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Lua serializer and pretty printer.


  • Human readable:
    • Provides single-line and multi-line output.
    • Nested tables are properly indented in the multi-line output.
    • Numerical keys are listed first.
    • Keys are (optionally) sorted alphanumerically.
    • Array part skips keys ({'a', 'b'} instead of {[1] = 'a', [2] = 'b'}).
    • nil values are included when expected ({1, nil, 3} instead of {1, [3]=3}).
    • Keys use short notation ({foo = 'foo'} instead of {['foo'] = 'foo'}).
    • Shared references and self-references are marked in the output.
  • Machine readable: provides reliable deserialization using loadstring().
  • Supports deeply nested tables.
  • Supports tables with self-references.
  • Shared tables and functions stay shared after de/serialization.
  • Supports function serialization using string.dump().
  • Supports serialization of global functions.
  • Escapes new-line \010 and end-of-file control \026 characters in strings.
  • Configurable with options and custom formatters.


local serpent = require("serpent")
local a = {1, nil, 3, x=1, ['true'] = 2, [not true]=3}
a[a] = a -- self-reference with a table as key and value

print(serpent.dump(a)) -- full serialization
print(serpent.line(a)) -- single line, no self-ref section
print(serpent.block(a)) -- multi-line indented, no self-ref section

local fun, err = loadstring(serpent.dump(a))
if err then error(err) end
local copy = fun()


Serpent provides three functions that are shortcuts to the same internal function, but set different options by default:

  • dump(a[, {...}]) -- full serialization; sets name, compact and sparse options
  • line(a[, {...}]) -- single line, no self-ref section; sets sortkeys and comment options
  • block(a[, {...}]) -- multi-line indented, no self-ref section; sets indent, sortkeys, and comment options


  • name (string) -- name; triggers full serialization with self-ref section
  • indent (string) -- indentation; triggers long multi-line output
  • comment (true/False/maxlevel) -- provide stringified value in a comment (up to maxlevel of depth)
  • sortkeys (true/False) -- sort keys
  • sparse (true/False) -- force sparse encoding (no nil filling based on #t)
  • compact (true/False) -- remove spaces
  • fatal (true/False) -- raise fatal error on non-serilizable values
  • nocode (true/False) -- disable bytecode serialization for easy comparison
  • nohuge (true/False) -- disable checking numbers against undefined and huge values
  • maxlevel (number) -- specify max level up to which to expand nested tables
  • ignore (table) -- allows to specify a list of values to ignore (as keys)
  • custom (function) -- provide custom output for tables

These options can be provided as a second parameter to Serpent functions.

block(a, {fatal = true})
line(a, {nocode = true, ignore = {[arrayToIgnore] = true}})
function todiff(a) return dump(a, {nocode = true, indent = ' '}) end


Serpent supports a way to provide a custom formatter that allows to fully customize the output. For example, the following call will apply `Foo{bar} notation to its output (used by Metalua to display ASTs):

print((require "serpent").block(ast, {comment = false, custom =
    local out = head..body..tail
    if tag:find('^lineinfo') then
      out = out:gsub("\n%s+", "") -- collapse lineinfo to one line
    elseif tag == '' then
      body = body:gsub('%s*lineinfo = [^\n]+', '')
      local _,_,atag = body:find('tag = "(%w+)"%s*$')
      if atag then
        out = "`"..atag..head.. body:gsub('%s*tag = "%w+"%s*$', '')..tail
        out = out:gsub("\n%s+", ""):gsub(",}","}")
      else out = head..body..tail end
    return tag..out


  • Doesn't handle userdata (except filehandles in io.* table).
  • Threads, function upvalues/environments, and metatables are not serialized.


A simple performance test against serialize.lua from metalua, pretty.write from Penlight, and tserialize.lua from lua-nucleo is included in t/bench.lua.

These are the results from one of the runs:

  • nucleo (1000): 0.256s
  • metalua (1000): 0.177s
  • serpent (1000): 0.22s
  • serpent (1000): 0.161s -- no comments, no string escapes, no math.huge check
  • penlight (1000): 0.132s

Serpent does additional processing to escape \010 and \026 characters in strings (to address, which is already fixed in Lua 5.2) and to check all numbers for math.huge. The seconds number excludes this processing to put it on an equal footing with other modules that skip these checks (nucleo still checks for math.huge).


Paul Kulchenko (


See LICENSE file.


Aug 28 2012 v0.16

  • Removed confusing --[[err]] comment from serialized results.
  • Added a short comment to serialized functions when the body is skipped.

Jun 17 2012 v0.15

  • Added ignore option to allow ignoring table values.
  • Added comment=num option to set the max level up to which add comments.
  • Changed all comments (except math.huge) to be controlled by comment option.

Jun 13 2012 v0.14

  • Fixed an issue with string keys with numeric values ['3'] getting mixed with real numeric keys (only with sortkeys option set to true).
  • Fixed an issue with negative and real value numeric keys being misplaced.

Jun 13 2012 v0.13

  • Added maxlevel option.
  • Fixed key sorting such that true and 'true' are always sorted in the same order (for a more stable output).
  • Removed addresses from names of temporary variables (for stable output).

Jun 12 2012 v0.12

  • Added options to configure serialization process.
  • Added goto to the list of keywords for Lua 5.2.
  • Changed interface to dump/line/block methods.
  • Changed math.huge to 1/0 for better portability.
  • Replaced \010 with \n for better readability.

Jun 03 2012 v0.10

  • First public release.
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