American play scripts tend to have a scene-setting direction before the start of the play, then the play starts with an “at rise” direction. Whilst I often dislike the way this looks, I think the structure is hugely useful. Let break this down.
Setting the Scene
A scene heading should indicate a change of time or place. (There may be exceptions to this: in abstract theatre, with little or no set, where the action changes in time and space without any formal indication, arguably, you don’t need scene headings. On the other hand, where there are separate blocks of dialogue it may be useful to break the text up into scenes. However the latter is for the purpose of rehearsal and is usually the director’s job rather than the author’s.) So in normal circumstances, it can be useful to state the distinguishing feature of the scene (the time or place that has changed) in the scene heading. So:-
Scene 1 – Monday Morning
Scene 2 – Monday Afternoon
Scene 3 – Twenty Minutes Later
All those happen in the same place, so (unless a later scene happens somewhere else), the location doesn’t distinguish one scene from another and there’s no need to put it in the heading.
Hang on a minute! Where’s this play set? And, come to that, when? It’s all very well saying that it’s Monday Morning; I don’t want to wade though three pages of puzzling dialogue before I discover it’s 1744. The readers needs that information; it’s not in the scene headings, so where do they find it? This is where the scene-setting direction comes in. One or more scene-setting directions should follow every scene heading.
A Time and A Place for Everything
The opening of the first scene-setting direction should tell the reader about geography and date. The geography may be very specific (“a one-room apartment in Brooklyn”) or, if the country and city don’t matter, just the outline description of the setting (“a castle dungeon”). The date can be vague (“the 1920s” or “the present day”) or specific (“June 6, 1944”).
The reason for my preference for this in a scene-setting direction, rather than (as in many American scripts) before any scene headings is that if the location or time changes, this can be described in a scene-setting direction for the specific scene). Note, however, that you only need information at this level if and when it changes – so if all scenes are in that one-room apartment, you only need the information once.
Everything In Its Place
The next level of detail is a (brief) description of the set. What does the reader (the director, the actors) need to know? What are the essential features of the set? How many exits are there? Where are they? What and where is the essential furniture?
(There is an argument to be made here for including essential properties, particularly those that are at the boundary between set and props and tend to stay in the same place. It is better to learn that there is a land-line telephone on Marjorie’s desk before it rings.)
Again, this level of detail is stated once and remains in place until there is a change of set.
Getting A Rise
Finally, the ‘At Rise’ direction says what happens when the curtain (or lights) go up. Who is on stage? What are they doing?
If the next scene uses the same set, then the opening direction merely needs to say what has changed between scenes (which should just involve characters and props: “Gerald is alone, seated on the chaise longue, reading a newspaper”).
And now you’re ready to make a scene.