Writing a Stage Play
The road where dreams are made.
Aside from campfire tales and cave paintings the stage play is perhaps the oldest form of storytelling. Writing a stage play is a specialised craft but it offers unique creative opportunities.
In this article we’ll look at:
Acts, scenes and intermissions
Laying out your script
Writing a one-act play
Acts, scenes and intermissions
Plays are broken down into acts, and an act ends when the curtain comes down. A short play might consist of a single act, longer ones might have five or more.
Acts are themselves divided into scenes. An act might comprise one scene or several, but all will use the same scenery. For example, you might have an act containing three separate scenes, each using the set of a drawing room. Like this:
Act I, Scene I: Laura and Chad are in the drawing room discussing their wedding plans. Laura leaves.
Act I, Scene II: Chad picks up a phone and makes travel arrangements to Shanghai. Chad leaves.
Act I, Scene III: Detective Jones and Laura’s father enter the drawing room. The detective has come to ask questions about the death of Chad’s first wife.
At the end of the third scene the act ends, the curtain goes down and the stagehands change the drawing room scenery for something else.
The end of an act is a logical place to put an intermission — a significant break that allows the audience to leave their seats. As a rule an audience should get a twenty minute intermission after every 45 to 60 minutes of stage time. For example, a traditional play comprises around 90 minutes of performance divided into two or three acts broken by a single intermission. Ideally the intermission should occur half-way through the play so if the intermission is after the first act, the combined lengths of acts two and three should equal that of the first.
Many playwrights use the intermission as an opportunity to introduce a time-break. Let’s say your play is about a football team. Act I ends as the team goes out on the field. We have the intermission and when the audience is back in their seats Act II starts with the team returning to the locker room. Here the time-break has been used to include a match in the story without having to see one.
How to format a stage play
Most stage plays are laid out using the following format:
As you can see the format is quite simple with character names written against the left-hand margin and their dialogue continuing on the same line. Stage directions are in italics to differentiate them from dialogue. Also note terms such as stage-left and stage-right to indicate which direction characters enter and exit from. All other directions should be kept to a minimum.
Because there’s no strict format for a theatre script it’s harder to say how many minutes are taken up by each page. The best way to judge length is to time yourself while reading it aloud. Don’t worry about length too much, a television script has to fit into a specific time-slot (though streaming services like Netflix are more flexible) and a movie script should traditionally keep between 90 and 120 pages but within reason a stage play can be as long as it needs to be. See Tips on writing a one-act play below for more on timing.
As with screenplays the best way of learning about theatre scripts is to read them. Any library or large bookshops will have a collection and some scripts are available on online. PlayScripts has a large selection (you have to pay for complete scripts, but free samples are available) and Project Gutenberg has many famous plays filed under ‘Drama’.
Tips on writing a stage play
It’s best to get into the action quickly with a strong dramatic hook. A slow start won’t have your audience rushing out after five minutes — but don’t let them get fidgety. The audience will expect the core issue behind the story to be revealed (or at least strongly hinted at) early on. If it isn’t, they might get confused and wonder if they’ve missed something. For example, going back to our earlier ‘Laura and Chad’ example we’d want to clearly establish early on that Jim is a bad egg, or at least that he appears to be.
Will they get it in the back row?
It can be tough writing for a live audience. Television dramatists and screenwriters can rely on the camera being able to get up-close and reveal every raised eyebrow, whispered comment and secret smile, but this won’t work in a theatre. It’s no use having one of your characters wink knowingly at someone on stage because only the people in the first row are going to see it. When writing dialogue and directions ask yourself if the audience in the back row will be able to understand what’s going on.
Establishing background and situation is also much harder. Let’s say your Act I, Scene I takes place in a living room. Jim, your protagonist, comes home from work and you want to establish that he has a job as a bus-driver. If you were writing for the screen you could get this across easily with shots of him at work behind the wheel, but how to do this on stage? You could have Jim walking on stage in his bus-driver uniform, but how many bus-drivers wear their uniform at home, and how many in the audience would recognise it for what it was? The people in the back row might think he was a security guard.
An alternative would be to establish Jim’s occupation with dialogue, but you’d have to think of ways Jim could discuss his job without sounding phoney. You don’t want his wife to come out with a line like: “Hello, Jim. How was it driving that bus today?”
A better way of opening our story would be to set it in the aftermath of a dramatic event, such as a crash. If Jim comes home with a bandaged head it would be natural for his wife to ask what had happened. In this way we could learn about Jim without the conversation sounding contrived. However, this opening would have to be relevant to the main story. If an important aspect of Jim’s character is that he’s a heavy drinker we might find out that he crashed the bus while he was drunk.
A ‘curtain-line’ is the cliffhanger that ends an act — typically it’s the last line spoken before the curtain comes down. The curtain-line introduces a question or dilemma that is resolved in the first scene of the next act. It keeps us interested and bridges the action between acts, letting it flow from one to the other.
Let’s say we have a scene in a kitchen. A couple, the parents of two children, are arguing. At the climax of the argument we learn that one of their two children is adopted. This is the curtain line — the couple storm out and the scene is ended. The next scene starts when the two children (who have overheard their parents’ conversation) come into the kitchen and discuss this startling news — which one of them is the natural child?
Despite being called curtain-lines, these don’t always have to consist of a line of dialogue. In some cases a curtain-line might be a dramatic entrance or exit, a gesture, an action, or even a sound-effect.
Whatever they consist of, curtain lines should be as dramatic as possible (though without being more dramatic than the final climax). In an ideal situation everything that’s happened during an act should have been building up towards its curtain-line.
Write for any stage
Your play will have a better chance of being produced if it can be adapted to fit any performance area. Every playwright hopes their creation will be performed by a prestigious theatre company on a fully-equipped stage, but there’s every chance it will get its first airing in a community hall. Keep your play as simple as possible in terms of props, scenery and lighting effects. The less complicated it is the better the chances it will find a home.
Write for a small cast
Many touring theatre companies have a relatively small cast so it will help your chances if you limit the number of characters in your script.
As you plan your story keep the number of characters to a minimum and keep asking yourself how a small cast would go about staging it. A useful exercise is to write for a baseline cast of four (perhaps two men and two women) then see how many characters your actors could realistically take on. For example, if you have four principal characters and in one scene they’re all sitting round a restaurant table with a waiter taking their order, then you’re obviously going to need an extra person to play the waiter. So now your minimum cast has grown to five...
Within your script you’ll also have to make allowances for any multiple role playing and allow time for costume changes by leaving a gap between exits and entrances — if the actor playing Lord Walter exits stage-left you’ll have to give him a few moments if he has to change his clothes, stick on a beard and wig, and reappear stage-right as Crippen the Gardener.
The more characters you introduce, and the more you have on stage at any one time, the greater the potential problems a small theatre company will face.
Write a synopsis
To save time some theatre producers prefer to read a story synopsis before tackling the script itself. A synopsis should outline your story in full but shouldn’t be longer than one side of paper. Even if a theatre company doesn’t ask for a synopsis it’s a good idea to include one with your completed script. If your script starts off slowly a reader might give up on it after a few pages, but if there’s a synopsis to show them how the story develops it could encourage them to persevere.
The difference between a one-act play and a two or three-act play is the same as the difference between a short story and a novel and many of the same rules apply.
Keep it short (kind of obvious)
A one-act plays can be anywhere between ten minutes and forty-five minutes long, but shouldn’t be much more than this. Most one-act plays are presented as part of a series. For example, a theatre company might put on a performance of four or five one-act plays written around a common theme (human rights, the future, consumerism) the combined length of all these plays being between 90 and 120 minutes.
A one-act play more than an hour long won’t fit comfortably into this kind of scheme. It will be too long to be shown alongside shorter one-act plays, and too short to be put on as an individual production. If you have a ‘long’ one-act play either cut it back to a maximum of forty-five minutes, or expand it into a stand-alone production.
You haven’t got time to hang around so introduce your characters and the problem they face as quickly as possible, in the first few lines if you can manage it.
Keep your characters simple
In a full-length play you can introduce complex characters with hidden motives that are only slowly guessed at by the audience. Not so in a one-act play, there’s little time for complexity so introduce your characters on a ‘what you see is what you get’ principle.
End on a high
Because of time constraints it’s going to be hard to deliver a complex story loaded with subtext. Aim for a simple storyline with a punchy ending. In the same way that a short-story should end with a twist, your one-act play should go out on a high. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it should be something dramatic and memorable.
Where do I send my stage play?
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook contains information on UK theatre companies.
In the US the Theatre Services Guide has a directory of some of the larger theatre companies.
Many theatre companies produce guidelines telling you what kind of material they’re after and the format it should be presented in. Read guidelines carefully and follow them to the letter.
Main image © Youproduction c/o Shutterstock
Back to the Index page.