Screenwriting Basics #1: Budget Friendly Screenwriting Software

This is the first in a multi-part series breaking down the screenwriting process so you can get started writing your next great idea.

First, let’s talk where you write the script. I don’t care if you start in a paper notebook or scribble outlines on napkins, at some point you’re going to have to type this into proper screenwriting format on a computer.

Professional screenwriting programs like Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft are a major investment. Screenwriter 6 is currently at the sale price of $169. It’s usually $249. Final Draft 12 is on sale for $185 (again, usually $249).

That’s a hefty price tag for someone who is just starting out. Luckily, there’s some really good free and cheap options out there too:

  • YouMeScript – a Google Drive extension. Features the ability to have multiple writers working at the same time from different computers. Great for collaboration but make sure you save often. It does not automatically save for you.
  • Fade In – Fade in provides a free trial to get you started. It is only $80 for the full version.
  • Writer Duet – a Cloud based software that has a lot of nifty features. The free trial lets you write your first 3 scripts on the program for free.
  • Celtx – This used to be free but it seems it’s gone through some updates and is now $15/mo for the most basic package.

The free options are fine for when you are learning to write or if you are simply writing for your own short films, but if you decide to go big time and start submitting to agents or contests or major production houses — get Final Draft or Screenwriter. There can be little formatting issues with the free programs that the pricey programs would sort out.

Study the Craft

You can’t expect to grow as a writer unless you work at it, study it and see what’s been done before.

You can see my list of recommended screenwriting books here: Reading List: Screenwriting.

How do you expect to write a script if you don’t read them first? The following link gives resources to the best screenplays to read in each genre.

You can also check out a lot more scripts on Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. Just keep in mind some are transcripts written by a fan watching a show, which makes them not worth studying. You may also have to click through a few, especially on Drew’s site — some links are broken.

“So what’s all this I hear about formatting?” We’ll talk about that in the next Screenwriting Basics post.

A Film Is Born Three Times Pt. 1: Re: Writing

“A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” — Robert Bresson, French film maker.

I think folks at first take for granted that a film is a thing born of an idea, written, produced, and edited and then it just exists… but there’s so many changes along the way. Your first draft is almost never, ever going to be what appears on screen. And it probably shouldn’t. Some first drafts are better left being forgotten, but you can’t make a final draft without suffering through the whole writing and re-writing process.

The Road Less Traveled

I talked a bit about my short horror film The Road Less Traveled in my how-to post here: Making the No Budget Horror Film – Bridget LaMonica

The very first very rough draft was written in 2014 while I was at SCAD. Cassie is abandoned at a bar by her friends and captured by two bad men named Miles and Dawson in a cool car.

While in their nefarious clutches, Cassie calls her mother, who races to try to find her. Cassie gets her revenge, only to have her mother finally arrive in time to bury a couple bodies. I called the story Werewolf because that was the monster at the end of the story.

Hunted, an early draft of The Road Less Traveled:

Cassie talks too much. There’s a lot of her talking on the phone, to a friend at a bar, to the kidnappers. Blegh.

She has a cell phone and is able to call for help (kind of a horror movie no-no).

Cassie is resourceful. She knows ways out of her situation but finds her methods were anticipated.

I sent the draft to my friend Masha, who gave me a great critique. Eventually I created the story that was much more interesting to me: Mia (formerly Cassie, now with a more appropriate name – Missing In Action) kidnapped by a lone serial killer named Clyde (the name is never said out loud) who brings her to an abandoned slaughter house to do his evil work. Jokes on him, because Mia fights back. This was called Hunted.

The script was presented to director Lindsay Barrasse. With Lindsay’s attachment to the script and her love of classic horror, we leaned further into classic horror tropes and set the story in the 1970s instead of modern day. No more convenient cell phone.

Draft 9:

Cassie is now Mia and she has no spoken dialogue (only a few lines of voice over).

This version mentions a “90’s style watch” but later we changed the date to the 70s.

Mia is adept at survival — she knows some skills but is unable to escape until later.

I wanted a horror story that played on the classic tropes while delivering some surprises. I had a not-so-subtle reference to a favorite TV show, Supernatural.

Hunted became The Road Less Traveled, inspired by the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, Supernatural‘s “The Road So Far” and the fact that we had a female victim who would prove herself capable. The film became more and more about female empowerment, especially since most of our production team was female.

A note: I almost never find my title until a few drafts later. Same with a theme or tone — sometimes it just takes that long to finally whittle down to what I want to say.

Routine Procedures

Before The Road Less Traveled was produced, I had a thesis film at SCAD called Routine Procedures.

This script began in a short script writing class. The basic premise being a group of soldiers discovering an alien box in the woods that could spell doom for all mankind.

The very first (equally very bad) draft saw Johnson, your average Gary Stu with his boss Magnus and a feisty Latina soldier Reyes (inspired by Private Vasquez in Alien). Reyes ends up being an alien. There might have been some idea about aliens enslaving humanity or something? I dunno. This draft doesn’t exist anymore and nor should it.

This script went through several drafts in the class, becoming a time travel story in which these soldiers discover this alien artifact that forces them to relive the same day over and over as they deteriorate. Only one soldier notices, and he is freaking out, man.

Draft 3, Page 1:

In this version we have about 5 characters: Johnson, Sterling, Reyes, Magnus and Hopkins.

This draft was way too talky with too many characters. Still I can see all the major things I kept from this draft forward: Johnson as our lead who figures things out, Magnus as the hard-as-nails superior who is afraid of change, the story starting by mentioning de ja vu.

I condensed the best parts of Hopkins into Reyes and deleted Sterling entirely. He was a useless jerk.

I worked with director Nick Bow to make the film. He suggested Johnson should be a woman. I stopped. I was about to argue. And then I realized, yeah, why didn’t I think about that? The genders of Johnson and Reyes were flipped and we put out a casting call. We got some excellent people to fill out these roles and it wasn’t who we originally expected.

Draft 9, page 1:

The characters were reduced to 3.

We wanted to be clear what happened where (time travel stories get complicated). We labeled the repetitions and the different sections of landscape we were shooting in.

In Draft 3 Reyes saw a snail stuck in a loop. Here it’s a millipede.

Less dialogue and more focused.

As I recall, the title Routine Procedures was there for most of the drafts. I think the first one or two were called Maneuvers or something vaguely military-esque. When I settled on Routine Procedures, it helped sell the fact that this was a time travel story.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Drafts are called such because they are a continuously changing process. The first draft is often called a vomit draft (ew) because you might need to get your initial idea out fast. You bring it to a critique group or a trusted friend who can give you notes, and then you incorporate that into a rewrite. The script is never actually done until it is filmed, and even then it’s open for interpretation.

Next up, Part 2: Production.

Reading List: Screenwriting

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: Secrets of Success that in order to become an expert in anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. That is also true for screenwriters and film makers.

I am of the belief that if you want to be good at something, you’re constantly working to enhance your knowledge, hone your craft and try new things.

When I interact with young screenwriters, I find myself recommending the same reading material over and over again, so my next logical step was to list them here.

The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production

Before you run, you must walk.

Before you write a feature, I highly recommend you write a short film.

A short film can range anywhere from 1 min to 45 or so, but usually around 5-10 mins is the common format that can find itself programmed into film festivals. That’s the sweet spot, so you might want to look in that range specifically.

Find it here.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Often touted as the “Bible of Screenwriting,” Save the Cat! is a famous book on the craft. This book takes a more Hollywood approach to screenwriting that’s beneficial for those wanting to understand the formula of most popular films.

From the initial idea, to creating a beat sheet to marketing your script, Save the Cat! is a great resource to dive into.

the book’s strength lies in its foundation of the formula of story arcs and organizational tools such as the beat sheet, so this is definitely a book you should check out.

Find the book here.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great

I always send this book recommendation with the disclaimer “This is by no means a commentary on your script!”

This book is broken up into digestible chunks that go into details on common problems and how to fix them. This book explores structure, the nitty gritty of story and other details that might have been missed during your first draft, such as a deep B story or multi-faceted characters.

Find the book here.

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box

This is the book for any sort of TV writing. Here you learn about the particular format of broadcast television writing. TV writing is a different game than writing a feature by a long shot, as it pertains to act breaks, teasers, tags, and how to best tell a joke (the funny word comes last!).

This book also has a meaty section on agents, navigating the world of spec script writing and pitching.

Find it here.

Honorable Mentions:

The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script 10 Minutes at a Time. Find it here.

Secrets of Film Writing. Find it here.