ATQ38: What screenwriting software should I use?

What screenwriting software should I use? There are so many packages on the market and some of them are so expensive. And which of the extras should I be using?

Amy
Southampton

Hi Amy. It's actually pretty simple.

Honestly, in your early career you can use any package you like, so long as it looks mostly like a script when you submit it.

Script layout

You want your script to look more or less like this:

conventional screenplay layout

Don't fret too much about margins, but get the general feel. A few differences in the spacing here or there won't make too much difference.

You'll see other types of layout - the BBC in particular used lots of their own layouts, but they have mainly gone now. At least at the spec script stage.

(If you're writing for radio, have a look at this Writers Guild page.)

Script layout in detail

Someone at the Academy has taken the time to really go into the finer points of script layout.

Even though this is an American movie layout, the way this looks is totally recognisable and very comfortable to any script editor or TV producer in the UK.

Essential elements

When it comes to what you actually write, there aren't many things you must do, and even conventions on those go in and out of fashion.

At the moment a lot of people don't number their scenes in a spec. But some do.

Underlining and/or bolding your scene headers is kind of half and half - some writers do, some don't.

Capitalising character names in scene description - we seem to be moving towards the convention that you do this the first time you meet them in the script, then never after. (But not every writer does it like this. Some never capitalise, some capitalise every time. Either is fine.)

Capitalising words for effect ("the car brakes SQUEAL", "She smiled as she picked up the GUN")?

I guess that's OK used very sparingly, but it gets tiring very fast. 

However, 12 point courier is pretty well essential.

And make sure your dialogue is laid out in a narrower column in the middle of the page. (Occasionally I get scripts in which the dialogue stretches to take up the whole width of the page. That tells me I'm reading a script from a beginner. Not a bad thing necessarily, but it does pre-frame the read.)

Script file format

You'll never go wrong if you send in your script in PDF format, so any software package that saves your script in PDF will do the job.

Then, later on, when you're on commission, the script editor will often be happy with PDF layout for early drafts.

As things get closer to production they will want scripts in the format of the software that production is using.

Final Draft is the industry standard in the UK. There are exceptions, but if you're working for someone else, they'll tell you what to use when it gets important.

But even then that doesn't mean you have to buy Final Draft, as other software packages will output to their format, so you can write in something else, then export to Final Draft and send that to the production team. (Though expect to run into compatibility glitches.)

So at some point you will probably end up with Final Draft.

Other features

Lots of scriptwriting software packages have all sorts of fancy features, which are supposed to help you with the visualisation of your story.

Index cards, outliners, adding notes on scenes, tracking characters by lines of dialogue etc.

I can't really help you there, I decided years ago all that stuff was a distraction, and that playing with the toys wasn't the same as making your story work.

I do very early brainstorming in a mind-mapping tool called MindMeister.

After that I do all my outlining and beat sheet work in Word and a simple spreadsheet.

(Each to their own, of course. Patrick Ryan uses real index cards on a corkboard, and Jane Eden uses the index card feature inside Scrivener

Recommended screenwriting software

Brainstorming

Outlining

  • Word processor of your choice
  • Spreadsheet of your choice

Writing the script

  • Any package that will lay your work out so it looks like a script, and will generate a file in PDF.

Doing the same in Word for Windows

I actually wouldn't recommend using Word to write the script, as it's very fiddly, but I did find a video showing how you might start to work this way.

It involves setting up styles and stylesheets and so on:

Make contacts and sell your scripts

If you've looking for in-depth advice on getting your scripts into the hands of the people who can buy them, then you should definitely take a look at our Open Door Newsletter.

Every issue is full of detailed advice on the industry, with plenty of realistic advice on the best way to go about making the contacts you need to sell your script.  And now you can download our first issue for free!

ATQ39: Should I pitch a single drama or a series to a production company?
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4 Comments
  1. I use Celtx to write scripts, it’s free and allows you to save your work on pdf. You can even use the app on your ipad to tinker with the script if an idea hits you away from your laptop.

  2. Fade In software is also an excellent choice, it sells for only about $50 US and all the upgrades are free. It does everything you need to do as far as writing a screenplay and both imports and exports Final Draft as well as several other formats.

    • I don’t know it, but thanks for the recommendation. Always good to get some alternatives.

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