The Best Free and Paid Screenwriting Software Solutions
Whether writing on a Windows, macOS, Linux, or an Android device, this is the software you need to write a screenplay—free and paid.
To start writing a screenplay, all you need is an idea and somewhere to put one word after another. Although it’s possible to write a screenplay on just about any text editor, screenwriting follows its own rules and format. Screenwriting.io has an excellent (albeit brief) formatting guide for standard screenplays, but dedicated screenwriting software is capable of handling formatting while you, the screenwriter, transfer those big ideas to paper.
The best screenwriting software out there—those used by professional screenwriters and big-time production companies—are not free, and many of them are exclusively for macOS devices. Somehow, macOS computers have become the de facto screenwriting machines, but there’s no need to worry. Many screenwriting software options are either free, or at least affordable, and run on Windows or even from a browser tab. Screenwriters working with a team may want to opt for software that allows real-time collaboration, but solo screenwriters, or those on a budget, can work on their magnum opus with any of the free options below. To find the perfect screenwriting solution, check out the options below.
It took me a while to wrap my head around Fountain, but it made perfect sense once I did. New screenwriters, especially, should learn how to use Fountain and develop that skill for future projects. So, what is Fountain? Well, it’s not an app, software, or coding language.
Fountain is a simple way of writing screenplays on any text editor by using a clearly-defined set of rules. If used correctly, the plain text converts into a screenplay. To explain how easy it is to use, you can open the free Windows Notepad app and start typing away using the syntax to format the screenplay. Fountain’s syntax is straightforward—you can pick up the basic elements within a few minutes. Most users will only need to remember the basic syntax for proper formatting, but there are also advanced rules for those wanting to get the most out of Fountain. Below are the basics:
- To create a scene heading, start a sentence with INT, EXT, or other applicable words.
- Add a character element by typing the character’s name fully in upper case after an empty line and follow it up with a line of dialogue in the next line.
- Create dialogue by typing the dialogue after a character element or parentheses.
- To create transitions such as CUT TO: type TO: after CUT—must be in all caps with a clear line before and after.
Fountain makes screenwriting available to anyone with a text editor and keyboard, and The Beat foresaw this as the future of screenwriting six years ago. Open up whatever text editor you prefer and start messing around with Fountain to pick up the basics. After you finish, save the file ending with .fountain and convert it using Afterwriting, Screenplain, or, if you have a macOS device, Highland.
As far as free options go, Writer Duet is one of the best. The free version of the software is a full-fledged screenwriting tool that works on just about every browser, with the ability to export to various file types. You can export to Fountain and work on another text editor or export the file as a PDF, which converts your work, title page and all, into a screenplay—other file types include Celtx, Final Draft, Docx, and RTF.
As a first-time user, Writer Duet provides a succinct screenwriting format guide, and then it’s off to the races. Writing a screenplay on Writer Duet is a streamlined experience, with many useful smart features that recommend previously used characters, scene, headings, and other often-used words.
Writer Duet has a handy sidebar with formatting tools. However, the app also uses hotkeys for the same tools—(a)ction, (c)haracter, (d)ialogue, (s)cene headings, (t)ransitions. Writing a screenplay requires a lot of brainpower, but Writer Duet’s smart formatting and suggestion tools free you up to write undistracted. I used it to write a short screenplay, and it only took me a couple of hours to familiarize myself with the software.
Those who want unlimited projects or collaborators should look into the “Plus” tier, which costs $5/month. There are also two more paid subscription tiers. For solo screenwriters on a budget, however, the free version of Writer Duet is plenty.
This Russian-made screenwriting software is entirely free to download and use. The “Pro” version of the software doesn’t offer any extra features, but it does backup projects to the cloud. The bottom line is you don’t have to pay for it, but you can donate a few bucks to the creator via the website.
Unlike other software or apps on this free list, Kit Scenarist is a desktop-only app. The software is compatible with Windows, macOS, and several of the most popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Debian. It may even work on a Raspberry Pi running Raspberry Pi OS, since it’s based on Debian. Savvy Chromebook owners can also use Kit Scenarist by turning on the Linux (Beta) feature, which runs Debian.
I tested Kit Scenarist on Windows, and enjoyed having a dedicated offline screenwriting software to shut out all the distractions. The option to use the software in dark mode is one of my favorite things about it, increasing its value among night owls. The screenwriting tab is the main attraction, but the “Research” and “Cards” tabs are useful, too. In the Research tab, you can write background on characters and locations, write a synopsis, and add media files. The Cards tab works like a storyboard. This tab creates a virtual card for every scene in the script and pins the cards on a corkboard. The Script tab also has a handy scene sidebar to navigate back-and-forth between scenes.
Kit Scenarist doesn’t have any text correction tools, the ability to collaborate with multiple people online, or a way to export to different file types. But, it’s handy for what it does, especially at that low price of FREE. If you’re looking for a simple screenwriting software with light storyboard features, it’s worth checking out.
DubScript (Android OS) Only
While there is a certain belief that all screenwriters spend their time at coffee shops typing away on expensive Macbooks, that’s not the case for all. Access to a certain computer shouldn’t be a deterrent to writing a screenplay, especially for young screenwriters looking to pick up the basics. While it may be easier to type on a full keyboard connected to a computer or tablet, DubScript gives everyone the chance to write a script from their Android phone. Again, Chromebook users can download this app if their machine is compatible with Android, making it a perfect, budget-friendly software for just about anybody. The app is fully-functional with a phone or tablet’s touchscreen keyboard. Still, I recommend purchasing an affordable Bluetooth keyboard to maximize productivity. For example, this Logitech keyboard is portable and has Bluetooth for around $50.
The app uses Fountain, so you’ll need to brush up on the syntax to use DubScript properly. DubScript doesn’t do the formatting work for you, but it’ll suggest corrections for your scene headings if they’re not in all uppercase. You can save the script as an HTML, Fountain, or Final Draft File, and you can also export the finished script to a PDF file right from the app. One thing that DubScript does well is that you can switch between the “Write” and “Read” tabs, with the latter showing you the formatted version of the former. Because of this, you can see if your script is formatted appropriately before exporting.
The app is free to download and use, but there are ads. The ads appear only in the writing tab and not the reading tab, and there’s also a “DubScript” logo added to exported files. To remove ads and the logo on PDF files, users can pay $0.99/month or $9.99/year. Though this isn’t my first choice, it’s the only choice for those with only an Android phone. One use-case that I find probable is transferring a Fountain file to DubScript to work on an airplane trip or other scenario where having a computer is not ideal. And, if you’re worried about losing your file, don’t be. You can upload and backup to both Dropbox and Google Drive.
Sublime Text 3
My knowledge of coding doesn’t go further than using HTML to make the simplest of websites. However, I do know that Sublime Text is one of the best text editors for coders. So, what does coding have to do with writing a screenplay? Unless you’re writing a screenplay that takes place in Silicon Valley, not much, but text editors for coding can also write screenplays using Fountain.
Sublime Text is free to download and use, and it can write a screenplay using Fountain. As mentioned above, Fountain is a simple set of rules for writing screenplays. To get Fountain working on Sublime Text, you’ll have to download a package. Once I installed the Fountainhead package on Sublime text, I followed Fountain’s rules to type a sample. It worked perfectly. I tested the file by converting it to a PDF, and that worked well, too. While Sublime Text is free and straightforward, it lacks all of the smart formatting features found in other software, making it harder to use for first-time Fountain users.
Google Docs with Fountain Tools
I think Google Docs is one of the greatest inventions of our time. I’ve used Docs I was a broke college student writing papers on a cheap Chromebook. Google Docs does a lot for no money at all, and it’s available to use on any device with a browser—if it works on a $50 Raspberry Pi, it can work on anything. But, for all the good it does, it’s not the best tool for writing screenplays.
Except, that is, thanks to a nifty Google Docs add-on called Fountain Tools.
Fountain Tools helps users who want to use Fountain to write screenplays in Google Docs. The add-on only does two things: preview and export to PDF. I tested it and both features worked well. When exporting, Fountain Tools doesn’t allow users to select the destination, but I found the exported PDF file in the home page of my Google Docs.
Using Google Docs to write a screenplay is probably not the first choice for many since it lacks screenplay-specific features, but Google Docs constantly backs up files to the cloud, ensuring that your screenplay is never lost. Better yet, you can add collaborators to the file to work with you simultaneously or leave comments and edits. So long as you know Fountain, Google Docs lets you write screenplays from any device with a browser.
There’s a big chance that your favorite movie was written using Final Draft. It’s only the most widely used professional screenwriting software in the industry—with a price tag to match. For a professional screenwriter, $250 for screenwriting software is the cost of doing business, but struggling artist types may not have the funds. The price, though, is not undeserved. This software contains several useful features, some of which aren’t available in competing software.
One of its most useful features is the ability to collaborate on a script in real-time, letting screenwriters and other production staff work out certain aspects of a script within the software. “SmartType” is another excellent feature that can automatically fill in character names, locations, and other often-used words. There are too many features in Final Draft to go over, but it’s the industry standard for a reason. While solo screenwriters may want to stick to one of the free or more affordable options, Final Draft is the choice for the writer who wants it all, regardless of price. If it’s good enough for J.J. Abrams, who used Final Draft to write the screenplay for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then it’s good enough for anyone.
For screenwriters who want more than just screenwriting software, Celtx is a good option. It’s possible to write a screenplay within Celtx, but, if you’re simply writing a script, I believe Writer Duet is a better option. Where Celtx shines, and where it differentiates itself from primarily screenwriting apps, is its full suite of planning and scheduling tools.
Celtx is basically the Google G-Suite for production companies. It’s a central hub that houses shot lists, call sheets, scripts, budgets, and everything else. Once you complete a screenplay, you can begin planning the shoot by opening up the Shot List window. This opens the script, breaks it down scene by scene, and opens up a window with plenty of text boxes to plan the shot. The Budget window is a handy spreadsheet where you can break down the cost of everything from the talent to the production crew to camera equipment and all your other expenses.
While many screenwriters may need a simple text editor, Celtx is a full suite of production tools. However, the free version offers only the most essential features. You’ll want to subscribe to one of the paid tiers to get the most out of the software.
There are more than a few options for macOS-only screenwriting software. However, Highland 2’s minimal user interface and free options set it apart from the competition. Unlike other screenwriting software, the free version of Highland 2 unlocks every feature and doesn’t place a time or page limit. You can use Highland 2 for free for as long and as much as you want, but there is a small catch. Upon exporting with the free version, Highland 2 stamps each page with a watermark. Fortunately, the paid version of Highland 2 removes the annoying watermark when exporting to PDF.
Highland 2’s approach to screenwriting is minimal, which will appeal to the easily-distracted writer. The “Sprint Timer” that sets a timer for distraction-free writing is also a neat feature. And with the smart features, Highland 2 recognizes scenes, transitions, characters, and locations, saving users time. By selecting Go to Preview, Highland 2 converts written text into a screenplay preview, where you can check your work before exporting. While Highland 2 uses the .highland file format, you can import PDF, Final Draft, and FDX files. Screenwriting.io recommends Highland 2 for converting Fountain files into PDFs.
Highland 2 is efficient, simple, and affordable, and one of the best options for macOS users. Those who are easily distracted should look into Highland 2. And, the Sprint Timer feature, which borrows from the Pomodoro Technique, is the perfect tool for writers who like to work in highly-concentrated bursts. Though Highland 2 lacks many of the advanced features in Final Draft, Celtx, and Fade In, it’s still a beloved software for many.
Perhaps the most unique feature found in Highland 2 is “Gender Analysis,” which tracks the gender of all characters within a screenplay. This tool breaks your script down in percentages, counting the number of times and number of words spoken by each gender. With awareness of inclusiveness in Hollywood at an all-time high, this feature alone makes it a worthwhile pickup and one that can help writers see their unperceived bias when it comes to gender.
Let me start by saying that Rian Johnson used Fade In to write the spectacular Knives Out, a movie that was nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay. Fade In probably had nothing to do with the movie being nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, but it also didn’t have nothing to do with it. The $80 software costs far less than Final Draft, and its one-time purchase makes it more viable financially than Celtx or other subscription-based software. Fade In is also available on every major platform, including Android, iOS, and several Linux distributions.
At an affordable price, Fade In has the advanced features that screenwriters need: real-time collaboration, autocomplete typing, cloud storage, support for various file formats, and more. Fade In has all the best parts of Final Draft at a fraction of the cost, and there’s a demo version available to download for free as an incentive for potential users. Try it out and see for yourself.
You Have to Start Somewhere
Though good screenwriting software can make writing a screenplay easier, it takes more than a text editor to write something compelling. I highly recommend visiting the Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDB), where you can read screenplays for free and learn how the best screenwriters in the industry do it. A professor of mine said the only way to get better at writing is by reading as much as possible, and it’s the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received.
While researching this article, I decided to write a short screenplay of my own using the version of Writer Duet, which you can read here. Just pick an idea and start writing one word at a time. Soon enough, you’ll have a finished script.
Cover image via pashabo.
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