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.
Marion reads a book.
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
and into his
where he dives on top of his bed and sobs.
INT. SMITH HOUSE – DAY
John slams the front door and races out.
He runs past pictures of his family.
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 has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced). He’s also helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.