Over the past year I’ve been thinking seriously about scriptwriting for the first time in a long time. A few screenplay ideas have offered themselves up as they always do — the majority of them irreverent comedies I’d like to write mostly to entertain my dull self — but I’ve also had a stageplay nagging at me in an uncomfortably persistent manner. As professional writers do when faced with the harrowing prospect of devoting time and energy to new projects, I finally relented to inspiration and budgeted some haphazard internet surfing time to looking at productivity tools as a begrudging means of avoiding any actual work.
Scriptwriting Software in Context
Before I offer up the results of my lackadaisical survey, a word about scriptwriting software in general. Computer technology has advanced so far during the course of my life that where success was once solely determined by performance specifications and productivity, high-tech hardware and software are now indisputably fashion-first industries. Precisely because everything from processing power to storage can be had in generic abundance for literal pennies, the marketplace is now more concerned with metrics like hipness, cultural relevance and branding than reliability and usability. Even something as purportedly revolutionary as the tablet computer is, for all its hype, simply a more comfortable way to kill time on the couch, albeit with panache.
So if you take nothing else from this post, remember: scriptwriting software will not make you a better writer, a more professional writer or a more successful writer. Most of the scripts I worked on for cash money were either written on a typewriter, typed up by someone else on a typewriter or word-processing program, or written by me on a computer using a now-defunct commercial package of macros compatible with various versions of Microsoft Word. Even when dedicated scriptwriting applications hit the market I stayed with my old-school methods, and I don’t remember feeling as if my work suffered. In fact, to the contrary, I often had a sense of smug satisfaction when I encountered grumbling comments from early-adopting and agitated peers who hd slaved themselves to a fussy proprietary formatting program. Life lesson: be very leery of installing an additional layer of balky complexity between you and your work.
A decade later, when I was primarily writing for interactive companies my work flow became even simpler. I still used Word, but instead of buying a new version of macros ever year or two for each new bloated release from Microsoft, I grabbed a small set of freeware macros off the internet that covered 99% of the formatting I intended to use. Small customizations to the default settings covered the rest, and all without so much as a separate interface or complex control-key learning curve.
Whether I’m really, truly interested in writing a script (or two, or five) I don’t know. One thing I am sure of, however, is that for the time being I’ll be happier pretending those shiny new ideas in my head won’t go to waste, so looking at scriptwriting software seems a reasonable response in any case. It’s probably been eight years since I used even the simplest tools for scriptwriting, and if I’m going to revisit that mode of storytelling I should probably do so cognizant of the latest tools. Particularly if the features I care about most are available in a single product, eliminating any need on my part to create workarounds or hacks, or to once again bend Word to my rusty iron will.
Not only is this not an exhaustive list of every product available, it’s a cranky and irascible list defined by my own cranky and irascible biases. I’m so completely over the idea that a piece of software will do anything without first taking a pound of flesh and two weeks of my life that my main criteria in looking at these products was how little risk they posed to my sanity. More money for more features might sound like a fair deal in an abstract economic universe, but in the real world more features means more confusion, more compatibility issues and more potential for glitches, bugs and crashes. Call me crazy, but paying more money for more glitches, bugs and crashes just doesn’t seem like a smart business decision.
Without further ado, then, here are the products I looked at, in the order surveyed:
Final Draft is the undisputed big monkey in scriptwriting programs. To its credit, after it emerged as the winner in the initial protracted battle between competing apps it managed to hold its place for more than a decade, becoming the “industry standard” according to itself. If you want to buy a complete scriptwriting program that famous screenwriters have associated their name with then this is the program for you.
Personally, I don’t care who has used Final Draft in the past. I care what it does and what it costs, and on both counts I’ve been leery of the program as long as its been in existence. Currently the program lists for $250 on the FD site, but you can find the same program selling through various retailers for $200 or less — and that alone makes me look askance. Is FD gouging unsuspecting consumers who go to their homepage instead of searching the web for a better deal? Because if I bought a product from you, then found out you authorized other people to sell it for a lower price, I would hate you. To your face.
Yes, Final Draft includes a ton of brain-organizing features, but I don’t need them. I organize my scripts with my noggin, scraps of paper and scrawled notes, and, if I really find myself in a pickle, note cards, and I don’t see any advantage in learning how to fit all that into someone else’s tidy filing system. More to the point, I don’t want what I’m writing to be shaped by someone else’s system of organization. So while all those features are obviously worth something relative to the total cost of the product, they’re worth nothing to me. All I’m looking for is a program that will make the repetitive task of formatting screenplays and stageplays as easy as it can be. To Final Draft’s credit, it comes with a ton of templates for all kinds of script formats, and again I can see the value in that for somebody other than me.
Not only is Final Draft overkill for my needs, and the you’re-an-idiot-if-you-buy-it-from-us price truly steep in today’s marketplace, but there are other concerns that knock it out of the running. The current version is 8, which is two years old, but there’s no clear road map to version 9. Nobody’s talking about when it will be released, if it will be released, or how it might evolve. Worse, Final Draft’s file format is proprietary, and I don’t do proprietary.
Finally, if there’s a single feature in any scriptwriting program that I believe must work flawlessly, it’s the little-used but indispensable ability to write side-by-side dialogue on those extremely rare occasions when it’s actually warranted by the story. Unfortunately, as long as I’ve been taking glances at First Draft their solution to this problem has been a hack at best. You can do it, but you can’t edit it once you’ve done it, which in this day and age is a fail.
I’d only tangentially heard of Celtx before I started looking at scriptwriting apps, and had no concrete idea what it was or did. Because I’m an optimist, however, and because I’m always curious to learn what other people have invented while I’ve been living in my hole in the ground, I eagerly clicked over to their site to see what was what. Unfortunately, Celtx didn’t want to tell me. I know there’s a design ethic and marketing philosophy — perfected by Apple — that says the best way to establish hipness and corporate cool is to assume your audience knows everything about you, but in an odd twist of fate it turns out that I loathe that attitude.
When you arrive at the Celtx site you’re greeted with an ultra-sleek home page that offers you a pretty graphic, eleven words, and a sign-in/sign-up box that dominates half the screen. If you’re a trooper like me and are willing to scroll down a half inch you can reveal a number of hidden menu options that apparently would have destroyed the perfect sterility of the home page if they’d been allowed to loiter in view. It’s at this point that the work begins.
Imagine you want to know what Celtx is, and you’re given the following menu choices: About, Support, Blog, Seeds, Studio, Login, Privacy, Policy, Terms, Licenses, Logo License, Contact. Which one would you click on? Did you pick “About”? Me too. And it turns out that’s wrong.
If you click on the About page [which, as of late 2014, is now mercifully dead] what you get instead of useful information is another super-slick graphic, more marketing text, and more hidden info below the scroll that tells you absolutely nothing about what Celtx is or does. And this is all intentional. If you dig and dig and dig you will finally find some of the information you’re looking for buried in — surprise! — the Support page, in an FAQ that somehow doesn’t deserve to be displayed in the discretely hidden, top-level, bottom nav on the home page. Because, you know, failing to intuitively grasp what Celtx is about is apparently a user problem.
But you know what? Even if you read the entire FAQ you still won’t have a clear idea of what CeltX is and does. If you asked me to explain Celtx to you right now I still couldn’t do it, yet I put in considerably more time trying to figure it out than I did any other product in this post. Which is why I eventually checked out and never went back.
While I’d heard and read a fair amount of commentary about Scrivener — most of it positive — I knew as much about that program as I did about Celtx. Fortunately, right on the home page for Scrivener there was a big, above-the-scroll button labeled “Read More About It,” which, miraculously enough, took me to a page that explained what Scrivener does. (This now counts as a minor miracle in the modern age of attitude-driven technology.)
Because of this courtesy I realized in short order that Scrivener is not what I need for writing scripts, but might be useful for other projects. As with many of Final Draft’s ancillary features, Scrivener seems keen or having me input lots of information that I could just as easily make sense of if it were strewn across my desk or floor, but I’m confident my work habits are not for everyone. Given Scrivener’s apparent popularity I have to assume it’s useful, and obviously so when information needs to be shared.
I downloaded the demo program and took a quick spin and didn’t see anything I hated, but it’s a ton more functionality than I need. I’m also not sure I’d ever want to constrain that much information to a single screen, no matter how many windows, tabs and menus were available. At $40 I do think the price is fair, however.
If you’ve never heard of Fade In, join the club. I found it the old fashioned way, by doing a simple internet search, then struggling to find useful hits in the froth of worthless SEO-driven crap that Google delivered to me in infinite buckets. If you click over to the home page you’ll see that the site is simple and informative, brazenly offering up all the information a first-time visitor would want. No registration required, no loyalty oath to sign in advance, no assumptions made — just actual information and helpful links to more.
Speaking of which, in two quick clicks abetted by obvious links I found myself on a Feature Comparison page, and there, a few rows down, learned that Fade In handles dual dialogue, and that it uses something called the Open Screenplay Format. I still haven’t figured out if that’s an actual standard supported by some benevolent governing body, but I do know it’s based on plain text, which means any documents so formatted/encoded will always be machine-readable.
Fade In seems to have been created by Kent Tessman, and reading some of the posts on his site filled in a few blanks. While he’s obviously interested in making Fade In a success, I have to say I didn’t really disagree with anything he wrote even as it was obviously self-serving. (Which is perhaps an unnecessarily pejorative way of describing personal conviction.) As to functionality, Fade In comes with both screenplay and stageplay formatting, and when I pulled down the demo I found it easy to open and use. Even better, the first time I experienced confusion the help files solved the problem in seconds, and if you’ve used any software lately you know how rare that is.
The price of Fade In is currently $50 but you’re induced to buy now by a declaration that the price is going to go up — a gambit I found off-putting rather than reassuring. If you’re willing to play that kind of game with me, rather than just give me an honest price, what other games are you going to play? (Oh, that’s right — you’re not going to tell me, just like you’re not going to tell me what the future price might be.) There’s also a risk that Fade In may simply not be profitable for Tessman, which means it might disappear in the future, which would be a bummer if you’d gotten used to having it around. (Having said that, as long as the app works and you own a copy, presumably you’re still in business.)
I don’t need scriptwriting software that can handle the demands of production. I don’t need to deal with revisions or changes on the set. I need a basic formatting tool to help me write spec scripts, which won’t get in the way of my rickety creative process if I ever get to the actual point of wanting to put myself through that kind of self-abuse again. On that basis alone I think Fade In is the choice I would make right now, but since I’m not up against any deadlines I won’t be pulling the trigger for a while, and I think that’s fortuitous for two reasons. First, I can see if the price goes up to something I’m not willing to pay, and/or if there are version costs associated with upgrades. Second, I can see if the product has staying power, which is obviously an attraction.
I know, I know — I could be one of those early-adopter types that helps the product succeed, but that’s not me. I’m a technological laggard and always will be.
— Mark Barrett