This one’s easy, right? Not so fast.
Everyone knows that when you use INT. in a scene heading, it means “interior” and when you use EXT. in a scene heading, it means “exterior.” That much is straightforward.
But what happens when you want the subject matter to be inside (e.g. a family eating dinner), but you want to suggest a shot from outside the house (e.g. watching the family through their kitchen window)? Is that INT. or EXT.?
Or what if you wanted to show that someone is inside (e.g. a third-floor apartment), and they’re spying on someone outside (e.g. on the street below)? Is that INT. or EXT.?
Or how about this one: Suppose you wanted to show a truck driving along a highway and indicate we’re also seeing shots that are inside the vehicle. Would this scene heading be okay? INT./EXT. HIGHWAY – DAY
Here’s the trick
Brace yourselves, this tip may be a revelation.
INT. and EXT. don’t indicate where the characters are; they indicate where the camera is.
Boom! Did that just hurt your brain (in a good way)?
So in our first example with the family eating dinner while someone watches from outside, the scene heading would be:
EXT. SMITH FAMILY HOUSE - NIGHT An unknown viewer watches Vic, Tim and the rest of the family through the kitchen window as they blissfully eat dinner. Unaware.
You could also write something like:
We watch Vic, Tim and the rest of the family through the kitchen window as they blissfully eat dinner, safe on the inside. For now.
NOTE: Don’t believe it when people say you should never write: “we watch” or “we see.” It’s great as a general rule (i.e. everything on screen is something we see, so it’s usually redundant), but sometimes it’s unavoidable without a great deal of awkward writing gymnastics. And screenwriting is all about efficiency and clarity.
Let’s look at our second example.
INT. CLARA'S APARTMENT - DAY Clara carefully pulls apart her window blinds. Just enough to see -- An UNUSUALLY TALL WOMAN loping toward her apartment building on the street, three floors below.
See how I’ve broken the above action lines into two paragraphs. That’s because one paragraph should equate to one shot.
I do hate using the less active verb tense though (i.e. “loping” vs. “lope”), even though it’s an acceptable use because it continues the preceding sentence. So I’d probably rewrite things as follows:
Clara carefully pulls apart her window blinds. Just enough to see -- An UNUSUALLY TALL WOMAN. She lopes toward Clara's apartment building on the street, three floors below.
And now for the final example.
We would NOT write: INT./EXT. HIGHWAY – DAY. How can you be inside a highway? Instead write something like:
INT./EXT. BARRY'S TRUCK - DAY
Save the fact that they’re on a highway, or wherever, for the action lines:
The rusty pickup truck barrels along a highway. Inside, Barry and Mary Sue sing along with an old folk tune playing on the radio.
NOTE: Even if you don’t plan on showing anything outside of the truck, it’s always a good idea to use INT./EXT. versus just INT. for driving scenes. Remember, you’re suggesting where the camera is. It’s entirely possible the director would like a shot of the characters through the windshield, for example, which means the camera would be outside of the truck.
INT./EXT. Bonus Round
There’s one other scenario that trips up a lot of writers. What happens if you’re inside a building but outside a character’s apartment, like in a hallway? Would that be INT. or EXT.?
Here’s where semantics get in the way. EXT. doesn’t mean outside of something. It means it’s an exterior shot, as in outdoors.
So you would write such a scene as follows. Let’s revisit Clara:
INT. CLARA'S APARTMENT BUILDING - HALLWAY - DAY Clara cracks open the door to her apartment. Slowly looks both ways as she peers into the hallway. She lurches out of her apartment, slamming the door behind her. Dashes to the emergency stairwell. Throws open the door to find -- The Unusually Tall Woman. She towers over Clara, blocking any chance of escape.
The above scene heading could also be written as follows:
INT. OUTSIDE CLARA'S APARTMENT - HALLWAY - DAY
Does that all make sense, or does your brain now hurt in a bad way? Let me know!
Unfortunately, I disagree with most of what you are saying here. For me, the most successful script is the one that eliminates the presence of the writer. Good screenwriting, just like good fiction writing should allow the reader to get lost in the story. If you keep using terms like…’we can see’ or ‘we watch’ because it reminds me that there is a writer sitting on my shoulder giving me direction. It completely takes me out of the story and breaks the ‘story telling spell’ for me.
Thanks for the feedback. I totally hear what you’re saying about the “we see” usage. As I mentioned in the article, there’s a good reason to avoid it. But I’ve found that there are some situations where it just makes sense. Having said that, if you find yourself using it more than once per script or two, you’re probably doing something wrong.
You mentioned you disagree with most of what I’ve said. I’d be curious to hear what your other criticisms are.
Very useful tips, thanks!
Hey. I’ve got a question. I’m about to write a scene where it starts off outside of a house and then the character goes inside of the house. Would I use INT./EXT. in that context as well?
Hi Jaiden, great question!
It all depends on how you craft the scene in your mind. Remember, the INT. or EXT. is simply where the camera is. So if you picture having the camera inside the house, you could write:
INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY
Through the living room window, we see John amble up the walkway toward the front door.
The front door opens and John enters.
Or if you picture the camera outside, you would write something like:
EXT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY
John exits his car, heads to the front door. He unlocks it, enters, and disappears inside.
Or if you simply want to indicate a conversation that takes place at the front door, you could write:
INT./EXT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY
The DOORBELL RINGS. John leaps off his sofa and heads to the front door. He opens it to see —
Sally stands on his doorstep, holding his dead cat.
John stares at her, tears welling in his eyes.
Hope that helps!
Thank you for the article Trevor. I’ve a question. What if a script takes place entirely inside a space station, or in an underground complex? Would the entire script be INT., or would rooms be INT. and hallways EXT. ?
Hi Dan, great question! Yes, everything would be INT. unless we’re watching the action from outside the parking garage or looking into the spaceship through a window from the outside.
Hallways are always INT. because they’re indoors. You could have a scene heading:
INT. HALLWAY OUTSIDE DAN’S ROOM – DAY
But it’s still considered inside (INT.) because it’s indoors.
Hello, I’m writing a room scene, I’m having activity going on inside the room and outside the room. Jeff and Mary are talking in the room .the door bell rings, Jeff opens and meet Sam. They talk..
Would this be ext int?
That’s an easy one. It would all be INT. because at no point does the camera need to go outside.
INT. JEFF AND MARY’S HOUSE – DAY
The young couple canoodles on the couch.
Jeff heads for the front door. Opens it to find Sam staring at him, drenched with sweat.
What the hell? You said you’d call
when you needed me to pick you up.
I walked all the way here.
From the bus station?
From New Hampshire.
je suis entrain d’écrire une scène qui se déroule dans une école en matin mais sur la cour de récréation deux personnes parles. Serait-ce Ext. Ou INT.
Comme le dit l’article, cela dépend de l’endroit où se trouve la caméra. Si nous regardons les gens parler de l’intérieur de l’école, alors INT. est correct. Si nous sautons dehors pour être juste à côté d’eux, alors EXT. est correct.
Great tips Trevor!
Here’s a tricky one I’ve been struggling with today. The scene takes place in a large metal see-through cage that sits outside. Should the scene heading be EXT. or INT. ?
Hey Raph, that’s indeed a tricky one. Love it!
If the camera’s inside the cage with the occupant, I’d use: INT.
However, I’m imagining there will be conversations between the occupant and their captor, etc., so to save yourself grief in those instances, I’d use: INT./EXT. CAGE – DAY
It’s similar to a car scene in that respect. It lets the camera jump around without an over abundance of scene headings.
Hi, this guide is very helpful! So, this is probably a silly question, but should INT/EXT indicate where the camera is *in-universe*, or in reality? For instance, if it’s meant to be “outside” in the story but is intended to be shot in a studio, do you still use EXT?
What an excellent question. You’re definitely referencing the universe versus the real-life camera location. So yes, you would still use EXT.
I’m working on a scene where the POV is from inside a tunnel, with a character approaching from the outside. Would this be INT or EXT? Can you be INT with a tunnel that’s open to the elements?
Love the site! X
Great question! I would definitely use INT. for a tunnel. It’s still more enclosed than not (two walls and a roof).
Glad you’re enjoying the site. Cheers!