A working guide to screenwriting software
This is a piece I’m writing because I want to to read it, which is a bummer because the version I really want to read would be written by someone else. I’m increasingly asked, both by new screenwriters and old hands, which software I would recommend and I realised there’s a dearth of useful comparative pieces on the subject. Screenwriting apps are reviewed sporadically but almost always by tech journalists, not screenwriters. I’ve often found these reviews to be less than helpful precisely because the reviewer has no skin in the game; the apps aren’t being put to long term use by someone who needs to use them to make a living. Mentions are always made of “industry standards”, which aren’t really a thing and focus is aimed at aspects of the software that may be novel but are not ultimately very useful while big glaring tear-your-hair out problems are overlooked. Features over functionality.
So here I am, jabbing out the piece I’ve been looking for. Like I say, I wish someone else had written it because these things are more fun to read than they are to write!
Everything I’m saying here comes from experience. I’ve put these apps through their paces in a real world scenario; nothing was looked at just for this piece, these are all apps I’ve actually used to produce full-length scripts in a professional capacity. Consequently, there are omissions; I’ve never used CeltX, for example, or Montage or a host of other apps that you find when you Google “screenwriting software” but which you’ve never heard of anyone actually using.
Some notes before we start. Firstly, this is just my opinion. I think different apps are right for different writers and sometimes different apps are right for different projects (I have a theory that certain apps actually change the way you write, of which more later). What I’m going to try to do here is to talk about each app’s strengths and weaknesses, so you have a fighting chance of figuring out which one might be best for you.
INDUSTRY STANDARDS: All of the apps I’m talking about will format scripts to industry standard, if that is something you worry about. I don’t really think there is such a thing as industry standard; no exec receives your script and starts measuring the margins with a ruler or checking the font size. Increasingly, at least as far as spec scripts are concerned, a tweak to the formatting can actually be an advantage in making your script stand out from her herd. I wrote about that HERE.
DELIVERY FORMAT: People still seem to worry about screenwriting software being “Final Draft compatible”. All of these apps are but, if you come across one you like that isn’t, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You don’t deliver Final Draft files (.fdx), you deliver PDFs. (Be suspicious of anyone who insists on .fdx delivery — they either don’t know what they’re talking about or, to draw from bitter experience, they’re already planning to hand your script over to another writer.)
FONT: The standard font for screenplays is Courier. Final Draft has its own font which is called Courier Final Draft. If you want your script to instantly look and feel better, use Courier Prime which is free, compatible with all screenwriting software and is just a lot nicer. You can download it for nothing HERE.
I’ve used all of these apps and I’ve become fairly app-agnostic. A key reason for that is that I’ve noticed that different apps actually change how I write. I believe this comes down to how the app encourages you to structure the writing and whether it promotes “flow” or not. It’s kind of a difficult thing to articulate, and it’s very subjective, but certain apps, Slugline, for instance, make the actual writing so easy that I just write and write and scenes stretch out and become very freeform. It’s easy to imagine Greta Gerwig or Richard Linklater or Quentin Tarantino finding Slugline optimal for their approach of writing long and seeing what happens.
That’s really hard to do with an app like Causality and, to a slightly lesser extent Scrivener. These are apps that encourage you to write in snippets, small chunks and beats, and so you end up with something closer to a Christopher Nolan film where you’re packing a lot of story into a much smaller space.
This is one of the reasons why I no longer have one go-to app; I figure out what the project demands, what the challenges are likely to be and then choose the app to suit that. If character is going to be the focus, I’ll go with Slugline or Fade In. If I have to cram a lot of story in and it’s going to be an intricate structure, I’ll look at Causality (with reservations, see below) or Scrivener. Sometimes I’ll cheerfully use a combination of apps. I’ve found that, if you save your work as a Fountain file, you can pretty much move projects and scenes from app to app without too much of a headache.
Anyway, to the apps themselves. This is the bit where a friend of mine says I come across “like nerdy American Psycho”. So let’s start with the one I DON’T think you should be using…
The market leader. The “industry standard”. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met who decided to try their hand at screenwriting first shelled out $250 on this thing. I am no exception. I wrote my very first screenplays on Word, using a bunch of custom macros, but as soon as I could afford it, I bought Final Draft and I’ve used it A LOT.
I think it’s shit. I find it to be over-priced, under-equipped, wobbly, it looks horrible and writing with it is a miserable experience. If you’ve only ever used Final Draft, you won’t agree with any of this. I didn’t. But if you start putting some of these other apps through their paces, I think you’ll see the light. And for the love of God, if you’re just now thinking of buying some software, DO NOT BUY THIS. I’m about to tell you about an app that is way better for a fraction of the price.
Final Draft is the “industry standard” (although that crown is finally slipping) because it’s the software that movies and TV shows use when they’re in production. The reason for that is that Final Draft does, to be fair, beat most other apps when it comes to revisions and coloured pages and productions are therefore set up to use it and they like you to slot into their workflow. There may, therefore, be a need to buy it further down the line. But by that point, you will have been paid a bunch of money for your script and $250 won’t hurt as much (or production may buy it for you).
Until that time, spare yourself the misery of ugly floating palettes, a shitbag interface, resolution problems, disappearing cursors and bizarre scrolling behaviour. Every time I see that Final Draft icon in my dock I feel a little shiver of embarrassment because I went out and massively over-paid for something sub-par because I didn’t know any better, because I bought this “industry standard” bullshit.
I realise a lot of people are saddled with this mistake because they did what I did and they bought Final Draft when they were starting out and now they don’t want to spend more money on different software because “it works fine”. And mostly it does, although worth noting that it’s the only software that ever lost forty pages of script for me on a crash/corruption incident. But, and this is obviously subjective, if you’re using Final Draft I think you’re getting the worst writing experience possible. You’re the guy driving a Vauxhaul Cavalier because “a car’s a car”; you may well get where you need to be but it’s not going to be any fun and there’s a decent chance you’ll break down on the way.
One day, Final Draft will be dead and it will be Fade In that kills it. Fade In does everything Final Draft does, and then it does a lot more. It does it faster, more easily, more intuitively, while looking better and being incredibly solid and reliable. And it does it for a fraction of the cost. A FRACTION. Final Draft costs $250. Fade In is $79.95!
If you’re thinking of buying your first piece of screenwriting software, stop reading right now and go to the Fade In site or the App Store, download it and start writing. Seriously, ignore the rest of this article, I just saved you a bunch of money and I’ve made your life better. My work here is done.
Whatever app I use to originate a screenplay, everything ends up in Fade In. It’s my last checkpoint; I import the fountain file into Fade In and then allows me to check formatting, spelling etc. It will even scan the script for accidental extra carriage returns that may have crept in, misplaced elements, the works. Need to shave a couple of pages off the page count? Fade In has a variety of tricks to lose a little white space without affecting the look of the thing. Need to change it from a film script to a TV or radio format? Fade In can do that. Need to output the finished version as a .pdf, .fdx, .fountain file? Not a problem. Fade In also imports Final Draft files, so your defection to a better place can be seamless.
This software has been developed by someone who really understands the writing process. Updates are frequent and useful, he’s really responsive to notes and suggestions… The whole thing is just a joy.
I’ve written maybe 20–30 episodes of television, all my radio plays and maybe eight or nine movie scripts on Fade In and I’ve never had a fatal crash, never lost a word, never had anything other that an easy, robust experience on a piece of software that gets out of the way and lets you write.
If I had to balance this rave review, I’d say that I don’t think too much of the Fade In mobile apps, but it’s useful that they exist (and they may have got better — I haven’t used them for a while). That’s it though, that’s the only negative I can think of.
I was dubious of this software when it first came out. It promised a “pure writing experience” but it didn’t automate any of the things I was used to; you can’t just tab through the Scene Heading to drop in pre-made locations or times of day, it doesn’t give you any of the help that Fade In does. It’s just… More typing. And I didn’t see the attraction of that.
And then I tried it. And it really is a pure writing experience. Slugline works off fountain files. Fountain files are modified plain text files. What that means in practice is that you can write a screenplay in any word processing software and, so long as you obey certain rules (speaking character names in capitals, for example), when you drop the text into Slugline, it will format it like a screenplay. Slugline also has a (brilliant) iOS app, so you can use it on the go.
So, even though a lot of the plain text advantage is moot now, the fact that Slugline was designed for it makes it brutally lean. There is no interface to speak of, just an empty page. You can outline in text and your outline will appear on the left hand side of the window and you can use it to jump through your script, but that’s basically it. It doesn’t do anything. When you’re done with the script, you can either use an app called Highland to convert it to Final Draft or PDF or you can import the fountain file into Fade In or similar to output it. There are no bells and whistles at all on this thing. (ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out that Slugline can in fact export to PDF.)
BUT… Just try writing with it! There’s nothing to do but write, it’s completely immersive. I found I got into a flow state with this thing almost immediately and it turned me into a writing machine. As noted earlier, this does tend to result in over-writing and very long scenes which then need to be cut, but it’s just such a joy to feel you’ve been let off the leash. I’m gutted at the moment that all the projects I’m working on are the kind of things that need to be plotted to the nth degree and therefore aren’t best suited to Slugline (although I’m still nipping into it to write specific scenes). I’m now cooking up an idea for a smaller, more talky film, just so I can use the software end to end.
This is not an app for everyone, but it’s an app I think everyone should try. It’s $39.99 on the app store and the (gorgeous) website is HERE.
Scrivener is my workhorse. I’m writing this very article in Scrivener right now. I used to use it just for outlining and prose but now the screenwriting side has got so good that I use it for almost everything, especially if I’m breaking with traditional formats and using a mix of screenwriting and prose.
I’m going to assume that most of you are more or less familiar with Scrivener because it’s becoming so popular and has been written about so much. I think it’s used less by screenwriters than it is by novelists, academics, journalists and bloggers, but I’m hoping that will change. Nothing outlines like Scrivener, no other app allows you to have all your research documents right there to hand, lets you add notes to scenes which are right there as you’re writing them, provides a cork-board for virtual index cards which allow you to restructure your screenplay non-destructively… The list of benefits goes on and on. You can work on individual snippets or in scenes (depending how you’ve laid out the structure) or you can highlight a bunch of scenes and work on them as a single sequence to really hone something down.
I just wrote a studio move end-to-end on Scrivener, only taking the finished thing out to Fade In for the final proof read and for conversion to PDF for delivery (yes, even the studios don’t expect anything to arrive as a Final Draft document although Scrivener can compile out to .fdx if you’re still nervous of that).
Even if you’re one of those people still using Final Draft (ugh) I would still recommend Scrivener 3 for outlining and structure and notes and… It’s only $45!!!! $45 for the best, bar none, writing software for any medium at all. JUST BUY IT!
BUT… There is a learning curve and I know some people are put off by that. Screenwriters as a breed tend not to be too techy and that’s why I’d recommend Fade In over Scrivener if you don’t want to learn software. Once you have the hang of it (and I’d always recommend actually using it to write something over pouring over a manual as a way to learn) it’s SO powerful and SO versatile. Also, there are ton of useful videos out there on how to do various things, the manual is good, there are discussion threads to ask questions and Keith, the guy who wrote the software, is really responsive.
And now to the new kid on the block and, in many ways, the reason I wrote this piece. I only came across Casuality a couple of weeks ago and I was intrigued because it offered a completely new approach to writing.
In Causality, you lay out your story beats left-to-right in a timeline that will be familiar to anyone who’s used editing or post-production software. Each time you add a beat, a “snippet” is added to your ongoing script on the left of the screen. At any point, you can jump into this snippet and write some dialogue or some action or a whole scene. When you move the beats around on the timeline, the script reorders.
The idea behind this is that you never stop outlining and start writing; the two happen concurrently. So instead of having an idea for a bit in Act Three and making a note of it for later, you just write it here and now and then jump back to whatever bit you want to work on next.
It’s a great theory…
But the practice… Importing an existing project into Causality is tricky and requires a LOT of work to get it set up and so they recommend you start from scratch on a project in the software. This week I had to write a 25 minute podcast episode, so I thought I’d give Causality a whirl. The outlining really is amazing; it’s intuitive and fun and I went from not really having much of a story idea to having a full outline in no time. And along the way, I’d written big chunks of the thing.
BUT they’re not there with the writing side of things yet. As of time of writing, there are scrolling issues, no spell check, element problems (hitting return in dialogue puts a new line AFTER the dialogue, not where the cursor was placed, parentheticals behave VERY weirdly) to name but a few. All were surmountable but all cost time and momentum. I finished the podcast episode last night and I did do it end-to-end in Causality (outputting the fountain file to Fade In to check formatting which DID require more tidying than usual) and I enjoyed the experience but this is EXPENSIVE software ($279 for the full app and free updates for life or $7.99 for a paid-monthly subscription) and I couldn’t recommend anyone buy it… Yet.
And I’m saying “yet” with a lot of optimism because these guys have come up with a really great product that isn’t just a shiny front end on some old tech — this is genuinely a new approach to writing software. And they issue updates FAST and FREQUENTLY. Per Holmes, the guy who fronts the thing, responds to emails faster than literally anyone I’ve ever met; the first time I wrote to support with a problem, he was back with a detailed explanation inside 5 minutes and he’d fixed my issue with a new software update within two days. That level of service continued all week and I’ve never been more encouraged by the enthusiasm and openness of a developer.
I really want Causality to take off and I know that requires people to pay for the thing but I don’t think they’re quite at the point where I could recommend paying yet. I think we’re only weeks away though and I do think you should check out the trial at the Causality site.
THE LEGEND: SCREENWRITER
Screenwriter 6, AKA MovieMagic Screenwriter was the first software that weaned me off of Final Draft. At the time, it had equal standing to FD in the movie industry and it was a whole shit-ton better than Final Draft. I LOVED Screenwriter. But then other apps came along and they were more up-to-date, and retina screens happened, and faster processors and Fountain files and prose integration and outlining and the ability to insert photos and use research materials and… And Screenwriter didn’t update. They’re still there, as a far as I know. They did issue a sort-of update recently that doesn’t seem make even a cursory nod to the 21st Century. But there are RUMOURS that they might get off the bench. So I’m mentioning them here because if they DO make an effort, if they DO update their system in line with what everyone else is doing, then I may well be putting them back at the top of the list soon. Screenwriter was an AMAZING piece of software and I’d love it to make a comeback.
And I’m out. If you made it to the end, congratulations; you’ve put off writing that script by another ten minutes. Now go waste an hour clicking the links and looking at all the shiny things.
Then ditch that copy of Final Draft and get something useful!