Matthew Miner

Automate Character Highlighting with Highland

Highland, the program I use for screenwriting, has a useful feature to highlight a character’s dialogue.

Return to Black Creek highlighted script

Recently I cohosted a reading of Return to Black Creek, a comedy slasher I penned with my writing partner Stephen T. Holmes. To help the actors find their lines, we sent each a personalized PDF of the script with their character highlighted.

Saving a custom script by hand for all 15 of our actors would be tedious. Especially with the last-minute tweaks I can’t resist. Highland lacks a built-in way to automate this, but fortunately the .highland file format is easy to work with.

Highland uses the TextBundle format. I was unfamiliar with it before, but it’s used by several popular apps like Bear and Ulysses. Basically it’s a few text files in a ZIP container.1 The one we care about is characterHighlighting.json. It’s a dictionary of character names with their highlight colour in hex format.


To highlight a character programmatically, we need to unzip the file, change characterHighlighting.json, and zip it back up. In Python this looks like this:

import json
import os
import tempfile
from zipfile import ZipFile

file_path = "Return to Black Creek.highland"
character_highlighting = {"OLD MAN WILKINS": "D1E3F4"}

# We write the updated script to a temporary file then replace the original later.
temp_fd, temp_path = tempfile.mkstemp()

with ZipFile(file_path, "r") as in_zip, ZipFile(temp_path, "w") as out_zip:
    character_highlighting_path = os.path.join(

    # Copy items from the original zip file to the temporary one.
    # But skip characterHighlighting.json.
    for item in in_zip.infolist():
        if item.filename == character_highlighting_path:

        content =
        out_zip.writestr(item, content)

    # Now write characterHighlighting.json.
    character_highlighting_json = json.dumps(character_highlighting)
    out_zip.writestr(character_highlighting_path, character_highlighting_json)

# Overwrite the original file with the temporary one we created.
os.rename(temp_path, file_path)

To export the result to a PDF I used Keyboard Maestro to click through Highland’s menu items.

Keyboard Maestro export to PDF macro

You can probably use AppleScript to achieve the same result. I just don’t have patience for AppleScript’s arcane syntax.

If you need to automate character highlighting in your own Highland script, I uploaded a more robust version of the above code to GitHub. To run it, download hlhl and run ./hlhl /path/to/screenplay.highland in the terminal.

usage: hlhl [-h] [--clear-others] [--color COLOR] FILE CHARACTER

Highlights a character in a Highland screenplay.

positional arguments:
  FILE            Highland file
  CHARACTER       character to highlight

optional arguments:
  -h, --help      show this help message and exit
  --clear-others  remove other highlights
  --color COLOR   hex color value (default: D1E3F4)

  1. When digging into the .highland file I discovered that BBEdit can edit text files inside ZIP archives as easily as any other file. It’s a neat trick.