4 open source tools for writing your next screenplay

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Original render by Cosmos Laundromat. Modified by Jason van Gumster. CC-BY 4.0

While I was putting together slides for my lightning talk at Great Wide Open (happening March 16-17), Not that Weird: Open Source Tools for Creatives, I remembered that in the last half of 2015 we had a bit of a loss from our open source creative toolbox. I think I was little late to the game in realizing this—after all, the last official stable release of Celtx (the open source, desktop version) was in 2012—but for folks paying attention, it's been a long time coming.

The developers of Celtx have been focusing all of their efforts on the web-only, software-as-a-service version of their screenwriting software. So, short of creating our own fork, what options are available to those of us who write film, animation, and television scripts, but also care about using open source software? Admittedly, the field has certainly narrowed. However, we do still have some choices open to us. Here are a four:


I can hear you thinking it already. "Wait, what? I thought you just said..."

It's true that the open source desktop version isn't seeing any active development. Furthermore, it no longer appears to synchronize with the closed source server component (offering cloud storage, online collaboration, and PDF conversion) that the Celtx developers used to maintain. However, the beauty of open source software is that the code is still out there and the program itself is still available for use. With the exception of the already mentioned features that connected to Celtx servers, all of the built-in functionality in Celtx still works rather well.

The integrated features for planning and organizing your story are useful both in screenwriting as well as writing novels. And the convenience functions that maintain note cards and profiles for locations, character names, and even props... those features are all still available and there for you to use. Interoperability can be a bit of a sticking point, but there are other programs that can read and convert the .celtx format, so you're not locked in. And the source code is still out there.

Who knows? There's always a chance that someone could take the existing codebase and continue development.


It's best to think of Fountain as markdown for screenwriting. It's a relatively simple plain text format released under an MIT license. This means you can write your screenplay in any text editor that you have available. You can even get Fountain syntax highlighting extensions for writing in Emacs or vim. The actual process of writing a script in Fountain is surprisingly comfortable if your already familiar with the basic rules of formatting screenplays. You can tell that it was developed by people who actually write for film and television. Most of the syntax hints are things screenwriters naturally have already built-in as part of their process. Thanks to its open source license and natural syntax, Fountain has seen very wide and rapid adoption. It's available all over the place, and used in open source and proprietary applications on just about every platform available. So even if you're not writing raw Fountain syntax in a text editor, it's really the best choice of formats for interoperability between screenwriting tools.

Plus, as you'll read about next, Trelby and 'afterwriting support Fountain for importing and exporting.


Although the last stable release of Trelby was in September of 2012, it's not quite dead yet. There's still some light development happening on its GitHub page, and it's still a highly functional open source screenwriting program. It's still a bit rough around the edges in a couple spots. For instance, I'd love to see some more formatting options (like italics text, for example) or an inline commenting system for collaborating (or just leaving notes and reminders for myself). However, if you want a proper standalone WYSIWYG screenwriting application, Trelby isn't a bad choice at all.


A quick visit to the website for 'afterwriting (yes, that apostrophe is part of the name) and your internal software-as-a-service alarm bells might be ringing. It is, afterall, a webapp for screenwriting. However, fret not dear open source screenwriter. This node.js application is available under an MIT license and has been seeing very active development on its GitHub page. Furthermore, it's very easy to download the whole source and run it locally, offline, on your own computer. It works in any modern web browser and offers more formatting options than Trelby. It doesn't yet seem to have some of the nice conveniences like remembering scene locations or character names, but it is surprisingly comfortable to write in. And the PDFs it generates for delivery are quite clean.


For my own process, I've taken to writing my scripts in raw Fountain using a plain text editor (in my case, vim... yes, vim), then using 'afterwriting to convert to PDF for delivery/sharing.

I miss some of the convenience features like integrated storyboards and character profiles, but for me those are really just conveniences. And if I'm honest with myself, they're better handled in separate programs than they are as integrated features that more frequently get in the way than they help. Of course, that's just me.

What about you? What open source programs are you using for writing your screenplays?

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Jason van Gumster mostly makes stuff up. He writes, animates, and occasionally teaches, all using open source tools. He's run a small, independent animation studio, wrote Blender For Dummies and GIMP Bible, and continues to blurt out his experiences during a [sometimes] weekly podcast, the Open Source Creative Podcast. Adventures (and lies) at @monsterjavaguns.


I don't write screenplays myself, only short stories and blogs. But my open source choice is Plume Creator, http://www.plume-creator.eu/ . A new version is being developed (which I believe will support Fountain as well) but the current version is already functioning very well.

I don't do as much work with screenplays as I used to, since moving to post production proper, but when I did more with them, I used screenwriter-mode on Emacs. This has some basic character and location management, and I rolled a few shell-based tools to help me with pre-production (producting breakdown sheets, mostly).
I also have used Fountain and quite enjoyed it. I use the barefoot command-line to process them for print.

Trelby is quite a nice application, too. Between it and Fountain, there's almost no need for anything else.

don't burn me here but i still use celtx, being able to read and adjust my screenplays mobile on the train and automaticly sync with an in-browser tool is awesome. but yeah, sadly they are deliberately locking features for the "free" version which is a shame, but for simple writing still my place to go.

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