1. Computer Skills

How to Write a Screenplay in Plain Text with Fountain

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Read Time: 7 min

You were walking around the block, when suddenly you had an idea brighter than the day. “This would make an awesome movie,” you tell yourself. You share the idea with your friends and they encourage you to write a screenplay and turn into a Hollywood superstar. You dive into screenwriting and learn how complicated telling a story can be, as the demands become so obnoxious you feel as if you’re writing a scientific paper.

Specific margins for every element, all text in 12-point Courier, and more rules you’re likely forgetting. You realize formatting your screenplay is taking the time you should be writing. So you download a screenwriting app that’s both expensive and complex, and now you’re losing time learning to use it and adapting your workflow.

There’s a better way: Fountain, a syntax to write a screenplay from any text editor.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Fountain is to screenwriting what Markdown is to HTML. Markdown offers an easy-to-write, easy-to-read syntax for plain text formatting that can easily be converted into proper HTML. It’s far simpler to write in than HTML, but gives you the same results. Fountain, in the same way, lets you write a screenplay in plain text, meaning you can open it in your favorite text editor on any device.

Using Fountain, you’re not limited by application or OS, you don’t have to worry about price tags or missing features. You can take your screenplay with you and write whenever an idea pops into your head. Fountain frees you from the tools and lets you do what you should be doing in the first place: writing.

The Basic Elements in a Screenplay

If you know what a MacGuffin is, there’s a good chance you can skip this chapter. For everyone else, here’s a quick introduction to the core of a screenplay, which is mainly built upon 3 elements: scene headings, actions and dialogue—the latter always after a character name.

Scene headings or sluglines define the beginning of a new scene and imply where and when it happens. They often begin by specifying if the scene takes place indoors (INT.), outdoors (EXT.) or both (EXT./INT. or INT./EXT.), then define its location and the time, which may span from DAY and NIGHT to indicators related to other scenes, such as LATER and CONTINUOUS, or more specific moments of the day, as in DAWN or DUSK. Scene headings are written in all caps and have the following structure:

Scene from Big Fish by John AugustScene from Big Fish by John AugustScene from Big Fish by John August
Each scene define an unique combination of time and location in the sequence of your script.

Then, there’s actions. If this were a screenplay, then this paragraph would be an action, which describes what happens on a scene. You’re recommended to write a screenplay as it would be filmed, without indicating camera movements unless essential to the story.

Last, there’s the all-important dialogue. Dialogue has at least 2 elements and is the indented block you see in the previous example, where the Character Name is in all caps and declares who’s saying the dialogue. Although not used widely, you can describe pauses, moods, and actions amid dialogue, wrapping it in parenthesis between the character name and the dialogue. You should also indicate when a character is off screen (O.S.) or if the dialogue is a voice over (V.O.), like JOHN (V.O.).

Tip: The action element between the character name and the dialogue wrapped in parenthesis is called a parenthetical, while the indicators right next to the character name, such as (V.O.) and (O.S.), while also bracketed with parenthesis, are extensions.

Theres a lot of white spacing in screenwriting Dont write text blocksTheres a lot of white spacing in screenwriting Dont write text blocksTheres a lot of white spacing in screenwriting Dont write text blocks
It is not recommended for your actions to exceed five lines. Split them in blocks.

We’ll look at other elements through this article, such as transitions and secondary sluglines, but that’s enough to get started. Now that you’re set, time has come to write your screenplay using Fountain. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Diving into Fountain

To write a screenplay using the Fountain syntax, all you’ll need to do is open a new plain text file, and start writing. Open your favorite plain text editor (or just open Notepad on a Windows PC or TextEdit on a Mac), and you’re ready to write.

In Fountain, every line starting with EXT, INT, EST (for establishing shot) or even I/E (shorthand for INT/EXT) is identified as a scene header. I recommend that you stick with uppercase characters for readability, but Fountain will also grab lowercase scene headings.

fountain examplefountain examplefountain example
Compare this example with the previous excerpts and spot the differences.

Actions are really just words, written as a regular paragraph. If you want to emphasize part of your text, Fountain is like Markdown. You can set text as italics by wrapping it in asterisks, bold with double asterisks, and underlined it by bracketing with underscores.

In Fountain, you don’t have to worry about indentation, margins, and all that jazz, so you set a section as dialogue by writing the character name in uppercase characters, followed by the extension (V.O., O.S.) if any. Whatever comes next is dialogue, but you can also include a parenthetical to describe an action the character is performing while talking.

Editors have to eat so dont use transitions unless necessaryEditors have to eat so dont use transitions unless necessaryEditors have to eat so dont use transitions unless necessary
No one enjoys being told what to do and editors are no exception. Use transitions wisely.

This covers the basic elements we learned previously, so let me introduce you to transitions, or pointers on how one scene moves to the next. There are many transitions, including the most common: DISSOLVE, FADE and MATCH CUT. Transitions are aligned to the right and Fountain will consider any uppercase text in a single line ending with TO: as a transition. That said, avoid using them unless they’re essential to tell the story; otherwise your reader will frown upon your script.

Advanced Tricks

As in any plain text syntax, you may occasionally run into trouble. What if you’re writing the next Die Hard and Fountain counts McCLANE as an action? Fountain allows you to force elements to behave in a certain way by prepending them with symbols. Use an at sign (@) to force a character name, a period (.) for a scene heading, greater than (>) for transitions and an exclamation mark (!) for actions.

TIP: When using asterisks and underscores, you may need to escape them to avoid styling your text. Just add a backslash (/) before them, like in Markdown.

You’ll force elements to create secondary sluglines, which narrows the location predefined by the scene heading. For example, in a scene where McClane wanders in his house, you’d set the main location to McClane’s house and specify each room he walks through as a secondary slugline.

Forcing elements is perfect for moving within a single locationForcing elements is perfect for moving within a single locationForcing elements is perfect for moving within a single location
Secondary sluglines help you keep the pace of your story moving forward. Ideal for action sequences.

What if you have two characters talking simultaneously? That’s a resource we call Dual Dialogue, and you can set it on Fountain by writing as normal the dialogue you want on the left, followed by adding the second dialogue, to be placed on the right, but adding a caret (^) to the last symbol of the latter’s character name.

If youre feeling like Woody Allen or Robert AltmanIf youre feeling like Woody Allen or Robert AltmanIf youre feeling like Woody Allen or Robert Altman
If you're feeling like Robert Altman or Quentin Tarantino, go for it.

Fountain includes a couple more tricks, such as page breaks, lyrics, centered text, and the title page. Also, the plain text syntax allows you to create notes, remove whole scenes from the output and organize your screenplay with sections and synopses. We won’t cover these here since we know you’re keen to write your screenplay, but you can find the entire syntax on the official website.

Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

You’ve got the idea and you’ve got the syntax, all you need now is to sit down and type until your fingers blister. As aforementioned, you can write Fountain in any text editor, but converting it into an almighty screenplay requires a tool. I recommend Slugline and Highland on the Mac, Writing Kit on iOS, Fade In for Windows, and WriterDuet for collaborative writing. There are great free options and you can check the full list of apps supporting Fountain here.

I suggest you try using Fountain for experience, as it has helped me write screenplays as long as I had a text editor around. Whether you’re writing the next Die Hard (please, don’t) or a no-budget film to shoot with friends, Fountain is flexible enough to please professionals and amateurs. For once, writing a screenplay won’t break the bank, since the tools you need to write a screenplay in Fountain are free, and, after all, not all the finest things in the world are written with an empty stomach.

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