Are you a novice screenwriter hoping to write the next Hollywood blockbuster or indie favorite?
If you are new to the craft, you’re probably looking to get started with minimal monetary investment. After all, who wants to spend $250 on Final Draft or similar industry software only to discover that screenwriting is not your calling?
If you’re in this camp, you may be asking yourself:
- What’s the cheapest tool I can use to write in proper screenplay format?
- What’s an easy way for me to share my script and collect feedback?
The good news is that the Internet provides a multitude of ways to solve these problems without spending a dime
In this post, I do not intend to provide a comprehensive overview of free screenwriting software. Via a web search, you can find a multitude of such articles covering a wide range of options.
Instead, I’d like to provide an overview of the specific workflow I’ve evolved over time to pursue screenwriting inexpensively. None of my ideas are particularly novel, but they may prove helpful to beginning screenwriters who aren’t especially tech-savvy.
The key ingredients are:
- Microsoft Word (or Google Docs).
- Fountain markup language.
- Cloud sharing.
Before diving into the details, a little background about myself.
I have been a scriptwriter on and off for nearly 30 years. Most of my experience has been in radio drama (a.k.a. audio theater), for which I’ve written over 30 scripts. However, I’ve also written two feature-length screenplays.
In the past year, I’ve written a fifth draft of my first screenplay and two drafts of my second one. So, screenwriting software and collaboration tools have been top of mind for me recently.
Below is the workflow I’ve evolved.
Regardless of which screenwriting software, word processor or text editor you adopt to write your scripts, my suggestion is to choose one which is compatible with the open-source Fountain markup language.
Advantages of Fountain
Fountain is a common format that allows you to move your script fluidly between various tools and avoid getting locked into proprietary software.
According to the Fountain website:
Fountain is a simple markup syntax for writing, editing and sharing screenplays in plain, human-readable text. Fountain allows you to work on your screenplay anywhere, on any computer or tablet, using any software that edits text files.
For anyone already familiar with standard screenplay formatting, Fountain syntax is very similar, except that it removes all of the special indentations.
The beauty of Fountain is that you have the option of writing your script in any text editor or word processor. Plus, a large number of dedicated screenwriting software programs (free and paid) can import and export Fountain, which means you can also view or edit your script in the traditional screenplay format, indentations and all. It’s your choice. (For a list of apps which support Fountain format, see: https://fountain.io/apps.)
Use Your Favorite Editor
I started writing scripts when word processing programs were the dominant writing tool, so I’m most comfortable writing in Microsoft Word and (to a lesser extent) Google Docs. Moreover, when I first started screenwriting, expensive shrink-wrapped computer programs were the only options available if you wanted to write in standard screenplay format.
As an alternative, I developed my own Microsoft Word template, with custom styles for action, character names, parentheticals, and dialogue. (If you’re wondering about a scene style, I just use action and hit caps lock on my keyboard.) In fact, I printed my first screenplay directly from Word in order to enter it into screenwriting competitions (before PDFs became the standard for contest submissions).
I still use this template today and still like to write my scripts in Word. However, I do not rely on Word to publish my screenplays as PDFs since I’d rather use industry software for that purpose (to absolutely ensure proper formatting).
Note: technically, Word is not a free tool, but I subscribe to Microsoft Office 360 for other reasons, so Word doesn’t add any incremental expense to my screenwriting. A truly free option would be Docs, which is available to anyone with a Google account.
One advantage of writing in Word (or Docs) is that you can edit your script virtually anywhere: e.g. on your computer, in any web browser, or on your mobile device (via an app). For example, I usually write major drafts on my computer, but I do most of my proofing and editing on an iPad.
To reduce friction and make writing as easy and flexible as possible, my recommendation is to choose a writing tool that is easily accessible to you on a wide variety of devices. To enable this with Microsoft Word, I store my working drafts on Dropbox, so that they are available on all of my devices. That said, you can use any similar cloud service (OneDrive, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, etc.) to achieve this goal.
Web-based screenwriting tools are another “write anywhere” option. In fact, I also use one such tool, WriterDuet, as I explain in step 2 below.
Spelling & Grammar Checks
After completing a draft but before formatting it, I like to check the script for any lingering spelling and grammar errors. Since I compose in Word, I usually resolve spelling and grammar problems as I write, using the program’s inline checkers.
As an additional safeguard, I usually copy the script into Google Docs and check it with Grammarly via their free Chrome extension. In my experience, Grammarly finds a fair number of grammatical issues that Word misses (and provides a second level of spell check for misspellings and typos).
Now that I’ve finished writing, proofing and grammar checking my script, I’m ready for the next step.
If, like me, you have not written your script in a dedicated screenwriting program, you will need to convert it to the standard screenplay format before publishing it. This is where Fountain comes in.
In my case, all I have to do is copy and paste my script from Microsoft Word into a plain text editor (e.g. Notepad), and — voila — my script is now in Fountain format.
The key is that my Word template is already essentially in Fountain format, except for the custom indenting which lays out the text like a screenplay. The net effect of pasting the text into a plain text editor is that the Word formatting (namely, the indentation) is removed. The result is pure Fountain syntax as if I had written the script in Fountain in the first place.
In your case, you may choose to write in pure Fountain format (sans indentation) in the first place.
Once a script is in Fountain format, you can use any Fountain-compatible screenwriting software to import it.
Going Solo with WriterDuet
In my case, I use WriterDuet, which is a web-based professional screenplay editor (it’s also available as an app for iOS and Android). I don’t have much experience with the mobile apps, but I do use the web version regularly. WriterDuet allows you to store up to three screenplays on its service for free, whereas the pro version enables unlimited scripts and more advanced sharing options.
I have done some composing on WriterDuet, but for the most part, I use it just to format my scripts. The process is super easy.
- Start a new project in WriterDuet. Or if you are at the three script limit, re-use an existing project and blank it out first (select all and delete).
- Copy and paste the Fountain text from your plain text editor into your WriterDuet document. The program automatically will recognize your pasted text as Fountain syntax and, after a few moments of processing time, transform it into standard screenplay format. (Alternatively, you can import your plain text document from the File menu.)
After quickly skimming the file to verify that the conversion was successful, I set up the title page in WriterDuet. From the File menu, select Title… (note: the user interface varies depending on which version of the web app you are using as well as which custom layout you’ve selected).
Finally, I export the screenplay to PDF (File menu > Export PDF). I like to at least look over the entire PDF, if not completely re-read the script, to make sure that no formatting glitches snuck in. The only issues I’ve found to date are missing line breaks, but that happens rarely and so far the root cause always has been in the original Word document, not from the Fountain conversion or PDF export.
Note: WriterDuet can also import screenplays from PDF, which is incredibly useful if you have only a “hard copy” of a script.
Also, I should note that WriterDuet is industrial-grade, pro-level software with an overwhelming amount of features, options, and customizations. I am using just a couple of basic features for import, export, and formatting; you might choose to leverage the full power of WriterDuet and natively compose your scripts in the tool.
Finally, from what I’ve seen, the web application is in active development. In the year I’ve been using it, WriterDuet has advanced from version 4 to version 6.
Plenty of other free tools can convert Fountain to formatted PDFs, but I like using WriterDuet since it’s robust software that I can grow into if my needs become more complex.
Now that my script is professionally formatted and available as a PDF file, I’m ready to share it (with the intent of collecting feedback).
Options abound for sharing PDF files. The simplest solution, by far, is to just email out your script as an attachment. The other obvious choice is to store it on a cloud service and create a share URL. Just about every screenwriter should have access to at least one of the following popular cloud services:
- Google Drive
- Apple iCloud
- Microsoft OneDrive
- Amazon Drive
My sharing strategy is a bit more complex. I share my screenplay out in two ways: via PDF and via Google Docs (in Fountain format).
Why do I do this?
I think Google Docs is a fantastic tool for collaboration because it enables the reader to give inline, contextual feedback. If I share my screenplay as a text file in Google Docs and give the recipient comment rights (vs. viewing or editing rights), my reader can add comments anywhere in the script. Moreover, the reader can also make edits, which Docs automatically flags as suggestions. As the author of the document, I can reply to comments and essentially have a running conversation with my reader.
Google Docs has other advantages.
Docs has good access controls. You can restrict access by email address in which case readers will have to log in to Google Docs to read the script.
You could invite all of your readers to the same document. However, if you were to do that, everyone would see each other’s comments. In some cases, this type of group collaboration might be appropriate.
In my case, I do not want to mix and match readers in the same document, so I make a dedicated copy of my script file for each recipient (e.g. “Script Title – John” and “Script Title – Jane”).
Another advantage: nearly everyone already has a login for Google Docs. If your reader has a Google account (via a Gmail address or any other email address), then you can invite them to the document. I have yet to come across a reader without a Google account.
Even so, not everyone wants to comment inline or read a script in Fountain format. Many (if not most) readers prefer to read a script in standard screenplay format and provide their feedback offline (e.g. in an email). That is why I always share my script via PDF as well. For each reader, I provide both options for reading and providing feedback.
This post probably makes my process sound complicated. In actuality, once you have mastered the tools, the steps are quick and easy.
That said, my approach may be overkill for many writers. In most cases, the best approach is to keep things as simple (and inexpensive) as possible and layer on complexity (and cost) as needed.
I’d love to hear about your favorite screenwriting tools and hacks in the comments. (Note: I moderate all comments so you may experience a delay before your comment appears on the post. For any SPAMMERS out there, don’t waste your time submitting as I will reject your comment.)