FADE IN on a young writer seated at his desk, his face alight with the joy of inspiration. He scribbles furiously on a notepad, trying to capture the magic of his movie idea. Outside his office window, a full moon prods him on.
Later, with his idea captured in handwritten notes, he decides it’s time to start typing. “If I’m going do this right,” he thinks, “I better buy some screenwriting software.” Research reveals that the leading software, Final Draft, costs a whopping $239. Our hero is not a professional writer though, so there’s no way he can justify dropping $239 to support an inspirational whim. He searches for something else, something reasonable, and — dare he think it? — something better.
His search takes him to The Mac App Store, where he finds, for $29.99, a brand new product called Movie Draft SE, and as he presses the buy button, he wonders to himself, “Will this reasonably priced app help take my script from inspiration to completion or will it frustrate me to the point where I abandon my award-winning idea before it can reach the second act?”
Write Out of Time
Movie Draft SE bills itself as the industry’s only non-linear script editor, and while the claim to uniqueness might be a bit overblown, the fact that it’s a non-linear editor can’t be denied.
What’s a non-linear editor? Well, it’s an editor that recognizes that writing isn’t reading, that constructing a story isn’t the same as experiencing one, and that while audiences love beginnings that lead to middles that lead to ends, writers love being able to work on the scene that has their attention now, regardless of whether that scene comes next.
Establish The Setting
When our hero opens up Movie Draft SE, he finds a window made up of a resizable column on the left and a familiar blank page on the right. The left column is where he creates, notates, and organizes his scenes; the blank page is where he does the hard work of actually writing his script.
But strangely enough, our aspiring young writer also sees something else. Sitting there, at the top of his window, is a status display that seems to have been taken straight out of an old version of iTunes. What the heck is that all about?
After reading through the help file, our hero learns that the information in the toolbar display is actually quite helpful, and it gives him information he might have to search for in other screenwriting apps.
Because scripts have unforgiving formatting rules, all screenwriting apps have built in actions for determining how a given script element will be formatted. For example, if you’re describing an action that takes place during your scene, the formatting should be appropriate to an ACTION element.
Now, in most instances, a description of ACTION will usually be followed by more ACTION, so hitting the Return key on your keyboard will create a new paragraph automatically formatted for ACTION, but a good portion of the time, instead of more ACTION, you’ll want the next section in the script to contain a bit of dialogue, which means in this case, the section after the ACTION should be formatted for a CHARACTER element (i.e., the name of the character who’s about to speak).
Because it gets very annoying very quickly to have to manually set the element every time you need it to change (avoiding this annoyance is the primary reason for using a screenwriting app instead of a traditional text-editor), screenwriting apps assign keyboard shortcuts to the Return and Tab keys that try to predict what element you want next. You can think of them as built-in keyboard shortcuts that automatically change based on whatever element you’re currently on.
Sounds confusing, right? Well, in practice, all it means is that when you get to the end of a line and hit the Return key, the next line of your script will automatically be formatted for the script element you most likely want, but if you hit the Tab key, then the next line will automatically be formatted for the next-most-likely element. The problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what key does what in relation to the current element.
Which brings us back to the display bar in Movie Draft SE.
On the left side of the status display, the app tells you which elements you’ll create when you hit the Return or Tab keys. In addition, beneath the title of the screenplay (which sits in bold in the middle of the display) there’s a customizable note about your project’s current status, followed by the script element you’re currently working on. The information on the right side of the window displays what page you’re on out of how many pages total, as well as what scene number you’re on out of how many scenes total.
Armed with this information, our hero feels ready to type.
Introduce the Supporting Cast
There are two ways to write a screenplay. The first is to type the words “FADE IN:,” make a lot of stuff happen, and then type “FADE OUT.” The other way is to develop a rough outline of the scenes you’ll need, add a bunch of notes to them so you’ll remember what they’re about and what you need to accomplish, and then get to work on the scene that most inspires you right now.
With his handwritten notes next to his keyboard, our hero decides to opt for the latter method, which means inputting a bunch of scenes at a rapid pace. He double-clicks on the “1. New Scene” scene in his blank project, and the app brings up a window asking him to name his scene and write down some notes.
After he gets through his first scene, he just keeps going until he has each scene in the movie outlined, with headings to remind him of what the scene is (these headings are not necessarily the SCENE HEADINGS that will appear in his script) and notes to remind him of what he wants to do in each one.
Movie Draft SE then gives him the option of rearranging these scenes right in the scene list.
When he gets around to actually typing out his scenes, he won’t have to worry about cutting text from one part of the script and moving it to another, because when he rearranges scenes in the scene list, all the text that belongs to that scene will move around with it, which will prevent all kinds of headaches from ever occurring.
With his scenes finished, he decides its time to input some info on his characters and locations. After wondering why there’s no button for these things in his toolbar (and cursing the developers for not letting him customize the toolbar), he uses the Project menu to open the Characters window, which is where he creates his list of characters and adds their names, ages, any notes about them he wishes, the actors or actresses he wants to play them, and a spot where he can drop in a photo.
There’s a similar window for locations, where along with dropping in photos of locations he has in mind, he can also add the addresses of each, addresses that could be fictional (helpful for remembering trivia) or real (helpful for scene scouting).
Presenting the Star of the Show
With his scenes outlined, his characters sketched, and his locations spotted, our budding screenwriter itches to work on the script itself. He clicks on the Full View icon in his toolbar and Movie Draft hides his scene list and expands to take over the full height and width of his monitor. His eyebrows go up and he starts to get excited about tackling the blank page.
But wait a second. There is no blank page in Movie Draft SE. Instead, there’s a blank page with a big red arrow in the left margin, an arrow that tells him what line his cursor is on. That’s kind of strange, he thinks, but hey, maybe it’ll come in handy later on.
He shakes his head, trying to get his focus back. Because he’s already familiar with the idea of script elements, he knows he wants to start off with a SCENE HEADING to tell his audience where the scene takes place and what time of day or night it is.
He types an “E,” preparing to type “EXT” (which stands for “exterior”) but next thing he knows, Movie Draft ghosts in the rest of the abbreviation for him. He stops typing for a moment, then decides to hit the Return key to see what happens, and sure enough, boom, the abbreviation goes from gray to black and his cursor is bumped ahead, ready for him to type the next word. He types in the location of the scene, hits return, and…what’s this now? Movie Draft has inserted a hyphen and popped up a context window with a bunch of times of day in it (morning, afternoon, day, dawn, dusk, magic hour, etc.). Ain’t that sweet of them?, he thinks.
When he gets to the end of his SCENE HEADING, he hits the return key and Movie Draft automatically formats the element for ACTION. “This is gonna be easy,” he say to himself. Then he types the first real word of his movie, only to find that instead of a typical black-colored font, Movie Draft has turned it blue!
What our hero doesn’t know is that Movie Draft’s editor uses a color-coding system by default, and while he can turn it off by clicking the “Highlight” button in the toolbar, leaving it on will actually help him later in the writing process, when he just wants to scan a batch of DIALOGUE without having his eyes get bogged down in the ACTION.
He takes a deep breath, accepts the strange red arrow, the color-coded formatting, and continues on his way. Next stop, the red carpet.
There’s more to MovieDraft SE than just the items experienced by our young screenwriter. Items such as:
- SceneTimeTM, which is a neat feature that shows up in two places: a tiny display at the bottom of the scene list that tells you the approximate length of the movie that will result from your script, and notations in each Act heading in the scene list that tell you how long each act will last in minutes and seconds
- An index card view that transforms the scene list into a bunch of index cards that you can manipulate
- Single scene mode, which changes the editor so you only see the scene you’re working on and not all the scenes you’re not
- A large collection of icons that can be assigned to scenes in the scene list, which will give a visual cue as to the purpose or status of a scene
- Installed templates for stage plays and screenplays
- A cover page designer where you can add agent and contact details, as well as the title, writer(s), adaptation information, etc.
Cut to the Chase
Years later, sitting in his mansion in the hills of LA, our award-winning screenwriter will happily recall the day he ponied up $30 to buy a much-better-than-servicable screenwriting app. He’ll tell listeners that Movie Draft SE could have been improved by making its features more accessible via the toolbar (rather than hiding them in the menus), and he’ll also say that while the information in the display window was useful, the design of it seemed a bit out of place.
But those are just quibbles, just quibbles! Because when you get down to it, Movie Draft SE offered our hero non-linear scene editing, automated script formatting, and unsought-but-later-appreciated color coding, and all for $30. A heck of a bargain, he’ll say. Then he’ll smile, turn to the camera, and smile at us until we FADE OUT.