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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Screenwriting Software: Your Choice

Hello to the lovely Michelle who asks:

I've heard mixed advice from everyone on the screenwriting software issue... Some advise getting it, others say there's no need for expensive software - at least not until you're in the thick of it. Have been looking into FD and found reviews fared Movie Magic better. What's your take ?

Well, obviously: end of the day, it's your choice. Some people like screenwriting software; others see it as an excuse for a company to make shedloads of cash. That disclaimer aside however, I think you're a mentalist if you don't use *some sort* of screenwriting software. For one thing, it looks better on the page than manually formatted MS Word. It also takes a hell of a lot less time to hit "return" than it does to go back and painstakingly move the text about the page into the right place. What's more, a script in MS Word is often that bit longer than your automatically-formatted screenplay, so your page count may go up and give you essentially a false reading of how long it really is.

So I'm a fan of screenwriting software, defo. But which one? Well again, that's totally up to you.

Lots of Bang2writers are big fans of CeltX. Of the free screenwriting software this is definitely my favourite, but it has limitations that get on my nerves, the biggest one being you have to be online to convert to PDF. I'm also not a big fan of the menus at the top: they don't seem as well laid out logically-speaking as they could be. On a purely finnicky level, I don't like the version of Courier CeltX has, it seems a bit weird in comparison to others.

The second fave amongst them is the BBC's Script Smart. I downloaded it once to try it and didn't understand it. Nothing appeared to work - at least in the way I wanted it to and/or expected it to. Perhaps I got a dodgy download, 'cos I appear to be the only person in the universe this has affected. Whatever the case, I didn't like it and haven't been back.

Another one Bang2writers seem to like is Scripped, principally for its online collaboration feature (which CeltX also has). Whilst I applaud the idea, I'm simply not interested in online collaboration in this way. I gave the actual software a try and it seemed fine - but there appeared to be loads of stuff that I didn't need/wasn't interested in and though I still technically have an account, I haven't opened it in yonks.

Of the paid-for software, about three million years ago I tried Movie Magic. I didn't like it. Everything seemed to be in the wrong place. What's more, since I didn't seem to know anyone who used Movie Magic, I couldn't just send people a MM file. This seemed a good enough reason not to buy it and I haven't lived to regret it; in the past 5 years only ONE Bang2writer has sent me an MM file. When I asked him to convert it because I couldn't open those files, the text on the page went absolutely ballistic.

There was a brief interest in Sophocles amongst my Bang2writers and I took a look too: it seemed interesting, but by then I had already bought software.

I've been a Final Draft user now for aeons: it was the first I tried, but I was amazed by how easy it made everything (perhaps making the others seem like it was reinventing the wheel?). Granted, Final Draft 7 had some annoying bugs, but I've been using Final Draft 8 now since it came out and I'm pleased to report that I have had no problems whatsoever, plus it has some great new features too. What's more, everyone I know and work with regularly uses Final Draft: we don't have to worry about converting files, we can just attach and "send", no faffing about. Since I am allergic to faffing and want to do everything RIGHT NOW OR BUST, this floats my boat.

Someone said to me once that Final Draft is the professional's choice. Certainly, I have never sat in a meeting - with anyone - and been asked, "Do you use Final Draft?", it's just a given. All the professional clients I read for use Final Draft; as a reader/editor I would be at a disadvantage if I didn't have it. After PDF, FDR is the file I get most. On a purely finnicky level again, I find Courier Final Draft the neatest and easiest to read out of ALL the courier fonts.

Of course, the downside is Final Draft is bloody expensive. It's also not great for radio plays and as for creating new format templates you might need, forget it - I tried once and nearly had a severe brain explosion. But of all the major formatting tools available, I think it's easiest to use, most convenient, most universal and best looking on the actual page.

What's your choice of software and why?


Over on Twitter (follow me to join in!), my mighty tweeps are making the following recommendations:

Apparently Scrivener is ace. I've never used this, so can't say one way or another, but it's a paid-for software costing $39.95 and of course you can have a trial first to find out if you like it. Downside: it's only available to Mac users at present.

Others are recommending Writers Cafe as well as Allen here, principally for its "storylines" function. I've heard mixed tales about this software and I took a look a while back and it didn't appeal to me, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a go, especially if you find outlining a real pain.

Apparently Movie Magic give existing Final Draft users a discount!

Meanwhile, over in my Facebook account, there is MUCH love for both Final Draft and CeltX too, with just a couple recommending Movie Magic - I wonder why it hasn't caught on over here? Our American cousins seem to use it more... [FYI: If you want to join in blog discussions over at Facebook instead/as well as here, please do: friend me today!)


Allen O'Leary said...

Final Draft is good. I use something called Montage on my Mac and it's good to and much cheaper :-) I got by for the first fifteen years (writing plays mostly) using Word and setting up keyboard macros which I have to say was just fine too (I think thats essentially what the BBC Word thingie does). In the end special writing software is just FASTER and less hassle.

There is also the important step of investing money in your career. As a director there are all manner of toys to buy (like cameras!) but the screenwriter is stuck with conferences, books and software. Buying First Draft or whatever feels like you are making a commitment to your career - and this may be the most important aspect of buying screenwriting software :-)

The key thing for me is that I only use these programs to actually write as their outlining and notes tools I find a bit restrictive. The only thing I have found which is useful here is a program called 'Wrtiers Cafe' most of which is useless but it has a part called 'Storylines' which is just brilliant for me - there's a big screenshot of it in action on this page: And it's made by one guy who lives in the UK who is very helpful. So that's my tip for the day :-)

Pete Darby said...

My main complaint at the moment is... why is it such and unholy bastard to get ANY of these programs to properly read the file formats of any of the others? Like the writing tools of FD, but for small unit production (and radio and comic formats) Celtx appeals. Moving a working script from one to the other? Fecking nightmare.

Even MS Office realised this a decade ago; file imports from your rival's applications INCREASE THE DESIRABILITY OF YOUR APPLICATIONS.

Anonymous said...

I tried to use Final Draft whilst at uni at it seriously did my head in. The chances are it probably wouldn't now but as everyone knows it's a damn sight expensive. Now if I'm writing screenplays I use Pages on my Mac as it has a template already set up for screenplays and even has a storyboard template too. You can set up tab keys to automatically get it to recognise what you're writing and works just fine for me.

My bosses rave about Scrivener and find that it works perfectly for them. They do have Final Draft banging around the office but as you've mentioned what pleases one person irritates another.

I wholeheartedly agree with Allen about making that decision to pay money for something like this, it's a self assurance of "this is what I want to do". I felt the same way about having 'screenwriter and playwright' alongside my name on a business card. It was a big decision but an important one nonetheless, however frivolous it may seem at the time.

Piers said...

Unfortunately the level of funding (none) means that Script Smart hasn't been in development for some years now, so it doesn't work on newer operating systems or versions of Word.

By "newer" I mean anything from Vista and OSX onwards, and Word 2007/2008. Which I suspect is your problem.

Sophocles also, I believe, isn't supported by the author any longer.

Paul Campbell said...

Final Draft 8 (though I often end up converting the stuff and sending it out in FD7 or PDF).

It's more stable than FD7, and has some nifty new scene analysis stuff.

More importantly, it's what the client wants. In my limited career writing stuff for the Beeb, I have had no choice but to use Final Draft for Casualty, Holby City and EastEnders. It's what they use, so it's what I used. Doctors uses Word for some reason.

Iain Coleman said...

You're not the only one to have struggled with Script Smart. I tried it a couple of years ago, and found it a right pain in the bum. Switching to Celtx was such a relief.

Piers said...

I'm trying to get celtx to provide templates for standard BBC radio formats. They're interested, but it's not a priority.

A polite email to them, if you're a celtx user, might help to establish demand...

M J said...

I like Movie Magic - still getting used to it but it seems relatively user-friendly, and has lots of useful templates. I never send out MM files though - I just convert to a pdf, and so far noone's had a problem with those. Have tried Final Draft, but feel like I'd need a while to get used to it - maybe in the future!

Lucy V said...

Paul - yes, it defo seems to be the industry choice, though as you say there is the odd show here and there that still uses Word and I always find it surprising. Hollyoaks has its own Word-style format.

Piers - I heard too Sophocles was "gone", though it still seems to be there, available to download... But presumably they mean it's just never ever going to have an update? Getting CeltX to help out Script Smart seems a good idea, will pass that info on to other people asking for sure.

Katie - I have just looked on my Mac and I have Pages! I never knew it could double as screenwriting software (in fact I didn't even know I had it). I have never opened it before today, will give it a try.

MJ - the MM file I got turned into some sort of werid txt file: perhaps this was before the PDF function existed or perhaps the chap in question simply got it wrong. I could read it *just about* but needless to say it was very distracting!

Gary Bainbridge said...

I find Final Draft a trifle unwieldy. Celtx's stripped down functionality is much more to my taste, even with the online PDF restriction.

Rach said...

I think it really depends on how your mind works. I have used Script Smart for years, and still do for Radio. It gets a bit quirky at times but working with a range of software applications for a few decades now means I can sort problems out for myself.

I treated myself to Final Draft this year after saving Xmas and birthday money. I'd got to the point where I felt limited with word templates, especially with diagnosing and editing a feature script. I could have probably gone on for quite a while but irritation won.

Dave and I both had a go at quite a few of them (free and expensive). We prefer to choose for ourselves rather than going with what everyone else is using.

None were perfect so in the end it was a case of which did we find least irritating.

What you can live with will be a personal preference so I think spending the time trying them out is worth the effort. The expensive ones do have free trial copies you can download.

IanT said...

I'm probably one of the people who was saying that Scrivener was ace on Twitter.

Let me restate - it's ace. As you say, shame it's Mac-only, but it's good enough for me to abandon the PC for it. :-)

It's not designed specifically for screenwriting -- it started out for fiction -- but has had screenwriting support added in later versions.

It supports hotkeys to switch into different typing 'modes' (i.e. character, scene header, dialogue etc.) and is fairly intelligent about what mode you want to be in at any given point. I've used Final Draft a bit too (years ago, though), and the support seemed similar.

A lot of Scrivener is about structuring - it lets you juggle about story cards, take notes, all that sort of thing, and then expand those notes into full scenes.

It also exports and imports to Final Draft 8, which is nice.

(And no, I don't work for them. :-) Scrivener is a one-man outfit, and that man isn't me...)

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wellywood woman said...

I am so happy whenever I open Final Draft that I've never considered any other programme (fortunately go it cheaply when a student). I hear someone mention Final Draft, or I read the words "Final Draft" and my whole body just goes AAAAH (replaces meditation really). I love its simplicity. It's so much more straightforward than Word which I use a lot for other stuff.

Ian said...

Sophocles - because it can do Cue and Dialogue on the same line, so play and radio formats are easy. (For BBC radio sketches with FX and Grams, it still easier to just use Word.)

Also, easy choice of what you want to print - so can leave out transitions on a spec script.

Only problem is nobody else uses it, but the export to pdf is fine.