Scene headers seem to be a source of frustration for many writers. And I think I understand why.
When you write a spec script, you constantly hear - keep the camera out of it. Don't give camera angles. Don't write camera movement directions. Leave all of that to the director. Just tell us the story.
OK, so when you sit down to write a scene header/slug, your natural instinct tells you to use it to advance the story. You want to describe the color of the sky, the weather, the exact moment of the day and tell us if it's tomorrow or next week.
Only you can't in a properly-formatted header. A header is the one item on the page in a spec that really is more about camera direction than story.
Let's start with why a header isn't about story: An audience never sees or hears your header. Every time you write something in a spec screenplay, ask yourself if it translates to the screen. If you use your header to tell your reader that it's now tomorrow - and that information is vital to someone's understanding of your scene - ask yourself how the movie-theater audience knows that information. The answer is - they don't. A header is just information that a reader gets - not an audience.
A header, even though we use them in spec screenplays, is really important to the shoot. The INT./EXT. tells the director and cinematographer something about the location of the camera (indoors or outdoors) and whether the lighting should appear natural or artificial. The location that you type after INT. or EXT. tells the exact camera location. And the DAY or NIGHT (and those are the only two designations you generally will ever need) just tells the producer/director/cinematographer more about the lighting.
With that said, always remember that INT. means interior. Don't complicate this. Is your location inside? If not, use EXT. for exterior. That's all. Make sure you are describing the room you are in and not an item that you want to use in a close up. For example, if you write:
INT. SHIRT - DAY
You have just asked the director to set up the camera inside a shirt. I would bet there are very few scripts in which that header would really be what the writer meant to say. Here's another one that's physically impossible:
INT. JOHN RUNNING - DAY
You can't put a camera inside John running. Remember that the words you type after INT. or EXT. have to be a physical location where a camera could be placed.
Now, let's discuss location and why consistency is so important to a producer. If SAM'S ROOM is a location, you should always type it that exact same way. When someone goes to shoot your movie and they pull up all your scene headers to try to arrange a shooting schedule, they should not see:
INT. SAM'S ROOM
INT. SAM'S HOUSE - SAM'S ROOM
INT. SAM'S ROOM IN SAM'S HOUSE
These are all the same location. Don't confuse a potential producer by changing the way you write your headers. Every new location means more money, so make sure you don't make one location look like three simply by being inconsistent in your headers.
By the same token, don't say INT. CAR to describe three different people's cars. Again, that will look like one location and one car that needs to be on set instead of three. So be sure to say:
INT. MARK'S CAR
INT. DAVE'S CAR
INT. BETTY'S CAR
After your location, you should generally just describe the way the lighting looks with either DAY or NIGHT. If your scene is inside a room with no windows, don't write anything in this space. So, if your characters are locked inside a bank vault, you could just say:
INT. BANK VAULT
I'm trying to keep these blogs short and readable, so I'm going to save the dreaded LATER and CONTINUOUS for the next blog. If you have any specific scene header questions in the meantime, you can use the comments section or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Have fun writing!