Establishing shots are used to show the world of the story. Including the setting, time of day and paints a picture for your scene or entire script.
How do you write an establishing shot in a screenplay? You write an establishing shot in a script by indicating “INT” for Interior or Inside “EXT” for Exterior or outside. Then A location setting followed by “DAY” or “NIGHT” Finally, describe the scene itself.
EXT. HIGHSCHOOL - DAY
Backpacked kids run against the rigging bell through the single open door.
INT. HIGHSCHOOL CLASSROOM - CONTINOUS
Katty Kinderlin (14), a real sweetheart, peeks her head into the classroom, too shy to enter. The soft light reflecting from her big blue eyes forces the rambunctious class to settle at the sight of her.
Sometimes you might see the first scene heading as “ESTABLISHING” instead of “DAY,” but this is more for production-ready screenplays, not spec scripts.
INT. HIGHSCHOOL CLASSROOM - DAY
Backpacked kids run against the rigging bell through the single door.
Katty Kinderlin ( 14), a real sweetheart, peeks her head into the classroom, too shy to enter. The soft reflecting from her big blue eyes forces the rambunctious class to settle at the sight of her.
Both examples work perfectly fine. Example two excludes the extra scene heading. Which can be a drag to the reader. More on that below.
Establishing Shots from Screenplays Examples
Most films have some sort of establishing scene. Let’s see how they describe establishing scenes in their screenplays.
OVER BLACK: is used, but it’s still done the same way.
OPEN ON: is used in this example.
Do you see a pattern used? I know I do. Let’s talk about the guidelines for using establishing scenes in screenplays.
Guidelines for writing establishing Shots in screenplays
Whether you’re writing a thriller, comedy, or horror. Opening images in scripts are all for the same purpose. To introduce the world of the story or the setting. The situation Nothing more.
1.) Keep it short and Get to the point.
All these openings are short and to the point; we see the world’s reality or the situation and then immediately cut to start the story.
2.) No characters or a situation for a character
Notice how in all the examples above, the character is either in danger or uncomfortable. These examples are great but outliers; most establishing shots may not have characters at all. Maybe people to help describe the town but no one in particular.
Why you should write an establishing shot in a script
1.) Set the tone.
The tone is essential in a script. The tone in screenwriting is the mood or attitude you’re writing portrays. It also helps us paint the genre. You can do this by the very beginning, and an establishing shot can help do this.
2.) Reveal key details on the story.
Say you’re writing a fantasy movie like Avatar or terminator. An opening shot that shows us the world would be necessary, to say the least.
Why you shouldn’t write an establishing shot in a script
1.) Slows down the script.
If your reading this, I’m assuming you’re not in the industry and therefore writing a spec script. Most specs scripts suffer from being over-written. Unless there is a specific reason for this opening tied to the story, don’t write it.
2.) The director’s job
Many times a director will decide what we see first. Your job as the writer is to tell the story, not direct the story. Keep the script to the elements of the story only. Once you’re in the industry, then you can detail it up.
Now its time to hear from you:
Did I miss anything?
In what way are you going to open your script, and why?
Whatever the reason is, let’s hear it in the comments below.