Writing with byte

The struggling screenwriter, in the throes of a block, heaves up from the computer, makes herself a pot of coffee, checks the mail, schmoozes a friend on the phone, and finally plotzes back down at the keyboard. A horned, green-scaled cartoon demon with a monitor for a head now stares back at the writer.

“Well, I read the script,” its message reads, “It’ll play in Los Angeles, but Agitha ought to be more resistant to the knockout drops.”

The half-dozen popular script processing programs on the market all have “smart-keys” that automatically type and format character names, slug lines, and transitions with a single keystroke. But ScriptThing now has the first automated smart-ass that pops up with unsolicited critiques like an overly ambitious producer’s assistant, “I read the script. It’s getting there, you’ve got to make Dan a defrocked priest” — if the keyboard sits idle for about 10 minutes.

Movie Magic Screenwriter, Scriptware, Movie Master, Final Draft and ScriptThing are word-processing programs specifically designed to easily format scripts. ScriptWizard is an add-on program to Microsoft Word for Windows to accomplish the same ease of formatting.

“We do a lot of studio sales, and we see somewhat equal numbers of each product going to the studio,” observes Jesse Douma, partner and store manager of the Writers’ Computer Store.

“Some of the studios at different times will settle on one program. If Screenplay Systems (which makes Screenwriter) goes into a studio and convinces them to standardize their program, we may see an increase for a time, until their purchasing person changes. But it’s the same with Final Draft or any of the other systems. At the end of the year, they are probably pretty equal.”

The reason simply is that as screenplay and television formats have standardized, so has the software in recent years, with the differences between programs becoming subtle and often subjective.

They all use the same tab and enter single key strokes to automatically format slugs setting up EXT. or INT., DAY or NIGHT, set up action and description, then character, then parenthesis or dialogue.

“I don’t recall which program started with it, but they all soon followed. Now they all offer those same key strokes,” Douma explains. “They all offer a feature film, sitcom, and stage play format built into the program.

“They all have spell-checks. Most of them offer to lay scenes out on index cards, so you can shuffle them around and view the scenes in that way. But that’s where the differences start. Where they may all have the index card capability, one company’s index cards may be a little bit better than another’s.”

And all the programs cheat, some better than others. Since one page of script equates one minute of screen time, producers and studios throw conniption fits if a screenplay exceeds 120 pages, networks if a television movie is not exactly 110, or an hour episode 55 pages.

It’s a dark secret, but rather than edit or rewrite, experienced screen and television writers — often otherwise inept at anything mechanical or mathematical — are masters at achieving the exact page count by juggling margins and the widths of dialogue blocks by fractions of an inch, undetected by the naked eyes of studio and network execs.

Now the cheating is automated. ScriptThing openly boasts in its ad copy, “Add or remove up to eight pages of a 120-page script unnoticeably.” The cheat feature offers a choice of element, page, script or government — in the latter selection pretending to dial the IRS. That ScriptThing, always the kidder.

“I loved that it does all this great cheating for you,” exclaims a writer using ScriptThing for a six-hour miniseries, one with a possible half-hour to fill, or cut.

“If you come in and say, ‘I don’t know anything about computers. What’s the absolute easiest?’ ” says Jeremiah Williamson, product consultant for the Writers’ Computer Store, “I would say Scriptware. It’s a simple, clear manual. Lots of nice diagrams.

“If you want the overall best writer tool,’ then I’d say, ‘You might think about Final Draft.’ This is very subjective, but I think they have the nicest thesaurus. They’ve evolved the outline tool the most.”

Final Draft is the only program made for Windows and Macintosh. And the files are transferable between Macs and IBM-type computers using Windows, an important feature where writing partners or writer and production company are using normally incompatible hardware.

The other programs are written for Microsoft Windows, with Scriptware and ScriptThing also having DOS versions.

Problems in the past of importing a script formatted in one program into another have been greatly improved. “Some programs go back and forth a little better than others. For instance, Screenwriter can read and translate Movie Master files instantly. No problem. It’s very easy to go back and forth between Scriptware and Final Draft,” Williamson says.

Some systems now have nonlinear multimedia capabilities. “Capability for writing games and CD-ROMs is starting to be a presence in the market,” Douma notes. “Both ScriptThing and Movie Magic Screenwriter offer a very nice multimedia interface, whereas the others do not yet. It’s a different approach to writing, because when a person gets to a certain point, even at the end of a sentence, they are faced with two choices — door A or door B. And their multimedia modules takes this into account, and allow someone to write in that format. And then the writer can run it, so that they walk through the story, and it comes up with the choice of door A or B, and it goes whichever path the writer chooses and branches out.”

Works in progress

But the programs constantly change. Final Draft is now a 32-bit program, which handles and moves information twice as fast. They offer add-on spell-checkers and thesauri in Spanish, French, German and British English.

Aside from its 15-year-old Santa Monica Boulevard location, the Writers’ Computer Store now has an international branch in Sausalito in the Bay area, which also handles Internet sales. “We sell a lot of software in Boise, Idaho,” Douma says. “Where there used to be a feeling to write the Great American Novel, a lot of people dream of writing a screenplay,” presumably on a computer.

“Unleash Your Creativity,” the Scriptware brochure exhorts.

But a screenwriter who currently commands $2.5 million per script and Oscar nominations writes in longhand on yellow pads, which his ex-wife types out. One of our most prolific TV writers hammers out his shows on an old electric typewriter. Many screenwriters who converted to computers early on still use old style sheets with macros for one- or two-stroke formatting, which has become second nature.

Yet another who writes with a state-of-the-art high-powered processor only hands in printed scripts, never discs, to the four studios and networks with whom he currently has assignments. He has found that many development execs have confused the technical ease with which scripts can now be changed with writing talent.

“If they’re going to rewrite my dialogue or switch scenes around,” he insists, “they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

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