On error messages

Brent Simmons has straightforward advice on error messages:

They should be of the form “Can’t x because of y.”

A similar form is this: “Noun can’t x because y.” (As in “‘Downloaded.app’ can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer.”)

Badly-written dialog boxes make me lose faith in an app very quickly. Here’s Final Draft 9 when you hit Next on the last element in the Reformat box.

dialog box

Oh. Okay.

It has the icon for “important warning,” but it’s nothing I need to be warned about. We’ve reached the end of the document. That’s all.

Rather than making you close a new dialog box, the app could place a notification within the Reformat box itself.

Or better yet, do nothing. If you’re at the top of a script and hit Previous, FD9 doesn’t give you any warning. This feels like the better behavior, because you can see where you are anyway.

Simmons also warns against pronouns:

One thing error messages never say is sorry. They’re just reporting, and they respect you enough to know you want the facts, clearly expressed, and don’t need to be apologized-to by a machine.

Also: they rarely (if ever) use the words I, me, my, you, and your.

Here’s Final Draft 9 again:

dialog waring

A better way to phrase it might be:

Can’t delete across a page break because pages are locked.

Getting rid of the pronoun subtly changes the tone: “It’s not your fault, it’s just how things are.”

How to Write a Photoplay

Today’s one awesome thing comes from the Internet Archive: Herbert Case Hoagland’s 1912 book How to Write a Photoplay:

To write a photoplay requires no skill as a writer, but it does require a “constructionist.” It requires the ability to grasp an idea and graft (please use in the botanical sense) a series of causes on the front end of it and a series of consequences on the other end. An idea so grafted will surely bear fruit; and to learn the art of this sort of mental horticulture it is necessary first to understand, in a general way, how motion pictures are made and what is done in the studio, in the field and in the factory. Let us learn something of these things and begin at the beginning—in the office of the Scenario Editor.

The photoplay was the precursor to the screenplay. It’s essentially a list of scenes, designed for silent films. Without dialogue, it can be challenging to establish the relationships between characters:

The scenario writer must bear in mind that the first thing to do is to introduce his characters on the screen in a way that almost immediately determines their position in, and relationship to, the story. Many photoplays are failures because a proper beginning has not been arranged.

If, for example, the scene opens in a young woman’s home and her lover is coming to see her, the fact that he is her lover and not her brother or husband should be clearly shown in the action, and the action of the play is the thing to write.

Scene geography and narrative sequence are extremely important. So are hats.

If a man is to go from a room in one house to a room in another, there should be a scene showing him entering the second house, but it is unnecessary to have him leaving the first because in the first room he can be made to catch up his coat and hat and exit. Obviously he is going out, and when one sees him on the street and entering the second house the entire thought is conveyed to the spectator.

The question may arise, if his action of putting on his hat and coat suggests leaving the house, why his entering another room and removing them doesn’t mean the reverse. The answer is simple—because he may have simply gone into another room in his own house and the man in the theatre seat wonders, “Why, in thunder, did he put his hat and coat on to go along the hall or just from room to room.” Seems farfetched, but it isn’t. The spectator asks just such questions.

Hoagland’s scenario writers are now called screenwriters, but many of the issues remain the same.

Revising is the hardest part of a writer’s work. The first copy flows from the inspired pen like the proverbial water from a duck’s back and under the influence of watching the story grow the writer finds incentive to continue, but oh! the drudgery of rewriting and revising. Inclination may writhe and squirm and plead to go away and leave the work undone, but Determination must grab Inclination and club it into submission if the writer ever expects to flirt with the elusive Goddess of Success. Revision is imperative. All the big fellows in the literary world do it. Only by careful rewording and rewriting can any production of this nature be flawless. A good way to do this is to read your scenario aloud to members of the family or to friends; better still is it to have some one read it to you that you may hear the words with another’s intonation and vocal shades.

Hoagland’s book has a list of all the major motion picture studios, few of which exist today. But his warning sounds familiar:

Don’t send Biblical stories to a manufacturer who makes a specialty of western stuff. Study the needs of the firms producing pictures and direct your scenarios accordingly. On another page the class of story most sought for by the different studios is touched upon, and ambitious writers cannot do better than to subscribe to The Moving Picture World or some other trade paper and carefully study the comments on the films as they appear week by week.”

You can read the whole thing here.

Wait for it

Robin Sloan wonders whether all-at-once seasons like House of Cards work against shows by denying viewers the joy of anticipation:

If Game of Thrones was delivered all at once, I’d scrub right past [the opening title] sequence, as beautiful as it is. But thanks to that wait, that week eternal between episodes, I watch the clockwork castles every time. I savor them. You can pick your metaphor: appetizer, foreplay, warm-up act. We like those things, all of them! They all enhance the main event, even as they delay it.

Delay, withhold, restrict, release: This is storytelling 101, Scheherazade stuff, and it’s deeper than marketing and distribution. We bring all of our creative talents to bear on matters of plot and character; the anticipation that precedes and interpenetrates a story deserves no less. More than ever, the shape of a season can be designed and managed. More than ever, anticipation can be art-directed.

When Craig and I discussed True Detective on the podcast, I argued that much of its popular success came from the build-up each week. Without it, the series might have become merely Really Good rather than Must See.

Highland as a bona fide screenwriting app

As of this afternoon, version 1.7.1 of Highland has exactly one review on its main page in the Mac App Store:

I honestly never knew how much time I was spending formatting and making pages look pretty, until I started writing in Highland. I’m a more efficient writer, focusing on what a writer should be focusing on: words. I’ve switched over to Highland for my latest screenplay and I can honestly say that I will never go back. Highland is where I will write from now on.

The highest compliment I can pay this program is that it gets out of my way. It makes me want to KEEP writing. Which is a writer’s dream.

Jmedwarren’s five-star review is so lovely that I almost don’t want to tell him the backstory: Highland wasn’t meant for writing at all.

When we announced Highland in 2012, we billed it as a “screenplay utility” for converting between formats: PDF, FDX and the newly-minted Fountain. You dropped a file on it and selected a new file type.

This is what it looked like:

highland screenshot

The initial betas had no editing view, because we assumed users would write and edit Fountain using any of the excellent plain-text editors available. Likewise, we had no preview, because we were going to export a PDF or Final Draft file anyway.

In practice, we discovered that we often wanted to make small tweaks to a file we had just converted. For example, if we needed to modify title page information, it was a hassle to have to save the Fountain text, open it in iAWriter, fix it, then re-open it in Highland.

To avoid this round-tripping, we added a very basic editor and a preview. The user could switch between these views to see the changes reflected before export.

highland screenshot

As the betas progressed, we changed the UI significantly, moving from two tabs on the top to the current sidebar.1 This is what version 1.7 looks like:

Highland 1.7

By the time we shipped — almost a year later — we saw ourselves largely as a companion to Slugline. They focused on writing while we converted files.2

Still, I started to be comfortable calling Highland a screenplay editor rather than a screenplay utility. Last year, I wrote:

Highland is a great bridge between apps, but over the last year we’ve found more and more users are simply doing their writing in Highland. It’s a full-featured editor, with spelling, versions and find-and-replace. Because it’s plain text, you can focus on the words and not the formatting.

When asked if someone could write a script in Highland, my answer was generally, “Well, you could. But that’s not really what it’s for.” I steered users to other apps as alternatives. As a company, we spent our time refining Highland’s underlying engine for parsing PDFs and dealing with edge cases.

But people kept using Highland like a traditional screenwriting app. Or perhaps it’s better to say they used Highland in lieu of a traditional screenwriting app.

People like our app store reviewer Jmedwarren saw Highland as primarily a writing tool, not a converter.

So with version 1.7 of Highland, we’re embracing the fact that we’re really a screenwriting app. We don’t do everything other apps do, but we do some things significantly better, enough so that we’re the right choice for some screenwriters.

Highland pros and cons

Here’s where Highland is actually better:

Focus. When you’re writing in Highland, it’s just the words. There’s nothing to distract you. You can’t fiddle with margins, or futz with how the pages break. Even the little bits of syntax gray themselves out so all you see is your text.

Speed. Highland is lean and mean. From scrolling to previews, Highland is blisteringly fast. Because it’s Mac-only, we optimize it using the latest Apple technologies. Because we separate editing from preview, you’re never waiting for a long document to reformat as you type.

It’s hard to market speed as a feature, because you don’t think of a screenwriting app needing to be fast. But in practice, Highland feels better under your fingers.

Typography. Highland features Courier Prime and Highland Sans, two typefaces we commissioned. Screenwriters shouldn’t have to look at ugly fonts all day.

Standards. Because we helped forge the Fountain standard, Highland does it well. We’re often the first to incorporate new specs, such as lyrics and forced character names. But you can always open Highland’s files in any plain text editor, so you’re never stuck with us. If another screenwriting app comes along that’s vastly better, you can jump ship instantly.

Dark Mode. I don’t understand why more apps don’t offer it. It makes writing in dark places — or public spaces — much more comfortable.

PDF melting. This was Highland’s breakout feature. While other apps have added it, our PDF parsing is unmatched. It’s a tricky, thankless task, but a key part of both Highland and now Weekend Read, so we keep getting better.

Active development. Highland receives regular updates, sometimes twice a month, incorporating user-requested features in almost every build. We’re small enough to move quickly, but big enough that we’re not going out of business tomorrow. When things break — and they do — we fix them fast.

Created by working screenwriters. This is the hardest advantage to show, but probably the most important factor in why Highland works the way it does. I use Highland every day for actual paid work. I rely on it, so major and minor annoyances get addressed.

I’m not the only one using it, either. Justin Marks wrote me to say he was doing his latest feature largely in Highland, in part because it made working with lyrics so much easier.

These are some of Highland’s advantages, but there are things other screenwriting apps do better than Highland — or that we don’t do at all. Our work this next year will be figuring out what we can do to make Highland more useful without losing focus.

Outlining. I use Workflowy for outlining, but I’d love an integrated outliner that smartly leverages Fountain’s section and synopsis lingo. Slugline sort of does it, but its sidebar outline is mostly a navigator rather than a writing tool. (Still, Slugline’s sidebar is really useful for long documents, and I miss it sometimes.)

Revisions. Last week, I needed to turn in a draft with small changes. I really wanted to create starred changes in the margins without having to leave the comfort of Highland. We have ideas for dealing with revisions, both within the Fountain spec and on an app level, but it’s a challenging problem. For all my issues with Final Draft, it actually does a solid job with starred changes (and more complicated production features) once you understand how it works.

Collaboration. This is a topic for a longer blog post, but collaboration can mean both two people typing in the same document at the same time (like Google Docs) or the ability to suggest edits (like Draft). Both are useful. Both are difficult. But Fountain’s plain-text background is a huge help. Fully online tools like WriterDuet may be plenty for some writers, but I have a hunch there’s more to be done here, particularly for writers working on the staff of a show.

Title Pages. This is a Fountain issue as much as anything, but creating a title page in Highland is frustratingly hit-or-miss. We had good intentions; title and author metadata is part of the file itself, as it should be. But it’s very hard to get title pages to look the way you really want. We may call a mulligan and find a better way.

All of these issues are shortcomings, not showstoppers.

For my daily use, Highland is still a better way to write a screenplay. Particularly for my first drafts, I agree with Jmedwarren in that the best thing about Highland is that it gets out of your way.

We’ve redesigned the Highland site to reflect Highland’s role as a screenwriting app. Take a look and see how it works for you.

  1. The sidebar was prompted largely by plans for an iPad version of Highland.
  2. To this day, Slugline still has a “Send to Highland” menu command.

The Angeles Crest Fiasco

Scriptnotes: Ep. 142

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel joins John and Craig to play Fiasco, resulting in a tale of art, murder and sexual blackmail in the Hollywood Hills.

This extended, unlike-all-before-it episode will probably be polarizing, but it was a chance to explore story in ways that you can’t do in abstract. In Fiasco, plot really does come out of character choices.

This episode is filthy. If this were a cable drama, it would be TV-MA DSLV. If that makes you more or less likely to listen, trust your gut. (There’s no nudity. It’s radio.)

Our thanks to Kelly Marcel for hosting. Next week, we’ll return with a more conventional episode.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

Because of the length of this episode and the cost involved, there will not be a transcript of episode 142.

Me on Mac Power Users

I’m the guest on the new episode of the Mac Power Users podcast.

I talk with David Sparks and Katie Floyd about my writing workflow, the Scriptnotes podcast, and the apps my company makes. Along the way, we discuss Bates numbering, CodeRunner, David Wain and MacWEEK.

It’s interesting being a guest on someone else’s podcast, particularly a show that’s not about writing per se. David uses Bronson Watermarker a lot, one of our apps that appeals to users who will never open a screenplay. It’s easy to forget that I live in a bubble of 12-pt Courier Prime.