The Importance of Standard Hollywood Scene Headings in the Spec Screenplay Structure
It’s very much like designing clothes. The clothing dummy always looks the same. Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. You can dress it up all you want, but if you don’t know what the body looks like, you’ll be a terrible designer. And the first thing you have to do is to learn what the body of a screenplay looks like.
Akiva Goldsman, Academy Award Winning Screenwriter, A BEAUTIFUL MIND.
Each year, the Writer’s Guild of America registers from 50,000 to 75,000 screenplays. This number increases every year. Simply put, there are more people writing screenplays than ever before.
As the number of written screenplays expands each year, so too does the importance of, and need for adherence to, standard Hollywood screenplay structure and formatting. With that in mind, let us have a brief look at scene headings, and why they are essential in your efforts to get your screenplay past the gatekeepers of Hollywood.
In any scene heading, there are several objectives which the screenwriter should always strive to achieve. These are principles, meaning; they can be bent, and are malleable, but should never be broken or ignored. The two most important objectives are to respect the reader, and to not encroach on the responsibilities of the creative members of the Production, (i.e., the Director, Actors, Cinematographer, Editor, etc.)
Showing respect for the reader is, by far the more important of the two. By giving the reader a clear, concise sense of where we are, and when we are seeing what is being described is critical. While the principles are, as mentioned, malleable, the need to begin each descriptive slug with INT. to indicate Interior, or EXT. to indicate Exterior, is absolute. This is especially true when describing a location for the very first time in the screenplay. Once a location is introduced for the first time, it is permissible to use shorthand to re-orient the reader to that location without repeating the process of writing out the entire description again.
Here is a brief example. The location is a theater building in New York City. This might serve as the opening image of the screenplay:
EXT. CROWDED THEATER ENTRANCE-LINCOLN CENTER-NEW YORK CITY-EVENING (AUGUST 1971)
Take note that the description is written in all caps, as all scene headings must be. Remember, this is a scene heading, not a sentence. The scene heading is designed to navigate the mind’s eye of the reader, or, as I like to phrase it; the reader/viewer, smoothly down the page. It should create the sensation of the reader/viewer’s eyes floating, as opposed to stumbling, down the page. There should not be a need to go back and re-read any part of what is written. Your objective is to paint a picture in their mind. Once this is achieved, there will be yet another image, clearly rendered on the page of your screenplay, in descriptive prose. The totality of this collection of images, juxtaposed page by page, will be the visual statement that is called a screenplay.
Have another look at our description of Lincoln Center. In one clearly written description, we have created, without stepping on the toes of the Director or Cinematographer, maximum atmosphere through the use of minimal prose. Here is how….
We can see, in our mind’s eye, a well-heeled crowd of theater goers. There is a buzz in the air. A collection of happy couples, along with successful business men and women gather at the entrance, waiting for their dates to arrive, while others, arriving from out of town from places like Long Island and New Jersey, banter excitedly with anticipation for the opening of the theater doors. It is 1971, which means that we see very colorful pedestrian traffic that contrasts with our already established, well dressed theater crowd. How do we know that they are well dressed? It is Lincoln Center, not Madison Square Garden. Young “hippies” with long hair, beads and jeans replete with peace signs, along with African-Americans, with tall afro-style haircuts that were popular during that era can be seen passing by. If there is a music choice, it is only included if that song is directly connected to the story’s plot. Only the absolute bare minimums are placed in scene headings. But, by identifying the where and when of the scene, these details are delicately implied to the reader, as if you are gently taking them by the hand and leading them on a journey.
Now, let’s assume for the sake of this example that our story brings us back to the theater entrance, later in the screenplay. We have already established: The locale, New York City, the location, Lincoln Center, and the era, 1971. The viewer/reader already has this imprint in their mind’s eye. To revisit this location in a later part of the story, we can simplify for the reader/viewer the scene heading for this same location. An example of this would appear as follows:
EXT. LINCOLN CENTER-EVENING
Or, EXT. LINCOLN CENTER-LATER
In the second example, LATER is inserted instead of EVENING, which indicates the passing of time. The time of day that is used in the simplified description is dependent on where you are in the story, or at what part of the story you are revisiting the character’s actions in relation to the previously established scene heading.
This technique is frequently used in stories that employ a bookend structure. That is, a previously established location is revisited when picking up the action from the moment that occurs after the previously established scene heading. An example of this can be pulled from the film THE TALENTED MISTER RIPLEY. The first shot of the main character, Tom Ripley, portrayed by Matt Damon, takes place in the cabin of an ocean liner. In the voice over, his character laments the dire fate of his predicament, created by his actions, as he sits alone in the cabin. In the final shot of the film, we rejoin him in the same cabin, with the answers to the question he posed in the voice over from the opening shot having been experienced by the audience. We end where we began. Being that the location has already been described and established early in act one, we do not have to give the same level of detail, contained in the scene heading from the opening sequence, when we return to that location in act three.
On the matter of respecting the creative team who will be involved in production of your screenplay, take care not to direct from the page in your descriptions and scene headings. In short, do not use the word CAMERA or give camera directions. While the practice of indicating how and where the camera moves is sometimes unavoidable, dramatic descriptions will go a long way in showing respect for the reader and creative team. For example, CLOSE ON is used as opposed to ZOOM IN. Or, FOLLOW ALONG WITH …can be used as opposed to THE CAMERA DOLLIES ALONGSIDE…you get the idea.
The technical jargon, or “cinematographer speak” should be avoided at all costs. The argument always follows that many feature screenplays, when downloaded from the internet, include these technical camera directions. The reason for this is that most screenplays available for download are feature films which have already been shot and are shooting scripts, not early drafts of the story.
The degree to which you effectively render your scene headings will determine the effectiveness of the detailed descriptions that follow. By setting the table with a vivid, well defined scene heading for every scene, you will save yourself from having to fill in the blanks with long winded descriptions that are paragraphs long.
Peter Fox holds a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute. He has read and covered over one thousand screenplays at Paramount, Universal and Columbia Tri-Star Pictures. He has conducted The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure since 2001.