THE PLAYWRITING SEMINARS > FORMAT >
Available Now: PLAYWRITING SEMINARS 2.0
The revised and expanded paperback and e-book edition.
Here's the full Table of Contents and ordering info for the new edition.
-- Terrence McNally
It may seem like the maximum in un-creativity, but using standard professional format is important. How that first draft is put on paper is nobody’s business but your own – pencil in a notebook, magic marker on a role of butcher paper – whatever works is all that matters. But once you’re ready to submit a play to regional theatres, directors, literary managers, and competitions, using professional format is essential.
Many playwrights do nearly all their writing using the standard format because it provides a quick way to estimate the running time of the script in performance. This timing device also provides alerts for when to start thinking seriously about the curtain line for Act I and the obligatory scene in Act II. Most importantly, it's literally the first impression literary managers and their readers will have of the script and your professionalism. Using the format sends a signal that you know what you're doing.
Writing a play in format can be annoying or just exasperating and distracting even if it's easy to do once you sort it out. For more than a few playwrights it can keep being just as annoying when they are on their 10th play.
But the alternatives are not great.
1. Hire a secretary to do it. The playwrights who do this usually make enough from their plays that they never miss the money it takes. And if you don't live in New York, Los Angeles, or London, it won’t be easy finding someone who combines flying fingers on the keyboard with knowing how to do script format.
2. Get screenwriting software. It’s much cheaper than a secretary. The leading screenwriting programs also provide the format for stage plays. If you're thinking of writing for film or television as well, this is the only way to go. (See Chapter 72 on Screenwriting Software in the new edition.)
If you’re new to playwriting, try formatting the old-fashioned way first and save the investment in technology for when you're ready to make a real commitment to the form. Even then, most contemporary playwrights who don't also write regularly for film or television – that's hardly anyone nowadays – don't bother with software for putting their scripts in format. That’s a measure of how easy it is to do with a word processing program.
What is presented in the Handbook is “traditional” format. For those who have been writing for a decade or more, the “modern” format is nearly identical to the traditional one, with two exceptions:
1. General stage directions: (but not Character s.d.'s) are typed without parentheses and now begin at the center of the page, going to the right margin, the way the Opening s.d. always did.
2. Times New Roman is the font of choice: instead of the old Courier. (Courier remains the font of choice for screenplays.)
There is no firm rule on being modern or traditional. Use whichever format feels most comfortable, but use one or the other in terms of #1 above. Don’t mix and match the handling of stage directions.
A number of theatre pros (including Tony Kushner) prefer the traditional format – perhaps because the theatre has never been a fan of change.
Nearly all published plays in book form use a format that has little relationship to the standard script format used in the theatre. The most noticeable differences in publishing format are placing character names at the far left margin and italicizing stage directions. The Handbook uses publishing format for its scene examples. Publishing format uses less space (and thus less paper) and is a compatible style for e-books, but it’s not as easy for performers and directors to use in rehearsals. That’s why new scripts use the format described in the following chapters.