I imagine that for a lot of people who are curious about filmmaking, they start at roughly the same place. You’re interested in filmmaking, you think you’ve got something to contribute, but you’re intimidated by how insurmountable the task appears. The prospect of raising ulcer-inducing amounts of money to express yourself is a bit overwhelming, but you’d still like to take the first step and write a screenplay. The screenplay is the foundation of any great film, it’s a way to document the storytelling abilities that you think you, as a new filmmaker, can bring to the filmmaking process, and it requires considerably less money and far fewer people to produce than an actual film. It’s something that even a busy woman or man can do in her or his free time (though not easily or quickly).
But anyone who has started to toe the waters of screenwriting may have found that process to be intimidating in and of itself. Setting aside the gargantuan challenge of actually writing a good story, there are some immediate challenges that present themselves: the screenwriting format and the cost of good screenwriting software.
These two challenges are connected. The format of a screenplay is fairly specific and standardized (although there is room to break the rules here and there), so if you want to have a shot in hell at having someone read your script, you need to adhere to that format (in film school, we would hear horror stories of script readers at major studios immediately throwing away scripts that weren’t formatted properly before reading them). But the format itself is hard to replicate in a standard word processor. You could probably do it, but after about an hour you’d likely develop a drinking problem, and my understanding is that you’re not supposed to do that until you’re an actual screenwriter.
Therefore, you’ll want to invest in a screenwriting application. There are a lot of applications out there that are designed to do the heavy lifting when it comes to formatting your document, but you’ll still need a basic understanding of how a screenplay works. There are plenty of resources online that will take you through the basic requirements (such as this one), but your best bet to learn the format, as well as to learn what an engaging screenplay actually looks like, is to simply just read some screenplays. There are a few terms here and there that may seem unfamiliar, but overall, they’re pretty easy to read.
If you’ve researched screenwriting applications, the name that probably came up early and often was Final Draft. Final Draft is essentially an industry standard, and with good reason. There is a depth to the application that provides screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, etc. a variety of tools to interact with a screenplay. The writer, of course, has the formatting tools to make the writing process a bit easier, but there’s also character highlighting, scene highlighting, watermarking, the ability to color-code revised pages, and a lot more. I’ve used Final Draft for a long time, and it’s a solid app.
But if you’ve researched Final Draft, you’ve also probably noticed that price tag. As of this writing, Final Draft costs $249.99. If you’re hoping to spend any time writing on your iPad while you’re out and about, as I do, there is a Final Draft Writer app for $19.99. Now, I’m not here to say that these apps aren’t worth the money; good software developers deserve to be compensated for their work. But if you’re one of those many people who is focused solely on screenwriting and doesn’t need all of the bells and whistles, $270 is a steep entry price. At least it is for me, especially if we budget it in the impending drinking problem.
Fortunately, there are a variety of alternatives out there, and I want to tell you about my favorite: Highland.
Highland is the brainchild of John August, a talented screenwriter who wanted to build tools for other writers. After about 10 months of using the application, I can honestly say that Highland is not merely an affordable screenwriting application; it’s actually my favorite screenwriting application.
The first thing you'll notice about Highland is the aforementioned affordability; as of this writing, Highland costs $29.99. For hundreds of dollars less than Final Draft, you can create a screenplay that adheres to the industry-standard formatting rules, and you can even export it in the Final Draft format so that users of that application can read it.
Equally important as the price, though, is the experience of using Highland. If you’re going to actively work on a production, the depth that Final Draft provides may be necessary. But if your focus is solely on the act of writing, then Highland is a magnificent tool. Here's why.
The format of a screenplay is specific for a number of good reasons. One reason is that it gives you a decent estimate as to how long your movie will be (a 90-page script is likely to be a roughly 90-minute movie). The other reason is that it's very easy to read, as you can see in this little example I created in Highland:
As easy as that is to read, though, I find it really distracting to write in that format. Most screenwriting apps, like Final Draft, have you build a document that looks like the example above as you go along. So I constantly have to hit Tab a certain number of times, or Enter a certain number of times, or type in a little shortcut throughout the writing process to get my script to look like that, and because it requires such constant attention, I find myself devoting too much thought to the formatting of my document. It's not particularly difficult to learn Final Draft, and I imagine plenty of people don't find it as distracting as I do, but I feel like formatting should be an after-the-fact concern. I don’t want to have to think about it while I’m creating.
In Highland, I don't spend any time thinking about formatting. That’s because in Highland, I’m writing in a file format called Fountain. Fountain, which was also created by John August and his team, is based on something called Markdown. Markdown allows you to type something in plain text, put that plain text into an application that understands Markdown, and then achieve your desired formatting. Here's a simple example of Markdown:
In plain text, I would type: My wife *really* likes donuts.
In an app that supports Markdown, that text would translate into: My wife really likes donuts.
As long as I know that putting asterisks on either side of a word will italicize it, I can write in any application I want and still achieve my intended formatting once I drop the text into an app that supports Markdown.
Fountain is basically like that, but for screenwriting. So here's what the above page looked like when I created it in Highland:
As long as I know the basic rules of Fountain, which you can find here, then I can achieve my intended formatting and produce a screenplay that adheres to industry-standard expectations. In my mind, there are two major benefits to this.
One benefit is that I can write in any application I want. On my Mac, I prefer Highland, but there are actually plenty of other apps that support Fountain. Additionally, I don't need to spend $20 on a Final Draft mobile app for on-the-go writing. I can open up the default Notes app on my phone if I have an idea and write out a full scene. Copy and paste that text into Highland later, and it formats correctly into the screenplay format. If you want a fuller mobile experience that will allow you to toggle back and forth between the Fountain view and the screenplay format view within the same app (as opposed to copying and pasting your text into something like Highland on your computer later on), then you just need to find a mobile app that supports Fountain. I personally use Editorial, and aside from a couple of minor issues I have with it, it has been an excellent mobile screenwriting app. It also syncs via Dropbox, so I can write in Highland on my computer and then pick up that same document in Editorial on my iPhone or iPad while I’m out and about. As of this writing, Editorial costs $9.99, and it has definitely been worth that price for my usage.
The other, more important benefit, though, is that I can just write. Because I don’t have to think about formatting when I'm writing in Fountain, I’m free to get lost in my story. It can be stop-and-start at first as you internalize Fountain's syntax, but I found that it quickly became second nature. Additionally, Highland provides easy access to shortcuts and tips if you can't remember how to achieve something. Once I got that down, I felt like my screenwriting felt much more organic. It felt less like fiddling with a word processing application and more like a creative journey into unknown territory.
Highland has plenty of other great features (for example, if a collaborator sends you a PDF of a script to edit, you can drag it into Highland, and it will magically convert it into an editable Fountain format), but it’s that sense of just writing that makes it really special. So many people want to create, and with an art form like filmmaking, the barriers of entry are intimidatingly high. For $30, Highland helps to lower those barriers a little bit and get you one step closer to the dream.
Check out Affordable Screenwriting Part Two, which covers another Fountain-based screenwriting app: Slugline.