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How to Write a Stage Play

Updated on September 9, 2015
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Colin's novels, story collections and stage plays are available as eBooks and paperbacks.

British playwright Willy Russell
British playwright Willy Russell | Source

If you want to write for the theatre (like Alan Bennett, Willy Russell and Liz Lochhead), you'll find it's very different to writing novels or short stories, since it involves mostly dialogue. This can be quite a scary concept, as the writer cannot escape the fact of having to write down everything every character says. There are no long passages of narrative to lose yourself in, no scene-setting or set descriptions to mull over and while it's true that most playwrights include stage directions, these should be used sparingly, so won't add much to your final word count.

Back in the days when I was running my own theatre company (WACtheatre in Aberdeen, Scotland), we regularly hosted playwriting competitions and were the recipients of a large number of unsolicited scripts. Some of these scripts were well-crafted, beautifully written and sensibly formatted, but the majority were shoddy, badly-written and confusing in their layout.

Guidelines for the Masses

So what should a play script look like, and how should it be formatted? Below I've set out my own ideas about these and other difficulties which I hope will give you a starting point. Much of what follows is based on the guidelines I wrote at the time and that were sent out to writers in the hope that they would:

A) read them

and

B) take notice of them

Needless to say, there are always going to be writers who think that guidelines only apply to other people. This is not so. If you intend sending out your prized script to theatre companies, it's worth taking time to find out what is acceptable to them and what is not (most theatre companies have some form of guidelines and to ignore these is to commit your work to the dustbin).

If you are sending your work out, bear in mind that, if your script is of interest, lots of people might end up reading it, and this can include theatre producers, actors, directors and stage managers. These lovely people do not want to have to puzzle over who is saying what to who, and where on the stage an actor is sitting, standing or paragliding while they are saying it. Therefore the script must be clear, consistent and legible. There should be no doubt about which bits are dialogue, which are stage directions and so on.

While there are no specific industry standard templates for theatre scripts, there is anexpectation in professional theatre of how a script should look, therefore:

Here are some do’s and don’t’s:

Source

Stage Directions

Do keep stage directions separate from directions for actors, and put them in bold or italics, not CAPITALS.

Stage directions can tell us when an actor sits, moves or hits someone.

Example:

The door opens and Gerry runs across the stage and leaps majestically through the window.

If you want to get technical and use the correct terminology that’s fine, though it’s absolutely okay to leave that sort of thing for the stage managers. Correct terminology includes: DSR (Down stage right) USL (Up stage left) etc.

Playwright Samuel Beckett
Playwright Samuel Beckett | Source

Directions for Actors

Do keep directions for actors to a minimum and only use them when it is important for the actor. Remember – actors and directors want to explore how the play will be performed, rather than simply following a list of instructions from the writer (admittedly, the likes of Samuel Beckett was incredibly precise in his stage directions and would often not allow actors to veer from them at all. However, he was also incredibly successful, whereas the rest of us, generally, aren't).

Directions for actors can tell us how a line should be said when it isn’t obvious from the dialogue.

Example:

HAROLD (Sarcastically) I love you so much.

Do put such directions in brackets/italics, so it is clear they’re not part of the dialogue.

Don’t be tempted to use directions for actors to tell us what the character is thinking. Again, it should be obvious from the dialogue.

Source

"Speech Marks"

Don’t use them. Ever.

Character Names

Do write character names out in full - provided they aren’t incredibly long. SIR SIDNEY SPIDER OF ARACHNOPHOBIA SQUARE for instance, might simply be know as: SIDNEY.

Don’t have characters with similar sounding names: Joan, John, Joe etc.

Headers and Footers

Do use headers and footers to identify your script. You should include:

The name of the play

Page numbers

Your name

The year of composition

Other information such as contact details can be inculded on the title page.

White Space

Don’t double space everything. It is enough to have a single space between each bit of dialogue.

Example:

BURKE

(To the audience) Helen McDougal, occasional companion to my good self, and I dare say anyone else that'll give her the price of a pint pot.

HELEN

Huh. And that from a man who can't fasten his own britches.

HARE

Excuse me, missus. Your husband and I are currently engaged upon a matter of entertainment. (Pause) Just get us a drink, will you?

Master of the 'Pinter Pause', Harold Pinter
Master of the 'Pinter Pause', Harold Pinter | Source

Pauses

Most budding playwrights will know about the so-called 'Pinter Pause' named after its creator the British writer Harold Pinter, but whether you include actual pauses in your script (as in the above example) is one of those decisions you'll have to make on your own. As a director, I often found it useful, particularly when working with actors who were apt to rush through their speeches, without allowing the audience time to take in what they were hearing.

Spelling and Grammar

Do check spellinge and don’t rely solely on yur spell chech – it won’t pick up typos.

Grammatically correct does not always mean good - if your characters speak in a way that defies grammar rules, it's probably fine, so long as the dialogue works.

Script Layout

Here are a few additional instructions that WACtheatre used during playwriting competitions. It is an example of the sort of thing you might expect when submitting a script to any theatre company and, as I've said, if you ignore them you might find your script will not be read:


When Submitting a Script, please ensure that it:

  • is type-written on A4 paper
  • is securely bound (unless submitted electronically)
  • is printed in an easily readable font – Arial, Times New Roman or similar, in a point size of either 11 or 12 and that pages are numbered
  • includes a title page stating your name, address and phone/email details
  • includes a list of characters

Acknowledgment of receipt of scripts will be via email. If you do not have access to email or would prefer postal acknowledgement, please include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with your script.

WAC is a small company. We read everything we are sent, but it takes time. Writers who hassle us may find their script goes to the bottom of the pile. However, if you have not heard from us within two months, then it’s fine to drop us a gentle reminder.

Scripts will not be returned, so please remember to keep a copy.

So What About Layout?

Here are a couple of examples from my own plays that show the two main layouts I used. I forget exactly why I changed styles but I'm sure there was a good reason for it!

Programme cover for Colin Garrow's play The Body in the Bag
Programme cover for Colin Garrow's play The Body in the Bag | Source

Script Example 1

BURKE

It was a cold winter's night…

HARE

And the snow was falling thick and fast…

Pause.

And the snow was falling thick and fast.

Maggie and Helen can be heard o/s making a poor attempt at singing Christians Awake.

BURKE

And in the sky the stars a-flickered…

HARE

You what?

BURKE

The stars a-flickered…

HARE

What sort of talk is that?

BURKE

Get them in the mood.

HARE

And in Tanner's Close, a dark secluded street, a light shone brightly from a lowly room(To Burke) Is that alright for you?

BURKE

Lovely.

HARE

From a lowly room, where a landlord, that's me, his wife, and two acquaintances...

BURKE

Me and Helen ...

HARE

Gathered round the table for a seasonal drink...

Promgramme cover for Colin Garrow's play Love Song in Sixteen Bars
Promgramme cover for Colin Garrow's play Love Song in Sixteen Bars | Source

Script Example 2

SHONA Tell me something about yourself.

PETE You already know everything.

SHONA Yes, Pete, I already know, but they don’t.

PETE Oh, right. Well…not much to say, really.

SHONA You could talk about your job.

PETE Video shop. Yeah. I work in a video shop. I like films.

SHONA So…?

PETE So it’s good that I work in a video shop.

SHONA And you’re a big fan of Fellini?

PETE Fellini? Oh. Yeah.

SHONA You did say you were a big fan...

PETE Aye, I did.

SHONA Well…?

PETE I’m not, really.

SHONA Why did you say you were?

PETE Just making conversation, wasn’t I? I was nervous. Meeting a smart young woman, wanted to make an impression. Preferably a good one. And I wasn’t exactly lying. There’d been this guy in the shop that lunchtime. Total Fellini nut, he was. It was kind of in my head. I suppose. Thought it might make me sound cultured.

SHONA Look Pete, this isn’t a bit like I remember, and more to the point, it isn’t anything like I wrote in my notes.

PETE You were taking notes? About our date?

SHONA I said I was going to.

PETE I thought you were joking.

SHONA No. Why would I joke?

PETE How should I know? I mean, Christ, who takes notes when they’re out on a date?

Scott Ironside, Suzy Enoch and Martin Bearne in Colin Garrow's The Body in the Bag
Scott Ironside, Suzy Enoch and Martin Bearne in Colin Garrow's The Body in the Bag | Source

The above excerpts are from my plays The Body in the Bag and Love Song in Sixteen Bars. (Both plays were performed at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen). These examples show two slightly different layouts. In the second one, you'll notice the absence of stage directions, though there were some in the finished script.

They also demonstrate where directions for actors can be useful, like here, where it's necessary for HARE to know who his second comment is directed at:

HARE
And in Tanner's Close, a dark secluded street, a light shone brightly from a lowly room(To Burke) Is that alright for you?

Then there's the use of a 'Pause' while Burke and Hare are waiting for the women to begin singing:

HARE

And the snow was falling thick and fast…

Pause.

And the snow was falling thick and fast.

Part of the reason for this is that this play was performed as if it were The Burke and Hare Show, so both characters were playing themselves and were also part of a kind of double-act. It was important therefore that they were aware of the audience and some scenes were written specifically so they could share information with the audience that had a bearing on the plot.

And So the Curtain Rises...

Writing plays is probably not the easiest way to attain worldwide acclaim, but seeing your work performed to a real audience is wonderfully satisfying, so if the world of Alan Aykbourn, Liz Lochhead, Sam Shepard and Billy Shakespeare appeals to you, why not give it a go?

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    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks for reading, William, I appreciate your feedback.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Both useful and interesting! Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks for that, Torri, glad you enjoyed it.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 2 years ago

      this was really great work that you have here. I found it interesting and informative. best of wishes.

    • FatBoyThin profile image
      Author

      Colin Garrow 2 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      Thanks Nell, I hope you get round to writing another one someday - it's a lot of fun and gives you another string to your writerly bow. Thanks for reading.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

      Hi, that was fascinating, and brought back memories. many years ago I wrote a stage play, never got anywhere with it really, only a local church hall but it was fun! this is great for future reference if I ever have the nerve to try again, nell