NCURSES Terminal Text Editor Tutorial Part 1

01 Feb 2015

Tags: tutorial c++ ncurses editor


I am using vim right now, and a few days ago, I thought to myself:

If they can make a terminal text editor, why can’t I try?

So I set out to create a small TE that is just a proof-of-concept. I am here to share my findings with the Internet. You may find the complete source code (with all of the small-to-big bugs) here. You may find this tutorial’s source code here.

We are going to make a small text editor with basic saving, editing, and exiting features. You may expand it however you like.


This tutorial assumes adequate fluency in the C++ language, and a bit of understanding of the ncurses library.

So Let’s Start, Shall We?

Let’s start with how the text editor is structured.

We are just going to have a while-loop accepting keyboard input and then updating the screen accordingly.

Keeping that in mind, lets start with the most important file: Main.cpp

#include <ncurses.h>
#include <string>

using namespace std;

void curses_init()
    initscr();                      // Start ncurses mode
    noecho();                       // Don't echo keystrokes
    cbreak();                       // Disable line buffering
    keypad(stdscr, true);           // Enable special keys to be recorded

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
    string fn = "";
    if(argc > 1)
        fn = argv[1];               // Set the filename

    curses_init();                  // Initialize ncurses

    refresh();                      // Refresh display
    endwin();                       // End ncurses mode
    return 0;

To compile, do:

g++ -c Main.c -o Main.o
g++ Main.o -lncurses -o editor

Or just put it in a Makefile.

We are going to add other things to this file later so don’t lose it.

The Buffer Class

The Buffer class is going to represent a buffer of text. I’m going to use a vector of strings. It provides easy methods to insert, append, as well as delete lines. One string is a line of text. Create Buffer.h.

#ifndef BUFFER_H
#define BUFFER_H

#include <string>
#include <vector>

using namespace std;

class Buffer

    vector<string> lines;

    /* Some helper functions */
    void insertLine(string, int);
    void appendLine(string);
    void removeLine(int);

    /* Substitutes all tabs in string for 4 spaces, so that
     * the tabs won't screw everything up */
    string remTabs(string);


The Editor Class

I don’t like to put too many things in my Main.cpp file, so I put everything in other files. Create your Editor.h. It will be used to handle the keyboard inputs that we send it. It is also there to refresh the display. It will also contain a buffer.

#ifndef EDITOR_H
#define EDITOR_H

#include <ncurses.h>

#include "Buffer.h"

class Editor
    int x, y;
    char mode;
    Buffer* buff;
    string status, filename;

    /* For those of you who do not have -std=c++11 in g++ */
    string tos(int);

    // Cursor movement
    void moveUp();
    void moveDown();
    void moveLeft();
    void moveRight();

    void deleteLine();                  // Deletes current line
    void deleteLine(int);               // Deletes line <int>

    void saveFile();                    // Saves buffer into the file

    Editor();                           // Normal constructor
    Editor(string);                     // Constructor accepting filename

    char getMode() {return mode;}

    void handleInput(int);              // Handles keyboard input
    void printBuff();
    void printStatusLine();             // Prints the status line (like vim!!!)
    void updateStatus();                // Updates the status line (text, not display)


The int x, y; is just for the x and y positions on screen. The string status will be displayed at the bottom (or that is our goal).

Putting Things Together

Now, after all this prototyping, and even though we haven’t implemented anything (much), lets edit our Main.cpp to reflect the changes.

First, include the necessary header file.

#include "Editor.h"

Then, add this to the start of your main function.

Editor ed;

Remember the if-statements that we use to check for a filename?

if(argc > 1)
    fn = string(argv[1]);
    ed = Editor(fn);
    ed = Editor();

We will later implement the constructors. For now, that will do.

Now lets add the main while-loop. After curses_init(), add this.

while(ed.getMode() != 'x')
    int input = getch();                // Blocking until input

A small explanation: Editor::getMode() returns a char representing a mode. There are (currently) 3 modes.

Exit mode exits the program by quitting the while loop. Normal mode lets you enter commands. Insert mode lets you type text and interact with the editor’s internal buffer.

Okay, we are done the basic skeleton of the TE! Over the course of the other tutorials, you will be filling in the gaps - implementing every function that was declared here. You are now ready for Part 2!