Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Writing (28)


Story in Lego

I read a lot of screenplays. None of them are perfect. It’s a big part of my job as an unemployed movie director to evaluate these scripts and suggest improvements.

Almost every script I’ve ever read could have been better if the writer had followed the advice of director and story artist Emma Coats, who famously tweeted a series of “story basics” learned during her tenure at Pixar.

1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

Read them all at The Pixar Touch blog, and follow Emma on Twitter, because she’s still rockin’ the badass thoughtfulness every day.

I found myself so enamored with Emma’s observations that I wanted some way of reminding myself of them while I work. I considered printing them and pinning them to my office wall, or turning them into a text screensaver.

Then Alex Eylar, known on Reddit as ICanLegoThat, worked his lego-illustration magic on a dozen of the “rules.” Perfect.

Alex, I wish you’d do the rest, and make them available as high-res JPEGs.

Then I could finally start writing.


Gradually Falling in Love with Plain Text

Funny thing about life-changing ideas. It can take a while to warm up to them.

First in blogger, then in Squarespace (where Prolost is now hosted), I used to write my blog posts right in the blogging engine—in that little “WYSIWYG” window with its buttons for creating links, quoted text, and text formatting.

At some point I became aware of Markdown, the plain-text writing format created by John Gruber. I totally didn’t get it. Why would I want to learn some new “syntax” for formatting text when I have a tool that does it at the push of a button, and shows me exactly what I’ll get?

Even as I was thinking this, I was living through the exact pain that Markdown was designed to address. I’d often find myself battling that little WYSIWYG text window. I’d press Return after some quoted text and it would create another quoted paragraph. I’d press the “quote” button to un-quote the current paragraph, and an extra line would be inserted. I’d try to delete it and now there was no separation between the paragraphs. I’d press “Publish” and the extra line would be back. I’d eventually go into the post HTML and try to remove the offending line break, crossing my fingers that I wasn’t destroying something else in the process. After all this, I’d be afraid to touch the WYSIWYG editor again. A typo or broken link would have to be pretty important for me to risk touching this house of HTML cards I’d created.

I started writing my blog posts out in other tools before moving them over to the blog. I first did this in email drafts. Then Notational Velocity. Then TextEdit. But I didn’t dare write in rich text, because I didn’t trust that my links and italics and bulleted lists would come over to Squarespace correctly.

So I started writing in plain text. If I wanted to create a link, I’d just paste the URL below the paragraph, as a kind of reminder to build a link in Squarespace using the pushbutton tools. If I wanted to style some text, I’d maybe, I don’t know, wrap some *asterisks* around it to remind myself to italicize it.

I proceeded like this for a good year or more, still bizarrely unaware that I was painfully embodying the raison d’être of Markdown. I even filed a bug report with Squarespace, because the simple process of pasting my plain text into their WYSIWYG editor would create extra line breaks and other errors. I was close, but I was still lost.

It was around this time that I started tweeting questions about why any sane person would ever want to use Markdown.

The Funny Thing About People and Stuff

I have a few dear friends who are argumentative pains-in-the-ass of staggering proportions. I’m sure they feel the same about me, because I suffer from a condition I call overemphasitis—I am so obsessed with making my points heard that I often don’t give people time to properly absorb them.

Even smart, open-minded people take time to absorb new ideas. Especially smart, open-minded people.

And here’s the thing: the more worthwhile, the more valuable an idea you present to someone, the harder it will be for them to hear it.

Think of it this way: You’re smart. Your friend is smart. If the concept you’re proposing to them is truly worthwhile, then it falls into a rarified category of being both important, and something they hadn’t already considered—or had considered, but rejected. So there’s obviously something they need to get past in order to embrace this controversial idea of yours.

You should drink less at company parties. You have bad breath. It looks like you might be lactose intolerant. You and your husband don’t seem to like each other very much. You should try writing in plain text.

Having chronic overemphasitis, I would get super annoyed with my friends when they would push back against my carefully considered and inarguably brilliant advice.

But over time, I noticed a pattern. That same friend who rebuffed my ideas upon first hearing them, would often embrace them soon thereafter—and even pitch the ideas back to me as if they were their own.

I can’t believe people still go to Starbucks. Rendering and compositing should be done in linear-light. Of course a real Martini is made with gin. The first Terminator is so much better than the second. A spoon has no role in the making of a cappuccino.

Oh, really? Interesting. I wish I’d mentioned those things to you like a hundred times.

A worthwhile idea challenges us. If it really has value, then it means we may been wrong about something, or failed to realize something. Coming to terms with these possibilities take time.

In my case, I practically had to invent Markdown on my own before I realized how great it was.

Getting Lost in the Neighborhood

I once led a splinter unit in setting up a shot for a famous cinematographer. When he arrived to take over our setup, he didn’t quite love our camera position, which was limited by the geography of the set. It had been quite a puzzle to negotiate our big lens into the cramped space, but he decided to tear down our setup and start fresh. Ten minutes later, he had the camera exactly back where I’d placed it.

There’s a common understanding that in order to truly learn your way around an unfamiliar neighborhood, you have to get lost there a few times. Ideas stick more when you discover them organically—via your own process.

And then they can stick pretty hard. In my case, about a week after I embraced Markdown for my web writing, I began to think about how I could bring the same portability, compatibility, and universality to screenplay writing.

Happily I was not the only one, and now Fountain, the plain-text screenplay format, is growing strong, with new apps announcing support every month.

Take Your Time

The point of this article is simple: Don’t take my word for it that working with plain text is the best thing that ever happened to you. Or this guy’s. Or this guy’s.

The best thing I can do is gently lay out some of the reasons I love it. Go ahead: reject them. Fight back. Argue with me. This is one of those ideas that’s worth it.

Then slowly discover plain text on your own. Get lost in the neighborhood.

This post was gleefully written in Markdown using Byword, and effortlessly pasted into Squarespace as HTML.


Writing Kit for iOS Adds Fountain Support

Writing Kit for iOS ($4.99 on the App Store), one of my small handful of go-to mobile text editing apps, has just released an update with Fountain support.

From the Writing Kit Blog:

Today I’m excited to announce Fountain support in Writing Kit 3.2. You can now open, edit, navigate, and preview Fountain screenplays right within the app.

This is exactly the kind of thing John and I hoped would start happening, and it’s happening fast.


Write Better With Fountain

Integrated Story Outlining in Plain Text

What you set up with the inciting incident…

The simplest way to begin screenwriting with Fountain is to open any text editor and start typing something that looks like a screenplay. You can then send that file to the free Screenplain web app to turn it into styled HTML, or a Final Draft file. You could also import the file into Fade In or a growing number of screenplay apps that support Fountain. Soon you’ll also be able to use Highland to convert a Fountain file directly to a printable PDF.

But if you’re just getting started with Fountain, you may like some assurance that your text is being interpreted correctly. And even a seasoned Fountain writer could benefit from a bit of WYSIWYG.

Marked for The Kill

Enter Marked. As I’ve mentioned, Marked is a simple and powerful HTML preview app for writers using the popular Markdown syntax that inspired Fountain. Marked is flexible enough to be configured to use other syntaxes—so Marked, combined with the Screenplain engine and some custom CSS, becomes a live preview tool for writing in Fountain. Use whatever text editor you like. Every time you save, Marked will update, showing you what your screenplay will look like.

Click to enlarge. Don’t make me say it for all of them.

Simple enough, and a great way to get used to working with Fountain. And there are some nice perks to Marked, such as the navigation pop-up that shows you each of your Scene Headings in a menu. That feature, while handy, suffers from a common screenwriting software pitfall: Scene Headings are often not a very useful way to navigate a script, as they don’t necessarily line up with what we think of as the beginnings of actual “scenes.” What you or I might consider a single “scene” might contain several Scene Headings.


Organization and structure are such an important issues that I made sure Fountain had some provision for supporting them. Fountain’s Sections are invisible, hierarchical markers that you can use to demarcate the structural points of your story—or anything else you like. Synopses allow you to annotate a Section—or a Scene Heading—with non-printing descriptive text.

You can add Sections and Synopses to your Fountain screenplay as you work, or as a part of rewriting. You can also begin the writing process with them. You can use them to denote scenes, sequences, act breaks, or whatever is helpful to your writing process.

Every writer is different, but most utilize some method of outlining their story—usually in a completely different app, or in no app at all (3x5 notecards are a popular meatspace method). My problem with those techniques is that they’re not writing. When I’m several days into the road trip of my story, those disconnected outlines feel like a map locked in the glove compartment of the car we decided not to take.

Fountain fixes the disconnect between the outlining and writing process. You can begin your outline as a text file using Sections and Synopses, and then seamlessly fill in bits of the actual screenplay as they come to you. All without your hands ever leaving the keyboard, all in whatever text app you prefer, on whichever platform.

That last bit is important: Although you may not see yourself writing an entire screenplay, or even a scene, on a tiny device such as your phone (yet), I bet you could imagine jotting down an idea for an outline there.

Sections and Synopses: The Syntax

A Section in Marked is exactly like a Header in Markdown: you simply precede it with any number of pound signs. The more pound signs, the more “nested” the Section:

Synopses follow Sections or Scene Headings and begin with a single equals sign.

Screenplain and Marked will display your Sections and Synopses in HTML, using a lovely style sheet created by Jonathan Poritsky. Of course, they are not meant to be included in printed output, so Screenplain ignores them when creating a Final Draft file, as will Highland. But seeing them while you write is nice, and reminiscent of Movie Magic Screenwriter’s integrated outlining features.

And that navigational pop-up in Marked? It displays your Sections, indented according to hierarchy, and allows you to navigate by them. Scene Headers are still there as well, nested below Sections.

This behavior is also available in some Markdown editors. MultiMarkdown Composer, for example, displays your headers as a live, nested Table Of Contents on a side panel.

Writing Kit for iOS also has this Header-based navigation built in.

To demonstrate how an outline might look in Fountain using Marked, I whipped up a quick outline of Die Hard using only Sections and Synopses. Even in plain text, this document is readable and clear. In MMD Composer, the structure is navigable via the TOC panel on the left. And in Marked, the outline is presented in a clean, attractive layout.

And here’s what it would look like if Jeb Stuart had started writing his amazing screenplay right within this hypothetical outline:

If you’re the kind of writer who likes to work with a general-purpose structural guideline, Fountain’s Sections and Synopses are perfect for you. Much to the chagrin of seasoned writers everywhere, you can begin your writing with a template. Here’s the well-known Save The Cat beat sheet in Fountain format:

Or maybe you’re the anti-structuralist who poo-poos “templates” and even rejects the classic three-act structure. You can still use Sections as simple bookmarks to mark important beats and make navigation easier.

Story Arch

…you must pay off at the climax.

Sometimes, when writing, I feel that my story is too unwieldy to grapple with. It’s composed of thousands of tiny details, and yet they must all add up to a singular experience that carries the audience on an emotional journey. I like what the current Wikipedia entry has to say about the architectural innovation known as the arch:

An arch requires all of its elements to hold it together, raising the question of how an arch is constructed.

Writers, too, know this feeling.

Of course, the answer in arch-building is to use a wooden frame, or a centring. You build the frame, and lay the stones over it. When you remove the frame, the stones remain in place. The shape of the frame defines the shape of the arch, but the frame itself is discarded, an now-useless artifact of the arch-building process. The arch, however, is more beautiful for the precision of the frame—and appears to hold itself together impossibly, an intoxicating combination of monumental might and graceful weightlessness.

Can you tell how I feel about outlining my writing?

Marked for The Law

I hope this exploration of Fountain’s outlining features sparks some ideas for how you might begin putting Fountain to use. And I hope it’s clear that neither I nor Fountain are trying to prescribe any particular workflow or writing style. Quite the contrary—Fountian is designed to be flexible enough to support any screenwriter’s habits.

Marked is available for OS X on the App Store. Download links and installation instructions for Screenplain can be found on Jonathan Poritsky’s blog.

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