by Michael Bedford
Published at 2022-02-02
Writing a good play is hard work but by learning a few tricks in Microsoft Word, playwrights can make the process of formatting scripts easier. Like book publishers, publishers of plays don’t all agree on formatting specifics, but by following the guidelines below you’ll be able to submit a polished script that will show your prospective publisher that, if nothing else, you’re serious about the quality of your submission.
Start by opening a blank document. Although Word has several useful templates on offer, they’re more suited to presentations and résumés than scriptwriting. Once you’ve opened a blank document, start with your script’s title page. Publishers generally prefer that title pages for play-scripts be relatively simple, so in central justification write the title of your play in all caps 3.5” below the top 1” margin. Two lines below your title, switch back to normal capitalization and write the word “by,” then two lines below that write your name. You can include contact information, minus your name of course, in the lower right-hand corner of the page. Writing on the title page should be in a 12-point font of your choice, such as Times New Roman.
The Cast of Characters page comes next, which features a list of the characters in your play, along with short descriptions of each. On this page, you may also choose to identify the primary setting of your play, how long your play runs, and the length and timing of the intermission. After this page, the body of the script will start so the margins will have to be modified slightly.
The top, bottom, and right margins should all stay at 1” but change the left margin to 1.5”. If your play has more than one act, you’ll need to include “Act I” underlined and in all caps with Roman numerals, e.g. I, II, III, at the top of this page in central justification. Two lines below, write “Scene 1” underlined in all caps. Or, if you’re submitting a one-act play, simply substitute “Act I” with “Scene 1,” similarly underlined and in all caps at the top of the page. Note, however, that Arabic, rather than Roman, numerals, e.g. 1, 2, 3, are preferred for scene designations.
For the most part, play-scripts consist of character names, stage directions, and dialogue. To help make it easier for directors, actors, and other production staff to find characters’ lines, entrances, exits, and stage directions in a script, characters’ names are written in all caps except when they’re referred to in the dialogue of the play.
Since formatting a play-script requires working with both central and left justifications, memorizing the “Center Text” keyboard shortcut will save you time. This shortcut center justifies your cursor or centers the whole paragraph your cursor is currently in. If you’re using a PC, press and hold the “Ctrl” key while also pressing “E.” If you’re using a Mac, substitute the “Ctrl” key with the “Command” key.
Most publishers prefer that stage directions be in italics so, just like the “Center Text” shortcut, press and hold the “Ctrl” or “Command” key, if you’re using a PC or a Mac, respectively, and then press the “I” key. Both the “Center Text” and “Italics” keyboard shortcuts work to toggle the settings on or off, so switching back and forth is quick and easy.
If you’re submitting your script to an American publisher, like Samuel French, characters’ names should appear in central justification when writing dialogue. In the UK, some publishers prefer a left justification for character names. In both cases, though, dialogue begins on the line directly below the character’s name starting at the left margin. Stage directions generally appear one “tab” in from the left margin and should be in italics. Short stage directions may be written as part of a section of dialogue; if so, these should be in parentheses, e.g. (winking).
To illustrate, the example below shows how all the elements described above work together to make a play script.
By using the format I’ve used in the example below, you’ll be able to submit your play for consideration to most North American publishers. So, if you’ve got an idea for a play, start writing and polish the formatting as you go. If your script is legible and follows the basic guidelines I’ve provided, publishers will be far more concerned with the quality of your idea than the spacing of your margins.
THIS LITTLE SCRIPT O’ MINE
Cast of Characters
MICHAEL, a homeowner in his late 30s
JIMMY, a housecat
MORT, an overworked delivery agent
This play runs for approximately 90 minutes and is generally performed with an intermission after Act II.
MICHAEL works diligently at his laptop while JIMMY naps on a chair.
Jimmy, I’ve noticed you don’t do much during the day.
(waking up) I’m a cat; do you want me to get a job?!
We all have our parts to play, Jimmy. Like me, I’m writing this post for The Editing Company–
Suddenly, the front doors fly open, and an agitated delivery agent, MORT, bursts in. He is holding a small parcel.
(nervously) Sorry for not knocking! This is a time-sensitive parcel!! Sign here!
Pulls out electronic package scanner and stylus.
I’ll sign for it. We’ve been expecting a package.
Thanks! I’ve got 500 other deliveries to make still.
Why not let me do some of those deliveries for you? I’ve been wanting to earn a little extra spending money.
I should say no but I need a break. Here are the keys to the van. Be back by 5! Oh, and watch out for dogs!
JIMMY takes the keys from MORT and does a double-take.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.
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