image of a page of script from Hamlet

If you are going to act in a play or short drama, direct it, produce it, write it or just read it for pleasure, you are going to have to understand the format of a drama script. They may look a little strange at first, but honestly, they are easy.

Drama scripts are simple

Drama starts with a script. Scripts can look daunting when you are not used to them but you just need to understand the layout. Though this will vary a little depending on the individual styles of the writer and publisher, nearly all scripts will contain three things: a character list, dialogue and directions.

Character list

First you will almost certainly get a list of the characters appearing in the drama. This may also give you a little bit more information about each character – maybe their job or relationship to others in the play – but like so much else in a script, this varies from writer to writer. This example is part of the list from Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.

THE CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY
ORSINO, Duke of Illyria
VALENTINE, CURIO Gentlemen attending on Orsino
First Officer
Second Officer
VIOLA, a shipwrecked lady, later disguised as Cesario
SEBASTIAN, her twin brother
CAPTAIN of the wrecked ship
ANTONIO, another sea captain

Notice that the characters’ names are printed in upper case – this continues throughout the script so that they can be easily spotted amid the sea of words.

The character list may be called various things depending on the age of the script and the whim of the author or publisher; you may come across variations of “Cast”, “Characters”, “Persons represented”, “Characters in the play” (or “Dramatis personae”, its Latin equivalent).

Somewhere near the character list there may (or may not) also be notes that the author thinks will help you, such as where and when the play is set, any special props or costumes or comments on foreign or dialect words used.

Dialogue

Lets be honest: a script is just a list of who says what. In order. Starting at the top.

MRS KAY: How are you getting on? Plying you with questions?
BRIGGS: Yes, yes they’ve been… very good.
MRS KAY: I’m just going for a cup of coffee. Want to join me?
BRIGGS: Well I was just on my way to the Pet’s Corner…
ANDREWS: It’s all right sir, we’ll go on our own.
MRS KAY: Oh come on, they’ll be all right.
BRIGGS: But can these people be trusted Mrs. Kay?

Here MRS KAY asks a question, then BRIGGS answers, MRS KAY asks some more… and so on. Simple and obvious, isn’t it? Note that, as before, the character names are in upper case to separate them from the dialogue (Which helps the actor to remember not to say them!). This example is from Our Day Out by Willy Russell.

Directions

Directions are the writer’s way of telling the actors and director a bit more about what to do rather than what to say. Directions are often all called stage directions but can be separated into three basic sorts:

  • scene directions (at the beginning of a scene describing the setting, layout or feel, who is already on stage and what they are doing),
  • stage directions (describing things that happen on stage or special effects, props, sounds, lighting) or
  • character directions (describing an individual character’s movements, expression, mood, who they are talking to etc).

Writers use differing ways of presenting these but normally they will be in italics and (especially for character directions which are mixed in with the character’s dialogue) may be in parentheses (brackets). In older plays in particular there may be very few directions; that doesn’t mean the characters don’t do anything but the actors and director are supposed to figure out what is going on from the words and fill in with creativity after that.

Let’s look at the different sorts of directions in turn.

Scene directions

The script will very likely start with a scene direction, laying out who and what is on stage and what they are doing. This may be a page long or just a sentence or two. This is the opening of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett:

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before.
Enter Vladimir.

The sparseness of that direction may suggest, in a modern play, that scenery etc. is irrelevant or not required here. In contrast, read the opening of A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller:

The street and house-front of a tenement building. The front is skeletal entirely. The main acting area is the living-room-dining-room of Eddie’s apartment. It is a worker’s flat, clean, sparse, homely. There is a rocker down front; a round dining table at centre, with chairs; and a portable phonograph.
At back are a bedroom door and an opening to the kitchen; none of these interiors is seen.
At the right forestage, a desk. This is Mr Alfieri’s law office.
There is also a telephone booth. This is not used until the last scenes, so it may be covered or left in view.
A stairway leads up to the apartment, and then farther up to the next storey, which is not seen.
Ramps, representing the street, run upstage and off to left and right.
As the curtain rises, LOUIS and MIKE, longshoremen, are pitching coins against the building at left.
A distant foghorn blows.
[Enter ALFIERI, a lawyer in his fifties turning grey; he is portly, good-humoured, and thoughtful. The two pitchers nod to him as he passes. He crosses the stage to his desk, removes his hat, runs his fingers through his hair, and grinning, speaks to the audience.]

This playwright has a detailed vision of how this will all look and you can expect all the following directions to fit into this framework, so get visualising it now!

Scene directions can get really atmospheric – the two men repeatedly and aimlessly tossing a coin and then the foghorn sounding paint a slightly depressed picture before any words are spoken.

In both examples, the scene direction (what is already on stage) leads naturally straight into stage directions (what happens on stage next), with “Enter Vladimir” and “Enter ALFIERI

Stage directions

The basic stage directions are the sparse and to-the-point sort that Shakespeare uses:
Enter Puck, and Bottom with an ass’s head;
She scatters flowers;
Enter Caliban with a burden of wood. A noise of thunder heard.

So they tell you who comes and goes, actions they perform, use of props and any effects such as music playing or thunder sounding. Of course the directions can get a lot more complex than that:

He looks into her eyes, but she turns away, and stands up. Outside the church bells start ringing. Helena moves up to the door, and waits watching them closely. Alison stands quite still, Jimmy’s eyes burning into her. Then, she crosses in front of him to the table where she picks up the prayer book, her back to him. She wavers, and seems about to say something, but turns upstage instead, and walks quickly to the door.

That’s from Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. And take a look at this very descriptive extract from Neville’s Island by Tim Firth:

The sausage starts to warm up. A frosty silence descends. For a few moments the four men stare out over the water. The sausage, plastered as it is in copious amounts of butter from the breakfast plate, sizzles away.

The writer isn’t so much telling the actors what to do as describing the moment. You get a lot of this sort of thing in modern plays. It makes the script very readable but the director and actors will have to decide how to do it. Will there be real cooking of a real sausage or is the sizzling a sound effect? The actors know to stare out over the water but how do you create “a frosty silence”?

Character directions

Scattered inside a character’s lines will usually be directions that describe the character’s tone of voice, actions, expression, gestures or mood as he/she speaks. Look at this from All My Sons by Arthur Miller:

MOTHER: Altogether! [To CHRIS, but not facing them] Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don’t you? Now you see. [Beyond control, she hurries up and into house.]
KELLER [ – CHRIS has not moved. He speaks insinuatingly, questioningly]: She’s out of her mind.
CHRIS [in a broken whisper]: Then… you did it?
KELLER [with the beginning of plea in his voice]: He never flew a P-40 –
CHRIS [stuck, deadly]: But the others.
KELLER [insistently]: She’s out of her mind. [He takes a step towards CHRIS, pleadingly.]

The directions range from the straightforwardly practical “not facing them” and “she hurries up and into the house” through description of tone of voice such as “pleadingly” to description of state of mind that the actor will need to think carefully about how to portray – “Beyond control”.

 

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How To Do Drama is a slightly haphazard guide for the new or young

 

 

 

drama group and its terrified actors, hopeful director and baffled script writer.

You can see our full collection of instantly-downloadable drama scripts at Drama scripts.