Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Scrivener, having used the app to write three novels, two novellas and a travel guide. But when I accidentally found myself working on a screenplay for a comedy series, I thought I’d try the industry-standard software for the job: Final Draft.

Final Draft comes highly recommended, used by all the top studios and praised by such screenwriting talents as Aaron Sorkin, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, Sofia Coppola and more. Ben Stiller said that ‘Final Draft is the only screenwriting software I have ever used, and it is the only one I ever will use.’

But priced at a hefty $250 for the Mac app and another $20 for the iPad companion app, it’s not a trivial investment for most of us. So what does it do to earn such praise and justify the cost … ?

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Final Draft was created by an aspiring screenwriter who found it both challenging and time-consuming to format his scripts such that they would meet the exacting standards of Hollywood studios.

A Hollywood studio has an established format for every aspect of a script, from the typeface and font size used through the precise (and differing) indents for dialog and action – all the way down to the colon that appears at the end of camera transitions. Some things must be centered, other things must not. Some things must be in caps, others in mixed case.

To make matters worse, different production companies have their own variations on the theme, and even within one organization – like the BBC, for example – the format used for 30-minute sitcoms is totally different to the one used for one-hour dramas.

If you don’t know the drill, it’s very easy to produce a script that can be instantly dismissed as the work of a know-nothing amateur. And even if you know exactly what you’re doing, getting the formatting right can be a distraction from simply writing the story.

Final Draft aims to almost completely automate the formatting of a screenplay. You focus on the words, and let the software take care of the rest. As the company’s slogan says, Just Add Words.

The first thing you need to do is choose your template. This will ensure that the software uses the right formatting for your target audience.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll get a blank document waiting for you to begin writing, as you’d expect. But because it knows how the screenplay should open for your target production, it will effectively tell you which element to write first.

For example, if you choose a BBC one-hour drama, it will pre-select the Scene Heading element for you, as that’s the very first thing that you should write. You can see the element the app is expecting you to write from the drop-down menu at the bottom.

To select a different element – for example, a description of action, you can select it from the drop-down.

But as you can see bottom-left in the screengrab above, the software prompts you to use an easier method: tab between elements and hit Enter to select one.

The app continues to anticipate elements as you write. For example, when you select Character to type the name of a character, that will normally be followed by the dialog spoken by that character – so when you hit return after typing a name, the dialog element is automatically selected.

The next most likely thing to follow a character’s name is a parenthetical – something that provides guidance to the actor, such as (Brightly) or (Pause). So a single tab takes you from Dialog to Parenthetical.

Final Draft also remembers the names of your characters. So if you have a character called Marisa, just typing M will offer to auto-complete with her name – just hit return to accept.

And when two characters are talking together, Final Draft will automatically offer the other character’s name. So for example, when Marisa and Steve are talking, and I hit return and tab after Marisa’s dialog, Final Draft automatically selects the character element and auto-prompts me with Steve’s name in greyed-out text – all I have to do is hit return to accept it.

Once I hit return, Final Draft turns his name from grey to black and puts me into Dialog mode. You can see, then, just how much this speeds up the process, even for an experienced screenplay writer.

The company says that the software gets out of the way of your writing, and that’s exactly what it does. Writing a conversation between two characters is almost completely seamless.

And for someone new to screenplays, like me, it’s a godsend. For example, in BBC screenplays, a new scene always begins on a new page – even if the previous scene was just a couple of lines. Final Draft knows this, so when I select Scene Heading, it starts a new page. To simply be able to write without having to consult style guides massively accelerates the process.

As with Scrivener, you have the option of two different split-screen views: side-by-side or one above the other. This is really handy when you’re writing one scene and want to remind yourself what was going on earlier with those characters.

You can also choose between Normal, Page or Speed views. In Normal, page breaks show as horizontal lines; in Page View, you get gaps between the pages; in Speed, the page breaks don’t show up at all.

For people like me, who like to plan before they write, the app has two built-in planning tools: Beat Board and Story Map. Since I don’t want to share too much of my work in progress, I’ll instead leave it to Final Draft to show you how these tools work. The exec summary, however, is that you can map out your story visually, and select target page numbers by which particular things should have happened.

There’s also a Collaboration tool that allows two or more writers to work on a script at the same time, whether sitting at the desk opposite or on the other side of the world. This allows you to see what your co-writer is doing in real-time, with a separate chat window to discuss.

Hollywood scripts probably see more revisions than any other document on Earth, so it will come as no surprise that this software has solid revision tools. In revision mode, revisions are marked with an asterisk, and you can track changes across all previous versions.

There may be times when you have two or more versions of a piece of dialog, and Final Draft allows you to keep both in the same document, toggling between them as desired. I’m told that a trick screenplay writers use with directors who like to make changes is to have their preferred dialog stored as a revision, so that when they’re asked to rewrite it, they can simply toggle in the line they wanted in the first place!

There are two companion apps for the iPad. Final Draft Reader is a free app that allows FDX files to be read and printed. Final Draft Writer is a fully-featured $20 app that allows existing FDX files to be edited, and new ones to be created. Scripts are shared between devices using Dropbox.

Conclusions

If you’re a professional screenplay writer, Final Draft is a no-brainer. It makes the writing process incredibly efficient, and ensures that all the formatting is correct. For a pro, the $250 cost is a simple business expense that is easily justified.

For an aspiring screenplay writer or someone writing for an amateur production, the cost is much harder to justify. And Final Draft charges for major updates, so it’s not just a one-off cost either.

There are other apps out there that support Final Draft’s FDX format, so you might want to look at these – including Fade In ($80) and Writer, which is completely free. I may look at these later if there’s sufficient interest.

But if you have reasonably serious screenwriting ambitions, and can afford the price, there’s an obvious sense to using the industry-standard software. In my admittedly-limited experience to date, I am firmly sold on the benefits.

One compromise – if you can bear to do all your writing on an iPad – is to buy Final Draft Writer on the iPad. For $20, you’d still be using the real thing, albeit while sacrificing some features, and you’d still be up on the deal even if you add in the cost of laptop-quality keyboard for it.

Final Draft 10 costs $249.99 from the Mac App Store. Final Draft Writer costs $19.99 from iTunes. Final Draft Reader is a free download from iTunes.