Charming Python #6

Curses programming in Python: Tips for Beginners

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Pooh-bah of pablum, Gnosis Software, Inc.
July 2000

Sometimes you want a full-blown GUI interface in your Python program. And other times a strictly command-line interface is the most appropriate usage. But still another class of Python programs would be well served by by having an interactive user-interface without the overhead or requirements of a graphical environment. For interactive text mode programs (under Linux/Unix), the ncurses library, and Python's standard curses module as a wrapper for it, are just what you need for your program. This article discusses the use of curses in Python, and uses example source code in the form of a front-end to the Txt2Html program developed throughout this column.

What Is Python? What Is Curses?

Python is a freely available, very-high-level, interpreted language developed by Guido van Rossum. It combines a clear syntax with powerful (but optional) object-oriented semantics. Python is available for almost every computer platform you might find yourself working on, and has strong portability between platforms.

curses (usually ncurses in practice) is a library whose routines give a programmer a terminal-independent method of controlling character screens. curses is a standard part of most Unix-like systems, including Linux; ports are available for Windows and other systems as well. curses programs will run on text-only systems, as well as within xterm's and other windowed console sessions, which provides a very broad coverage for these applications.


The interface features available in Python's standard curses module are limited to the features available in essentially every type of "glass teletype" (the archaism here indicates the 1970s origins of curses). There a number of ways to bring greater sophistication to interactive text-mode programs written in Python; and these fall into two categories. On the one hand, Python modules exist to provide support for the full-feature set of ncurses (which is a superset of curses) or slang (which is a similar but independent console library). Most notably, using one of these enhanced libraries by way of an appropriate Python module wrapper, adds color support to your application. On the other hand, a number of high-level widget libraries exist that are built on top curses (or ncurses / slang) that add features like buttons, menus, scroll-bars, and various common interface devices. Programmers who have worked with (or even just seen applications developed in) libraries such as Borland's TurboWindows (for DOS) will be familiar with how many of these features can look very attractive in text-mode consoles. There is nothing in the widget libraries that you could not do yourself with just curses, but some other programmers have put some thought into how to wrap up high-level interfaces. See the Resources section for links to the modules mentioned.

In this article, we'll be limiting ourselves to the features of curses itself. Since the curses module is part of the standard distribution, you can expect it to be available without requiring users to download support libraries or other Python modules (at least on *nix systems). Also, it is useful to have an understanding of the base support provided by curses even as a building-block for use of modules built on top of it. Even with curses alone, it is quite easy to build attractive and useful text-mode applications in Python. One footnote to notice is that pre-release notes suggest that Python 2.0 will include an enhanced version of curses, but this should be backward-compatible in any case.

The Application

As a test application for this article, the author will discuss a wrapper he has written for the Txt2Html program introduced in "Charming Python #3", whose techniques were discussed further in subsequent columns. Txt2Html works in several ways, but for purposes of this article, we are interested in Txt2Html as a command-line format conversion program. One way to operate Txt2Html is to feed it a bunch of command-line arguments indicating various aspects of the conversion to be performed, and let the application run as a batch process. For occassional usage, it might be friendlier for users to be presented with an interactive selection screen that leads users through conversion options, and provides visual feedback of options selected, before performing the actual conversion.

The application curses_txt2html is structured in terms of a familiar topbar menu with drop-downs and nested submenus. All of the menuing functions were done "from scratch" on top of curses. As a result, these menus lack some of the features of more sophisticated curses wrapper programs, but the basic functionality can be implemented in a moderate number of lines using only curses. In addition, a simple scrolling help box is implemented, and several user-input fields. The below are screenshots of the application that show the general layout and style.

Screenshot of

Larger console screenshot

Wrapping A curses Application

The basic concept of curses programming is defining window objects. A window is a region of the actual physical screen that can perform positional input and output (using coordinates relative to the window), can be moved around, and can be created and deleted independently of other windows. Within a window object, the cursor is the position at which input or output actions take place; the cursor is usually set explicitly by input and output methods, but it can also be modified independently.

One consequence of initializing curses is that stream-oriented console input and output is modified or disabled in various ways. This is basically the whole point of using curses; but one effect of disabling streaming console interaction is that Python traceback events are not displayed in a normal manner in the case of program errors. Andrew Kuchling provided a good top-level framework for setting up curses programs in his tutorial (see Resources). Using this template (basically the same as Kuchling's) allows you to maintain the error-reporting capabilities of normal command-line Python:

Top level setup code for Python [curses] program

import curses, traceback
if __name__=='__main__':
      # Initialize curses
      # Turn off echoing of keys, and enter cbreak mode,
      # where no buffering is performed on keyboard input

      # In keypad mode, escape sequences for special keys
      # (like the cursor keys) will be interpreted and
      # a special value like curses.KEY_LEFT will be returned
      main(stdscr)                    # Enter the main loop
      # Set everything back to normal
      curses.endwin()                 # Terminate curses
      # In event of error, restore terminal to sane state.
      traceback.print_exc()           # Print the exception

Within the try block we perform a few initialization calls, then call the main() function to perform the actual application functionality, then finally perform a bit of final cleanup. Just in case something went wrong in the above steps, the except block restores the console to its default state, and reports the exceptions encountered.

Our Main Event Loop

Let us take a look now at what our specific curses_txt2html application does by looking at its main() function. main() function and event loop

def main(stdscr):
    # Frame the interface area at fixed VT100 size
    global screen
    screen = stdscr.subwin(23, 79, 0, 0)
    screen.hline(2, 1, curses.ACS_HLINE, 77)

    # Define the topbar menus
    file_menu = ("File", "file_func()")
    proxy_menu = ("Proxy Mode", "proxy_func()")
    doit_menu = ("Do It!", "doit_func()")
    help_menu = ("Help", "help_func()")
    exit_menu = ("Exit", "EXIT")
    # Add the topbar menus to screen object
    topbar_menu((file_menu, proxy_menu, doit_menu,
                 help_menu, exit_menu))

    # Enter the topbar menu loop
    while topbar_key_handler():

Our main() function does a few things. It is easy to think of this function in terms of the three sections seperated by blank lines.

The first section performs some general setup of our application's appearance. In order to establish some predictable spacing relations between application elements, we decided to limit our interactive area to an 80x25 VT100/PC screen size (even if an actual terminal window is larger). We draw a visual box around this sub-window, and use a horizontal line for visual offset of the topbar menus.

The second section establishes the particular menus used by our applications. The function topbar_menu() performs a little bit of magic in binding hotkeys to application actions, and displaying menus with the desired visual attributes. Check out the source archive provided for the full code to this. topbar_menu() should be pretty generic to whatever menus you might want to use, and you are welcome to incorporate it into your own applications. The main thing to know is just that once the hotkeys are bound, they eval() whatever string is contained in the second element of the tuple associated with a menu. For example, activating the "File" menu in the above setup will wind up calling eval("file_func()"). Therefore, the application is required to define a function called file_func(), and this function is also required to return a boolean value indicating whether an application end-state has been reached.

The third section--with just two lines--is where the whole application actually runs. The function topbar_key_handler() does pretty much what its name suggests. It waits for keystrokes, then handles them. The key handler might return a boolean false value, and if it does that ends the application. In our application, the key handler consists of a check for the keys that were bound by the second section; but even if your curses application does not bind keys in the same manner, you will still want to use an event loop similar to the above. The key thing is that your handler will probably use a line like,

c = screen.getch()   # read a keypress

within its key hander. Our draw_dict() function is the only thing directly within the event loop. In our case, this function draws some values in a few locations in the screen window; but in any application you will probably want to include a line like,

screen.refresh()   # redraw the screen w/ any new output

inside your drawing/refresh function (or just inside the event loop itself).

Getting User Input

Probably the main thing a curses application needs to do is get input (keypress) events from the user. That is how the application is used, after all. We have already seen the .getch() method, so let us look at an example that combines .getch() with the other input method .getstr(). Below is an abbreviated version of the file_func() function we have mentioned (it is activated by the "File" menu): file_func() function

def file_func():
  s = curses.newwin(5,10,2,1)
  s.addstr(1,2, "I", hotkey_attr)
  s.addstr(1,3, "nput", menu_attr)
  s.addstr(2,2, "O", hotkey_attr)
  s.addstr(2,3, "utput", menu_attr)
  s.addstr(3,2, "T", hotkey_attr)
  s.addstr(3,3, "ype", menu_attr)
  s.addstr(1,2, "", hotkey_attr)
  c = s.getch()
  if c in (ord('I'), ord('i'), curses.KEY_ENTER, 10):
      screen.addstr(5,33, " "*43, curses.A_UNDERLINE)
      cfg_dict['source'] = screen.getstr(5,33)
  return CONTINUE

This function combines several curses features. The first thing it does is create another window object. This new window object is the actual drop-down menu for the "File" topbar menu. Therefore, we also decide to draw a frame around the window with the .box() method. Within the window s we draw several menu options corresponding to the options in the drop-down menu. A slightly laborious method is used because we want to have the hotkey for each option highlighted to contrast with the rest of the option description (take a look at topbar_menu() in the full source for a somewhat more automated handling of the highlights. The final .addstr() call is used to place the cursor on top of the default menu action. As with the main screen, we call s.refresh() to actually display the elements we have drawn to the window object.

Once we have drawn our drop-down menu, we want to read in a users selection. This is done with the simple s.getch() call. In our demonstration application, menus only respond to hotkeys, not to arrow-key selection and movable highlight bars. These more sophisticated menuing functions could be built by capturing additional key actions, and setting up event loops within drop-down menus. But the example suffices to get the idea.

Next we need to compare the read in keystroke against various hotkey values. In the above case, a drop-down menu option can be activated by an upper or lower case version of its hotkey, and the default option can be activated with the ENTER key. The curses special key constants do not seem to be entirely reliable, and this author found that adding the actual ASCII value "10" was necessary to trap the ENTER key. Notice that if you wish to perform a comparison to a character value, you want to wrap the character's string in the ord() built-in Python function.

Assuming the "Input" option is selected, we get to the use of the .getstr() method. This method provides field entry with crude entry editing capability (you can use the backspace key). Entry is terminated by the ENTER key. Whatever value is entered is returned by the method, and will generally be assigned to a variable, as in the above example. A little trick the author used to help visually distinguish the entry field was to pre-underline the area where the field entry would occur. Doing this is not necessary by any means, but it adds a little visual flair. The underline is performed by the line:

screen.addstr(5,33, " "*43, curses.A_UNDERLINE)

Of course, you will also want to remove the field entry emphasis, which happens to be done within the draw_dict() refresh function in our application, with the line:

screen.addstr(5,33, " "*43, curses.A_NORMAL)


The techniques outlined here--and especially those additional ones used in the full application source code should get you started with curses programming. Play with it a bit, it is not hard to work with. One nice thing is that the curses library may be accessed by many languages other than Python also, so what you learn using Python's curses module is mostly transferrable elsewhere.

If the base curses module starts to have more limitations than you wish, the Resources section provides links to a number of modules that add on to the capabilities of curses, and provide a nice gentle path for growth.


Andrew Kuchling has written a nice introductory tutorial on curses programming, titled Curses Programming With Python. Parts of this article are inpired by Kuchling's examples, although this article covers somewhat different (mostly higher level) elements of curses programming:

The best general starting place for information on text-based UI tool in Python is:

Python ncurses is an enhanced module to support a larger range of ncurses functionality than Python 1.5.2 curses does. Preliminary plans are to have ncurses replace curses in Python 2.0. ncurses can be found at:

Tinter is a module of high-level widgets built on top of curses. Tinter supports buttons, text boxes, dialog boxes, progress bars, etc:

An under-publicized--and somewhat hard to track down--alternative to ncurses and various wrappers is the combination of slang and newt with the python wrapper module snack. slang does roughly what curses does, and newt does roughly what Tinter does. One place to find these modules, and supporting libraries is:

For some examples of snack, take a look at:

pcrt is a module for direct ANSI escape-code screen access. This allows writing to specific locations on screen, and with specific colors and attributes. It is a low-level interace (even more so than curses) and will only work on consoles that support ANSI escape-codes (which is most of them). But it is a nice way to add some splash to your text-mode applications:

dialog is a Python wrapper around the Linux dialog utility. The utility (and its Python wrapper) lets you create yes/no, menu, input, message, text, info checklist and radiolist dialogs. It is really possible to do a lot very quickly using this utility and module, if the platform restriction is not a problem (the target Linux distribution will need to have dialog, of course):

Files used and mentioned in this article:

About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz believes that God gave use the keyboard and the TTY while all other interface devices are mere human artifice. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.