Writing for the movies is a dream many people hold, and using the best screenwriting software can get you one step closer to realising your goal. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to screenwriting, or an old pro, the software you use matters. Screenplays need to be formatted in a particular fashion, and the best screenwriting software offers collaborative tools to get your script written even if you’re not working alone. They’ll take your idea from the spark of its inception through to the delivery of a completed script.
While it’s true you could use an ordinary word processor to write your script, the benefit of using screenwriting software is that it comes with all the formatting you need in the form of templates, which can easily be applied to your scenes. Flow in information like character names, stage directions, and even musical cues, and you’ll be able to weave your dialog around them much more easily than you would in Google Docs. The collaborative features are also important, as screenwriting duos are common, and one member needs to be able to comment and even live-edit the work their partner has done.
Some screenwriting software is available for a one-off payment, while others have migrated to a subscription model. You need to evaluate how much the software means to you, how much you’ll be using it, and how much money you’re realistically likely to make from the purchase before you commit, and if you’re working for a studio or production company that prefers a particular program, bear that in mind too. Combine with any of the best online grammar checkers for accuracy, and you're all set.
1. Final Draft 11: Best screenwriting software overall
Final Draft is the best software for writing screenplays right now, and has been for years. It's used by a large portion of the movie and TV industries, and has an impressive suite of features to help you create and manage a script. At a basic level, it has things like scene templates to help you format for different types of dialogue or scenes, and drop-down menus to help you auto-populate character names. You can collaborate on live scripts with anyone else using Final Draft, and can see the revision history of each document to see how lines have changed, who changed them, and - where necessary - revert to older versions of the screenplay.
What we also love about Final Draft is that there are so many extra features that really bring your vision to life. The Beat Board allows you to plan out specific moments in your story, and add pictures, notes, and photos to illustrate them. Similarly, there are plenty of tools for production, allowing you to see how the script is managed after it starts filming or performing. Essentially, this is a one-stop-shop and this is one of the main reasons it's so widely used.
On the negative, Final Draft 11 is relatively expensive, and will cost you $200 ($250 outside of sale periods). Even if you're upgrading from a previous version, or buying for an educational institute, it's still $100+ per license. Is it worth the money? If you're serious about screenwriting, yes, it is. If you're literally just starting out, or doing it as a casual hobby, you may want to consider something a little cheaper. Even then, learning Final Draft - even as a newbie - would give you a big advantage if your scriptwriting ever took off.
- Read our Final Draft 11 review
2. Movie Magic Screenwriter: Best budget option
Movie Magic Screenwriter is a less expensive option than Final Draft, but one that still offers many of the features you need. Note tools allow you to jot down distracting ideas that pop in your head, and an outline view helps you keep track of characters and scenes. For example, you can use a filter to isolate a character to remind yourself what they were doing five scenes ago. When you’ve been writing a long time, details get cloudy. Movie Magic Screenwriter can also color-code scenes, characters and actions. You can filter by a color and look at characters from a certain family or group.
Movie Magic screenwriting software comes with plenty of templates with a variety of formats for screenplays, television scripts and even novels, to ensure that your spec script for a sitcom will be formatted correctly. It also has collaborative features to help you work on a script with another writer, and it has a text to speech option that lets you get a feel for how your lines sound when they're read aloud.
On the downside, it doesn't have a fully specced beat board, and it's quite tricky to learn all the ins and outs of the software. While it's used by many screenwriters, it doesn't have the same widespread adoption as Final Draft, so keep this in mind if you anticipate working with plenty of other people on your projects.
- Read our Movie Magic Screenwriter review
3. WriterDuet: Best for collaborations
If you're working on a screenplay with several other writers, something like WriterDuet is a great option. It's tailored towards several people working on the same project, and places emphasis on accessibility and collaboration with all its features. Because it's browser-based, meaning you don't have to physically download software to your computer, you can access your script from any laptop, PC, or mobile device. There's even a mobile app that streamlines the experience if you regularly use your phone to access scripts.
You pay for a subscription to WriterDuet, so you don't have to shell out for a single sum. There are various pricing options for whatever level of access you need, and even a free version, which is actually very useable (if a little limited). We did find the pricing tiers unnecessarily varied, as few will choose anything other than the Pro version.
All documents are compatible with other screenwriting software, like Final Draft, and you can import scripts of almost any type, work on them, before adding them back into whatever format they came from. It's a very versatile program, but one best used alongside something like Final Draft or Movie Maker to get maximum benefit.
- Read our WriterDuet review
4. Celtx: Best for production features
Celtx started out as a screenwriting tool, but has evolved more into a production management tool over the past few iterations. That's great if you're looking for something to look after script management, but there are better options out there for screenwriting and generation. What you do get is impressive, though, and you can also use Celtx across a number of different media, such as video games and other types of non-TV and movie video production, which is a neat bonus.
It's a subscription service, so you can work online and store all your scripts in the cloud. There are so many tools here for the whole production team it might appear intimidating, but Celtx is easy to use no matter what aspect you're working on. It's built so that multiple collaborators can work on a script at the same time, and you can tag and highlight elements in each section to make it easier to pinpoint aspects of the script. We also like the ability to create schedule calendars, and to coordinate a whole project as a team.
But that's just the thing: Celtx is weaker on the actual creation of scripts. We found the duplication tools tougher to use than the likes of WriterDuet and Final Draft, and it isn't as easy to import and export scripts as other programs. It's relatively inexpensive but if you're a screenwriter looking to generate scripts, we'd recommend something like Final Draft instead.
5. Scrivener: Best for book to script
Many screenwriters look to turn novels or other texts into scripts, and for this kind of writing, Scrivener is a good place to look. For $45 you get access to software that works like, and plays very nicely with, Microsoft Word (or similar word processing apps). The interfaces are very similar, and you get the same options for formatting and playing around with text. Importing text from the likes of Word is easy too, so if you're given drafts of published works, it's simple to pull them into Scrivener.
What's more, you can flip between whatever section you're working on and the overall work with ease, once you've gotten to grips with how it all works, so you can break down larger pieces of work into smaller chunks very effectively. There are organization and editing options, but they're not as fully fleshed out as those you'll find in Final Draft of Celtx. What we do like is the ability to have research notes side-by-side with your script, so you can cross-reference for accuracy at all times. This is invaluable if you're working on non-fiction scripts.
At $45, it's relatively cheap too (although you may have to pay for some upgrades), so it's perfect if you're at the start of a project and looking to generate a first draft script. Especially if you're working from source material to begin with.
What do professional screenwriters use?
In addition to researching and using each screenwriting program we reviewed, we also reached out to professionals who use screenwriting software everyday. Richard Dutcher is an independent film director who has produced eight feature films and written dozens of screenplays. We asked him which screenwriting software he uses and why.
“I use both Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, depends on which job I’m doing and if they have a preference. If it’s my own choice, I use Movie Magic Screenwriter,” Dutcher said. He explained that he started screenwriting in the late '90s and learned on the program Script Thing, which was later acquired by Movie Magic. “I just stuck to it because it was what I was used to,” Dutcher said.
We asked him about Celtx, Fade-in and Slugline as alternatives to the industry standard applications like Final Draft and Movie Magic. “I found I had to do too much tailoring in them. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do easily, and I don’t like to think about the formatting. I just like to sit down and write,” Dutcher said. “I found it to be too much distraction and time consuming to make the format to be what I consider professional formats. Otherwise, somebody has to convert it, and it never converts perfectly.”
Dutcher said, “To me, if you are a professional screenwriter or want to be a professional screenwriter, you definitely have to be using professional software. Even if you’re just at home pounding something out for a screenplay competition or you hope maybe to get in a producer, it shouts ‘amateur screenwriter’ if you're not using a professional software program.”
The importance of outlining your script
Outlines are vital for all writers, whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned professional. Trying to write a full-length screenplay without an outline is like trying to navigate a ship without a map and compass. If you know where your story is going, your ability to reach that destination is much smoother.
The best screenwriting software understands the value of outlines. The notecards should be intuitive and easy to find. Before you begin writing the first line of dialogue, you should outline every scene from start to finish with a logline, the motivation of the characters in the scene and why the scene is useful for moving the plot. Color coding and scene breakdowns are valuable for production as well. A good program will isolate specific locations so that the cinematographer and director can shoot multiple scenes that aren’t necessarily in chronological order.
Other valuable features of screenwriting software
For more advanced production, there are many other tools that improve the process of bringing your words to life. Script breakdown tools allow you to highlight specific items on the page. Props, for example, could be highlighted in one color so a prop supervisor can easily find them. In-depth reports let crew members know about location changes and scheduling conflicts.
Another great resource is an active online community. As you write, questions will come up. How do you write a montage? What if two people are talking at the same time? How do you set up the page if you're constantly jumping in and out of two scenes? A vibrant community online can answer all these questions, whether it’s on the manufacturer's website or a third-party forum. The more you feel like part of a group, the better chance you have of finishing your script.