The accidental set-up

Talking with writers last week, I pointed out that readers (and ultimately the audience) are always on the lookout for details that answer the question, “Where is this going?”

Often, they literally want to know, “Where is the character headed?”

So any time you refer to a new place — be it “the supermarket,” “school,” or “Boston” — you create a natural expectation that we will visit that place at some point in the story.

Often you mean to set it up: it’s The Emerald City. It’s Wally World. It’s the place where the resolution will happen.

But it’s altogether possible to set up places that you have no intention of visiting. Your hero might say something about how he hears good things about Marfa, Texas. It’s not part of his journey, and not part of this story. He’s just saying it because he’s the kind of character who would say something about Marfa.

But once you’ve put it on the page, it’s out there as a goal. You’ve accidentally punched a location into Chekhov’s GPS.

I often see this when characters talk vividly about something in their past. The more details you give about a place, the more important we think it is. That raises our expectation higher and higher that we’ll see it in the story.

A final thing to keep in mind about places: the audience often use them as structural signposts. “Well, he’s trying to get to Boston, and he finally did, so the story must be just about over.” That can often help you — we’ve reached the rendez-vous spot — but it can be trouble if you’re hitting that spot an hour into a two-hour story.

Similarly, the audience keeps track of the order of locations. If a character says, “We’ll get pizza at Romo’s and then go to grandma’s house,” we expect to see Romo’s pizza place, or at least some evidence that pizza happened. In a cut, it’s often easy to lose the pizza scene. But if you do, try to get rid of any mention of the pizza so there’s no dangling expectation for a location we’ll never visit.

Making the App Store better

Roughly this time last year, I wrote about how the App Store encourages topping the charts and racing to the bottom, and how that hurts both developers and users.

David Smith has compiled a list of recommendations for making the App Store experience better. I especially agree with several of his suggestions:

1: Apps should be required to pass approval on an ongoing basis.

I’d go further and say that if an app has had no activity for a set number of months, it automatically gets de-listed. I suspect more than half of the apps in the store are effectively zombies, abandoned by their creators. These apps’ only function is to clutter up search results.

6: Make the process of applying for a refund clear and straightforward.

Right now you go to and then fill in a form. I’d love to see this integrated into the App Store app itself. Perhaps even into the Purchased Apps area.

Roughly 10% of our support emails are from people who really should just get a refund because they bought an app without really understanding what it did. We have a boilerplate email that walks them through the process of applying for a refund, but there’s no reason it needs to be so complicated.

I think prices for some apps could easily and appropriately rise if customers understood they could get their money back if unsatisfied.

11: Make the rating scale a rolling, weighted average rather than just current version, at least soon after updates.

We update our apps very frequently, sometimes twice a month. Each time we do, our ratings drop back to zero, effectively punishing us for improving the app.

A rolling, weighted average would better reflect not only how satisfied users are with the current version, but with the product overall.

In the iOS App Store, our products are Weekend Read and FDX Reader. FDX Reader is old — it hasn’t been updated in a year — but we’re keeping it around until the iPad version of Weekend Read.

By my criteria, should FDX Reader be dropped from the store? I don’t know. It still sells, and we haven’t gotten a support email for it in months, so users are apparently satisfied with it. But if we got a warning email from Apple saying it needed to be updated or face de-listing, we’d pay attention. More than anything, that’s what a regular review process would achieve: making developers take another look at their old apps.

For iOS, we also have the Scriptnotes app, but it’s made by Wizzard Media. We release it under the Quote-Unquote label only so we can track downloads.

In the Mac App Store, our products are Highland and Bronson Watermarker. If you look at the current Bronson reviews, there’s a one-star review from a customer who couldn’t figure out the app. He didn’t write us for support; he didn’t check any online documentation. He’s exactly the kind of user who should have been able to click a button and get a refund.

I hope at this year’s WWDC, we’ll see Apple taking some of Smith’s suggestions to make the App Store experience better.

Falling back in love with your script

Scriptnotes: Ep. 140

Craig and John play marriage counsellor between writers and their scripts, looking at both the first spark of attraction and how to rekindle the flame when the fire has gone out.

There are still some tickets available for the Summer Superhero Spectacular live show on May 15th. Next week, we’ll announce how the Three Page Challenge will work. Don’t send scripts yet.

If you’ve subscribed to Scriptnotes for the back catalog, there’s a bonus panel with John, Kelly Marcel, Linda Woolverton and Scott Neustadter talking about notes and rewrites. You can subscribe at and listen through the Scriptnotes app for iOS and Android.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 4-27-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Writing the music before shooting the film

Alex Wurman, who composed the music for my film The Nines, has the soundtrack up on SoundCloud. Take a listen.

The composer often comes on board a project while it’s in post, but for The Nines, I needed Alex to write the main theme of the movie before we’d shot a frame. That’s because during one scene in Part Two, Gavin (Ryan Reynolds) plays the theme on the piano. It’s a major plot point, and I knew we couldn’t fake it. So Alex and I spent a few days hashing out the musical idea of the story.

When talking with a specialist (a composer, a cinematographer, a choreographer), I’ve found it best to describe feelings rather than functions, using similes rather than concrete vocabulary. So I said things like:

  • broken clockwork
  • skimming across a summer lake, but there’s something dark under water
  • an unanswerable question
  • something half-remembered, and you’re not sure if it was something positive or negative

This got us to the main theme, called Knowing:

The theme shows up all over the movie, often on piano, but sometimes pushed to other instruments and other tempos.

I love Alex’s music in The Nines, but if I had it to do all over again, I would have found a way to get bigger with the music at the end. Right now, it all feels a little too delicate and same-same.

We had a very limited budget, but the visuals would have better served with some serious strings. In my head, I can hear this theme re-orchestrated, and it’s what the film wants: the boldest expression of the musical question and its answer. To achieve that, I would have re-prioritized other elements to free up some money.

Weekend Read knows what page you’re on

screenshotJust in time for the weekend, we have an update for Weekend Read. It’s free in the App Store.

Version 1.0.4 adds a page count in the footer of the reader view, so you’ll always know where you are in the script. Both Rian Johnson and Aline Brosh McKenna asked for this, and I do as I’m told.

Actually, the page counter is really helpful. I don’t know why we didn’t do it in the first place. Obvious in hindsight, and so forth.

Weekend Read 1.0.4 also improves parsing of some FDX and PDF scripts. If you have a file that didn’t work right in an earlier version, delete it and reload it. There’s a good chance it’ll work.1

Finally, Weekend Read now properly hides Fountain notes [[in brackets like this]].

We have a lot more in the works for Weekend Read, but we didn’t want to hold back these small-but-useful improvements.

logoIf you’re looking for something great to read this weekend, we have six episodes of Party Down available as our Featured Show, along with an introduction by showrunner John Enbom. Trivia: The Valhalla catering company, introduced in the gay wedding episode at the end of season one, was inspired by the ridiculously good-looking cater-waiters at my wedding.

  1. To keep things snappy, Weekend Read does the bulk of its processing magic as it’s first importing the script. When we change out the parsing engine, it doesn’t retroactively go back and try to reinterpret file already in your library.

Highland 1.7: faster, leaner, smarter

highland iconHighland, our award-winning screenwriting app for the Mac, has a major update available in the Mac App Store.

While Highland looks largely the same on the surface, we’ve rebuilt quite a bit under the hood and added features for screenwriters who want to use Highland for all their daily writing.

Highland 1.7 — already updated to 1.7.1 — offers:

Better pagination, particularly with dialogue. Unlike a certain company, we don’t regard our pagination as the One True Way. But our pagination is now pretty damn great. I turned in a script last week written entirely in Highland. Without any tweaking, the pages flowed exactly how I wanted. No split sentences, no orphaned transitions.

Markers to help you find your way in long documents. I’ll often find myself scrolling back to look at something earlier in the script, then losing my place. So now I hit Control-M to leave a marker [[%]]. You can hop between markers with Control-Option-M. (If you’re used to markers from timeline-based apps for music or video, you’ll probably find this particularly natural.)

Improved stability and file-handling. Highland is much smarter (and less aggressive) about auto-saves, which were a leading cause of crashes. The version in the Mac App Store today (1.7.1) addresses launch issues some users were having with our revised code base.

Search via integrated Find bar. Faster, and one less window to close. If you have’t tried Find Again (⌘G), give it a shot. It’s always ready to search for the last thing you looked for.

Better syntax highlighting. By making it really clear what prints and what doesn’t, you can focus on your words, not the syntax.

Much faster PDF parsing. Highland 1.7 is better at both melting and building PDFs.

We update Highland frequently, but 1.7 is a significant upgrade in actual functionality.

When people used to ask if someone could write a script in Highland, my answer was generally, “Well, you could. But that not really what it’s for.”

Now it is. Highland 1.7 is the first version I’ve used to write an entire script from outline to delivered draft, and I loved it. Highland is fast and lean and distraction-free.

So if you haven’t checked it out lately — or only use it as a converter — give it another look as a daily writing app.