While this topic may seem so small it doesn’t necessarily deserve it’s own title, this particular screenwriting element carries a significant amount of weight – if not only for the purpose of making a script easily understandable. Regardless, every scene you pen will require this script pillar. In a nutshell, the time marking assists readers in knowing what time of day the scene is placed in. This is where many novice screenwriters get it wrong – it’s not there to add linguistic theatrics. There’s nothing more off-putting for producers and agents than an incorrectly formatted scene heading element. The reason: this is a simplistic requirement that when done wrong magnifies the lack of training on the screenwriter’s behalf. This assumption may lead a reader to close your manuscript and move onto the next in their ever-growing submission pile. If not anything else, master the basic elements of screenplay formatting. Future readers will appreciate your effort.
The time scene heading element works by establishing a very basic-level understanding of time within an individual scene. While vital, it must follow a specific formula to be attractive to readers.
To describe the time of day in regards to where the sun is positioned, keep it simple. If it’s during the daytime, simply write “DAY.” Oppositely, night scenes are marked with “NIGHT.” While this may not satisfy your desire to fill every work within the script with vivid language, sometimes simple is best. Moreover, scenes are always scheduled and shot with the simple understanding of whether or not it is daytime or night.
By consecutive scenes I’m referring to two or more independent scenes, but their timing is succinct. In order to mark this time element into your screenplay, simply write, “SAME”. Another widely accepted element marker for this situation is “CONTINUOUS;” however, the use of this element is always debated amongst various industry groups and screenwriting coaches. Remember, only use these elements when you wish to indiciate there was no jump in time between the two or more scenes. They occur in “real-time.”
There are many times where a duration of time has passed, but it’s not important to know the exact timing. In this case, utilize the stamp “LATER.” Typically, this element is used when two scenes are separated by an amount of time that is neither substantial nor quick. I tend to utilize this for scenes that occur sporadically throughout the same 24-hour period. Anything beyond that becomes confusing and easily misinterpreted by the audience.
Those Special Moments
Of course, as I’ve said in many of my screenwriting articles, there are multiple exceptions to every rule. It is impossible to guide a unique persons creativity 100% of the time. You’ll likely come across story elements that wouldn’t be accurately depicted using traditional guidelines. During these moments, use your best judgment to create a unique time stamp. Remember, every special circumstance must still be noted with DAY or NIGHT; however, you may add a hyphen after this element to add further necessary information. For example, the main character is having a nightmare that takes place in his high school. Indicate with: INT. LOCKER ROOM – DAY – DREAM. This provides readers with the necessary information to piece together the jumps in time and locations without cohesive lead-ins.