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Even if you’re just starting out with screenwriting, you’re probably familiar with the concept of screenwriting software. If not, screenwriting software refers to a specific type of word processor used by writers to write their screenplays.
Unlike a typical word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Apple’s Pages, screenwriting software formats everything you write into a screenplay format.
If you’ve been around the movie business, you’ve probably heard of the program Final Draft and how it’s more or less the “industry standard” for writing traditional screenwriting.
Despite its flaws, the high price being chief among them, Final Draft is a great piece of software. It’s not the only one, despite what Hollywood might want you to believe.
The final document your readers will read will be a PDF anyway – so who cares how you wrote the script, as long as it’s formatted correctly?
But what are the best screenwriting software options, regardless of cost? Do they have free trial versions so you can test them first? We’ve compiled our list for you to read up on. They are:
1. Final Draft – the king of screenplay programs, the current version is available for $179.99.
2. WriterDuet – the best choice for real-time collaboration, $11.99 a month or $89 a year.
3. FadeIn – best alternative to FinalDraft, $79 one time with the free demo version.
4. Highland – most creative program, for Mac users only, $49.99 for the full version.
5. Celtx – the best choice for do-it-all-yourself producers, $10-$15 a month depending on the package.
Let’s dive into the benefits, cost, and features associated with each!
1. Final Draft
Free or Paid: Paid only. Available for $179.99 based on the current promotion, $249 at full price.
As mentioned above, Final Draft is more or less the industry standard, but heavy lies the crown. Currently, on version 11, Final Draft has a steep barrier to entry at $179.99 (the discounted rate) or $249.99 at full price.
Luckily, Final Draft frequently offers promotional discount rates to get the base price of the software down, and there’s a well-known student discount where you can usually get the service at $99 with a student email.
Oh, and if you’re upgrading to a new version from an older version of Final Draft, you usually get a discounted rate – for example, the current going price to upgrade to Final Draft 11 is $69.99.
As Final Draft is the screenwriting program I’ve personally used the most, I will quickly recap what it can do and then dive into an extended review outlining my particular feelings about it.
What are some of Final Draft’s benefits?
So what makes Final Draft so great? First of all, the features. Every modern version of Final Draft has the following features:
- Easy Formatting. With a few common keystrokes (like TAB and ENTER), Final Draft easily formats your script to the industry standard automatically as you write down the page.
- Title Page. Final Draft offers a variety of industry-standard formatted templates that you can use to write your title page – and get creative with custom fonts thanks to another feature, Unicode Support.
- Automatic Backups. Importantly, Final Draft saves your current script file versions to an automatic backup folder.
- Autofill via SmartType.Every time you introduce a new character or location, Final Draft remembers them through the program’s SmartType tool and auto-fills in names as you type.
- Custom Keyboard Shortcuts. If you want to make formatting your screenplays as you go even easier, you can use Final Draft’s option to create custom keyboard shortcuts.
- Speech to Script. Final Draft also seamlessly works with Mac’s Dictation toolset, so you can write without ever having to touch your keyboard.
- Revision Mode. Turning revision mode on lets you easily keep track of all changes made across multiple drafts of the script and even lets you assign a specific color to a specific draft and lock pages so that the revisions don’t change the number of pages.
- Script Tags. Tags are helpful because you can use them to track specific props, locations, and costumes for breaking a script down for budgeting purposes, as well as internally tracking a character’s arc or certain beats throughout the story.
As mentioned above, most standard versions of Final Draft I’ve ever used (going as far back as Final Draft 7) has all of the above features. However, the latest version, Final Draft 11, comes with some new ones:
- Advanced Brainstorming. Final Draft 11 has a new brainstorming tool to help you visualize, report, tag, and customize your creative process in your screenwriting doc.
- Newly Refined Beat Board. This visual beat board lets you organize your story and outside research with visuals, either text or images, that you can drag onto a customizable board doc.
- Story Map Tool. The Story Map feature connects your beat board to your script document itself, which helps to organize your script structurally and keep track of beats visually with ease as you write.
- Collaborative Writing. One of the nice things about some of the new versions of Final Draft is they have a collaborative component, where multiple writers can write on the same doc through an internet connection – though it does leave a little to be desired functionality-wise.
- Image Compatibility. This version of Final Draft lets you even paste images directly onto the pages of your script itself because sometimes the best way to show, not tell, is to show instead of write.
- Alternative Dialogue. A new feature to Final Draft 11 is the ability to save alternate versions of lines for you to reference later – in case you can’t decide what works better in the moment.
- Night Mode. Instead of the standard white screen of a word processor slowly draining your eyes of all their life force, Night Mode offers a darker background for more comfortable nighttime visibility.
Lastly, the sheer prevalence of the program makes it very attractive. According to Final Draft, the program is used by 95% of film and TV productions.
Plus, having a standard (the FDX file format) with which all other screenwriting programs workaround helps share working drafts between writers and producers who might work off of different writing programs.
What are some of Final Draft’s flaws?
Like being in a married relationship for over ten years, as a screenwriter who writes almost exclusively with Final Draft, I know exactly what I like and dislike about my partner. And just as quick as I am to sing its praises, I’ll be the first to tell you exactly what I don’t like about it.
The PC versions are known to crash.
Writing primarily in Final Draft, I’ve worked with the program on both PC and Mac computers, but I will say the PC version tends to crash.
Not all the time, of course, just at the most inopportune ones. Like when you’re in a flow state, writing gold that is just pouring out from your veins, typing so fast, you have no idea what you’re saying, going on an hour steady, and you’ve forgotten all about hitting the save function – because you’re on a roll, of course. Nothing can stop you, not even the Oscar speech you’re writing in your head, but then…
It stops. Nothing’s happening. You can’t read anything you’ve just written because the program has timed out and hasn’t caught up. You cross your fingers, hoping it just needs a minute to catch up. A lot of times, that’s exactly what is happening. Other times – it’s not. Congratulations, you just lost the most brilliant monologue you ever wrote.
They say kill your darlings, don’t they? Not sure this was what they meant, though…
The Mac version doesn’t crash – at least, not as often.
On the other hand, working on Final Draft on my Mac, I’ve rarely, if ever, had a bad crash problem. Usually, it was because I had five or six FDX files open at one time, on top of God-Only-Knows how many Google Chrome tabs of research and procrastination I had open. I chalk that up to user error.
That said, I have written on Final Draft for years, and on multiple PC laptops, and through an extended trial and error process of learned auto-saving (as in, learning to keystroke Control + S religiously every thirty seconds) I was able to reduce the number of fatal crashes by tenfold – take that, seatbelts!
This is the only main criticism I have with the program after using it for so long – that and the lackluster collaboration functionality that leaves something to be desired compared to other more collaboration-friendly programs like WriterDuet.
I’m so hard on Final Draft in this regard because they’re the champ. It’s like Lebron James – just because he’s the greatest of all time doesn’t mean he’s above criticism. If anything, it means we’re paying closer attention to any and all mistakes since they’re so rare.
Other than those minor points, Final Draft is still the gold standard with which every other screenwriting program is compared, so if you can afford it (while being mindful of the occasional crash), choosing this option as a solo writer is still one of your best bets.
If you are planning on writing professionally, then it’s worth investing in Final Draft, especially because of the features that help you track your script’s story beyond the page itself, like the Beat Board or Revision pages, but other, more affordable screenwriting programs offer similar alternatives, so it may come down to who you are working with – or for.
Free or paid: Free for the first three scripts; $11.99 a month after that, or $89.99 for the year.
WriterDuet is one of the best screenwriting tools behind Final Draft and is also one that I’ve personally used to co-write a feature screenplay. What’s nice about WriterDuet is that they offer you multiple options with both free and paid versions.
The main selling point of WriterDuet, though, is in the name. WriterDuet is functionally a collaborative screenwriting program, and its capabilities for two writers to work on the same project simultaneously are almost unmatched in terms of ease of use.
WriterDuet is web-based, so it requires an internet connection, though you can pay to upgrade to write offline (a relatively new feature). It isn’t as functional, but it is an option for when you’re in a pinch without a working wifi-connection – and it will automatically save once the internet comes back on.
What are some of WriterDuet’s Benefits?
The real-time collaboration functionality of WriterDuet is its single greatest feature. You can see the changes your partner makes to your collaborative document right away, and all changes are traceable back to which writer made the change and at what time – a feature you can toggle on and off so as not to distract yourself.
Any new changes you haven’t seen yet will be marked in red, a simple but effective visual cue to let you know what’s been altered.
- Live chat – including video. As communication is one of the keys to any collaborative effort, WriterDuet has multiple ways for writers to share thoughts back and forth, including a comment tool, live chat messaging, and a live in-app video chat function.
- Outside Compatibility. It is also very easy to swap scripts between other screenwriting programs like Final Draft or Celtx, easily letting you import and export in other file types. WriterDuet also lets you convert PDF and Word files into their format.
- External Plug-In Compatible. These plug-ins allow you to turn the standard WriterDuet program into more of a file-based desktop program instead of a web-browser one.
- Easy Online Back-ups. Unique to WriterDuet is the ability to back up your script to the cloud, whether it’s iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive – as well as to your computer itself.
- Revision Mode. You can turn on a revision mode equivalent to track changes, lock pages, and even hide full scenes with a drop-down menu so that you can see what the script looks like without that scene in its entirety – without losing the entire scene
- “Corkboard” Outline Doc. WriterDuet offers an index-card style mode where you can place your ideas and rearrange them on a corkboard layout to help stay organized.
These features are handy when using the program, which functions similarly to Final Draft in that it auto-formats and auto-fills.
What are some of WriterDuet’s Flaws?
As a screenwriter on a budget, only being allowed to upload and write three scripts through the paid version is a big problem.
While there are ways you can get creative with this constraint (like, say, turn one script file into a mega-Blockbuster trilogy with five scripts written all at the same time!) if you find yourself in the position where you’ve maxed out your first three scripts but you are getting paid to write more, $11.99 a month isn’t a bad option.
Also, certain tools aren’t available to you if you aren’t paying the monthly subscription fee.
For example, recently, I was trying to co-write with a collaborator on a script over WriterDuet, and we tried to video chat to go over what we would both be writing that day. I was using the free version and couldn’t start a video chat with him, which I soon realized was a paid-only feature.
I suggest saving WriterDuet for projects where you collaborate with others. Because its functionality and relative ease-of-use put it a step above the competition when it comes to collaborating, why not save your three free scripts for projects where you plan on co-writing, especially if it’s going to be long-distance?
And if you work closely with a co-writer or co-producer on all your projects, this is one screenwriting software you don’t want to miss out on.
Free or Paid: Free, but an upgradable version is currently available for $79.99.
FadeIn is a powerful rival to FinalDraft without the specificity and clarity of function that WriterDuet has. I would categorize FadeIn as more of a direct competitor to Final Draft than WriterDuet, and it offers a fully functional “demo” version that’s free to use.
The main selling point in a direct head-to-head competition seems to be the stability of FadeIn’s core program. Unlike my main issue with FinalDraft, which is the PC version’s tendency to crash (like, a lot), FadeIn offers an affordable (free*) alternative with equivalent features to rival the ten-ton juggernaut of screenwriting apps.
One of the company’s main marketing points is all the popular and well-known screenwriters who use FadeIn – like Knives Out writer and director Rian Johnson and Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin, who co-hosts the popular screenwriting podcast Script Notes.
So what are some benefits of FadeIn?
FadeIn is free and supposedly crashes less than Final Draft. What else does it have going for it?
For starters, its available for PC, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS. FadeIn also allows you to import and export in other file types like FDX, Celtx, and even Scrivener files. Plus, it has cloud storage backup capability like WriterDuet.
Then, there’s this list of features that rival Final Draft’s functionality, including:
- Autocomplete and Revision Mode. Like Final Draft’s SmartType, FadeIn’s Autocomplete tool suggests frequently used character and location names, while the program’s revision mode allows you to color code revisions and lock scenes.
- Easy Formatting. While FadeIn offers a built-in default formatting, you can also customize the program formatting to control every aspect of your script’s layout and appearance, including image support for putting images in your script.
- Real-Time Collaborative Tools. FadeIn’s collaborative tools, while not as core to the program’s functionality as another program like WriterDuet, allow multiple writers to edit the document simultaneously, with changes made in real time.
- Easy Sidebar Navigator. A navigator tool lets you quickly sort through and color-code your script to navigate it in many different ways, not just by scene heading but by custom-marking sequences, plot points, or themes and characters.
- Full-Screen Mode. FadeIn lets you fade all the tools and menus to the background, so all you have to focus on is your script and your writing in a full-screen mode.
- Dialogue Tuner Tool. This mode lets you edit all of the dialogue from one character in one window without having to scroll through the rest of the script, which makes rewriting characters a lot easier to do and even lets you check for frequency of word use and automatically adjusts line lengths to prevent hanging letters from making an extra line.
FadeIn also lets you create industry-standard breakdown reports to keep track of production-related components as you revise your work for producers and executives.
What are some downsides to FadeIn?
While the demo version of FadeIn is free, as a non-FadeIn user, it’s hard to tell which features listed above come with the demo version and which come with the paid version. That said, the free version is fully functional for any standard screenwriting need, and the program itself is very comfortable and easy to use.
I’m also unclear on whether or not the free version comes with a FadeIn watermark or not when you print to PDFs, though I have read some reports that this is the case.
However, at a low cost of $79.99, you can buy the full version of FadeIn for less than a full year of WriterDuet and just about half as much as the cost of the discounted rate of Final Draft (with the full version of Final Draft being three times as expensive), so there’s no excuse not to get it once you go pro.
That said, the last thing to point out is that since FadeIn is a newer screenwriting software, it isn’t as standard across the industry and thus probably could come up when trying to collaborate with others in real-time.
In that instance, you could work the old fashion way and export every pass you take on the shared script as an fdx file that you pass back and forth, or one of you would have to switch programs.
If you’re a clever (and broke) screenwriter, you could even upload the script to WriterDuet as one of your free scripts and work on it together that way.
FadeIn is a cool (and more affordable) competitor to Final Draft that seems like a good fit for writers looking for an alternative to the “status quo.” Plus, according to the writers who use it, it seems like it’s fun software and highly recommended by some big names.
Let’s just say if Rian Johnson wins the Best Original Oscar screenplay this year, I bet you FadeIn is going to get a lot more downloads…
4. Highland 2
Free or Paid: Free, but you’ll need to upgrade to the full version for $49.99
Highland 2 is a unique screenwriting program for a few reasons. For starters, it’s a Mac-only screenwriting program developed by another Script Notes podcast host, John August. There is a free and paid version that you can upgrade to for $49.99, which removes watermarks, includes more templates, and a few other features (like Revision Mode!)
Also, interestingly, Highland 2 is not just for writing screenplays but for novels.
While Final Draft and certain other screenwriting programs have variations you can use for formatting plays, TV episodes, and other templates, Highland 2 seems to promote how easy it is to use for writing and drafting manuscripts as well as industry-standard formatted ebooks.
However, only five templates are available via the free version, so you’ll have to upgrade to take full advantage.
What are some other benefits of Highland 2?
Let’s run through this list of quick features available under “Highland Basic.”
- Simplified User Interface. Highland’s interface focuses on simplicity, allowing writers to format their scripts in a simplified way, like typing a character name in UPPERCASE to automatically transform the line below them into dialogue. Don’t press Tab – just enter.
- Autocomplete and Live Margins. Highland will auto-fill location names and automatically indent your script for you according to the standard screenplay margins, which you can toggle on and off, so you don’t have to worry about it.
- Multiple Templates. Multiple formats for starting new projects, whether it be a Manuscript, Screenplay, or MLA format doc, with plenty more in the pro version.
- Navigator and Bin Tools. Highland’s navigator tool lets you divide up and view your screenplay in a road map format that you can drag, drop, and re-order, while the bin tool lets you hold onto pieces of text, like description or dialogue, you want to save for later.
- Revision Mode. Like other screenwriting programs on this list, Highland offers Revision mode to track changes with different colors and denotations and even be added to an exported PDF after the fact. Still, this feature is only available for the Pro mode.
- Gender Analysis Tool. A unique feature to Highland 2 (at least originally), this tool helps you breakdown your script into speaking parts divided by gender so you can see which genders have more lines down to the actual amount of words and even lets you switch the gender of a character in an interactive format.
- PDF Editing. Highland 2 also transforms PDF documents into editable formats, which is very useful for working off of drafts of scripts directly without having to have access to the original file.
That said, Highland 2 can also open and export into FDX files (like most other entries on this list) so you can easily transmit script files between collaborators.
What are some flaws of Highland 2?
While Highland 2 is a creative screenwriting program, it’s also very simple. It can do a lot with a little, and while it doesn’t have the same bells and whistles that other programs do, that can be both refreshing and tedious.
For example, if you wanted to collaborate on the same document with a collaborator in real time, you’d have to use another program. That said, since you can easily transfer PDF and FDX files into and out of Highland 2, it shouldn’t be a big issue.
The main issue I see is that it is Mac only, and the free version includes a Highland 2 watermark. The watermark makes it virtually impossible to use professionally without paying the $49.99 price point, but if you thought $79.99 was cheap for FadeIn, another $30 off to get Highland 2 instead doesn’t hurt.
I see Highland 2 as a great tool to play around with and learn the craft on, and that could be reinvigorating for professional screenwriters tired of the programs they are currently using. Plus, I’m most excited about the ability to create and format manuscripts and ebook novels with Highland 2.
If you are looking to get used to the screenplay format and writing screenplays without all the fuss, this is a great tool to learn – if you’re also a Mac-lover, that is.
Free or paid: Three paid packages, including one for $10 a month and two for $15 a month.
Celtx used to be my free screenwriting program of choice. In fact, before I “adulted-up” to Final Draft, I used Celtx for most of my first screenplays. And at the time I was using it, it was because Celtx was free.
However, Celtx has changed significantly since then, and in a few ways. For starters, Celtx used to be a file-based screenwriting processor; now, it’s a web-based complete pre-production toolkit that allows you to write, breakdown, storyboard, schedule, and budget your production, all in one master file shared and accessed online and through mobile apps.
Most importantly, Celtx recently updated its service to include three different paid tiers, including a basic toolset for scriptwriting available for $10 a month or a video production tier for $15 a month. There’s also a $ 15-a-month game production tier for writing and editing game scripts with interactive story maps and dialogue choices.
What benefits does Celtx have?
Celtx is still a powerful tool for screenwriters and, as a company, has been in the game for a long time – longer than new competition FadeIn, WriterDuet, and Highland 2.
Here’s what features screenwriters can benefit from in the basic scriptwriting package:
- Hosts Up To 20 Projects. As a web-based service, Celtx allows you to write and maintain up to 20 projects through their cloud storage – the space saved on your computer and time saved worrying about transferring files back and forth devices.
- Script Editor for Multiple Formats. The original Celtx had multiple options for TV, stageplay, or feature screenplay templates, and it seems the current Celtx has the same.
- Index Cards and Storyboard Tools. These tools let you organize your story and brainstorm visually as you work on your script.
- Import Other Format Files. From my understanding, you can import files from other screenplay formats to work on directly in Celtx.
- Offline Mode and Revision Tracking. Since Celtx is now a web-based script editor, having an offline option is important for those days you don’t have Wifi so you don’t lose your productivity, and revision tracking helps keep track of any and all changes.
However, the company’s Video Production package, with tools to help you go from script to pre-production to production, is their most popular and seemingly best offer. For example, at $15 a month, you get:
- All of the Scriptwriting Plan. Everything above, plus hosting for up to 30 projects instead of 20. Not bad. Plus…
- Shotlists and Storyboard. When taking a project from the script phase into pre-production, shot lists and storyboards are the tools a director needs most to help articulate their vision for the project – making these tools great for writer-directors.
- Scheduling, Cost Reports, and Budgeting Breakdowns. Besides the benefits of the tools above for a would-be director, such as scheduling tools, cost reports, budgeting, and breakdown tools help a producer plan everything needed to pull off a shoot.
- Call Sheet and Talent Slides. These tools, while simple, help directors with casting, which is another critical pre-production stage for indie productions of all budget sizes.
- Online Help and Priority Email Support. With a program as all-inclusive as Celtx is trying to be, these add-on tools are useful, especially if you aren’t familiar with many of the above tools and how they work.
The best part about Celtx is that it is meant to be a tool for auteurs. By that, I mean indie writer-directors who take the lion’s share of producing their movies on their own backs and could make the most use of these tools.
It’s also cool that Celtx offers a Game Production package as well.
While it doesn’t apply to the type of screenwriting you’re probably used to doing, the fact that there is a screenwriting program/service out there that is making it possible to write interactive story maps and interactive dialogue into screenplay format is bringing the narrative storytelling of video games into the spotlight, which is cool.
What are some flaws of Celtx?
Because Celtx is meant to be a well-rounded tool for self-producers or production teams, it has its limitations as a standalone screenwriting program.
While the old Celtx was always still a step or two behind Final Draft, it was functionally a screenwriting word processor, whereas this new version is more akin to software like Movie Magic than it is to something like FadeIn.
That said, Celtx does serve a need but comes with a price. That said, that price is one of the cheapest on this list, especially if you take the yearly amount ($7.50 a month rate for the Script-only Package).
That said, the fact that Celtx doesn’t have a free version does make it a difficult sell. It’s hard to justify leaping unless you’re going to take full advantage of all the tools the program offers.
For my two cents, I see a very specific use case for Celtx. Let’s say you are a Youtuber or videographer looking to create your own content consistently and with a consistent team.
You need to write, plan and budget your shoots regularly – especially if you’re taking on client video projects. The price Celtx charges isn’t bad at all, especially if you are using it all the time.
Because it’s more of an all-in-one, team-based collaborative pre-production tool-set, I don’t see it being of much use to someone who isn’t producing their own material – especially not a writer just looking to write screenplays for a living.
But if you’re looking to Duplass-brothers it up and become a do-it-all-yourself indie filmmaker, Celtx seems like a great tool to help you go from script to screen!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.