I Hope Screenplay Markdown Kills the Page Paradigm

· Joanthan Poritsky

In his post, Screenplay Markdown, Stu Maschwitz articulated what has been knocking about in my own mind for some time.

The putzing-free fluidity with which I edit Markdown documents across devices has made me even more grumpy about the sorry state of mobile screenwriting.

His first post, his follow-up and his “Syntax Proposal” are great reads.1 I’ve never seen someone so eloquently explain a use for Markdown in plain English. Maschwitz is about as forward-thinking as they come when it comes to film technology. Given the astounding number of comments his proposal has received, you can tell he has struck a nerve. He certainly has with me.

From the proposal:

Screenplay Markdown, or SPMD, is a proposal for a simple markup syntax that would allow early drafts of screenplays to be edited in plain, human-readable text. SPMD allows you to work on your screenplay anywhere, on any computer, using any software that edits text files.

By keeping the file as plain text, it becomes eminently mobile, able to be opened on virtually any device with a screen, be it a smartphone, tablet or computer, without any loss in quality. That would be a very cool thing.

The truth is that screenplay formatting itself hasn’t aged well. It has one saving grace, that each page represents approximately one minute of screen time, but even that shouldn’t mean all that much to a screenwriter. That’s the stuff of “the biz,” the kinds of things a producer should worry about, not a writer. Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network weighs in at over 160 pages, yet the completed film’s length is two hours. Do you think he was looking in the corner of his copy of Final Draft, sweating his page count?

When I was in high school, my introduction to screenwriting came from the book Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, a great entrée for a budding mind. Alas, we all grow up and, well, our elders sound like windbags:

The staggering majority of quality scripts land Act One, the situation, either side of [page] 17….The audience doesn’t want to wait to, say, page 30 to find out what they’re watching.

Then to math:

Three into seventeen is almost six. Approximately six scenes at an average of three pages each for Act One.

He’s not wrong. Lew Hunter is teaching a craft, preparing people with a marketable skill like one would prepare a plumber or a mechanic. No one can start to think out of the box unless they understand that it exists. Conventions are important, but they are not everything. What Hunter’s and others’ equally shrewd systems have done is make pagination gospel, make it part of of the process. And so screenwriting applications rely on the page paradigm, constantly reminding you where you are in your progress. The creative process is more interesting than that.

The problem with screenwriting books, courses and professors (especially professors) is that they all tend to produce similar results, which is to say utterly similar films. This is a gross generalization, but we’ve all seen tons of films, piles and piles of them, that feel workshopped to death and far too reliant these kinds of conventions. You can’t look for where your page 17 is if your working on pages that don’t have numbers. Which means to leap to Screenplay Markdown, writers will have to leave behind the concept of a “page.” Thank fucking goodness.

  1. I’m not going to reiterate his points so give them a read now or you’ll probably be lost. ↩︎