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Common Formatting Mistakes: Scene Headings

February 16, 2015

One thing that will sabotage your chances of getting your script read is poor formatting. If a reader sees these mistakes they automatically, and with good reason, assume you are an amateur or that you don’t care enough about the craft. These common formatting errors will get your script dropped into the ‘pass’ pile quicker than collection plate gets passed on Sunday.

On top of the list, mostly because it’s the first thing a reader sees after the cover, is the Scene Heading, also know as the scene slug line. There should only be three things in slug line. I will list them below in order of appearance:

1) Camera location. Camera location is either INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior). Occasionally the action may take place between the two locations, like for instance a doorway. In this case it is acceptable to use INT./EXT., but that should be a rare occasion.

2) Scene location. This is where everything is happening. Normally this should consist of one or two words: JOHN’S APARTMENT, LIVING ROOM, STREET, etc. What should never go in the scene location are articles, verbs, or any other describers. Don’t write RUNNING or EASTER SUNDAY or STANDING ON THE SIDEWALK IN FRONT OF THE DRUGSTORE. These are not locations. Don’t give over complicated and wordy descriptions like the drugstore example above. First, the camera location will tell us that the location is an exterior shot. Second, since we know it’s outside, there’s not reason to explain that it’s on the sidewalk. This can be explained in the action lines below the slug line. So all you really need for the location of this particular scene would be DRUGSTORE. Or even better, give the drugstore a name like FRED’S PHARMACY.

3) Time of day. Most of the time it will be either DAY or NIGHT. The only time you want to be specific and use precise times of day is if it is pertinent to the story. If it’s not important, then avoid using DUSK, LATE AFTERNOON, or 4:15. Occasionally you will use SAME or CONTINUOUS. These two can be used interchangeably, but most often SAME is used to show that a scene is happening simultaneously with another scene, and CONTINUOUS is used when one scene follows on the heels of the previous scene without interruption. CONTINUOUS is used incorrectly more often than not. Just know that if you use CONTINUOUS that there should be no break in time, not even for a fraction of a minute. It should be seamless.

These are the basics, what every beginning screenwriter should know. There are other things such as FLASHBACK, MONTAGE, and subheadings that I won’t get into here. Perhaps I’ll write that in a future blog. Follow these rules for writing Scene Headings and you’ll have a much better chance of a reader getting past FADE IN: Until next week, happy writing.

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