Even after thoroughly explaining proper playwriting format in my past classes at the University of Southern California (in the Master of Professional Writing Program) and at East West Players (in the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute), I was still handed work by students that simply didn't look right. The reason for this was because students had a difficult time straying from the format they were used to; i.e., they, like most us, were typically only familiar with play scripts published in book form. So, they had been exposed to the improper formatting in these books over and over again since grade school, and it was hard to shake. (Well, at least until I bloodied their scripts with scary red marks all over the place.)
Why do published plays get it "wrong?" In order to keep business costs down, publishers aim to use as little paper as possible. To help facilitate this, they eschew standard playwriting format in order to cram as much onto a page as they can. So, the fancy published plays we see at the bookstore and the acting editions we find in theater shops should not be used as examples for when we're sitting down to write a play, full-length or one-act or otherwise.
The scripts that get sent to theaters, competitions, and agents and that are used in the rehearsal room of productions of new plays follow a standard format. (Note: Productions of older or more-established work mostly make use of published plays. So, actors used to being in these shows would also only be used to the improper playwriting format in books.)
The formatting rules that I'm providing here should serve as a general guideline. There's some flexibility in how things are done, and some variations from playwright to playwright are acceptable. The important things are to be consistent in whatever it is you choose to do and to make your script as easy to read as possible.
I've typed up the following play-formatting document, "How to Format a Play," for your reference. This one-page document covers margins, font, stage directions, character names, dialogue, when to capitalize, and when to italicize. Click to enlarge and view:
You can even use the Word document as a template by typing directly onto it. People are surprised to discover that all my plays are written using Microsoft Word and not with software like Final Draft—they don't realize that if you use Word all you need to do is set one tab. One. That's it. And if you like the ease of character names being instantly inserted (like in Final Draft), you can create macros. (However, I myself don't use macros. One, because I'm too much a creature of habit to do so. And two, actually having to type out a character's name makes me consider their dialogue more carefully before I write it down.)
If you insist on using Final Draft, that's totally fine because there's a stageplay option when you're creating a new document. Just click the "File" tab, choose "New From Stationery," and select the "Stageplay" option. The default font is Times New Roman, and the default size is a perfect 12 points. If you want to change Times to Courier, there are instructions right on the template.
And for the record, I do like Final Draft. I own the software and use it for writing screenplays, which are more unwieldy when it comes to formatting. Again, for me, with plays, it's the habit thing.
Feel free to pass this info along to anyone and everyone, so I can single-handedly be responsible for setting the industry standard! Again!
A quick note about musicals. Capitalize all the lyrics. This will help readers separate the songs out from the rest of the script.
Let me know if any of the links are not working or if you have any questions or if there's anything I ought to include in a future update. You can contact me by writing a comment below.
Now go write your play. And do what I'm telling you! Or else!
[For more writing tips, check out my other posts about writing here. Just scroll down once you land on that page.]
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