Scriptwriting software: what’s out there?

With the recent release of Amazon Storywriter, the battle for supremacy in scriptwriting software is hotting up...

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INT. OFFICE/BEDROOM – DAY

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In a scruffy office bedroom, an equally scruffy DEN OF GEEK writer, early 30s and out of shape, feverishly taps away at a laptop, pausing only to take frantic gulps of tea and stuff bourbon biscuits into his face.

Gone are the halcyon days where all an aspiring scriptwriter needed was a great idea, an ear for dialogue, and a typewriter. While the first two are still (sort of) as necessary as ever, the third was long ago replaced by computers. Which actually made the whole thing a lot easier. These days, in the same way the affordability of video cameras and music software has led to a boom in filmmaking and musicians, screenwriting software is readily available, which means that you, yes you at home reading this right now, can probably download what you need, and start your script after tea. Good luck.

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But it’s not quite that simple. There’s a lot of choice out there. So what should you choose? Below is a guide to helping you decide. I’ve broken it down into four main sections, based around price point – which for many will be the ultimate deciding factor. I’ve also tried to list other options after, for the sake of completism…

But before we start, why bother with all this anyway? Why not just write down your script how you want? Why do you need specific software? Well, in the first instance I’m assuming the main purpose of you writing a script is for others to read it. Getting it in the right format is key to people doing this – a universal formatting means that people can read scripts and quickly imagine the images you’re trying to convey with words. Scriptwriting software automatically formats your work for you, helping you break each of your scenes into slugline, action, character, dialogue, parenthetical, dialogue, and transition. This is vital for avoiding long paragraphs of prose that nobody has time for, especially script-readers having to work through hundreds of scripts this evening.

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Format is everything – from title page on. Get it right, and use one of the below to help you. I’ve concentrated on the desktop software here, and made a note of what app versions there are too. Being able to switch between devices is a increasingly necessary part of writing these days, so if there’s demand I’ll take a more in-depth look at iOS and Android app versions of the below.

The DIY option

Have zero money to spend on your scriptwriting software? Worried you might not be able to export your finished script easily? Then you’ll most likely be interested in this option. Microsoft Word.

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Yep, by spending a bit of time setting some macros, you can make Word do your scriptwriting bidding. It’s not perfect, and setting the macros is a definite pain in the arse, but once up and running you’ll find this does the job effectively. I know a few people who have used this when writing scripts for low-budget productions. First of all, open up Word. The find yourself a handy guide like the one right here. It’ll take a bit of time to sort out, but you should have yourself a free scriptwriting template set up within the hour. Don’t quote me on that, it really is a pain in the backside.

The free option

For a dedicated scriptwriting software you don’t have to have a meltdown to set-up, but also happens to be free, then the most widely used option is Celtx.

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Fully specced out, you can pay for the entire production option, but the dedicated script software is entirely free. It has a wide range of tutorials to guide you through, plus an active and engaged community to ask questions to if you find yourself unsure about it all. Celtx is a great option for the hobbyist scriptwriter, or if you plan on using the whole suite for a production of your own.

For a fee, Celtx offers storyboarding, budgeting, shot lists, and production tracking. However, it’s not exactly compatible with the other scriptwriting software, meaning that you’re in the Celtx eco-system. People may not appreciate this, even if there is a step-by-step guide to exporting your Celtx files into Final Draft. It has apps in both iOS and Android.

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The cheap(ish) option

If you’re after a fully featured scriptwriting software option that won’t break the bank, then I recommend FadeIn.

It’s under £50, and seemingly does everything that Final Draft can do, including colour coding work for easy reference, rearrange scenes using the navigator, and custom formatting. It’s fast and pretty intuitive to use. It can save files in Final Draft, Movie Magic, and Celtx format, and is gaining a loyal following from professional scriptwriters such as Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2) and Rian Johnson (Looper). All in all, it’s a great low-cost way into using a powerful piece of program.

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It also updates for free, meaning that your initial outlay is the last cost you’ll pay for it (well, the app is a bit more if you go that route). Again, it supports both iOS and Android.

The fancy pants option

If you feel like treating yourself, then go for Final Draft. Time and time again when asking scriptwriters and filmmakers what they used when researching this article, the answer was almost unanimously Final Draft. But it’s pricey for sure, at £163 for the initial download, with further updates £65 a pop.

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But it really is the industry standard. Agents, producers, directors and actors will often ask for scripts as a Final Draft file (lucky a few other programs can covert, hey?), and if you ever find yourself in the position of becoming a professional scriptwriter, I imagine you’ll be using this bad boy. It’s not perfect, in that it crashes often, is overpriced, and may not be as elegant as other software, but everyone is familiar with it.

Think of it as the Final Cut of the scriptwriting world – to get yourself taken seriously you need to be knowledgable about Final Draft. It’s only available on Windows and iOS at the moment, and doesn’t have the best reputation…

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A few other options (not exhaustive!)

Movie Magic Screen Writer – approx £131

The main industry competition to Final Draft is Movie Magic Screen Writer. Those in the industry will typically either be a FD person or a MMSW person. Again, it’s similar to Final Cut vs Avid/Adobe Premiere. It’s the go to for production planning, so if you fancy yourself as a bit of a do it all indie producer, this may be the best bet.

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Scrivener – approx £30

Beloved of many writers, Scrivener was designed to flow with the writing process – so rather than be representative of the final product, Scrivener allows writers to rearrange long documents using synopses, edit the text in small pieces, import images, PDFs, and webpages, and basically represent the writer’s chaotic mind.

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Highland – approx £23

Simplicity is key here – Highland is a plain text editor which simply concentrates on letting you write, then sorts out the formatting for you afterwards. The brainchild of screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride), Highland was originally conceived of as screenplay file converter based around their Fountain plain-text markup language. But then when they added editing and and a preview function, many started to prefer it as a writing tool. However, it’s only on Mac and won’t let you revise drafts easily – think of it as a first draft app.

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Slugline – approx £20

Another scriptwriting program based around the open-source Fountain, the Mac only Slugline is designed to learn how you write – anticipating script formatting as you enter text. As well as being designed to let you just write, it also has a bunch of other useful features such as the ability to omit text rather than delete it – it turns it blue, and allows you to add it back in later. Useful for when you inevitable change your mind and start screaming you can’t find the line again…

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Adobe Story – free (basic) or approx £7 per month (premium)

Part of the Adobe suite, Adobe Story is a web based app designed to integrate with everything else. So if you’re in that world then this might be the app for you. You can attach pitches, a synopsis, and a huge range of graphics to go with your script. However, for the novice its pretty dense with a steep learning curve.

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Trelby – free

An open source scriptwriting app, Trelby is Linux and Windows only so far, but has many admirers. It’s a clean, simple to use piece of software that has a whole bunch of features you’d normally pay a lot more for, including watermarking PDFs, a name database, and a script compare which allows you to quickly see the differences between two drafts by colouring lines in either red, blue, or yellow.

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WriterDuet – free (basic) or £65 (pro version)

Designed for collaboration, WriterDuet is a web based app that allows multiple writers to log in, and edit the script together in real time, It’s also a fairly decent scriptwriting package on its own terms too. Two writers can work on separate parts of the script – the other writer is alerted to alterations via a red highlight box. It’s won praise for being intuitive to use (as in many of the keyboard commands are the same as you use in other scriptwriting software/everyday computer use), and fast – which seems to be an understandable bugbear for those serious about their writing.

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Amazon Story Teller

This free app has just recently been released, and promises to ‘disrupt’ the current status quo. Like Highland, it’s designed to let you write and then auto-format afterwards. It can export and import PDF, Fountain and FDX files, making it compatible with other scriptwriting software. You can work offline with the chrome app, and view your work on any of your devices. However, a lack of extra features means its a first draft type of deal right now.

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On a final note, I highly recommend John August’s podcast Scriptnotes. As well as being engaging, informative, and necessary to learning, understanding and bettering the writing craft, it often features in depth analysis of various scriptwriting software, with expert opinion from both the developers and professional users.

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