Return to 3. elements of screenplay form

3.4. screenplay time & space

The screenwriter creates filmic time on paper. The production people break it apart and produce filmic time in bits and pieces on film.” — Margaret Mehring1

Although production and set designer — together with director and cinematographer — are ultimately in charge of the setting’s realization, a script will already indicate whether the film’s requirements are elaborate or not.” — Claudia Sternberg2

3.4.1. Overview.

As the two quotes above indicate, the temporal and spatial properties of the screenplay are intrinsic to its relationship with the production process. Time and space in the shooting script affect budget in ways that few other elements do, and this dynamic has resulted in some very peculiar formatting conventions where time and space are concerned. Beyond production concerns, cinema itself is a temporally fixed medium, so screenwriters are constricted in ways that authors of literary prose are not when it comes to describing the spaces contained in their narratives. Here we will look at some of the most important aspects of cinematic time and space to the art of screenwriting.

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3.4.2. Conventions of Cinematic Time in Screenwriting. [Back to Page Topics]

Like any narrative text, screenplays may be viewed in terms of story time and discourse time.3 A screenplay’s story time is the duration of the storyworld events narrated in the text, and it is always linear, moving forward in one direction.4 Discourse time may or may not break linearity, and while the discourse time of a novel is the time it takes to read the novel, the discourse time of the screenplay is more complex since the screenplay points to a feature film. While it may take no more than 25 seconds to read a page of screenplay text, convention states that one page of text equals one minute of screen time.5 Since the page number/screen time relationship is essential to the screenplay’s role in film production, we will prefer the view that discourse time in minutes for a screenplay is roughly equal to the script’s number of pages.6

While motion pictures are shot with running timecode, no additional duration-tracking conventions are employed in the craft of screenwriting beyond the page-per-minute rule, thus some temporal variability on the page is to be expected, where one inch of text may equal 6 seconds of screen time while the next inch may equal 30. Story time is primarily tracked in the slug-line as either DAY or NIGHT, but some scripts may use subtitles to indicate specific clock times on the screen. Screenplays that cover long durations of time may also include dates in the slug-line, and flashbacks will also be indicated in the scene heading.

Discourse time in the screenplay may be distinct from story time in three key areas — order, duration, and frequency — and we will now examine each separately.

3.4.3. Time & Order in the Screenplay. [Back to Page Topics]

As Sternberg has observed, “The script neither follows the chronology of events nor indicates in which sequence the scenes are to be filmed during production. As has been pointed out earlier, film, like prose, is not bound to a time continuum. In screenwriting practice this means a freedom in the use of time structures.”7

Linear ordering may be disrupted in any number of ways. Methods of anachronology include: (1) Prolepsis8 — a flashforward, in which a future storyworld event is inserted between two events of the narrative “present”; (2) Analepsis9 — a flashback, in which a past storyworld event is inserted between two events of the narrative “present”; and (3) Jumbled Sequencing10 — a randomized presentation of storyworld events, lacking a primary narrative present and dictated only by the artistic concerns of the author.

Screenplays that begin at the start of the story timeline are said to begin Ab Ovo (“from the egg”), while ones that begin in the middle of the story timeline are said to begin In Media Res (“into the middle”), and those that begin at the end of the story timeline are said to begin In Ultimas Res (“into the end”).11

3.4.4. Time & Duration in the Screenplay. [Back to Page Topics]

Screenplay text duration, as has already been pointed out, has a very specific effect on motion picture duration. The relationship between story time and discourse time as exhibited in the text and on the screen may be viewed in five distinct categories.12

  1. Descriptive Pause in text involves maximum textual space in zero story time. This is common in literary prose, where an author may linger for pages describing some setting, but by virtue of the page-per-minute rule, it is virtually forbidden in screenwriting. The screenwriter may only spend as much time on a description as the camera will spend looking at it. The cinematic equivalent is the freeze frame.
  2. A Slow-Down or Stretch in text involves greater textual space than story time. This is possible in screenwriting but rare. The cinematic equivalent is a slow-motion shot.
  3. A Scene in text involves equal textual space and story time. This is the same for motion pictures as for text, a span of time in which discourse and story time are equal.
  4. Summary in text involves less textual space than story time. This manipulation is quite common in screenwriting for practical reasons and can potentially wreak havoc with the page-per-minute rule. Cinematic equivalents include a series of shots or “montage” sequence. A time-lapse shot is another cinematic example of Summary.
  5. Ellipsis in text involves zero textual space and variable story time. In both screenwriting and filmmaking, this involves omitting story time from the discourse by cutting from one scene to another scene while skipping an intervening event.

The default presentation of most screenplays involves a series of scenes connected by ellipses. Some actions that will have to play out on screen will either appear too dull in text or will be too involved to be written in real time, in which case a screenwriter will opt for summary. One example of this can be found in William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “BUTCH AND SUNDANCE. CLOSE UP. This SHOT takes a long long time, as they wait, hardly breathing, listening for the least conceivable sound.” This shot may last minutes, but there are only so many ways for a screenwriter to fill pages while the characters do nothing but wait. Summary is clearly the best option, even if it distorts the page-per-minute rule. Perhaps the most famous example of summary in the history of screenwriting is the line “Atlanta burns,” in Gone with the Wind.

Because the master scene format is standard and screenwriters are discouraged from technical comment, pauses and stretches are very rare in screenplays, even if they are used in the final motion picture. There are, of course, exceptions, especially when the script is the work of a writer/director. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights includes an example of a stretch in the first few pages: “A bus boy cleaning a table, EDDIE ADAMS, aged 17. CAMERA moves into a CU — blending to SLOW MOTION (40fps) for a moment.” Again, this kind of explicit technical comment is generally discouraged, so manipulations of duration of this sort are harder to come by.

3.4.5. Time & Frequency in the Screenplay. [Back to Page Topics]

The question of frequency concerns the number of times an event or series of events is narrated in a given text. In a Singularity, an event that happens once in story time is delivered only once in discourse time. This is the default presentation of frequency in screenwriting.

In a Repetition, however, an event that occurs only once in story time is delivered multiple times in discourse time, usually from different perspectives with new information conveyed each time. This has become so prevalent in contemporary screenwriting, that Charles Ramirez Berg has coined a term for plots that rely heavily on this device: Repeated Event/Multiple Perspective Plots.

In an Iteration, an event that occurs multiple times in story time is delivered only once in the discourse, with the one example standing in for the pattern. This is also common in screenwriting. For instance, readers do not need to see a character at her job over and over again to understand that going to work is part of her routine behavior. One scene at her job may suffice in establishing that going to work is something she does every day. The single occurrence in discourse time represents an on-going behavior in story time.

3.4.6. Conventions of Cinematic Space in Screenwriting. [Back to Page Topics]

One of the major factors distinguishing cinema from theatre is the cinematic treatment of space. A person sitting in the audience of a staged drama has only one perspective, one angle of view, and will have trouble observing the minute details of the staging. Not so with cinema, where every member of the audience enjoys a nearly identical view, with access (through the Close-Up and Extreme Close-Up) to the most intricate details of an actor’s face, the textures of the wardrobe, and the finest details of the set dressing. Through the power of the Close-Up, “The face becomes another kind of object in space, a terrain on which may be enacted dramas broad as battles, and sometimes more intense.”13

Motion pictures free the spectator from spatial bondage and give him the power of teleportation. The only limit of this spatial flexibility is the tolerance of the audience, which of course is a real consideration. Audience members will feel disoriented and dizzy if a filmmaker too frequently shifts their spatial bearings.

Naturally, the needs of the audience shape the way screenwriters handle space in the scene text of the script. In addition to naming each location in the slug-line, at least some scenic description will usually be necessary to orient the reader. Due to the unique demands of the page-per-minute rule, however, screenwriters generally do not have the luxury of describing space in vast detail. Indeed, they are only permitted to linger on the physical details of a scripted space for as long as the camera will eventually linger on the same staged space.

While most screenplays do not make explicit reference to shot size, close-ups and extreme close-ups can be implied by referencing the fine details of the staging, such as a character’s expression or a small prop. Again, to avoid the disorientation of the audience, the screenwriter must write with an awareness of how such spatial shifts will affect viewers. Unnecessary fine details should be omitted from the scene text to exclude superfluous jumps in perspective.

Space also marks an additional boundary of scene. While a continuous stretch of action in which story time is equal to discourse time is generally considered a single scene, a change of location midway through the action will divide it into two scenes, each with its own slug-line identifying the setting.

One aspect of cinematic space worthy of special consideration is the mise-en-scene. Here we will restrict our definition to those traits common to both legitimate theatre and film — the staging of the set and actors, decoration, wardrobe, lighting, etc. — though there are many who would argue against this restriction. For our purposes, we want to examine the ways in which screenwriters evoke mise-en-scene in the screenplay text. In other words, how do screenwriters use mise-en-scene in their descriptions of setting and in their placement of character actions within those settings?

3.4.7. The Mise-en-scene and Setting. [Back to Page Topics]

Film theorists have used mise-en-scene as one tool to distinguish the work of the director from the work of the screenwriter, which would seem to make sense. After all, directors work in real spaces and writers work in words. This distinction, however, would seem to ignore the role of the screenplay as a central document in the design of a motion picture’s setting. After all, directors do not build sets and decorate them: art departments do. Directors do not dress the actors or light the set. Costumers and gaffers do. For each of these technicians, the screenplay offers the first impression of the setting. No matter the influence of the director, he or she will always fight the first impression garnered from the script.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson uses the script to control this first impression in Boogie Nights, with numerous detailed descriptions of the mise-en-scene:


Dirk enters his room and begins to remove his clothes. He
turns the volume low on his stereo. He stands in front of
his mirror, does a few flexes, some dance moves, some karate
Posters on the walls of Travolta, Pacino, a 1976 Corvette,
Bruce Lee, Hawaii, a Penthouse centerfold, Luke Skywalker,

Dirk is in bed with a young neighborhood girl, SHERYL LYNN
PARTRIDGE. Her room is decorated in pastels with equestrian
things all around. Horse models, trophies from riding, blue
ribbons, etc.

These contrasting descriptions of gender-specific teenage bedrooms in the 1970s underline the characters’ immaturity and innocence. The script may be about the porn industry, and Dirk and Sheryl may have just finished having sex in scene 18. Regardless, the environment reveals character, demonstrating that while Dirk and Sheryl may be sexually alive, they’re still just kids, completely unprepared for the grown-up world that awaits them.

Sophia Coppola uses mise-en-scene to evoke character even more effectively in The Virgin Suicides, where a teenage girl’s bathroom is treated as a kind of holy space by a visiting boy:

Inside the bathroom, he looks around. Opening the medicine
cabinet he finds hidden stashes of cosmetics, tweezers, a
brush filled with hair (he touches the blonde hairs) ...
there are boxes of depilatory wax, deoderants, skin exfoliators,
... there are enough toiletries for an army of girls. He
opens another cupboard to find twelve boxes of Tampax --
and quickly shuts it.

He sees a lipstick on the sink counter and opens it, examining
the bright pink color and smelling it.

Where Anderson’s descriptions evoke childish naivete, Coppola’s evoke mystery and wonder. In both cases, however, we’re viewing the work of writer/directors. How have non-directing writer’s used mise-en-scene effectively? One striking example can be observed in Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver:

It is 3:30 IN THE MORNING in a bacon-shaped all night WEST
SIDE RESTAURANT. The thick smell hangs in the air - fried
grease, smoke, sweat, regurgitated wine.

Whatever doesn't flush away in New York at night turns up
in places like this. A burly grease-stained COOK stands over
the grill. A JUNKIE shuffles from one side of the door to
another. Slouched over the small four-person formica tables
are several WELL-DRESSED BLACKS (too well-dressed for this
time and place), a cluster of STREET PEOPLE and a lost OLD
COOT who hangs onto his cup of coffee as if it were his last

The restaurant, brightly lit, perfectly conveys the image of
urban plasticity - without the slightest hint of an accompanying

Generally considered one of America’s finest screenplays, Taxi Driver nevertheless exhibits an unusual, novel-like specificity in its mise-en-scene, particularly with its references to smell, an inactive sense in cinema. Compare Schrader’s description of the diner to the introduction of one of cinema’s most celebrated settings, Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca:

Rick's is an expensive and chic nightclub which definitely
possesses an air of sophistication and intrigue.

SAM, a middle-aged Negro, sits on a stool before a small,
salmon-colored piano on wheels, playing and singing while
accompanied by a small orchestra.

All about him there is the HUM of voices, CHATTER and

The occupants of the room are varied. There are Europeans
in their dinner jackets, their women beautifully begowned
and bejeweled. There are Moroccans in silk robes. Turks
wearing fezzes. Levantines. Naval officers. Members
of the Foreign Legion, distinguished by their kepis.

By comparison, the introduction of Rick’s is rather bland, if effective. The only unusual detail, particularly for a script to be shot in black and white, is the description of Sam’s piano as “salmon-colored,” a distinction that has no narrative significance but does lend the setting a certain exotic quality. Where the writers of Casablanca leave it to the imagination to paint a setting that “definitely possesses an air of sophistication and intrigue,” nothing is left to the imagination in Taxi Driver. The grime of the diner is visceral and palpable, made explicit in Schrader’s use of mise-en-scene.

3.4.8. The Mise-en-scene and Character Blocking. [Back to Page Topics]

Mise-en-scene also refers to the placement and movement of the actors on set. Often times, even writer/directors refrain from including detailed blocking instructions in their screenplays, perhaps not wanting to over-direct the actors. However, as this extended scene from The Apartment demonstrates, some inclusion of blocking can elevate the drama of a particular exchange of dialogue (emphasis mine):


The living room is dark, except for a shaft of light from
the kitchen, and the glow of the colored bulbs on a small
Christmas tree in front of the phony fireplace.

Hunched up in one corner of the couch is Fran, still in her
coat and gloves, crying softly. Pacing up and down is Sheldrake.
His coat and hat are on a chair, as are several
Christmas packages. On the coffee table are an unopened
bottle of Scotch, a couple of untouched glasses, and a bowl
of melting ice.

                   (stops and faces Fran)
            Come on, Fran -- don't be like that.
            You just going to sit there and
            keep bawling?
                   (no answer)
            You won't talk to me, you won't
            tell me what's wrong --
                   (a new approach)
            Look, I know you think I'm stalling
            you. But when you've been married
            to a woman for twelve years, you
            don't just sit down at the breakfast
            table and say "Pass the sugar --
            and I want a divorce." It's not
            that easy.
                   (he resumes pacing; Fran continues crying)
            Anyway, this is the wrong time. The
            kids are home from school -- my in-
            laws are visiting for the
            holidays -- I can't bring it up now.
                   (stops in front of her)
            This isn't like you, Fran -- you
            were always such a good sport --
            such fun to be with --

                   (through tears)
            Yeah -- that's me. The Happy
            Idiot -- a million laughs.

            Well, that's more like it. At least
            you're speaking to me.

            Funny thing happened to me at the
            office party today -- I ran into
            your secretary -- Miss Olsen. You
            know -- ring-a-ding-ding? I laughed
            so much I like to died.

            Is that what's been bothering
            you -- Miss Olsen? That's ancient

            I was never very good at history.
            Let me see -- there was Miss Olsen,
            and then there was Miss Rossi --
            no, she came before -- it was Miss
            Koch who came after Miss Olsen --

            Now, Fran --

            And just think -- right now there's
            some lucky girl in the building
            who's going to come after me --

            Okay, okay, Fran. I deserve that.
            But just ask yourself -- why does a
            man run around with a lot of girls?
            Because he's unhappy at home --
            because he's lonely, that's why --
            all that was before you, Fran --
            I've stopped running.

Fran has taken a handkerchief out of her bag and is dabbing her eyes.

            How could I be so stupid? You'd
            think I would have learned by
            now -- when you're in love with a
            married man, you shouldn't wear

            It's Christmas Eve, Fran -- let's
            not fight.

            Merry Christmas.

She hands him a flat, wrapped package.

            What is it?

He strips away the wrapping to reveal a long-playing record.
The cover reads: RICKSHAW BOY - Jimmy Lee Kiang with

            Oh. Our friend from the Chinese
            restaurant. Thanks, Fran. We better
            keep it here.

            Yeah, we better.

            I have a present for you. I didn't
            quite know what to get you --
            anyway it's a little awkward for
            me, shopping --
                   (he has taken out a money clip, detaches a bill)
            -- so here's a hundred dollars --
            go out and buy yourself something.

He holds the money out, but she doesn't move.
Sheldrake slips the bill into her open bag.

            They have some nice alligator bags
            at Bergdorf's --

Fran gets up slowly and starts peeling off her gloves.
Sheldrake looks at her, then glances nervously at his wrist watch.

            Fran, it's a quarter to seven --
            and I mustn't miss the train -- if
            we hadn't wasted all that time -- I
            have to get home and trim the
            tree --

Fran has started to remove her coat.

                   (shrugs the coat back on)
            I just thought as long as it was
            paid for --

                   (an angry step toward her)
            Don't ever talk like that, Fran!
            Don't make yourself out to be cheap.

            A hundred dollars? I wouldn't call
            that cheap. And you must be paying
            somebody something for the use of
            the apartment --

                   (grabbing her arms)
            Stop that, Fran.

            You'll miss your train, Jeff.

Sheldrake hurriedly puts on his hat and coat, gathers up his packages.


            You run along -- I want to fix my

                   (heading for the door)
            Don't forget to kill the lights.
            See you Monday.

            Sure. Monday and Thursday -- and
            Monday again -- and Thursday
            again --

                   (that stops him in the half-open door)
            It won't always be like this.
                   (coming back)
            I love you, Fran.

Holding the packages to one side, he tries to kiss her on the mouth.

                   (turning her head)
            Careful -- lipstick.

He kisses her on the cheek, hurries out of the apartment, closing the door.
Fran stands there for a while, blinking back tears, then takes the long-playing
record out of its envelope, crosses to the phonograph. She puts the record on,
starts the machine -- the music is JEALOUS LOVER. As it plays, Fran wanders
aimlessly around the darkened room, her body wracked by sobs. Finally she regains
control of herself, and picking up her handbag, starts through the bedroom toward
the bathroom.

While the scene above is driven by its marvelous dialogue, it is fully brought to life by the intricate staging of its characters. Without the precise scene directions that track the movement of bodies in space, the scene would fall flat on the page, waiting to be realized by actors. As written, however, the performances are practically in the text. This is an unusually well-crafted passage of mise-en-scene, but it demonstrates what is possible when screenwriters are completely in command of their craft.

3.4.9. Time, Space, and Production Management. [Back to Page Topics]

The screenplay is the central database of information for the scheduling and budgeting of a motion picture, with time and space the most important factors. Slug-lines, which divide the screenplay into a series of time-space scene units, direct the production manager in this process. The page-per-minute rule and counting scenes in 1/8th page units ensures the proper distribution of scenes-to-be-shot across the schedule and aids the estimation of raw stock (or digital hard drive space) to be purchased. The number and exotic quality of locations has a huge impact on budget, since every setting must either be rented, permitted, or built from scratch (either physically or digitally). The number of day scenes versus night scenes affects everything from the equipment to be rented, to the shooting order, to the call times for crew, and of course, films set in any other time period than present day, whether the past or the future, will add considerable cost to the budget.

All of these factors means that screenwriters do not work in a vacuum. While the screenplay form has few limits in terms of scripting time and space to creative ends, the impact these choices has on the feasibility of producing such features forces limits on screenwriter creativity. The unfortunate reality is that feature scripts with mass audience appeal can afford more numerous locations and greater flexibility of story time, while niche screenplays will need to narrow in on more feasible uses of time and space.

3.4.10. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Story Time
  • Discourse Time
  • Page-Per-Minute Rule
  • Order
  • Prolepsis
  • Analepsis
  • Jumbled Sequencing
  • Ab Ovo
  • In Media Res
  • In Ultimas Res
  • Duration
  • Descriptive Pause
  • Slow-Down or Stretch
  • Scene
  • Summary
  • Ellipsis
  • Frequency
  • Singularity
  • Repetition
  • Iteration
  • Cinematic Space
  • 1/8th Page
  • How do story time and discourse time differ? How is this relevant to the study of screenplays?
  • How does the page-per-minute rule shape both time and space in the screenplay?
  • How do screenwriters manipulate order?
  • How do screenwriters manipulate duration, and why is this intrinsically connected to motion picture storytelling?
  • How do screenwriters manipulate frequency?
  • What are some of the limitations on screenwriters in terms of manipulating space?
  • Why are scripted space and time so important to the production management of a feature film?

3.4.11. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Pg. 85.
  2. Pgs. 171-172.
  3. Sternberg. Pg. 197.
  4. Bridgeman. Pgs. 53-54.
  5. Cole. Pg. v.
  6. Sternberg. Pgs. 197-198.
  7. Pg. 197.
  8. Herman. 281.
  9. Herman. 275.
  10. Berg.
  12. Bridgeman. Pgs. 58-59.
  13. Bluestone. 27.

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