The scene heading has a very important function in a screenplay: establishing the location. It lets the reader know where the scene that they’re about to read takes place and it can also give additional information (like the time period, the time of the day, and if the scene is a flashback or not). Formatting it in the right way can make your screenplay look more professional, but most importantly avoid confusion and misunderstandings.
So here’s how to format a scene heading you’ll need to know those 3 essential elements:
- interior or exterior
- time of day
Interior or exterior
EXT or INT are the only acceptable abbreviation. It’s not necessary to write INTERIOR or EXTERIOR. If the scenery is changing (like for example characters walking out of a room) but the camera is still following the same characters without cutting, you’ll need to write down the whole heading again.
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
EXT. BACKYARD – DAY
INT. KITCHEN – DAY
INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
However, in the case of a character on a moving vehicle, all you need to do is write the vehicle’s name and add the word “MOVING” or “TRAVELING“
INT. FERRARI – DAY – TRAVELING
The second part of the scene heading is the location itself. It establishes where the characters are physically placed. There’s no need to describe the details (that’s a job for later), just the name of the place they’re in, the vehicle or the geographical location is enough.
Sometimes it’s necessary to add another element to the scene heading to make sure that the reader understands the context of the scene. Let’s say for example that you’re writing a story and there are two separate scenes that take place in two different locations but both locations are called “LIVING ROOM”. In that case, you’ll need to add context so that the reader doesn’t confuse one location with the other. So the primary location (usually the name of the building or geographical place) goes right after INT./EXT. while the secondary location (the area where the action takes place) goes right before DAY/NIGHT.
A setting’s aesthetic can change drastically depending on the time period. If your story takes place in a specific decade (like the 50s or 60s) but you don’t specify the time period in the heading, the reader will end up assuming that the scene takes place in the present.
Time of day
The last element is the time of the day. Usually, you only need to write “DAY” or “NIGHT” because even if two scenes take place in the same location, the lighting will have to be adjusted.
However, there are some cases where you’ll want to be more specific. Then you’ll have to write an approximation of the time (like DUSK DAWN SUNRISE SUNSET etc…) in parenthesis next to DAY or NIGHT.
Let’s say for example that you need a proposal scene to take place at sunset because 3 pm in the afternoon just isn’t romantic enough. You’ll have to write:
EXT. BEACH – DAY (SUNSET)
In the same spot, you can also place the word LATER for a scene that takes place later in the same location. However, that can only be used if the scene that came before and the one that you’re about to write take place in the same exact location. Because if the characters have changed setting there’s no need to add LATER.
The scene heading will also need to indicate if the scene it refers to is a flashback or a different type of sequence that takes place in a different time/reality.
In that case, the word “FLASHBACK” or “DREAM SEQUENCE” or “MEMORY” will be placed before the rest of the scene heading.