How to Format A Stage Play

You know what a play is, and you've probably seen published versions before, but for the purposes of writing it looks a little different. Some of the formatting of your play is done as you write. Setting up your master file with your tabs and margins makes this much easier. You can use formatting software, but it's certainly not necessary; even the most basic word processing program can handle these specs.

Script formatting is standardized to aid those who will be considering it for production or publication. Generally a page of a play means a minute to a minute-and-a-half of production. Scanning the page quickly for the density of dialogue and directions makes estimating this easy. The standardized placement of the character names makes it easy for the actors, and the spare layout makes it simple to keep notes on the page as they go along.

Plays are made up of two things: dialogue and stage directions, and they both have different formats on the page.

STAGE DIRECTIONS

There are three different kinds of stage directions:

1.) Scene Directions

  • Left 3.5"

  • Right 1"

These start the play or act, and yes, they are pushed halfway over to the right side of the page. This is where you give the basics of where and when this particular scene is set, and what is happening as the lights come up and perhaps what has happened between the scenes as it applies to what is on the stage at that time.

EXAMPLE:

stageformat_scene_direction

2.) Staging Directions

  • Left 2.0"

  • Right 1.0"

These describe what happens on stage during the scene. Entrances, exits, major movements of characters, new characters, fights, light changes and being chased by a bear are all examples of action that would require stage direction.

EXAMPLE:

stageformat_staging_directions

Note that the stage directions are single spaced when within a single character's dialogue, but a blank line is left when between character passages.

3.) Character Stage Directions

  • Left 3.0"

  • Right 1.0"

These are always brief and fit right under the character tag, relating to that character. These types of directions give a clue to the style of the line. Often they are line directions such as "waving him off" or "sing-song" or "whispering to ROBERT". These should be used sparingly, as they are regarded as directorial. They are needed only when a reader wouldn't understand what was going on without them.

EXAMPLE:

stageformat_character_directions

A few things to remember:

  • Every time you mention a character in the stage directions their name should be in ALL CAPS. This makes it easier for the actors, director, and team to scan the page and find what the actors are doing.

  • Stage directions are always enclosed in parenthesis.
  • Stage directions show only what is taking place on stage (what the audience can hear or see), they do not tell the interior life or previous life of people or objects.

DIALOGUE

Character Tags:
Character tags are indented at about 4". You can center them, but most writers find it easier to set a single tab for the Character Tag.

Use all capital letters to identify the character speaking. You can use their full name or a shorter version (such as a first name or last name), as long as it's unique within your draft.

EXAMPLE:
stageformat_character_tags

If the character's line goes over a page break, use (cont'd) at the bottom of the page after the last of their dialogue and then put a new character tag at the top of the new page with (cont'd) after it on the same line. You don’t need to put these in until you're done with your draft and know where the page breaks are. Some scriptwriting software will do this for you when you print, or you can leave it out altogether until you're ready to go into rehearsal.

As for the content of the dialogue itself, it's pure prose. Write in a style that's easily spoken. Because it's conversational, you'll be breaking plenty of grammar and punctuation rules. You might even want to turn off your word processor's grammar checker for the month of April.

LINE SPACING:
For the most part, stage plays are single spaced. Additional blank lines are left between character's dialogue and stage directions.

The Global Settings:
Margins

  • Top: 1.0"

  • Bottom 1.0 - 1.5"
  • Left 1.5 (scripts are 3 hole punched so leave more room on the left)
    Right 1.0"

You can add these elements once you're done with your script:

Headers
Upper right corner – start on the first page of dialogue – use a roman numeral for the act and then the page number. Start numbering over with each act. Each act is number consecutively through the end of the act: i.e. I-1, I-2, etc. If your play has only one act, then don't worry about it.

Footers
Place the name of the play in the lower left of the footer. You can put your name there too – just keep it all on one line. Some playwriting competitions like to read plays without any info about the playwright appearing on the pages, so be sure to check submission guidelines before printing it out.

ACTS & SCENES

Acts and scene breaks – Plays are often broken into acts, which are large chunks of the play often containing multiple scenes. A full length play can have 1 to 5 acts. Act breaks are dictated by plot. Scene breaks are usually dictated by production (change of location, time elapses, etc.).

Act and scene designations should only appear at the top, centered in ALL CAPS on the first page of each act or scene.

Acts are usually designated with Roman numerals or spelled out: Act II, Act Three

Arabic numeral designations are used for scenes: Scene one., Scene 2

Each Scene should start on a new page. Acts often have page dividers.

Some other notes:

You do not need to use all caps for character names when used in dialogue by the other characters, only in the stage directions and character tags.

If a character is interrupted, it's common to use a dash to represent where they were cut off. If a character trails off in their dialogue, an ellipsis follows the last intelligible bit of their dialogue.

If a character is only heard and not seen, either V.O. for Voice Over or O.S. for Off Stage is used in parenthesis after the character tag on the same line.

If a character is singing, as in a musical, just put the lyrics of the song as dialogue in italics. You can keep the line breaks (as in poetry) for the lyrics.

To denote a break in the action, most writers use either "Pause" or "A beat" or "Silence". They're used sparingly, as the actors and directors will likely figure out where these go on their own, but it can be a clue to the reader that something changed in that moment. They can appear as either Staging Directions or Character Stage Directions.

For times when characters may be speaking simultaneously, you can either stack the dialogue on top of each other or create two columns to show that they are speaking over each other. If they are saying the same thing at the same time, it's appropriate to have them share the Character Tag line.

PUTTING THE SCRIPT TOGETHER

Once you've completed your draft you'll need some other pages to go with it.

The index of pages for a play go like this:

1. Cover Page (just the title, your name and at the bottom right, your name & contact info unless otherwise requested when you submit).

2. Characters - a list of all the parts in the script, whether they have lines or not if they are integral to the action.

Start with the word CHARACTERS centered, about 2" down from the top (if you have a very long list, start at 1" from the top).

Under that list, the characters in ALL CAPS, followed by a colon or dash and then a brief description. Some are very brief, giving only the relationship between the characters and perhaps their age. It would go something like this:

            CHARACTERS

DANIEL WORKMAN: late forties, missing his right leg below the knee.

NATASCHA WORKMAN: Daniel's daughter. 14, also missing her right leg below the knee.

MRS. BERRY: Daniel's housekeeper. Late fifties. Has a large tattoo of a rainbow across her forehead.

MR. BERRY: The butcher, married to MRS. BERRY. Early sixties. Bald.

Formatting varies on this page. If the cast is large, you can suggest casting suggestions for multiple roles if you have ideas. Some people put more information on this page with full descriptions of their appearance, relationships to the other characters and disposition, but it's certainly not necessary. Most people will only refer to this list for a breakdown of the roles, not as a glossary of characters.

3. Setting Page

This page starts with the SETTING centered and below that a brief paragraph. This is an overarching description of the setting of the play that includes a bit about the style as well as the physical space depicted.

TIME will follow that, again centered with a brief paragraph that explains the period when the play is set and how much time elapses.

Here's an example:

            SETTING

A compact and narrow rowhouse in St. Louis, Missouri. Beautifully maintained antiques are mixed with modern art and a few toddler's toys scattered around.

            TIME

Summer. The present. Two days before and after Independence Day.

4. Some writers also include a SYNOPSIS OF SCENES or SCENE BREAKDOWN page. This simply lists the scenes, where they are set and the time as it relates to the passage of time in the script. This is only for reference or convenience, not really necessary.

            SYNOPSIS OF SCENES

ACT 1
Scene 1 ...............Daniel's Study.............Late at Night - July 2nd
Scene 2 ...............Kitchen....................The next morning
Scene 3 ...............Front Porch ...............That evening

ACT 2
Scene 1 ...............Daniel's Study.............Noon - July 3rd
Scene 2 ...............Front Porch................Noon - July 4th
Scene 3 ...............Front Porch ...............That evening

(You can set this up with tabs or in a table, whatever makes the layout most pleasing and readable.)

The beginning pages are not numbered, the numbering for a script starts on the first page of the actual action.

Here's a MS Word document template that uses Styles to format each of the elements (character tags, dialogue, stage directions, etc.).

MS Word Stage Play Format courtesy of Abigail-Nicole. Once you open the file you can display the styles by going to the format menu and selecting Styles to access the menu on the right side of the screen as you go along.