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How to Format A Play

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A bright red flower laying between two pages of a Shakespeare play.

A bright red flower laying between two pages of a Shakespeare play.

Its a little complicated...

The thing about playwriting, is there isn't that much of a heavy standard. Unlike, say, screenwriting, unpublished plays often look quite different from playwright to playwright. For example, if you look on the National New Play Network's New Play Exchange and look through various scripts, rarely do any two really match up.

That doesn't mean there aren't any rules

Just because there are lots of different options for how a script can be formatted, that doesn't mean that there isn't a general look and feel you should apply to your work. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. If you are submitting this script anywhere, the script reader needs that consistency. If a quick glance shows that the script isn't well formatted, then that can unfortunately come off poorly for the rest of your work.
  2. Scripts that are hard to read are also scripts that are hard to perform. Actors are people too! And if just reading the script gives them a headache, they might prefer to steer clear. Even if it is just for a zoom reading in your playwriting class.

So, let's try it out.

First off, let's just look at our sample in plain text. Some writers prefer to do their earliest drafts in a format of their own choosing. This can be a good idea if you're just trying to jot down your first draft as quickly as possible. However, it can cause headaches later down the road when it comes to reformatting it.

Here's our dialogue and description:

An empty warehouse. Robert enters and spots Jane with a stolen diamond. Robert: Hey! What’s the deal! Jane: (hiding the diamond behind her back) Oh, Nothing...

Now what do we have here? We have a location. The warehouse. We have an initial action, Robert entering the warehouse. We have dialogue and we have an action within a piece of dialogue, Jane hiding the diamond behind her back.

Identifying what it is you're formatting is very important, because while variations between writers can exist, variations in formatting within the script sure shouldn't!

Now that you know what you're looking at, it is finally time to jump into the wonderful world of formatting.

There are really two options.

First off, you'll need to put your dialogue in a format like this:

how-to-format-a-play

This won't be your final formatting by any sense of the word but it will allow you to move onto the next step. You can also change the font, usually Times New Roman or Courier are used.

Now, with this you can decide one of two paths. Many pieces of scriptwriting software, like CELTX or WriterDuet have an option for play formatting. So you can simply paste your script into one of the two. Here's what our mini scene looks like in WriterDuet:

The dialogue in a WriterDuet document.

The dialogue in a WriterDuet document.

There are cons to this method though. These programs might not work on your intended device, and they have a little bit of a learning curve. Another flaw is that many of them are trial based, or have a limit on the number of scripts you can have on your account at any given time.

Formatting on Google Docs

While by no means an industry standard, if you're a student, or someone who likes to write scripts on their phone, or if you simply don't have the money for scriptwriting software, Google Docs can still be used to format scripts in a way that looks professional.

  • First, let's right orient that initial descriptions.
The description is now right oriented.

The description is now right oriented.

  • Now we need to separate the location from the initial action. These are separate pieces of instruction to anyone looking at the script, and therefore they shouldn't be lumped together. We'll left orient the location and capitalize it, and then we'll italicize the action to show that its not just a static description.
how-to-format-a-play
  • Now that we have that, it is time to apply the rules of consistency. If the initial action is italicized, then any other actions should be italicized too. As well, we want actions to look separate from dialogue.
how-to-format-a-play

Well there we have it, a general guide for formatting your scripts.

In Conclusion...

There are a lot more specificities for certain attributes in a script, whether it be dialogue that intercepts or more complicated things like lyrics. But don't despair. The best way to figure out how to format your work is not to hope that you find tutorials online about formatting your work. Instead, you should read more scripts! By applying other's formatting choices to your own work, and learning from the one's that don't work, you can make a pretty, easy to read script, that is professional and fun!

© 2021 Cat Eff

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