Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Screenwriting: Formatting Pt. 2 - Scene Headings

I've got my favorite stripey java cup, full to the brim with boiling hot brown energy, and my ten foot tall stack of notebooks, and I am ready to school you on some Scene Heading must-know tips!

What is a Scene Heading and when do I use them?
A Scene Heading, or slugline as they are sometimes called, is a required element for each and every scene in a screenplay. In a properly formatted script, a new Scene Heading is used each and every time there is a shift in TIME, LOCATION or both.

Many new writers will misuse and abuse the Scene Heading; using incorrect formatting, insufficient or irrelevant information with the heading, or completely neglecting to use them at all. Its highly important that a screenwriter grasps the ideals and importance of the scene heading; not only are they a vital part of the story, but they are critical pieces of information for the production crew who plans the filming process of a script. They're nearly more technical than they are creative.

A scene heading consists of THREE things:

1. INT. or EXT. (Interior/ Exterior)
Interior shots will be planned for indoor environments, while exterior are planned for outdoor environments.
The location is... you guessed it!.. where the scene takes place.
Normally, something as vague as NIGHT or DAY is acceptable here. However, this can differ from situation to situation, and can be more specific.

The format of a scene heading is a.) all caps, all the time, b.) normal spacing, separate with dash(-), so your properly formatted scene heading should look something like this:


So now let's write a few scene headings using the above formula.

Where am I?

More specifically?
**The above example utilizes a SUB LOCATION, but we'll get to that.

These are simple and easy, once you get the hang of it.

Scene Headings: Variations
As there always are 'some exceptions to the rule', the scene heading is no different. You'll see variations from time to time, ranging from minor formatting differences to specific time designations, or Sub Locations, as mentioned above. The most important differences that you'll need to learn about are that of the specific time stamps, time stamp variations, and sub locations.

Sub Locations
Quickly put; this is just a continuation of the location, and is sometimes necessary to clarify the location.

If you were at home, on the phone to a friend and they asked you "Where are you at?" you might say "I'm at my house", as opposed to being at Wal-Mart or Hooters or something. If it was understood that you were at home, then when they ask, you might clarify by saying "I'm in my bedroom" or "I'm in the kitchen". This is the basic principal behind Sub Location usage. You're simply clarifying where, at a location, the character in the scene is. It is necessary that you employ sub locations at some point, but luckily it is very simple to understand and master.

Time Stamp Variations
We've all scene a movie where the scenes change but the environment stays the same. As mentioned above, this is technically a new scene because the TIME changed (Remember; shift in time, location or both merits a new scene heading!). So, how do you format it? With Time Stamp Variations, of course!

Sometimes rather than using DAY or NIGHT, we will use "LATER", "MOMENTS LATER" or "CONTINUOUS". From a technical aspect, these are necessary because they imply that sets pieces and costumes, among other things, will need to be intact based on the last shooting session/previous scene. It gives a continuation to the previous scene, linking them together on a technical basis. Though they are a part of your story, they, like so many other elements of a screenplay, are more technical than they are creative.

The differences that set them apart, though minor, should be understood and you should always use them accordingly.

CONTINUOUS is used to link together two technically separate scenes which are happening continuous but require location change.
LATER links together two scenes which are separated by a breif time elapse.
MOMENTS LATER links together two scenes which have an even shorter time elapse.

Here are some examples:

Jane and Steven walk, hand in hand, towards Steven's car.

Jane straps on her seatbelt and smiles, lovingly, at Steven.

I love this car, Steven. I'm so
glad you didn't sell it.

Example of LATER

Steven's car pulls up to the curb, stopping. Jane exits the passenger side door. Steven drives away.


Jane enters the front door of her house, hangs up her coat and keys and places her purse on a nearby desk.

Specific Time Stamps
These occur when the actual time element in a story is involved and necessary to the plot or events occurring. Here is an example:

Mr. Gevedon looks at his watch, anxious.

What time is it?
Mr. Gevedon
Two fifty two.
The bomb is set for three pm! That
means we only have eight minutes!
Mr. Gevedon
I know, dammit! We have to
think of something, fast!
Though you won't usually need to employ such a specific time stamp, in some instances it will be necessary.

Keep your scene headings short and clear!
New writers will often assume that scene headings need in-depth description and detail, thus causing a scene heading to be lengthy and improperly formatted. A scene heading should never take more than one line, and does not need to be greatly detailed in order to be affective. Be sure to keep your scene headings breif and be sure to use them properly, because this is the first tip-off to an agency or production company reader that the writer is either inexperienced or knows their stuff!

I hope you learned something new today and will prosper from that new-found knowledge! Until next time, keep reading and learning and above all, KEEP WRITING!

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