Screenwriters, are you looking for ways to improve your scripts?
Writing effective scene headings is an integral part of screenwriting. It’s the first impression a reader or audience member gets of your work.
Knowing how to craft concise and meaningful scene headings can help ensure your script stands out from all the others competing for attention.
Let’s take a look at how to write effective scene headings with clarity and precision so that each one captures what needs to be conveyed in the most creative and efficient way possible.
What are Scene Headings?
As a screenwriter, crafting the perfect scene is key to bringing your story to life. And that’s where scene headings, and at times, slug lines, come into play.
These sneaky little breadcrumbs tell readers exactly where and when they are in your script – like a GPS and timestamp for the mind. From a bustling city to a deserted island, these headings provide context and set the stage for your characters and their actions.
And they also provide critical information to the film crew making the movie or TV show for everything from lighting to casting to scheduling and many other departments.
Scene headings are used before each scene to give information about the setting, time of day, and the characters in that scene.
But they’re not just informative – they can also be used creatively. Consider how changing the time of day or location can impact a scene’s mood and tone.
What Makes a Good Scene Heading?
Scene headings are the traffic signs of screenwriting. They tell us where we are and where we’re going. But just like real signs, they can be dull and lifeless or vibrant and inspiring.
Overall, a good scene heading should paint a picture in the reader’s mind, setting the tone for what’s to come. Let’s look at the specifics of the elements that make a good scene heading. It should:
- Be concise and to the point.
- Include the setting and the time of day.
- Identify whether the scene is indoors or outdoors.
- Include any special instructions or notes, as required.
A good scene heading should also be specific. Vague descriptions are not helpful to the reader or the filmmaker and can make it challenging to understand the logistics of the scene.
How to Craft Effective Scene Headings
Writing effective scene headings is not as difficult as you may think. There are several steps you can take to craft effective scene headings.
1. Use a Standard Format
When writing scene headings, it’s essential to use a standard format. Using a professional screenwriting software program will help you do this effortlessly.
Proper screenplay formatting will make it easier for the reader to understand the scene. Generally, scene headings include the following:
- INT./EXT. (interior or exterior)
- The location
- The time of day
- Written in all caps
EXT. CITY STREET – DAY
This scene heading indicates that the scene takes place in an exterior location (a city street) during the day.
This is important because when the production team breaks down the script, they’ll be interested in day or night, as scheduling tends to revolve around day or night shoots, especially when dealing with exterior locations.
It will also indicate to the locations department which scenes may require considerations such as permits or crowd control.
Also, the difference between one scene being night and the next scene being day is important to continuity for the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments.
2. Avoid Repetition
When writing scene headings, it’s essential to avoid repeating information. This can confuse the reader and make it difficult to understand the scene.
For example, if you’re writing a scene that takes place in the same location as the previous scene – such as in a house, with individual scenes taking place in different rooms of the house – you don’t need to include the main location in every scene heading.
So here our main scene heading might be:
INT. HOUSE – NIGHT
We have two options for breaking it down further into rooms. We can either include the room in a new scene heading, as
INT. HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
Or we can include a secondary scene heading each time we change rooms within the house, such as
We’ve already established that the main location is inside the house at night, so the only information that will change is the actual areas inside that main location.
3. Include Special Instructions
Take your readers on a journey by crafting effective scene headings.
It’s more than just typing in “INT. OFFICE” or “EXT. BEACH” – it’s about setting the scene and providing context.
For example, there are instances where you don’t have to keep writing “DAY” or “NIGHT” after each location. For example, if a scene directly continues from the previous scene, mark it CONTINUOUS in the time slot. If it’s a few minutes later, we can use MOMENTS LATER. Or if it’s a longer amount of time, such as an hour or so, we typically use LATER.
And if the scene takes us out of the timeline completely, such as in a flashback or a dream sequence, then we should identify it in the scene heading as FLASHBACK or DREAM.
Also, don’t be afraid to get creative! For example, if we write EXT. BUSY CITY STREET – DAY, it paints a completely different picture than EXT. DESERTED CITY STREET – DAY, and can likewise inform the production team without them having to dig for that info in the action lines.
These special instructions add vital information and streamline the script. So take a moment to carefully consider what makes each scene unique and how you can guide your readers through your story in the most engaging way possible.
Tips and Tricks for Writing Effective Scene Headings
Here are some tips and tricks for writing effective scene headings:
- Be clear and concise: Scene headings should be straightforward and to the point, so readers can quickly understand the location and time and get a sense of the scene.
- Use present tense: Scene headings are in the present tense to create a sense of immediacy.
- Use Upper Case: Capitalize every word in the scene heading. This is a standard formatting practice for screenplays.
- Use correct order: An indoor or outdoor setting should be the first element, followed by the scene’s location and the time of day.
- Keep Scene Locations Short: Scene Locations should be a few words at most. Otherwise, it can become too cluttered and confusing.
- Use standard terms for the time of day: To keep it simple and save space, use common terms for the time of day, such as DAY or NIGHT.
- Be consistent: Consistency is key. Scene headings should be formatted the same way throughout the entire screenplay.
If you follow these helpful tips and tricks, you can make writing scene headings much easier and create a well-formatted screenplay.
If you need more training on how to write scene headings or format your screenplay in general, you can check out my article on the best screenwriting courses!
What Is a Master Scene Heading?
As a crucial aspect of screenplay writing, the master scene heading serves as a clear indication of where a scene takes place.
Essentially, it is a concise description of the location, time of day, and any other pertinent details that will help the producer and director to bring the scene to life. Think of it as a GPS coordinate and timestamp for the characters, guiding them and the readers to the right destination.
With proper master scene headings in place, it becomes easier for the team involved to visualize the setting and make informed decisions on everything from set design to lighting to scheduling.
What Is a Secondary Scene Heading?
A secondary scene heading refers to the information that appears beneath the primary scene heading, which helps to provide additional context for the location, time, or actions occurring within the given scene.
Typically, a secondary scene heading will include additional details such as the specific room within a larger location, a change in the time of day at the same location, or any other contextual information relevant to the story.
How Do I Write a Scene Heading for a Flashback Or Dream?
Writing a scene heading for a flashback or dream can be a crucial part of your screenplay, as it helps to differentiate between the present and past or imaginary events.
When crafting a scene heading for a flashback or dream, it’s essential to make sure that it’s clear and concise, using specific language to signify the shift in time or circumstances.
Use “FLASHBACK” or “DREAM” in all caps at the start of the scene heading, such as
FLASHBACK: INT. MALCOLM’S OFFICE – NIGHT.
This can provide immediate context for the audience. Remember to keep a consistent format throughout your script to avoid confusion.
Example of a Properly Formatted Scene Heading
In this example from the screenplay for Trainspotting (1996), we can see how each scene heading clearly identifies the scene location and time of day, as well as the interior and exterior locations.
Common Questions About Scene Headings
What is the difference between a slug line and a scene heading?
A scene heading is the first element of any given scene and includes the INT or EXT (interior or exterior) designator, the location of the scene, and the time of day.
e.g. INT. PARKING GARAGE – EVENING
A slug line, on the other hand, is a brief description where you use CAPS to identify critical information in a scene.
e.g. AN EAR-SPLITTING SHRIEK PIERCES THE SILENCE.
How do you write scene headings in Final Draft?
To write scene headings in Final Draft, follow these steps:
- Click on the “ELEMENTS” tab at the top of the page.
- Select “Scene Heading” from the drop-down menu, or press “Command” + “Option” + “S” on your keyboard.
- Type in the scene’s location, using “INT.” for interior or “EXT.” for exterior scenes.
- Add the specifics of the location, such as “APARTMENT” or “PARK,” followed by the time of day, such as “DAY” or “NIGHT.”
For example, if the scene is set inside a coffee shop during the day, the scene heading would be written as:
INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY
Are scenes that take place in cars INT. or EXT.?
Scenes that take place inside a car are almost always categorized as INT. (interior) because they take place within an enclosed space. Even if the car is stationary, the scene would be considered INT.
If, however, the car scene features actions seen from outside the car, it could potentially be categorized as EXT. (exterior).
If the scene combines interior and exterior shots, then the scene heading can be written as “INT./EXT.” to indicate this.
As a final takeaway, scene headings are an essential part of every screenplay.
They can be utilized in various ways to add depth, drama, and intrigue to your story or to help quickly define a mood.
However, the most important thing is that each scene heading needs to have an intention and should always be written with the reader in mind.
Remember: be succinct and clear, and keep your heading style consistent throughout your work. Good luck in all of your scriptwriting endeavors!
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