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Screenplay Formatting: Tips Archive > Format > Establishing Time And Place

How To Format A Screenplay:  Establishing Time And Place

Elaine Radford

It's important to establish the time and place of your story in the opening scene of your screenplay. Doing so gives the audience the geographic location and era in which the story takes place.

By clearly describing the time and place early in your screenplay, your audience will be immediately engaged in the plot and won't wonder where and when the story takes place. We have all seen films that fail to do this, and we look for clues about the setting and the year as we try to follow the story. It's a distraction. Good films use what is known as an establishing shot to establish time and place.

Though screenwriters shouldn't use camera directions in a script, it's the screenwriter's job to provide clues for the audience that pinpoint the time period. For example, the story may take place in present day or many years or decades in the past. It can also be set hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

In establishing the setting, or place, the audience needs hints about the geographic location of the story. For example, a story can be set in a city in the U.S. like New York, and we might see the New York City skyline in the opening scene. The story can also be set in Kansas, and we might see a road sign that reads, "Kansas City." It could be set in ancient Rome, in India in 1836, in Los Angeles in the year 2095, or on a distant planet in the year 3000.


In a screenplay, an establishing shot may be written and formatted in the following way:


Crowds of people move slowly along Times Square. Late-model cars and taxis are snarled in traffic. We HEAR horns HONKING. Theater marquees flash the titles of    shows—The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Rent, Wicked.

In this example, the setting is immediately recognized because Times Square is a place most audiences have seen and recognize as being part of New York City. The late-model cars and the titles of the Broadway shows provide clues that this story takes place in current time.

Another technique for establishing time and place is the use of a subtitle on screen that gives the place and the date. For example:


Heavy rain falls on dense forest, thick with tangled vines. Mist rises from the forest floor. We HEAR monkeys SCREECHING and birds CALLING.


In this example, the scene is described, but it could be a forest anywhere in the world. However, when the subtitle flashes on screen, it tells the audience that this forest is in Borneo, Indonesia and the year is 1980.

You must establish the time and place of your story at the beginning of your screenplay. To do this in your opening scene, ask yourself several questions:

When does the story take place? Does it take place now, in the past, in the future?
       When possible, use visual clues to pinpoint the time period. For example, car
        models, clothing styles, and other elements can identify the time.

2)    Where does the story take place? Describe the geographic location. Include
        specific details that identify the location such as road signs, skylines, titles on
        buildings, historic landmarks, etc.

3)    What other cinematic devices can you use to give the audience specific information
        about the geographic location and year? Would subtitles provide this information?

Coming Next: How To Format Dialogue


The Last Victim
A Novel by
Elaine Bossik

Elaine Bossik writes screenwriting articles for under the pen name, Elaine Radford. Elaine's new novel, "The Last Victim," has been published and is now available in paperback.
Read more....

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