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Don't Ask,
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Screen vs. Stage:
The One-Minute Page

by Michael Sadler

I know several writers who write both screenplays and stage plays. I do, too. Historically, the format for a screenplay and a playscript were two entirely different beasts. Not so anymore. There is now a convergence of the two, centered, I believe, on the newfangled notion of "1-minute per page" for stage plays to match that for screenplays.

The major difference between a screenplay and the "Old Style" playscript was and still is the amount of dialogue on a page versus the amount of action or, in the case of plays, stage direction. There are others, too. How many do you count in this example?

SAM: You said what? (HE crosses to JOE, mouth agape). You said what?!

JOE: (guilty) Um, I told her you were seeing someone else. I guess I shoulda kept my big mouth shut.

That takes up four lines (including spaces). But times have changed for the format elements themselves.

Here's the New Style (Samuel French/Mollie Ann Meserve), using the same example:

You said what?

(HE crosses to JOE, mouth agape.)
You said what?!

Um, I told her you were seeing someone else. I guess I shoulda kept my big mouth shut.

In 12-point Times New Roman, that dialogue exchange takes up four lines.

In 12-point Courier Final Draft (CFD), that dialogue exchange takes up 10 lines.

For screenwriters not familiar with stage plays, note the reversal of dialogue and action/stage direction elements. Not surprisingly, stage plays using the new formatting run about a minute now. 

Saves on the purchase of stopwatches, I'm guessing.

Test Question: Did you catch the period inside versus outside the parenthetical? 

If you write both screenplays and stage plays, and say you're writing a 10-minute stage play, the first rule, as we all know, is it must run no longer than ten minutes. I really like the look of TNR on a playscript page, but it's kind of tough to judge the running time by page count alone using the Old Style. Interestingly, for the New Style playscript, you'd think by merely switching between CFD-12 pt. and TNR-12 pt., the page count would be pretty much the same.

Not so.

Three months ago I converted a 10-minute play (10 pages) using current formatting (from CFD-12 to TNR-12 with one click of the mouse. I was shocked to discover that it added a page and a half to the length! That's not good when the submission guidelines specifically state, "10 pages maximum!" For purposes of this article, I just converted one of my 15-minute plays (15 pages) and an 80 page play to TNR. The former adds 2 full pages, the latter 11 pages! 

With more and more submission sites calling for full-length plays at, say, a maximum of 80 or 90 pages, the difference mounts up. Of course, if you start in TNR and get to END OF PLAY at page 100, and then convert to CFD, you're probably okay for a 90-page max. Any longer in TNR, however, and it's going to take some real effort to condense it.

Formatting is not something we think about a lot, but it's the first thing a professional at the other end sees. I'm still seeing a lot of plays online written in the Old Style, which I suppose is fine if someone asks specifically for it that way (what a friggin' hassle to convert from FinalDraft!), or you're not submitting to major competitions or regional theatre companies. My take on this is that if my playscript differs in any significant degree from the current standard, the reader who expects material to be sent in the latest industry format is immediately distracted from the essence of my hard work. S/he has to break out that stopwatch! I'd rather s/he knows at first glance I'm up to date on format so s/he can concentrate on my killer play, knowing it runs for approximately the same time as the page count.

A final word on conversion from FinalDraft to HTML. Some play submission sites/competitions/festivals ask that material be submitted in "HTML, Word.doc, RTF, or PDF," and only very few are allowing FinalDraft submissions at this time. If you write in FinalDraft and have to submit in HTML, you will lose at least underlining function, perhaps others as well. I didn’t check them all. Only by going into your HTML editor and doing the "<u> word</u> " thing for every word underlined will you get it back! Since this article is written in FinalDraft, I had to convert to Word – Rich Text Format, and then convert to HTML to retain all the formatting functions.

I submitted my 10-minute play, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to this site in HTML as a companion piece to this article to show the latest format. It’s the only play I’ve written with multiple underlines. You will see the problem I had to convert it for this article! 

In the final analysis, I much prefer PDF play submissions myself, which retains everything, including Title and Cast pages, with one click of your mouse. Ah, the details…

But at least you get to read a short, funny play that is now running down in San Juan Capistrano as part of ShowOff!, The Camino Real Playhouse's annual International 10-minute Playwriting Festival. And I'm sure the word underlining helped, 'cause it's killing down there!


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