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Formatting Mistakes [Get Ready For The #1 Goof]

About 90% of the complaints I hear from agents and producers have to do with formatting mistakes in scene headings, sometimes called slug lines.


by David Trottier

As a script consultant, I sometimes find myself saying while reading a script, “Where am I?” For example, here’s one of my favorite formatting mistakes:

INT. A HECTIC BREAKFAST – DAY

“A hectic breakfast” is not a location. Where am I? Here’s another goof:

EXT. OCEAN – DAY

Marion runs through the waves.

LIBRARY

Marion reads a book.

How can a library be part of the ocean? Is it a floating library? And how did we get from an exterior camera placement to an interior? Did I miss something?Avoid Formatting Mistakes movie-strip

I sometimes find myself saying… “Where am I?”

Do you see the potential confusion? It’s not good for you to have a reader stop and try to figure something like this out. You want the story to flow steadily through the reader’s mind. Formatting mistakes like these aren’t going to help you.

In view of that, here are your key principles for scene headings.

Begin a scene with a master scene heading. Include the master (or primary) location; for example, EXT. SMITH HOUSE – DAY. Other locations (such as BEDROOM or HALLWAY) that are part of the master location are called secondary locations. The resulting heading is called a secondary scene heading.

In addition, it’s okay to add a secondary location to a master (primary) location in a master scene heading. I’ll illustrate all of these points below.

First, we’ll begin with the master scene heading. This one includes a secondary location. Next, we’ll move to other secondary locations.

INT. SMITH HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY

John slams the front door and races down the
HALLWAY

and into his

BEDROOM

where he dives on top of his bed and sobs.

Avoid formatting mistakes - The end text on typewriterThe above is correct, but it could have just as easily been written like this, which is also correct:

INT. SMITH HOUSE – DAY

LIVING ROOM

John slams the front door and races out.

HALLWAY

He runs past pictures of his family.

BEDROOM
He stumbles in and falls on his bed sobbing.

As you can see, any number of secondary headings can follow. Just make sure they are part of the master (primary) location. Once we change the camera placement to an exterior location, or to one that is not part of the master location, we must create a new master scene heading.

You want the story to flow steadily through the reader’s mind.

If I may, I’ll mention one other common formatting fumble.

EXT. A WINDY NIGHT WITH A PALE MOON SHINING THROUGH TREES IN THE WOODS

This one includes description in the scene heading.

It should have been written as follows:

EXT. WOODS – NIGHT
A pale moon shines through trees buffeted by a stiff wind.

Save the description for the description (action) sections of your script. And save the reader a lot of pain.

Make him or her a happy reader. Avoid silly formatting mistakes like these above.

A happy reader can make you a happy writer.

-David Trottier

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Avoid Formatting Mistakes with Dave TrottierDavid Trottier has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced). He’s also helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.

He is an award-winning teacher and in-demand script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com. He’ll save you from formatting mistakes – and embarrassment.

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About the Author

Jamie Campbell

Jamie Campbell is an author, screenwriter, and television addict.Jamie is proud to be an Editor for The Story Department.Her latest series Project Integrate is out now.

Comments 1

  1. Though a highly specific topic is being talked about here, there is a deeper, more general, point here worth ‘taking home’: That screenplays are best written according to industry-agreed-upon conventions, else you risk putting a script reader off-side. And, as David Trottier points out, above, that is one big mistake you do NOT want to make … Especially if you are a yet-to-be-sold screenwriter. While, from a novelist’s point of view, these conventions will seem to be annoyingly rigid and confining, you simply can not afford to ignore or be ignorant of them. I personally prefer the formatting freedom that novelists have. But I am cognizant of the film industry enough to suffer the conventions in order to maximise the odds that my script submission will be read favourably.

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