Formatting and Stage Directions

In the last writing group we touched briefly on formatting and writing stage directions.

Here’s a few thoughts on formatting scripts for theatre.

Firstly theatre formats are not as strict as screenwriting, in screenwriting there isn’t an option – if you can afford it you should have Final Draft, if money is an issue then a free formatting tool like Celtx should be used. That’s it. End of conversation. You can find great advice on format for TV and film over at Lucy Hay’s Bang2Write site

For theatre formats there is not a strict set of rules. Pick up a random selection of plays and you’ll find each varies, slightly admittedly but still enough to leave you confused. Even more confusingly there are some quite substantial differences between US and UK theatre script formatting. Then even more confusingly if you ask someone what the rules are they are likely to tell you that it doesn’t really matter as long as it loooks vaguely right and adheres to a few rules of distinguishing between dialogue and stage directions then it’s all fine with them.

But the thing is I don’t think that it is really true. If you format your script too far away from an established format then a scriptreader or literary manager or director is going to think two things (1) this is a new writer and (2) this person doesn’t read plays. Both of those things are bad. Well arguably you could get away with (1) but only if you’re a genius and to be brutally honest that’s not very likely.

Now the point of sending your script to readers and literary managers and directors is that you want them to like your script, you want them to like your writing so anything that makes them pre-judge your script even before they’ve read a single word ot it is best avoided.

Another thing best to avoid is giving them a headache or eye strain so stick with the standard fonts. Times New Roman, Arial and the classic of screenwriting – Courier new. The reason these are standards is because they are easy to read on the page. So stick with them.

  • So the basic rules that  can be taken from reading a few scripts are
  • your character names should be on the left margin
  • some writers have character names in bold
  • some writers have character names capitalised
  • dialogue should either be on the same line as the character name or under it and indented with all the dialogue lined up
  • stage directions should either in italics or in bold

All scripts should be double-spaced.

In terms of writing stage directions this is extremely variable, some writers don’t have any, some writers have specific stage directions and also some writers choose a heightened or poetic style for stage directions. In the end this comes down to you as a writer, you need to find the style of writing stage directions that suits you but remember you are the writer – you are not a director, you are not an actor. Stage directions are not about giving instructions to either the director, actor or stage designer.

You want the script to flow to allow the reader to embrace your idea, don’t jar them with detailed instructions of sets or movement. Set the scene, set up the idea, show your style.

I picked a few plays at random to emphasise these rules, so try to take a look at these and look at the formatting and the style of stage directions.

Duncan MacMillan – Lungs
Sarah Ruhl – Deadman’s Cellphone
Abi Morgan – Lovesong
Richard Bean – One Man Two Guvnors
Ian Rowlands – Desire Lines
Simon Stephens – Pornography
David Mamet – GlenGary Ross
Jack Thorne – Bunny
Kaite O’Reilly – Peeling
Bryony Lavery – Beautiful Burnout
Alan Ayckbourn – House and Garden
Dennis Kelly – Taking Care of Baby
Jez Butterworth – Jerusalem

Beautiful Burnout and Lovesong are both Frantic Assembly productions and as such as written to be very physical pieces. It’s interesting to see the difference in the style this demands of stage directions.

Finally I’ll leave you with the stage direction from Dead Man’s Cellphone which I mentioned as being an incredibly poetic and stunningly beautiful stage direction. Definitely one that sits in the – let the director worry about that one category, however what it does is perfectly establish a tone within the scene.

“The phone rings.
They kiss.
Embossed stationery moves through the air slowly,
like a snow parade,
Lanterns made of embossed paper,
houses made of embossed paper,
light falling on paper,

As a final note we have had a few conversations about whether it’s okay to use screenwriting formats created by software like Final Draft. Again ask some literary managers and they will say they’re okay with it however remember that some don’t like it. It’s also worth considering that writing for different formats demands different types of writing, sometimes it’s hard to get into the right frame of mind to write theatre after you’ve been writing a TV play and sometimes it’s difficult to think screen if you’ve been writing radio. One way of instantly transporting your brain into the different writing frame is to move to a different format. If you’re writing in a film format as you work on a stage play then you are likely to find yourself writing stage directions that are more suitable to film so shake your brain to right place by switching format.

I’ve recently read three scripts by Abi Morgan – Hours, Lovesong and Shame. Yes, the style of Abi Morgan is there in each of them but also there is a transformation of her style to suit the medium within the framework of the format.

So take a look at the plays above, ensure the basic rules are there but then most importantly find the format and style of stage direction that suits you and feels right for you.

Sharing

The February session of the Writing for Performance Group was an exciting one, the first time that people shared work for Town with No Traffic Wardens with three people sharing pieces for the collaborative showcase that will take place in April. In addition 2 other people shared work with the group.

In total three of the people sharing work were sharing for the very first time with the group and sharing the first things they had ever written with theatre in mind.

Sharing work for the very first time is painful, terrifying, vomit inducing and exciting. Sharing work for the second, third, thousandth time – exactly the same. It never gets easier to present work that you’ve slaved over, that you treasure, that you believe in – to see how people react. The only thing that gets you through is knowing that you’re in a safe, supportive environment and that the end of it you will have carefully thought through comments and suggestions from people whose opinions you trust that care as much as you do about making the work the best it can possibly be.

Giving feedback is something that needs as much practice as taking feedback. An inexperienced writer can often only listen to the negative, someone inexperienced on giving feedback can often only focus on irrelevant details or aspects of a piece.

I personally prefer people being completely honest about my work, but it’s important to remember that everyone is different and the most important thing about the Writing for Performance Group is that everyone should feel safe to share work even at very early stages of drafting.

With all that in mind it was great to see those three writers take those first tentative steps into the scary world of feedback, to look into their frightened and bewildered eyes and see them embrace their fears. I watched them as the characters they had written came to life in the room in front of us. I watched as they delighted in hearing their words spoken. I watched as they embraced the pain, the terror, the excitement and the fear of vomit. I watched as they delighted in the world of writing for performance.