Screenplay, Teleplay, Stage Play—What’s the Difference?

INTRODUCTION

Everyone’s telling you that incredible story you wrote is perfect for Revolution. No one can shut up about your skit for the church’s holiday fair—it should be on Broadway! You had a table read of your Modern Family spec script and everybody cried (oops) … maybe it’s too serious for TV. All you need to know now is … which script format should I use?

The good news is quality drama tends to be mobile—equally at home on the silver screen, television screen, or stage. The bad news is that each medium has its own production requirements and thus its own specific script format. “Format, shmormat. A script is a script!” Agreed. But would you try to build a supermarket using blueprints for a hospital?

SCRIPT CATEGORIES

Screenplay

The theatrical motion picture is a descendant of the circus sideshow, the novelty act. The emphasis has always been on spectacle rather than drama. The scripts for the earliest films (if a script was even used at all) consisted mainly of description and no dialogue. Audiences soon demanded stories to go along with the spectacle. Stories required scripts—even when the film contained little or no dialogue. The modern screenplay format reflects the emphasis that silent films placed on pictures rather than dialogue. Paragraphs containing scenic and action descriptions are wide with small margins while dialogue has ridiculously wide margins. The message is clear: In film, pictures are more important than words.

There is really only one type of theatrical screenplay format. The variations within the format are minor: margins, use of “MORE” and “CONTINUED” (or not), use of “(CONT’D)” or not, etc. As a script nears the filming stage, it may include specific camera angles, scene numbering, omitted dialogue notations, etc., but it’s still quite recognizable as a theatrical screenplay.

Final Draft can help format a screenplay according to accepted industry standards and contains templates for many specific types of screenplay, including the classic style according to the book The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats Part I: The Screenplay by Cole and Haag, a script format popularized by the movie studio Warner Bros., and The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier.

Teleplay

Although modern television is a cousin of film, TV actually descended from radio. Nearly every type of program on TV today—news, sports, sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, etc.—originated on radio, not the theatrical screen. And radio is all about sound. Fortunately, Final Draft includes templates that adhere to the formatting specifications for most current popular shows.

Shows shot in front of a live audience using multiple cameras such as Two and a Half Men or many soap operas use a sitcom-style teleplay format while single-camera comedies such as New Girl use a variation on the theatrical screenplay format.

Sitcom script format reflects its talky radio origins: Dialogue is double-spaced for legibility; stage directions are formatted in all capital letters to make them easily distinguishable from dialogue; and the pages contain lots of white space for jotting notes. The live audience provides a laugh track but also limits where scenes can take place (street scenes and large crowds tend to be out of the question). The text in the script is spaced out much more so than in a screenplay; a page of a screenplay translates into about a minute of screen time while a page of a sitcom teleplay translates into about 30 seconds of screen time. The scenes are numbered—and the scene numbers are displayed at the top of each page along with the page numbers. The script is divided into acts and scenes and each division begins on a new page. A list of which characters are needed in each scene appears at the beginning of each scene. The dialogue can contain “personal direction” for the actor (such as “she sits” or “glumly”) within it rather than outside of it, just like a stage play.

Scripts for one-hour dramas such as The Good Wife and single-camera comedies such as Parks and Recreation look more like a screenplay because filmed shows are produced in a fashion very similar to theatrical films: They’re shot on location or in a soundstage without an audience; they’re shot one scene at a time using one camera (usually); and they often feature many locations which would be difficult or impossible in front of a live audience.

Scripts for news, talk, variety, or reality shows (yes, talk shows use scripts) can look quite different from either of the above examples. Such scripts tend to serve as a general outline of the program: the evening’s lead stories, notes for the host(ess) about the guests and questions that could be asked, an opening monologue, when and what the musical guest will play, etc. The script may contain two separate columns for “Audio” and “Video” for listing which events/effects occur in what sequence. What little scripted (pre-written) dialogue there is gets squeezed into the “Audio” column (these shows aren’t about supposed to be about scripted conversation, after all).

Stage Play

The stage play is the great-grandfather of all these formats, since live performance of scripted drama has been a part of almost every culture since the dawn of recorded history. And, much like a rambunctious elderly uncle, the stage play has the loosest and most-forgiving format. Since a viable stage play can originate from anyone, anywhere, its conventions are considered “customs” rather than “laws.”

In the United States the Dramatists Guild provides guidelines for formatting play and musical scripts. These can be useful for demonstrating to agents, producers, and publishers that one understands current trends but in the world of live theater a writer’s strict adherence to standard script formatting is much less important than it is in film or television. Final Draft provides stage play templates that adhere to the Dramatists Guild’s guidelines as well as several that reflect modern trends for Broadway plays and musicals.

SCRIPT ELEMENTS OVERVIEW

The Cover

Covers tend to be optional although generally not recommended. Covers should contain the name of the script and the name of the series, if applicable. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste.

The Title Page

If the show is in production, a TV script’s title page should contain the name of the show, the title of the episode, the name of the writer, the writer’s “contact info” and/or the name of the production company, and the draft number or date.

A screenplay’s title page can contain all of the above except, of course, the episode title.

A stage play’s title page should contain the play title, the author’s name, and contact information for either the writer or the writer’s agent (but not both).

Every Page

Every page but the first of a screenplay should contain page numbers in the upper right-hand corner.

Every page but the first of a sitcom teleplay should have page numbers as well, but the page numbers may also include scene letters (i.e., “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.) The name of the series and the name of the episode can be included as well.

Every page but the first of a stage play should contain page numbers. Act and scene numbers can also be included if desired.

The First Page Following the Cover and Title Page

The first (and only the first) page of a screenplay may contain the title of the screenplay. That used to be a hard-and-fast rule; now it’s an option. But this rule can be helpful particularly to beleaguered creative executives trying to plow through a pile of spec scripts.

The first page of a sitcom teleplay should contain the name of the show, the title of the script, the act number (or the word “Teaser”), and the scene letter.

The first page of a stage play should contain the act number (unless there is only one act) and the scene number (unless there is only one scene). There are many ways to paginate a play, from the straightforward numerical sequence of “1, 2, 3” to an older but still useful format of “I-2-16” (meaning “Act 1, Scene 2, Page 16”).

Final Draft allows a writer to use any of the above options.

The First Page of a New Act/Scene

The first page of each act of a sitcom teleplay should contain the name of the show, the title of the script, the act number, and the scene letter. Every scene in a sitcom teleplay should begin on a new page, and the scene letter should be displayed at the head of the scene. On such pages, the scene letter should not be repeated at the top of the page underneath the scene number. Every scene in a sitcom teleplay should feature a list of all the characters who appear in that scene.

In a single-camera episodic scripts, the acts may or may not be specifically defined and new scenes do not have to begin on new pages. Writers composing specs for a particular show should consult the formatting specs for that show. Final Draft includes templates for many current and recent popular shows.

The “acts” in a screenplay are not specifically defined. Since new scenes in a screenplay do not have to begin on new pages, there are no special requirements for a page on which a new scene begins.

Each act and each scene in a stage play should begin on a new page, although this isn’t absolutely necessary when printing costs are a consideration (and anyone who has produced low-budget theater definitely considers every cost very carefully).

Scene/Script Endings

Screenplays need not include anything to indicate the end of a scene other than a slug line for a new scene. They can also include transitions such as “CUT TO:”, “FADE TO:”, etc. It’s up to the writer’s taste.

Television scripts tend to be a bit more rigid. Single- and multi-camera scripts indicate scene and act endings with such labels as “END OF ACT ONE”, etc. along with the usual “CUT TO:”, “FADE TO:”, etc.

Television and theatrical scripts usually end with the words “FADE OUT” and “THE END”.

Stage play scenes usually end with “Lights down” and acts end with “Curtain”.

Text Elements

For this section, the names of the appropriate Final Draft Elements will be in [brackets]. These Elements are available from the Element menu within the program.

“FADE IN:” [Action] or “AT RISE” [Notations]

When used, “FADE IN:” is formatted using all caps in a screenplay and with all caps and underlined in a sitcom teleplay.

A stage play begins with a description of the set as it appears to the audience when the curtain rises or the lights come up. The words “AT RISE:”, often formatted in all caps, precede this description.

Scene Numbering or Lettering [Scene Heading]

As noted above, scenes in a sitcom teleplay are numbered using capital letters. The letters have ample space above and below them and are underlined.

When scenes are numbered in a screenplay, the numbers appear in both the left and the right margins adjacent to the slugline.

If a play contains more than one act and/or more than one scene, these are centered and numbered. Acts often appear in Roman numerals to distinguish them from scene numbers.

Slugline [Scene Heading]

“Sluglines” are also called “scene headings,” “headings,” and “scene captions.”

In screenplays and teleplays, sluglines indicate where a scene takes place, at what time of day, and whether it needs to be shot indoors or out. In screenplays, sluglines are in all caps; in teleplays they are usually capitalized and underlined.

Stage plays do not use sluglines, per se. In stage plays, the information conveyed in sluglines is usually provided in the “AT RISE:” paragraph (described above) or in a paragraph preceding the “AT RISE:” paragraph usually labeled “SCENE:”. Again, this paragraph contains where and when the scene takes place as well as what time of day. The information in this paragraph is often shared with the audience by reprinting it in the play’s program.

Cast List [Cast List]

Screenplays never contain lists of characters.

Teleplays include lists of characters that are needed in each scene directly below that scene’s slugline. It is in upper- and lower-case text and enclosed in parentheses.

Stage plays include a single list of characters at the beginning of the script, usually between the title page and the first page of the actual script. Since this list provides crucial budgetary and logistical information, it should include all actors needed—speaking or not—along with brief descriptions of the characters’ apparent age, gender, and other pertinent details.

Scene/Action Descriptions [Action]

Scenic and action descriptions in screenplays and stage plays are formatted as upper- and lower-case text.

In teleplays, they are formatted in all caps.

Character Intros/Sound Effects/Special Effects/Camera Instructions

In a screenplay, all of these elements usually appear in all caps.

In a teleplay, they are capitalized as well as underlined

In a stage play, these elements can be capitalized or not, at the discretion of the writer. However many playwrights prefer that character names appear in all caps (outside of when the names appear within dialogue) throughout the play to aid the actors in keeping track of their lines.

Character Names/Dialogue [Character/Dialogue]

For dialogue in stage plays, teleplays, and screenplays, character names preceding dialogue are typed in all caps and the dialogue itself appears in sentence-case text. However, in sitcom teleplays, the dialogue is double-spaced.

Personal Direction [Parenthetical]

Often, instructions specifically for the actor appear within a character’s dialogue.

In a screenplay, this “personal direction” is inserted inside parentheses on a separate line or lines in sentence-case text between the lines of dialogue.

In a teleplay, personal direction appears within the dialogue—on the same line—in all caps and enclosed within parentheses.

Stage plays can include parenthetical directions within the dialogue itself (like a teleplay) or it can include it on a separate line; it’s up to the writer. When parentheticals appear on the same lines as dialogue, it can be helpful for readability purposes to format them in italics to differentiate them.

Are These Formats Interchangeable?

Screenplays, sitcom teleplays, and stage plays are not interchangeable, as the preceding doubtless illustrates. However, it is possible to reformat a screenplay into a sitcom teleplay or (less easily) into a stage play or vice versa with a minimum of retyping. The main thing is to understand where the formats differ and where they do not. Final Draft not only allows writers to easily format their scripts, but it also allows, say, text from a screenplay to be copied and pasted into a teleplay or stage play and for the text to automatically take on the proper format of the script it is pasted into! (Of course, it works the other direction as well.)

Happy writing!