For my first review into screenwriting software, I’m going with Final Draft, the market leader. It’s been around since 1991 and remains the film industry’s default screenwriting program. According to the blurb, it’s “used by 95% of film and television productions”. In other words, it’s the big daddy.
During this review, I’ll be writing about Final Draft in general terms, while simultaneously focusing on the most recent release, Final Draft 10.
Final Draft: In General
So what is Final Draft? Like all screenwriting software programs, it’s essentially just a word processor designed for developing, writing, and formatting screenplays.
During the pioneering days, the emphasis was on formatting. Now, however, most screenwriting programs, and particularly Final Draft, come with a range of specialist tools and features that aim to help with the writing and development of your screenplay.
Previously, Final Draft was a prerequisite for any aspiring screenwriter. Managers, agents, producers and executives all had it installed on their machines. As far as I know, they still do – but probably not the latest version. This is because most of the actual reading is now done using PDFs. In other words, you can write your screenplay using whatever program you want, just so long as it can be saved as a PDF.
For this reason, Final Draft no longer has a captive market and is going to have to earn his customers just like its rivals.
Now let me be clear. I’ve been using Final Draft for over fifteen years. In all that time, I have never seriously considered using another screenwriting software program. That said, I’ve certainly got my personal and idiosyncratic gripes!
I’m currently using Final Draft 8. However, for the purpose of this review, I’ve installed the 30-day demo of Final Draft 10, which is available on the official website.
Final Draft 10: Interface
The first thing that struck me about Final Draft 10 was the graphical interface, which is an improvement on previous versions. It’s still got the old drop-down menus, but there are also all sorts of colorful buttons and icons that you can click on; this is Final Draft entering the age of touch-screen tablets and smartphones.
The new interface makes navigating far easier. In older versions, many features tended to be hidden away. You’d end up searching through the menus, going back and forth, and generally breaking your flow of thought. That’s no longer the case. The graphical enhancements make the program far more intuitive. Finding things is simpler and the purpose of specific features feels more self-explanatory.
Final Draft 10: Returning Features
Like Microsoft Word, Final Draft has always been feature-rich. And like Word, chances are you won’t use most of those features.
Some just won’t be relevant to your unique writing process. For instance, there have always been a bunch of collaborative tools – and Final Draft 10 is no exception. I can see that these tools might be extremely useful for a writing team. Me, however, I’m a lone wolf and have no real use for them.
Other features, meanwhile, are little more than bells and whistles. For instance, in Final Draft 10, under the Edit tab there’s an easy-to-use Replace Character function for when you want to change a character’s name in mid-script. Don’t get me wrong – that’s a useful thing. But it’s hardly worth the price of an upgrade. In previous versions, all you had to do was carry out a find & replace search. The new approach is a minor streamlining of an old feature.
The Speech Control feature also makes a return – I’m pretty sure it’s not in Final Draft 8, though maybe I missed it among all the previously mentioned drop-down menus. When you turn it on, a stilted female robotic voice reads your script aloud, including scene titles, descriptions, and dialogue. You can also assign other stilted robotic voices, based on gender and age. Irrespective of which one you’re using, the Speech Control feature pretty much kills any dramatic power in your writing – it’s hilarious (in a cringe-worthy kind of way), but not much use. Still, the fact that it’s back means someone must want it – and if you’re that person, I’d love to hear more. Maybe I’m missing a trick!
Now then, here comes one of my pet grievances… Final Draft is a glorified word processor program, and like all word processors, it comes with a Spellcheck feature. The problem is that the spellchecker has always been awful. This was true of older versions and doesn’t seem to have changed too much in the latest incarnation. You would have thought that someone in the development team would have got around to fixing this small but genuinely important function. But no. It remains as useless as forever.
Final Draft 10 does, however, come with a fancy new thesaurus. Still, as with the Replace Character function, I’m not sure it’s a big deal. It’s only useful if you’re not connected to the internet. Me, I’ll continue searching for synonyms using my web browser, which is always just one click away.
Of course, in the big scheme of things, these are minor complaints. For every unnecessary or poorly implemented feature, there are a dozen useful and well implemented ones – far too many for me to list in a single review. Many are bread-and-butter features that you would expect in any half-decent word processing program. But still, let’s be grateful for the little things.
The automated screenplay formatting, for instance, works just as well as ever. Formatting may sound like a simple thing, but I’ll never forget the first time I tried Final Draft 3. After years of painstakingly formatting screenplays in Word, opening up this mysterious new application and discovering it had all been done for me was a near-magical experience. To this day, I still get that same feeling each time I check out the newest version.
Another feature I’ve always loved is the way the program breaks up paragraphs and dialogue in such a way that the wily writer can reduce the page count with just a few minor edits. Cut out a single word and you could – potentially – see your entire page count drop. That’s a very useful thing when you’re trying to squeeze some huge three-hour epic into a 115 short pages!
Other useful features include the numerous script reports that you can generate at the click of a button. My favorites are the Cast and Character Reports, which allow you to accurately gauge the amount of screen-time each character gets in the script.
Finally, Script Compare continues to be a very handy tool, particularly after multiple rewrites. It saves my poor management team from having to reread the entire script for the hundredth time. Instead, at a glance, they can home in on the changes between one draft and the next.
Final Draft 10: New Features
Beat Board and Story Map
Final Draft 10 comes with several major new additions…
The first of these are the Beat Board and Story Map features. Having played around with them, my initial impression is that they are bona fide game-changers. They made me seriously consider purchasing an upgrade licence right there and then… Until I realized I was broke and would have to stick with Final Draft 8.
The Beat Board and Story Map (for me they felt like part of the same system) are basically an electronic and highly dynamic representation of a cork-board covered with brightly colored stick-it notes. I’m not normally impressed by fancy visuals. Hell, I do most of my development work in Notepad. But I can definitely see how these features might help screenwriters in terms of structure and story development.
They offer a fantastic overview of your screenplay, from core components such as themes, to key character and plot beats, to where you can drop in that pesky action sequence.
Like I said, this is only an initial impression. To truly understand the usefulness, I would want to use the Beat Board and Story Map features during the writing of an actual screenplay. But still, first impressions go a long way.
Real-time Collaboration Tool
Over the years, I’ve had too many bad experiences with writing partners. Sure, my writing is collaborative, but typically it’s with producers, directors, execs, and my reps. For that sort of thing, you don’t all need to have editing access to the script. However, among writing teams, there’s definitely a demand for ease of collaboration.
Final Draft has had a collaboration feature for as long as I can remember – and it was pretty much an irrelevance for as long as I can remember. In the latest version, however, the developers appear to have made a genuine attempt to improve the product.
Final Draft 10 comes with a collaboration feature that allows multiple writers to simultaneously edit the same document no matter their location.
Well, not quite. Everyone can view said document in real-time, while one individual makes the edits. That individual then hands over to one of their colleagues, who can make his or her own changes while the others watch. And so on.
I haven’t used the feature myself (I have no mates), but from what I’ve read, the feature is well implemented but still a little raw. There are the usual teething problems – delays in the changes appearing on each person’s machine, screen freezes, and the like.
On top of that, most teams probably already have a writing process in place. Making the change to Final Draft 10’s collaboration tools may be a bit unnerving at first.
My impression is that this technology is a major step in the right direction, but it needs time to mature and for the user-base to catch up. As such, we’ll probably need to wait for Final Draft 11 to see the real benefits.
Finally, Alternative Dialogue. As I understand it, this feature allows you to store multiple lines of dialogue for individual characters. In other words, each character could end up with their own little reservoir of dialogue, some of which makes it into the script, and some of which never sees the light of day.
As a writer of drama, specifically historical action-adventures, this feature has no real use for me. However, I can see that it might be great for comedy writers, allowing you to store multiple easy-to-access one-liners. In this genre, the jokes are the be-all-and-end-all, so if one of them falls flat with the reader, you can simply slip another one in and see how that goes!
Final Draft 10: Stability
Let’s touch upon the stability of the program. Historically, Final Draft has had a reputation for bugginess.
In my experience, the program has a tendency to crash at the most irritating moments, sometimes resulting in the loss of key work. This was particularly true when the Auto Save function kicked in – which is why whenever I open up a new version of Final Draft I make a point of switching that function off. There are a myriad other bugs that I’ve heard about, some of which I’ve experienced, but most of which I haven’t.
Of course, the problem with bugs is that they’re not immediately apparent. I certainly didn’t come across any during my limited use of the program. On the contrary, Final Draft 10 felt like a mature, stable, and well polished program – and it should be after a quarter-century in the marketplace!
Still, I’m sure there are bugs lurking around. Yet, while they have been a nuisance in older versions, they’ve never been a game-breaker, and I would be extremely surprised if they are in Final Draft 10.
Final Draft 10: Pricing
So finally we come to pricing.
Version 10, available as a download from the official site, is retailing for $249.99 (approx. £190) for a new licence and $99.99 (approx. £75) for an upgrade licence. If you want a USB version, that will cost an additional $20 or so.
However, the product can also be purchased via Amazon.com, usually at a discounted price (at the time of writing, it is available for $204).
Each licence – whether new or upgraded – provides two keys, meaning that you can install the software on two machines at any one time.
At first glance, these prices may feel a little high. Two hundred and fifty bucks is hardly cheap, especially when there are free alternatives out there.
However, to be fair, you’re getting a highly functional piece of professional software and the upgrade price is more reasonable than you might think.
If you could only go from Version 9 to Version 10, then I would be griping. But the upgrade path is generous. As a Final Draft 8 owner, I still have access to the upgrade. In fact, I believe you can go all the way back to Final Draft 4 and still be eligible.
You should also think of Final Draft as an investment. It’s really not something you need to upgrade that often. Most people I know, and I’m talking about people who make a living from screenplays, tend to upgrade every other version at the very most. I know many professionals who are still happily using Versions 6 and 7.
So $249.99 for a new licence and then one upgrade at $99.99 will easily buy you seven or eight years’ worth of use, and possibly quite a bit more.
Final Draft 10: Should You Buy It?
My advice is this… If you are serious about writing screenplays and have the money to spare, then yes, make the purchase.
Can you write screenplays without Final Draft in any of its incarnations? Absolutely. But despite its flaws, it is a consistently solid piece of software that does what it needs to do.
Looking forward, I’ll be checking out some of the alternative screenwriting programs, particularly the free ones. For now, however, Final Draft 10 remains the one to beat – and the one I’ll be measuring all others against.
If you have any questions, or wish to leave your own personal review of Final Draft 10, please leave a comment below.