Slugline

Simple, elegant screenwriting.

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    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz
Thursday
Jun172010

The State of Screenwriting Software

Every day, those of us involved in film and video post-production use some truly amazing software. Applications that transcode video, present complex changes in real time, and allow us to transform our images from footage into filmmaking. We manage terabytes of data, we reverse-engineer camera motion by tracking a million moving details, and we create entire worlds using nothing but mouse clicks.

So I’m always a bit surprised at how what seems to be such a simple task by comparison, putting words on a page, has perennially been handled in a way dissatisfying to so many writers.

Final Draft

Final Draft ($249 MSRP, $186.68 from Amazon) is the gold standard, if you take that analogy in the direction of gold being an outdated, unwieldy encumbrance, the continued practical significance of which is more imagined than real. Every “real” screenwriter uses Final Draft, and Final Draft’s .fdx file format is as close to a lingua franca as exists in Hollywood.

Final Draft is an essential tool for films in production because of its industry-standard revision management and compatibility with popular scheduling software, but over the years it has often been less than a joy to use for actual writing. If you used it on a Mac, Final Draft was always the app that made you most painfully aware of Apple’s willingness to start fresh with a new operating system. Final Draft sometimes felt like it was running in an invisible Macintosh Plus emulator ported to Linux and running in OS X’s X11 environment. Even as recently as version 7, Final Draft would only sporadically display screenplay text with an anti-aliasd font.

In fairness, the current version 8, which I was just forced to upgrade to thanks to Snow Leopard, is pretty good. It’s aesthetically minimal and feels like a good, native Mac app. But without wanting to discount the many complex features that Final Draft has under the hood, let’s remember that its main task is to place the letters that you type on the screen, and format them like a script—which, by definition, excludes anything not possible using a 100-year-old typewriter. Even in version 8, some aspects of this simple task remain buggy. I find that I can wind up with lower-case letters in a character name depending on the mood of the (admittedly quite handy) auto-complete feature. Similarly, I don’t know if it’s a feature or a bug that I can occasionally type lower-case letter into a Scene Heading.

But the thing that absolutely flabbergasts me about Final Draft is that, after all these years, it still reflects not one ounce of understanding of how screenwriters think about organizing their work.

Almost every screenwriting application has a “notecards” feature, where scenes are displayed as virtual 3x5” notecards that can be color coded, annotated, and rearranged. This is meant to to emulate the age-old screenwriter’s practice of avoiding actual work by dicking around with 3x5” notecards.

The problem is that Final Draft, like most screenwriting apps, assigns one notecard to each slugline, rendering the entire idea completely worthless. When writers use cards, they might break things down as far as one scene per card — but a scene usually contains multiple sluglines.


In this single page from The Bourne Supermacy (Tony Gilroy, Brian Helgeland screenwriters), there are five sluglines. Every page in this tense action scene is like this—cross-cutting between Bourne and the Treadstone assassin, moving from setting to setting, punching in for crucial details. In Final Draft, each of these sluglines becomes an index card:

Which is not at all how a writer would use cards. This entire eight-page scene would probably be one card called “CAR CHASE - KIRIL TRIES TO KILL BOURNE.” Or, for another writer, maybe the chase would be broken up into a few cards. BOURNE SEARCHES THE BEACH TOWN FOR MARIE, CAR CHASE - KIRILL PURSUES BOURNE AND MARIE, KIRIL SETS UP HIS RIFLE, etc.

The point is, sluglines and index cards have nothing to do with one another. In order for index cards to be of any use, they must be able to contain an arbitrary amount of screenplay.

Which brings us to…

Scrivener

I’m skipping over Movie Magic Screenwriter…  oh wait, let’s not skip them entirely—just take a gander at this screenshot, which I just today pulled from their website. Wow. Anyway, on to Scrivener—the best screenwriting application in existence, and without even trying to be.

Scrivener ($39.95) is a Mac-only app developed by a frustrated novelist who wanted a better writing tool for himself. He does all the coding himself and you can expect a prompt reply from him on his company’s forum if you have ideas for improvements or if you’ve found a bug.

I know, crazy.

The catch is that Scrivener is a general-purpose writing app, with a few screenwriting features thrown in. It offers the basic formatting features, but makes no attempt at street-legal pagination, or managing a character list, or tracking revisions.

Which is so great, because it lets you Just Write.

I could write a hundred love letters to Scrivener, but the one feature I’ll focus on today is the notecards. They are notecards done right. You can—get this—put as much or as little script in one notecard as you like. I never would have dreamed we even had such revolutionary technology.

Not only that, but you can have nested sets of cards. A card can contain more cards.

Whoah.

If that sounds like files and folders, then you’re getting it. In fact, the best feature of Scrivener’s notecards is that you don’t have to view them as notecards. You can always see them as a hierarchy of folders on the side of your screen.


What you see here is the method of screenplay organization described in Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. While everyone agrees on Acts I, II and III (yes, they do), different writers have different ways of breaking up what happens in each act. Scrivener lets you nest as many folders deep as you like, creating your own template, which you can load in at the start of a new project. At every nesting level, the folders can also be viewed as cards.

What this buys you is the ability to organize by cards at a high level and at a macro level—where cards become scenes. Real scenes, not sluglines. Scenes the way a writer thinks about scenes.

It’s so awesome that it takes a little time to get used to, but it’s worth it.

The only problem is that at some point, if you’re writing a real screenplay that will be read by real people, you have to leave the Scrivener party, put on a tie and maybe even pants, and show up for work at Final Draft. You need pagination. You need revision tracking. You need MOREs and CONTINUEDs (I guess). I respect Scrivener’s stated goal to not allow their creative writing app to sprawl into a full-fledged movie production tool. Scrivener is for writing. And man, it works. It’s almost like the guy who created it is a writer or something.

So I write this in the hope that Final Draft takes a stab at a folder or notecard system that makes one lick of sense. If you don’t, someone else will. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work in Scrivener for as long as I can before sobering up and looking around for where I left my pants.

Reader Comments (74)

One significant benefit for Screenwriter is its integration with Movie Magic Scheduling and Movie Magic Budgeting, which are still the heavy hitters in terms of actually taking the next step of making your script more than a script.

Final Draft has no related tools -- the closest it has is "Tagger," which is a joke.

Myself, all I want a screenwriting program for is to put me at the right margins when I hit TAB. I started using Final Draft in college because Celtx didn't exist and Screenwriter didn't have an educational discount, and I've stuck with it because I just didn't have a reason to stray. The integration with the Scheduling and Budgeting programs has got me considering jumping ship to Screenwriter now, but I might investigate Gorilla and see if I can make that work with Final Draft. And Final Draft putting out an iPad app will tip the balance a lot in its favor, as well.

That all said, I agree with you regarding the awesomeness of Scrivener. I downloaded Scrivener at the beginning of last year and thought I'd give the 30-day trial a shot. I had the software about 30 minutes (the time it took me to go through the tutorial) before I bought the license. I do the vast majority of my writing now in Scrivener, specifically as it pertains to the development process.

But once I move to the drafting stage, I do all my actual scriptwriting in Final Draft. Mainly because I personally prefer having the pagination -- for one thing, it helps me make sure that I'm more or less on track structurally, and not letting scenes get out of control. And from a purely psychological perspective, I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with filling pages, as opposed to just adding more text.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDorkman

I may buy this just for my love of Bartleby.

June 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Rigby

Stu,

this is sort of an outlier approach, but have you looked into
Eastgate's "StorySpace"?

Though expensive, the idea / reality of multi role/ multi thread live action stuff for the iPad out, this could be the ticket.

June 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlaurence zankowski

Give Movie Magic another look. It's actually a great program. Really easy to use.

The text on final draft always looked "ugly" on my mac. But, it looks crisp and beautiful with movie magic. It's a small thing to be sure, but if I'm going to be staring at words a lot, I'd like to have them look purty!

Seriously, Screenwriter is legit...and is comparable and--dare I say it--better than Final Draft.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Kander

"The text on final draft always looked "ugly" on my mac. But, it looks crisp and beautiful with movie magic."

They actually fixed this in Final Draft 8, both by fixing the way FD handles text and by redesigning the Courier Final Draft typeface.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDorkman

I love Movie Magic. Yes it's ugly. But i'm over it. I know Apple has done a great job at convincing the world that when it comes to computers looks are just as important as function. And I dare say that some things in the computer world are better off for it. Still rather than being a GUI evangelist I suggest simply putting looks in the cons section and seeing what else it has to offer... you may be surprised. After all there are (as has been mentioned) fantastic programs out there that are far uglier than their counterparts (Syntheyes comes to mind) that are fantastic tools.

June 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCurtis Hickman

Stu,

WIth so many of your posts getting 50+ comments, is it possible to add the 'next 50 comments' button at the top of the list? Now if I want to see a new post, I have to select 'comments' scroll down 50 entries before I find out I have to press another link to get to the next 50 entries. I think it will greatly benefit the user experience.

July 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSander de Regt

I took a look but I don't see an easy way to do that with the Squarespace configurations page. Good idea though! I'll try to figure out how to do it.

July 3, 2010 | Registered CommenterStu

Thanks for this blog posting Stu - Scrivner is a great find as is Adobe Story (I hope they can keep it free).

July 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen K

I dont know about you guys but if you check this video you will start using MM Screenwriter right away.

80s music and the bright yellow text included...

http://www.screenplay.com/walkthrough/screenwriter/SCW6-whats-new-short/SCW6-whats-new-short.html

:: Whats new in MM Screenwriter?
PLENTY!

oh my god..

July 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermark

Mark,

Apart from the cheesy video, the features seem pretty decent.
I am happy with my current choice in software, but I wouldn't let this video persuade me NOT to start using this software.

July 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSander de Regt

Well, the video is supposed t convince me to use the software NOT THE OPPOSITE.

I guess most people here have a strong visual background that's why we are so picky with interfaces. Do we have a point? I think so.

Anyway if you think i am imagining things check this one too from the same developers

http://www.learnoutline4d.com/

SALSA AMIGO!!

July 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermark

Wow.

July 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterStu

Yes someone is making an easy to use screenwriting app for the iPad.
Checkout www.screenwritingapp.com
It will be launching next week!

July 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNik Manning

I'm a pro screenwriter who walked the strike line. Let me tell you EVERY screen writer I asked, HATES Final Draft yet nearly everyone uses it. It's an industry standard because of inertia (like Avid was) and because it does a few professional things really well; like colored revisions. As for Screenwriter, that company's motto must be: "A sucker's born every minute".

July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWGA/DGA

That comment is interesting, but it's in violation of ProLost's (admittedly somewhat hidden) comment policies, which ask that you identify yourself. Please do so in the future.

http://prolost.com/comment-policy

July 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterStu

Storyist is my choice. Has everything you need and nothin you don't. Can import Final Draft docs and will export a final draft friendly file when your done.

http://storyist.com/index.html

Also great for novelists. The included tools are perfect and it's very snappy and obedient on SL. Well worth the $60 on the Mac. I'm always surprised to find how few people know about it. Storyist is just an undiscovered jewel.

July 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeanoism

Screenwriter? Sure. Once every 12 months I've talked myself into checking it out. But I've never gotten past booting it up without almost immediately selecting Quit!

And I'm no fanboy of Final Draft. Although I do breathe a heavy sigh of relief that they finally got past the "invisible Macintosh Plus emulator ported to Linux and running in OS X’s X11 environment".

But now that I've got Scrivener to work with, I can put off FD for as long as possible. Here's to hoping a real solution comes our way soon!

July 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

Storyist looks pretty cool — almost indistinguishable from Scrivener at first glance. Any particular distinctions you want to mention Deanoism?

July 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterStu

Storylist does look familiar to Scrivener. Plus it has an auto-complete feature for character names, etc. which Scrivener currently lacks.

I'm going to do some research at the Scrivener and Storylist forums to see what people have to say.

Thanks for bringing this application to our attention.

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

Deanoism: Thanks for mentioning Storyist! A flurry of Twitter follows led me here and I was delighted to see your comment.

Stu & Gerry: I'm the developer and am happy to answer questions either here or at the Storyist forums. In addition to the autocomplete feature that Gerry mentioned, there are a couple of other distinguishing features that Storyist offers screenwriters:

* ePub Export: Storyist can export scripts in ePub format so you read them in iBooks or Stanza on iPad and iPhone or on other readers that support the ePub standard.

* Page Layout: Storyist has a page layout view and honors the widow/orphan pagination rules for scripts.

* Final Draft Import/Export: In addition to script text and formatting, Storyist imports/export Final Draft script notes, scene summaries, and color coding information.

Also, the home page has a screencast titled "Storyist for Screenwriters" which you may find helpful.

Regards,
Steve Shepard
Storyist Developer

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Shepard

Steve: Sorry I misspelled Storyist with an "L". I must have been moving too fast for my own good. And thanks for directing us to the forums for any questions we may have. I'll stop by as soon as I've fully explored the website.

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerry

a spot on review.. bottom line the guy that uses a 20.00 digital camera to make a short movies is more of a film maker than me with 550d boom mic ,marantz sound recorder and avid editing suite..there is an old saying..those that can...do
those that can't ...teach
those that can't teach... criticize

August 31, 2010 | Registered Commenterjames washburn

One additional reason for Celtx -- free for students learning the trade. My students use it because $50 means a lot to them. Hopefully someone will read your suggestions and make the note-cards save-the-cat friendly.

September 21, 2010 | Registered CommenterKerry Loewen
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