Most people have at one time said to themselves or to someone else, "I have a great idea for a movie" or they have actually lived experiences that would show well on the big screen. A few of these people have taken up the challenge of documenting the idea or experiences in a screenplay and lo and behold, their story was snatched up by a producer and brought to life for the public to enjoy. A recent celebrated example is Diablo Cody, the first-time screenwriter for the hit independent movie Juno who also wrote a well-received and popular biography. If you're thinking of taking action on that great idea, you'll need to be sure that your screenplay looks professional. Let's explore what is unique about the format and layout of a screenplay and some of the common features in software programs you can use to develop your screenplay on your personal computer (PC).
Note: This article focuses on how to use software to create a properly formatted screenplay on your PC. It does not address how to write the screenplay itself; this is a topic too large to address in one short article and one that is already well-supported through many professional screenwriting courses and workshops available through academic institutions and independent trainers.
What Does Screenwriting Software Do?
Screenwriting is a very specific craft with very specific technical requirements, because a screenplay is not just a story, it's a blueprint for the feature film production process. - Screenplay.com.au
At its most basic level, screenwriting software is a word processing program that formats your text into a professional script layout, based on film industry standards. Many agents, producers, and film and TV pros will not even turn past page 1 of a script if does not conform to a recognized page layout and set of text styles and formats. For example, the text must all be written in a 12-point Courier typeface, which looks like it was typed with a typewriter. (Don't ask why a multi-billion dollar industry of the 21st century wants their scripts to look like they were written in the 1950s. Just accept it.) In other words, making your script "look" professional is the first step. Even if your characters are made of cardboard and your story will put anyone to sleep by page 4, you'll at least appear to be professional. (For a complete description of screenplay format requirements, read "The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats, Part 1: The Screenplay" by Hillis R. Cole and Judith H. Haag.)
However, some screenwriting programs also improve the efficiency of your typing through automatic shortcuts such as inserting or suggesting repeated words and script conventions, such as scene headings and endings, and character cues. Some screenwriting software may also provide handy tools for organizing and managing your story ideas and improving the overall writing process.
Basic Screenwriting Software Features
Any screenwriting software you choose should include the following basic features to help you create a properly formatted screenplay:
- Industry-standard page layout and design templates (such as defined page sizes, margins)
- Industry-standard, defined text styles and formats (such as proper typeface use or indentation and capitalization of scene headings and endings, and character cues)
- Spell and grammar check
Advanced Screenwriting Software Features
Beyond formatting your screenplay to the proper page, paragraph and text design, many screenwriting software programs offer additional features to improve your effectiveness in planning, typing and editing the script. Once you're familiar with the formatting principles of professional screenplays and have decided you want to write more than one screenplay, you may want to explore these advanced features to determine which ones would help you the most in your writing process.
Other Things to Consider
Customer Service: Make sure that the screenwriting program you choose offers effective and timely customer support, in case you bump into any problems installing or using the software. As Business Etiquette Expert Kate Zabriskie said, "Although your customers won't love you if you give bad service, your competitors will." Fortunately, there are plenty of competitors to choose from in the screenwriting software marketplace.
Computer Operating System: Some screenwriting programs are only available for one operating system (Windows or Macintosh), so be sure your PC's operating system (OS) can run the software program you want. Check the version of your operating system, too, to make sure the software version can be installed on your system. If you have more than one PC and operating system or are collaborating with another writer who uses a different OS, you may want to check if the screenwriting program allows for file exchanges between the two systems.
Price: The price for screenwriting software ranges from as high as $600 to free. Remember that in most cases, you get what you pay for, so free or shareware programs may offer only basic screenwriting features. However, for many budding writers, using a program for free is the best way to learn the basics about screenplay formats and to determine which features would improve your writing efficiency. Fortunately, all screenwriting software programs offer a free demonstration version for download. Note that some of the programs that carry a price tag may not have all features enabled for their demo version. Also, if you start a screenplay with a program but can't complete it due to limited program functionality or the trial expiration, you may be stuck with having to buy the program or finding a way to import your partial script file into another program.
There are many details to consider before you commit yourself to one screenwriting software program. You'll need to closely analyze your writing needs, your computer setup and your budget, but most of all, you'll want to try a demo version of the products to really get a "feel" for how the software suits your personal writing process.
To learn how you can used Microsoft® Word as a screenwriting program, see my hub "Using Microsoft® Word for Screenwriting."
For a list and comparison of the available screenwriting software programs, ssee my hub "Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program."
Peter Szabo on April 08, 2012:
Thanks, Jon. I, too, have used Celtx for years. My follow-up article "Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program" mentions Celtx, although I tried to be impartial in describing it along with other software. I may be switching to MM Screenwriter because I'm also a producer and need more sophisticated breakdown functionality to merge with scheduling and budgeting.
Jon Kohan from Pittsburgh Pa on April 08, 2012:
i use Celtx. it's a free product with features you can ad on for a few bucks. i've been using it for a few years and i'd recommend it to anybody.