outline. I found that this app, of all of them, gave me the best ability to write dialog quickly, while preserving format. Unfortunately, it costs $245.95, but if you’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on script writing software, I think this is the best investment.
I recently discovered this application, from a list of artisanal software for writers. I haven’t tried it out yet but it does look very promising. It is available for both Mac and Windows and it only costs $30. Here’s a review written by someone who has used MovieDraft.
Dramatica Pro deserves mention on this list. It isn’t going to help you write dialog, etc. but it is a nice brainstorming tool. It’s user interface is in very bad need of a complete and total overhaul, but once you get the hang of it, it might be useful. The software walks you through a sort of plot philosophy that seems to be designed to help you write a Hollywood blockbuster, but I found it to provide useful prompts for thinking about character interactions and plot complexity. It ain’t cheap, though.
Other Screenwriting Apps…
These were listed on Wikipedia but I haven’t tried them out yet. Your results may vary, so I’ll simply list them here.
- Writing Kit
- Montage software
- Movie Outline
- Page 2 stage
- Plot Builder
If anybody knows of any others, or has reviews to share, please do post them in the comments.