The Film Insider: Using Microsoft® Word for Screenwriting
Whether you're a novice screenwriter or one of the lucky few who makes a living as a professional screenwriter, you're probably writing your scripts on your personal computer (PC). (If you're still using a typewriter or actually handwriting your scripts, I bow down to your patience and commitment to true hands-on writing.) To be sure your screenplay conforms to an industry standard format, you'll need to write your script using a software program that will layout and format the screenplay with a professional appearance. In Part 1 of my screenwriting software program series ("The Film Insider: About Screenwriting Software Programs"), I described the basic elements of a standard screenplay format and some common features in screenwriting software programs. In this article, I'll describe how you can use Microsoft® Word to write your screenplays.
Why MS Word?
Although there are other advanced software programs that are dedicated to screenwriting, I'd like to discuss what Microsoft® Word and a variety of plug-in templates offer as screenwriting tools. Word may offer many writers the simplest and cheapest way to get started on that script. If you're planning to be a hardcore screenwriter, you may already need more features than Word offers, so feel free to skip to reading my article about the other screenwriting programs ("Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program," coming soon to HubPages). If you're PC runs with a Windows® operating system, chances are you already have some version of Word installed so you're almost ready to get those stories written for your big break into Hollywood. (If you're a Mac® lover, you may have designed to install MS Office and can also be ready to turn Word into your own screenwriting program; however, at this time there is only one plug-in option for Word for Macintosh®.)
Modifying MS Word
When I started my first screenplay, I wasn't ready to commit financially to a screenwriting program so I modified my version of Microsoft® Word to lay out and format my document as a screenplay. I used "The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats, Part 1: The Screenplay" by Hillis R. Cole and Judith H. Haag as my guide to setting up page margins and layouts. From the Word Styles menus (under the Format menu), I set up custom paragraph styles to match the professional specifications and named the styles based on my thinking and working process. Then I added keyboard shortcuts to each common style (to set your own keyboard shortcuts, from Word's Tools menu, click Customize and then click on the Keyboard button). I even set up AutoText entries (click AutoText under the Insert menu) to automatically complete repeating phrases and words, such as character names, as I typed them. And voila! Word became my own custom screenwriting program. If you're really into technical stuff, you can expand these functions further in Word by programming macros for various screenwriting operations.
This customization of Word served its purpose while I was learning how to write my first screenplay. However, when I came to creating my second and third script, although I could reuse the page setup and paragraph styles, I was already too impatient to set up new AutoText entries. Also, there were awkward limitations in the keyboard shortcuts, the main one being my inability to remember all the specific keys for each screenplay element. And I wasn't technical enough or interested in developing the time-saving macros.
Third-party MS Word Templates
Fortunately, third-party software developers have created templates that plug into Microsoft® Word and provide all the setup features I created manually plus macros for more functionality. These developers have kindly made them available for download. I used a Script Maker template only because it was included with a screenwriting course I took, but it did the job well with its predefined styles. All Word template plug-ins include defined paragraph styles and page layouts that conform to screenplay formats. They also feature some degree of automated formatting of scene headers, dialogue, and other script elements, usually based on using the Tab key and Space Bar. The following table gives a summary of some (but probably not all) of the screenwriting templates available for Microsoft® Word. The Features list is based on descriptions of unique features from the software providers' Web sites and is not comprehensive.
Note: Since software providers update their software compatibility requirements at their own pace, it's best you check each provider's Web site for specific operating system and Word version compatibility.
Whether you want to spend as little as an hour modifying your installed copy of Microsoft® Word or want to pay a small amount to someone who has already made the effort to create script templates for Word, creating a professional looking screenplay is almost as easy as writing any other type of document on your PC. That's one more excuse that you can eliminate, which brings you one large step closer to putting your stories on film.
(For a list and comparison of the available screenwriting software programs, read Part 3 of this series, "Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program.")