BellaOnline Literary Review

Play Format Tips

Plays are some of the most fun literary projects to create. Plays get you into the story, drawing you into the action, visualizing it before you on a stage. As a playwright you join the famous family of Shakespeare, Chekov, Williams, and others!

Here are the keys for making your play as readable as possible, no matter where you are planning on submitting it.

Your play must begin with a cast list. This is like the playbill that is distributed to the audience when they sit down in a theater. The cast list lets them know who the characters will be and a little about each person. This cast list is even more important for a read-only play, since the readers cannot see the characters to know what they look like.

The cast list should have the word CAST: on the first line, and then below it each cast member on his or her own line, with a brief description. Blank lines separate the entries so they do not mush together.

Here is an example from our Fall 2009 play, "Three Margarets and a Grace" -


Angel, a gentle soft spoken female.

Grace, a very proper lady always concerned about her appearance. She is the only one who speaks total proper English.

Margaret #1, the youngest of the four. Nothing is really wrong with her. Mostly reserved, but will speak up for herself.

Margaret #2, sort of back woods type person. She goes along the easiest with Grace's ideas. A bit senile.

Usually short plays are a single act, and are even a single scene. In this case you do not need to say anything at all about acts and scenes. If you do have multiple scenes in your play - that is, if there are different "locations" that your action takes place in over the course of the play, then put a new scene number before each change of location. So at the beginning of your play (after the cast list) you would say ACT 1 SCENE 1. Then later on, when the scene changed from a front lobby to a cemetery, you would put the title ACT 1 SCENE 2 before that next section began.

Anything that is "seen" by the audience - actors walking to a certain spot, actors coming or going off the stage, a glass falling on the floor - all of these are indicated with stage directions. These are set off in square brackets [like this] and help ensure the play progresses the way that you, the playwright, intended it to. So for example, after the very first ACT 1 SCENE 1 statement, there needs to be a brief description of what the stage looks like. That way the readers can visualize what they are seeing on stage, and if your play is ever put on, the actors and director know how to decorate the stage area. You also use stage directions throughout the play to indicate when people do specific things - like [Lisa yawns loudly] or [the sound of thunder is heard from off stage].

Here is an example of an initial stage description from our Summer 2009 play, "The Horn of Vengeance" -

[Enter Wesley Harwood. He sits, pours a drink, loosens his tie. Sound of a door kicked off its hinges. Enter Colonel Morgana and Sergeant Oxblood, agitated, pistols in gloved hand, wearing camouflage uniforms, identical except for insignia and oddly-colored berets. Oxblood carries a leather pouch at her hip, strapped across her shoulder.]

Start each line of the dialogue with the name of the speaker in upper case letters. That makes it easy to see at a glance who is speaking and what they are saying. Then have a colon, and then have that speaker's words on the same line. Make sure you have full blank lines between each set of dialogue in your play.

Any directions or actions should be marked with square brackets [like this] so it is very clear that the actor does these things and is not saying these things.

Here is an example of dialogue, including stage directions, from our Summer 2009 play, "The Horn of Vengeance" -

HARWOOD: Of what do I stand accused?

MORGANA: It's all in the manifesto.

[Morgana tries to snap her fingers, but is hindered by her gloves. She takes one off, then snaps her fingers.]


MORGANA: The manifesto, Sergeant.

[Oxblood clumsily plucks a document from her pouch and hands it to Morgana.]

MORGANA [poetic recitation]: Your hour has come, you potentates of power,
Dealing Death in doses great and small,
To our Mother Ocean and Sister Animals...

To see this all together in a full play, read the full text of The Horn of Vengeance and enjoy! Feel free to contact us if you have any further questions about a play's format.

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