To many, modern day screenwriting involves a set of Benjamin Franklins and a proprietary file format. Restrained by their own nescience, these writers miss out on a truly rapturous experience waiting for them with a tool they already own. By returning to a simpler time, writers return to the essence of their art.
Last week’s article encouraged writers to always be writing. With today’s technology and inter-connected devices, the storyteller can practice their craft anytime and anywhere. The only obstacle is finding a common file format that will work anytime and anywhere.
The Simple Text File
The key to his life of constant writing lies in the use of simply formatted text files that can be opened and edited on any device at any time. Besides granting the writer the option of choosing which editor they love the most1, working this way insures a text that will stand the test of time. Text files will always be with us. They will never render themselves useless the moment bloated screenwriting software goes the way of print publications and cassette tapes.
Write a page a day. It will add up. - Herman Wouk
In addition, working with text files allow you the option of versioning your screenplay. Those familiar with Git or Subversion will recognize the benefits and power of writing this way. Instead of having to constantly resave your screenplay under a new name (e.g. nightcrawler-001, nightcrawler-002, nightcrawler-003, and so on), versioned text files save the delta of each update. That is, they only save the changes to the original text file, not the text file itself. This allows the writer the convenience of quickly reverting to a previous version of their text based on date or content changed.2
Lastly, working in text makes it easy to quickly line up and identify changes between different versions of a script. Working in collaboration with another screenwriter but tired of fighting over who writes in red and who writes in blue, and whether or not the lines in gold take precedence over the bold face text written in 24 pt. Arial? Then you’ll appreciate writing in a simple text file.
Using a file comparison app like Kaleidoscope, you can easily see the changes your co-writer made and choose whether to merge them into your version or discard them with a haughty no thank-you. Again, the focus stays on the text, not on formatting or manipulating the text. The emphasis stays on story, not presentation.
What is Fountain?
Having been a fan and heavy utilizer of the markup language Markdown3, I jumped at the introduction of Fountain. Established by geek screenwriter John August and fellow Cal-Arts alum Stu Maschwitz, Fountain extends Markdown to include special affordances for the screenplay format:
Fountain supports everything a screenwriter is likely to need in the early, creative phases of writing. Not included are production features such as MOREs, CONTINUEDs, revision marks, locked pages, or colored pages.
When you want to write a line of action, you write a line of action. When you want to write a line of dialogue you put the character’s name in ALL CAPS and their stirring speech on the next line. When you want to start a new scene, put Int. Or Ext. in ALL CAPS and you’re good to go. The entire process is seamless and intuitive.
Love for the Structuralist
Encouraging screenplays to be about something instead of simply something, Fountain also offers methods of structuring Acts, Sequences and Scenes. Using the ‘#’ delimiter to denote a heirarchal order, writers can easily organize the major and minor movements of their story.
Managing a screenplay this way opens up several opportunities for navigating the text. Slugline, an application written specifically for Fountain (which we’ll get to in a moment) offers a sidebar view of the outline. The latest version of Editorial will grant text-folding powers, allowing writers the ability to collapse those sequences and scenes they want to work on later for later. Future applications may open up new powerful possibilities, furthering the case for working in a future-proof format.
Dedicated Fountain Editors
Speaking of Editorial, the newest version will offer native support for Fountain! You can select what font to use when writing .fountain files (Courier Prime naturally!) and view your formatted screenplay with a built-in Fountain Preview tab. A dream come true.
Of course if you want to, you can always write your screenplay inside of an application built for Fountain. August offers Highland while Maschwitz supports Slugline. Both do a remarkable job of staying out of the way when it comes to handling your text files. Highland caters to the purist, keeping text text and only lightly coloring specific notes or comments. Slugline walks the line between text and screenplay by formatting your text file as you write to give the appearance of a completed screenplay.
Personally, I find Highland to be the better of the two. I find myself less concerned with the perception of my screenplay and more concerned with how my story actually reads. When I work in Slugline, I find myself writing and re-writing, killing widows and chunks of action longer than three lines, all in an effort to satisfy the imaginary reader who lives by the rules of modern screenwriting. When I write in Highland (or Editorial on an iOS device), I lose myself in the story and the writing process. The words take precedent over the format.
When it comes time to make the screenplay look pretty, Slugline takes over as champ. The What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get approach speeds up the process of improving the script’s readability. With Highland you constantly have to switch back and forth from straight text to formatted play, a disorienting process that almost always calls for endless scrolling to find your place in the edit.
The solution? Get both. Together their price is a fifth of the industry standard. Lightweight and easy on the eyes, both Highland and Slugline brings writers closer to their words.
Assembling the Scenes
John August’s company Quote-Unquote Apps also offers Assembler, an application designed to merge multiple text files into one. Two problems this app solves: one, no more endless scrolling searching through text. By breaking up a screenplay into separate text files for each scene or sequence, the writer can swiftly zero in on the part of their story that needs attention. Two, if you thought versioning for an entire screenplay was cool, imagine individual versioning for each scene. The cost-to-entry for rewriting a scene drops to nothing, opening up a world of experimentation and creativity.
Delivering the Goods
As soon as you type FADE OUT, both Highland and Slugline offer push-button solutions to convert your textual masterpiece into a beautifully professional PDF safe for sending off to your agent. You can even convert to FDX (Final Draft) if you still deal with the Dark side.
About Final Draft and Fountain4: if someone you work with demands that hideous program, it is possible to take their FDX monstrosity and dump it into Highland or Slugline for conversion.5 You can compare their version against yours (again, using Kaleidoscope), make any changes and then dump out an FDX version for them to read on their Gateway Pentium III PC6. It calls for additional steps, but the inconvenience is worth it if you truly care about storytelling as an art.
The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing. — Cynthia Ozick
Writing with Fountain is a joy. I can write in my office, the gym, on a walk or in the bathroom. I can write on a Mac, on an iPhone an iPad and even a Linux based text editor if that’s what my day job provides. I can work on the same text file no matter my location, no matter the device. I simply write down the words and leave the rest to chance.
Fountain connects writers with their art.
You could also potentially merge old commits with new, but that is something best left to the professionals. ↩︎
Every article on this site exists as a simple Markdown text file. Easily transportable and easily converted into any format—including ePub or PDF. ↩︎
And damn would it be nice if either of them offered iOS versions for on-the-go conversions. ↩︎
I actually had to do this on my last screenplay. It was a pain, but worked seamlessly. ↩︎