What’s the best screenwriting software? The answer used to be simple. Despite the cost, if you wanted a properly formatted screenplay, TV script or radio play you either used Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft. These days there’s lots more choice, and at much cheaper prices.

Both Final Draft and Screenwriter weigh in at around $199 – $250 so it’s not exactly small change if you aren’t a professional screenwriter and fancy a dabble. Here then, is my round-up of what programs I know of at present that do all the screenplay formatting for you:

Final Draft – currently at version 8, runs on both Mac and Windows with scripts cross compatible. Along with Screenwriter, this is as close to an industry standard as you are going to get. However, at around $250 it’s perhaps overkill for hobbyists. You get both Windows and Mac versions for your money which is useful if you have machines on each platform. Due to Windows lacking the ability to do a distraction free full screen mode (where everything except the page and the cursor is faded into the background) the application isn’t quite as nice to work with as some of the OSX specific programs. Feature wise, along with Screenwriter, it’s as advanced as screenplay software gets.

Screenwriter – currently at version 6 (and on sale at $199), runs on both Mac and Windows with scripts cross compatible. Level pegging with Final Draft in terms of features and installed user base (both get used in the professional industry although Final Draft perhaps has the edge now). Again, the expense of the program means hobbyists may want to look elsewhere. However, this is a powerful fully featured application (complete with production tools that most writers will sadly never need) if you don’t mind stumping up the cash. You can read my full review of this product at the MacUser site.

Montage – currently at version 1.5.2. The is available only on Mac OSX. Because of this, Montage has a few nifty features like the distraction free mode mentioned above. It’s a slick looking program and does everything the average writer is likely to need. Doesn’t have the industry acceptance that Final Draft or Screenwriter does but then, until you have a 3-picture deal lined up – does it really matter? It’s not cheap at $139 but it’s a substantial saving over Final Draft or Screenwriter. It also imports Final Draft files directly, which can be useful…

Celtx – currently at version 2.01. This is FREE. Once more for the people in the cheap seats: FREE! Based on Mozilla code this is a cross platform (not just Windows and Mac, it also runs on Linux and eeePC). If you’re taking your first foray into screenwriting and simply need something that will get the job done, I’d encourage you to start here. It isn’t the finest piece of software but as it costs you nothing, you’d be rude to grumble, no? Make sure you donate if you end up using it.

Movie Outline – currently version 3.05. This is another dual platform title (Mac and Windows) and evolved from a simple step outline or ‘beat sheet’ tool. This is the process of building your screenplay from simple one line story ‘beats’ e.g. for Die Hard: 1. John McClane flies to LA 2. Meets wife and has strained conversation etc all the way through to 499. Yippee Kiyay Motherfunster. It still features this methodology but also works as a complete script formatter. If you build your screenplays in this manner, this would be a good application to use. However, it weighs in at $214 so not cheap.

Scrivener is a bargain ($39) Mac OSX only writing application, currently at version 1.5.1. It primarily caters for novels and other styles of creative writing and has the screenplay editor almost as an afterthought. However, it is perfectly usable for basic scripting and the variety of other tools means it’s a fantastic application to build ideas up with. The screenwriting part of the application handles all the usual page layout necessities but lacks the fancy scene navigation/character tracking found in the more expensive applications. It also has my current favourite feature, the distraction free mode, which Montage is the only other screenwriting program to feature (again, thanks to being OSX only).

Online tools – there’s now a few online tools that enable you to format your script online. If you are interested in an online solution, check out Scriptbuddy, Zhura and Scripped