Time Indicators

Towards the end of (nearly) every Scene Heading is an indicator of time, which serves to help the director determine the lighting situation, helps a scene move from place to place, or helps keep a reader orientated when there are sudden time changes.

The most commonly used Time Indicators are DAY and NIGHT, as they usually serve the purpose of queuing the lighting to a particular scene most easily. They'll look something like this:

Obviously a beach looks different at night than it does during the day, so either of these works to tell us the basics of what the reader needs to know in regards to lighting.

Getting More Specific:

But let's say the writer wants to get more specific as to the time of day. After all, throughout the day lighting changes as the sun moves. These subtle changes can do a lot to change a scene's mood.

Here is the same beach scene, but with more specific indicators as to the time of day:

All of these examples do a great job of telling what time of day or night the scene takes place. The possibilities are probably endless.

GLOAMING, by the way, is another way of saying TWILIGHT or DUSK. I'm not sure I'd use it, but it is a viable option.

Exact Time:

Maybe getting more specific still isn't good enough. Maybe a writer wants to tell the reader EXACTLY when a scene takes place. He could write the time indicators like this:

This works well if, earlier in the script, two characters agreed to meet at a certain place at a certain time. Something like the Scene Headings above will clue the reader that the agreed-upon meeting has arrived.

Colorful and Creative:

There is nothing wrong with showing a little color and creativity when writing Time Indicators. You don't want to overdo it, but a little flare added to an important scene can be a good thing.

Check out these common, yet creative, examples used in the same beach scene:

That's nice!

Just so you know, MAGIC HOUR is a very specific lighting indicator.

In his book The Hollywood Standard, Christopher Riley describes MAGIC HOUR as a short period of time just before the sun sets when light is waning. But he warns us that, "...it's also terribly short and so it isn't practical to shoot long scenes." Keep that in mind before you get TOO creative.

Time Orientation:

Sometimes the writer needs a Time Indicator that helps the reader stay oriented time-wise, such as in a film where time is not chronological, like a time-travel thriller. Without indicators to tell when scenes are taking place, the reader can become confused.

Here are a few examples of Time Indicators written to help the reader stay oriented:

Continuous Action:

If you have a scene where scene changes occur quickly with no interruption of time, such as a scene set in a house in which a character moves from one room to the next, the repetition of DAY or NIGHT can become not only cumbersome, but unnecessary. The Time Indicator CONTINUOUS tells a reader that no passage of time has taken place between scenes. Here is one example:

In the example above, we haven't changed locations much, since we are still in the EXECUTIVE OFFICES, and no time has been lost from one scene to the next. So CONTINUOUS is a good option.

But it may not be the BEST option. After all, in the example above, the fact time remains CONTINUOUS is actually a given. This is a situation in which the Time Indicator need not be there at all. The writer could have written the elevator Scene Heading simply as INT. EXECUTIVE OFFICES - ELEVATOR, and any reader would easily be able to keep pace.

Here is a better use of CONTINUOUS:

In the above example, time is not interrupted, but since the elevator is a completely different scene location and focuses on a different character from the scene preceding it, the writer shouldn't ASSUME the reader will understand the elevator scene is continuity of the preceding action. CONTINUOUS here assures clarity.

Moments Later:

But what if time is NOT continuous, but there is also not a large passage of time between scenes? Once again, DAY or NIGHT becomes repetitive and unnecessary if the time change between scenes amounts to mere seconds rather than hours. A writer can solve the problem with a Time Indicator such as MOMENTS LATER. Let's revamp the elevator scene and look at an example:

In the example above, we see Peter enter the elevator on an upper floor, and then immediately cut to his emerging from the elevator in the lobby. Missing is the time in between. So unless he was stuck in the elevator for some time or this is a VERY tall building, repeating DAY only tells the reader what he/she already knows. The writer could have also used SECONDS LATER or LATER or something else to that effect.

Simultaneous Scenes:

But what if two scenes happen AT THE SAME TIME? Well, say so!

Some writers will use the Time Indicator SAME in such situations. The problem with this is many people confuse SAME and CONTINUOUS. To alleviate confusion, use SAME TIME or AT SAME TIME instead. Let's help Peter down to the lobby one last time:

And just like that, we've not only shown two characters in different scenes at the same time, but we've also ended Peter's chances of a fulfilling love life...at least until the next Act break.

Neither Day nor Night:

Every once in a while we may come across a scene in which DAY or NIGHT becomes irrelevant. In outer space, characters will not experience a DAY nor a NIGHT. Neither will characters in underground caverns, those far below the surface of a deep ocean, nor any characters trapped throughout the film in areas where sunlight cannot penetrate (such as in The Poseidon Adventure). In these situations, writers can feel free to leave a time indicator off all together: