Explaining the Primary Storyline in Apple Final Cut Pro

Probably no feature in Final Cut Pro X confounded more people on its first release than the Primary Storyline. Editors either tolerated it, or really, really hated it. It didn’t get a lot of love.

Now, however, editors have discovered that it helps them edit faster – provided they understand how it works.

Recently, I was on a Zoom call helping Tommy get his Final Cut project organized and I realized that he had created a timeline where the Primary Storyline worked against him. So, I thought this would be a good time to review the basics of what the Primary Storyline is and how it works.


The Primary Storyline is the horizontal, dark-gray bar in the middle of the Final Cut timeline. (It is also called the “Magnetic storyline.”) It was specifically designed to prevent gaps in an edit, resulting in distracting flashes of black, by “magnetically” attracting the edges of adjoining clips so that they touch.

NOTE: Final Cut Pro 7 was notorious for allowing tiny gaps in the timeline, resulting in distracting flashes of black.


There are three big benefits to using the Primary Storyline.

  1. It prevents accidentally leaving gaps – flashes of black – in the timeline
  2. It prevents accidentally erasing media by dragging one clip on top of another
  3. It simplifies adding B-roll and audio while keeping all clips in sync

By definition, the Primary Storyline places the first clip at the very beginning of the timeline. It then places all following clips such that the In of the in-coming clip touches the Out of the out-going clip. By default, the Primary Storyline does not allow gaps between any clips placed in it.

The second benefit is that if you drag a clip from either the Browser or Timeline on top of another Timeline clip, the first clip does not erase parts of the second. Instead, the clips in the Timeline spread apart so you can insert the new clip at an already existing edit point.

The third benefit to the Primary Storyline is that it prevents clips from getting out of sync through the use of “connections.”

(Air show footage courtesy: Hallmark Broadcast Ltd. www.hallmarkbroadcast.tv)

B-roll clips are placed on layers (Apple emphatically does not call these “tracks”) above the Primary Storyline, and connected to it using thin lines. These clips are called “connected clips.”

NOTE: In the initial version of Final Cut Pro X, audio could be placed above or below the video in the Primary Storyline. For traditional editors like me, this just totally blew minds. Recent versions of FCP, starting around 10.3 I think, now only allow audio to be placed below the Primary Storyline. (My poor blown brain appreciated this change.)

The benefit to these connections is that if you move a Primary Storyline clip, all clips attached to it move with it. For example, imagine an interview clip with two B-roll clips and a sound effect all connected to it. If you move the interview segment, all the clips connected to it move too. This made it much easier to move clips around without re-spotting audio or re-connecting B-roll. Everything stayed in sync.

In other words, the Primary Storyline allows you to connect clips once, then move them without losing sync as you continue refining your edit.


The Primary Storyline has a very specific role to play in an edit. It is where you place the key media for your project. Here are some examples.

If you are creating an interview, put your main interview footage (sync sound) in the Primary Storyline. Then, B-roll goes above it.

If you are creating a music video, put the main soundtrack in the Primary Storyline. This prevents it from moving as you add video B-roll above it.

NOTE: I also generally put markers in the audio clip to indicate where I want to change shots, so that edits fall cleanly on the beat.

(Dramatic footage courtesy: John Putch “Route 30, Too!” www.route30trilogy.com)

If you are editing a feature film, put clips with sync sound in the Primary Storyline. B-roll and audio elements will then connect to it.

(Drone footage courtesy: Terry Holland, Northeast Drone Video www.NorthEastDroneVideo.com)

While you can put a full-screen title in the Primary Storyline, it is often easier to edit a black slug, Apple calls slugs “gaps,” into the Timeline. You can insert one using Edit > Insert Generator > Gap (or type Option + W).


Apple invented a new cursor with FCP: The skimmer (see red arrow above). This device allows you to quickly review clips by dragging the skimmer across clips in the Browser or Timeline. This is a very handy tool for reviewing media.

However, it drives me nuts for editing! I MUCH!! prefer the precision of the playhead.

You can toggle skimming on and off by typing S. You are welcome to love the skimmer – but I turn it off every time the cursor enters the timeline area of the interface.

If the skimmer is enabled, it has priority for placing clips. If the skimmer is off, the playhead determines clip placement. It the playhead line is white, the skimmer is active. If the playhead line is orange, the playhead is active.

NOTE: The Timeline also supports snapping. This is most useful for connected clips and moving the playhead because, when enabled (shortcut: N), clips snap together and the playhead snaps precisely to edit points.


While the Primary Storyline has significant advantages – I’m now a big fan of it – there are times when you need to work around its magnetic aspect. Here are several tricks you can use.

The Position tool turns off the magnetic protections provided by the Primary Storyline. When the Position tool is selected (shortcut: P):

Double-clicking the audio portion of a synced clip expands the clip to make it easier to edit, trim and adjust audio clips, without losing sync.

By default, connections between connected clips are placed at the very beginning of a clip. However, that may connect the clip to the wrong media in the Primary Storyline. To move a connection, press Option + Cmd and click the connected clip where you want the connection repositioned.


Just like Photoshop, clips on higher layers are in the foreground, while clips on lower layers move to the background.

You can adjust the look of the timeline using this menu on the top right side of the Timeline. Drag the different controls and watch what happens. This only affects the Timeline display, it doesn’t alter your edit.


Shortcut What It Does
E This edits the selected Browser clip(s) to the end of the last clip in the Primary Storyline.
W This insert edits the selected Browser clip(s) to the position of the skimmer or playhead.
D This overwrite edits the selected Browser clip(s) at the position of the skimmer or playhead.
Q This places the selected clip(s) at the position of the skimmer or playhead but on a higher layer. Using Q will never delete or trim any existing connected clips.
P Toggles the Position tool on or off
Double-click audio This separates the audio track from video, but without losing sync.
Option + W Inserts a gap at position of playhead
Option + V Paste a clip as a connected clip
Option + Cmd + Down arrow Overwrite connected clip into Primary Storyline
Option + Cmd + Up arrow Lift Primary Storyline clip up to connected clip
S Toggles skimming on or off
N Toggles snapping on or off
Cmd + T Add the default transition (normally a dissolve) to the selected edit point(s).
Shift + Z Scales the entire timeline to fit into the window.
Cmd + [plus] / [Minus] Scales the timeline larger or smaller and centered on the playhead.



The Primary Storyline is an innovative way of editing and organizing clips in the Final Cut Pro Timeline and, in most cases, it helps you edit faster. The key is to understand how it works and the tools you have to work around it when necessary.

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2 Responses to Explaining the Primary Storyline in Apple Final Cut Pro

  1. Chris North says:

    Thanks Larry, Very useful – I must use more of these shortcuts ! Too many to memorise but I can now make my own list of the ones I am likely to use most.

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