The lack of alternatives

February 8th, 2011 | by | screenwriting


When a screenwriter decides, even tentatively, that it’s time to part ways with Final Draft, of course the next thing is to try to find a piece of screenwriting software to replace it.

Movie Magic Screenwriter

The first stop on that tour is Movie Magic Screenwriter, which has a reputation as “the other industry standard”. Which basically means that, yes, pretty much everybody uses Final Draft, but some people have MMS, too.

Most recommendations for frustrated Final Draft users to switch to MMS seem to be based on the claim that there’s no reason not to. (Although to be clear, it’s not like there haven’t been complaints about MMS, too.) But given how heavily a screenwriter’s going to rely on it — and given the price point — reasons not to are much less important than reasons to. The way it handles some aspects of screenplay formatting is very clumsily done, and the program certainly doesn’t make an attempt to get out of the writer’s way. In terms of user experience, even the latest version of MMS suffers from a combination of an unnecessarily cluttered interface combined with the time-travel experience of writing in Word 97. Going between a modern, high-end multimedia application and one with all the UI flair of WordPad can be a bit jarring, at best.1

In the end, are user interface, design, and appearance really all that important, to a screenwriter? To a creative person working in a visual field? Yes. Yes, they probably are.

Adobe Story

Coming from Adobe should be a plus, since its Creative Suite line of applications are, for the most part, high-quality creative tools used by top-tier professionals. But Story is written in Flash, and while Flash is just fine for online games and some rich web content, it’s maybe not the best thing to write a real application like a word processor in.2

Story doesn’t quite behave the way a native application does. For instance, it uses its own keyboard shortcuts instead of the standard ones (particularly noticeable on a Mac). Its integration isn’t as good as a real native application’s: you can’t just drag and drop text to copy it to/from Story, and all of the controls and menus and dialog boxes are drawn (sometimes slowly) by Flash, not the operating system. And the actual typing and editing part of writing seems slow and unresponsive and syrupy and…well, unfortunately sort of what you might expect from a word processor written in Flash. Which is really unfortunate because the actual typing part of screenwriting is kind of important, and everything else that gets in the way of just plain using a program is inherently problematic.


Celtx is a program with lot of ambition. It wants to be a complete software suite for writing screenplays and pre-production planning, and it wants to offer it all for (mostly3) free. Unfortunately after a number of years it’s still a long ways off.

Celtx made the odd choice of basing itself, technologically, on a web browser, i.e., Mozilla Firefox. As the developers admit, there are serious limitations on what they’ll be able to do with an HTML-based script editor. They also stress that the program is not WYSIWYG like Final Draft, or MMS, or Story, or Word, or any almost any other modern word processor — at best it will give a rough approximation of what the printed script will look like as you type.

There are notable missing or strangely implemented features. For the last five or six years users have been requesting the ability to simply center text. Users have to go online in order to produce a PDF of a screenplay (by sending it to Celtx’s server!). And until the program provides the ability to lock and manage page numbers — which, as per technological limitations, above, seems unlikely — no professional production will ever be able to use it for rewriting during the pre-production process.

The most problematic thing, however, is probably the sheer number of Ican’topenmyscriptanymore cries for help on the Celtx “Report a Bug” forum. That’s not something that any serious writer wants to worry about.

But it’s free. It doesn’t do what a professional screenwriter is going to want or need it to do, but it’s free.

Microsoft Word (or any other word processor)

Here’s what word processors don’t do:

  • Manage script revisions
  • Proper scene and dialogue pagination
  • Lock and manage scene numbers
  • Lock and manage page numbers

And here’s what professional screenwriters need a screenwriting program to do:

  • Manage script revisions
  • Proper scene and dialogue pagination
  • Lock and manage scene numbers
  • Lock and manage page numbers

Automatic handling of (MORE) and (cont'd) is pretty much necessary and expected, too. As are tracking and contextual autocompletion of character names and locations. Word processors don’t do that, either.

With tabs and margins and styles and macros, you can type something that looks 90% like a screenplay in Microsoft Word, but it’s that last 10% that’s going to make you wish you’d used the right tool for the job.

The others

There are even more options for getting a screenplay written (or, rather, typed). The free word processor is, for screenwriting purposes, as fully featured as Microsoft Word and (subject to the same limitations for serious script work), and writing tools like Scrivener have users, too — although the Mac-only Scrivener, which is capable of basic script formatting, is a general writing application and does not claim to be a dedicated screenwriting tool.

And that’s about it for serious (and semi-serious) choices for screenwriting software.

  1. This video does not help matters whatsoever.
  2. Especially not on a notebook running on battery, since Flash has a bad reputation when it comes to draining those.
  3. Celtx does charge for add-ons like full-screen mode and the ability to change text/background colors. Even then, full-screen mode is far from ideal, with a suggestion made to turn your monitor on its side(!) to minimize layout problems.

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