I buy scriptwriting software for the same reasons why people buy a gym membership. First, I hope the purchase will obligate me to use it. In other words, I spent hundreds of dollars on a writing program, so I better write more often. This "need to write more often" is the greatest guilt. I stayed up until 2 AM last night finishing chapter 2 of HOW TO LOSE BIG, and I still feel like I didn't get enough done. Buying something, scriptwriting software or gym membership, will not magically shift priorities. Second, I want to be more like those people who use it -- you know, “real” writers. Most creative communities spend a lot of needless energy establishing imaginary lines between the legitimate and the posers. What makes someone a real writer? Did they get published? Did a reputable publisher publish them? Are they making a living from it? How many people follow them on Twitter? It is silly and immature, but sometimes when you buy screenwriting software you are purchasing empty validation. Third, I hope that using it will somehow make me better at what I already do. You reach a ceiling in your progress and you start scraping for any perceived advantage it might intrinsically possess. How much time and energy am I really saving with auto-margins and macros for character names? In the end, like a gym membership, it only works if it's something that already fits your needs and disposition. Some people want to get a trainer, lift weights, and sculpt their abs. Me? I'd like to pay a few dollars to play basketball every now and then, which I can do for free at a public park.

A few days ago, I was given the opportunity to evaluate the Movie Magic Screenwriter software, including the Streamline plug-in and the Dramatica Pro program – all developed by Write Brothers, Inc. I already have Final Draft 7 and the Celtx free download. I haven’t been 100% satisfied with either, so I was anxious to see if Screenwriter was any better. And hey, they took the time to ask a comic book writer for his opinion. Bonus points already.

The problem with most scriptwriting programs is they were never intended for comic book writers. It is first and foremost a screenwriter’s tool. Often these programs can be adapted to suit the needs of a comic book writer, but it is an attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole. They all fail on one fundamental distinction. A screenwriter needs a rigid program to format his script exactly how the industry wants it to look. In contrast, there is no industry standard for comic book scripts. A comic book writer is corresponding directly with the artist and maybe an editor. As such, the software needs to be flexible to suit the tastes and varied format preferences of the individual comic book writer. Final Draft 7 and Celtx fall short as comic book friendly software. Movie Magic Screenwriter is the superior program for comic book writers.

Let’s start where it counts, the templates. Movie Magic Screenwriter 6 has two different comic book templates. The generic one lines the character name with the dialogue, i.e. more like a playwright would. The Gossett-Kayle comic book format (developed by the creators of The Red Star) is more like a screenplay hybrid with character names centered over the indented dialogue. I prefer the generic template, because it saves space, but for people who are more comfortable with the screenplay look. Knock yourself out. Either is available. I fear that an “industry standard” script format is going to become reality in the near future, but I’d like to fight it for a while longer. As long as the script is clear to the artist and follows standard logic, I use the format that works best for me. (Random side note: The novel template looks great. I can’t wait to play with it.)

The best thing about these templates is that they can be adjusted and customized, if you know where to look.

For instance, the dialogue defaults to all caps. It makes sense since 90% of all comic book dialogue is lettered in all caps. However, for some odd reason, I prefer to write dialogue in normal upper case/lower case style. Reason? I spend a lot of time tweaking dialogue, and it’s easier if I can read it as something that you would see in a novel, play, or screenplay (upper case/lower case). The all caps shouts at me when it’s not in the context of comic book art. Simply go to the “style” button and change it. It can easily be moved back and forth, if you need to do that.

Screenwriter has Normal Word Processor mode. It’s helpful, if you need to embed some long bits of prose or if the macros simply aren’t obeying you. Slap ‘em and down, switch to something more familiar.

In Screenwriter, one space after a sentence automatically becomes two spaces. This drove me crazy. With monotype fonts (such as Courier) people generally use two spaces. Professional typesetters, designers, and desktop publishers generally use one space. I prefer one space. Finally, I found how to change it in the Preferences section under “Spelling” at the bottom: Auto-Space sentences.

I did have two issues where I needed to call customer service. It took five minutes to get through, but when I did the person on the other end was helpful. He didn’t quite understand why I wanted to deviate from the template. Once again: comic book writers are weird like that. First issue, when I typed “panel” it automatically recognized this as a scene heading and underlined it. While I want my pages underlined and identified with the scene heading label, I do not want the panels underlined. Customer service told me to click “Format” then “User Lists.” Delete the panel, and all is well. (The “User Lists” area also lets you add new extensions. For instance, they had OP for “off panel,” but I also needed an “OP w/o pointer.”) Second issue, every time I hit return after my page number, it wants to add a “continued” or “panels per page” indicator. I honestly don’t know how many panels a page is going to be until after I write the page. Even still, I may not want to include it. I was tired of hitting return and then “v” for “nevermind,” leading me to the next line. This matter was solved in the preferences sections under the editing tab.

I realize by changing the template I may have limited some of the nifty outline and NaviDoc potential. However, the point is this: With Movie Magic Screenwriter, it may take a day or two, but once you figure everything out, you can get your comic book script looking exactly how you want it to look. It will accommodate all your idiosyncratic format issues. Other screenwriting software hasn’t been as understanding.

Another important issue is importing scripts from other programs. Moving Final Draft documents to Screenwriting is easy. Copy all, paste, and use the “most aggressive interpretation of the source text.” Afterward, a quick look to make sure you didn’t miss anything and you’re done. Importing my comic scripts from MS Word is not as handy, but the key commands are intuitive enough for you to move things around without too much trouble.

Of all the features it offers, I wish Screenwriter had a window available for my synopsis. It has a notes section and an outline feature, but I need a good notepad area. I usually write a four-page synopsis of the story, and compose the script based on that synopsis. Right now, I have to open MS Word and then move it next to Screenwriter. It’d be nice to have everything side by side on one program. Also you can’t paste inside a note, maybe I missed the option to change that, but it’d be nice if I could.

The note function is interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to use it much. You can place various notes throughout your script, which when it comes time to print, will magically disappear. Or you can print all your notes together.

A few issues I hope they correct in future versions. The “find” function is a little wonky. Once you perform a word search, the search window closes and you have to hit “command G” to find the next word. It’s not the most user-friendly approach. The “Mark one character’s dialogue” is a sweet function. Although, it’s not readily obvious how you unmark the dialogue. If you want to do it later, control Z won’t save you. From what I could figure out, you have to manually delete it in the “Show Format Codes” view. Not cool.

Here’s some more of the good stuff. The smaller details. When saving as a pdf, the pdf will page jump by script pages not actual pages. This is nice, and it makes sense. The word count will show you total words and words of dialogue -- to see how your ratio of panel description to dialogue stacks up. It was edifying to see I’d written 10,144 words in the HOW TO LOSE BIG script (3,183 words of dialogue). Change character name function. I could’ve used it last week, and I will need it in the future. I’m rarely content with the names. You can password protect a script. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but who knows when I might need to write something super secret? I haven’t used the “Speak Selection” yet, but if it’s anything like the Final Draft 7 voice reader, I’ll be happy. At a first glance, it looks like you can choose what elements to read, which is nice if I want to only hear the dialogue and not my laborious panel descriptions.

Streamline is an add-on plug-in you can purchase to increase the power of your Screenwriting software. It identifies small word changes or edits you can make to reduce your total number of pages. In Hollywood, where script size equals movie length, this would be important. With a comic book writer, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. I still like the add-on because I’m such a freak about being concise. I was raised in the William Zinsser school of writing. Streamline pointed out there could be a shorter word to replace “overweight.” You caught my evasive euphemistic language.

I was also shown the Dramatica Pro software. However, I might write a review of it later. I need more time to form an opinion. It’s a program based around an entire writing theory, helpful for anyone needing a coach -- to help them dig through their plot, themes, and characters, to ask the right questions etc. I’ll admit I’m leery of hippy-dippy phrases like “storyweaving” and the writer’s “dreamkit,” which Dramatica has in abundance. Their website also hosts writers’ group meetings. I’ll pass. Confession: I normally don’t like hanging out with other writers. Sorry. I’m a betta fish, happy to swim in my own bowl. I like being alone when I work. Even writing partners make me cringe a little. Also, my process tends to be wonderfully messy and efficient in such a way I wonder how Dramatica Pro would help. I’ll give it a try. If anyone beats me to it, email me and let me know what you thought.

Like a gym membership (here’s the part where I tie the ending to my first paragraph…), it’s not for everyone. However, if you are going to buy a screenwriting program, Movie Magic Screenwriter is the one I’d recommend. It’s most flexible for nitpicky comic book writers who want the benefits of specialized software without feeling like the program was intended for someone else.