Ask the Expert: Sluglines Slugfest

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Question: When I’m writing scenes in one location, say hotel or a house, how do I format the sluglines properly?

You’ve often heard the terms slug, slug line, and mini-slug in reference to screenwriting.  Understanding these terms is paramount, so let’s explore the slug family.

Most common formatting error

I have no quarrel with the sluggish terms used every day by screenwriters and other industry pros, including top writers. They’re perfectly okay. My main interest is in assisting you, the developing screenwriter, to understand the elements those terms reference and how those elements are used, which is why I prefer the term scene heading over slug.

The most common formatting errors I see in developing writers’ screenplays are with confusing and improper scene headings.  That implies a possible lack of understanding of what they actually are and how they should be used.

Sometimes calling something by its given name rather than its nickname helps us understand its use. I’m sure that is one reason you will find the term scene heading rather than slug line used in the software applications Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. Incidentally, the term slug line originated in journalism, while the term scene heading is purely a screenwriting term.  Let’s discuss why.

Scene headings

A heading of any kind identifies the content of what follows, just like the heading you see above this paragraph.

A scene heading, thus, identifies something about the content of a scene: primarily, the camera placement (interior or exterior), the location, and the time (usually DAY or NIGHT).

INT. HOTEL – DAY

The above is called a master scene heading because it identifies the master or primary location of the scene.  Any location within the interior of the hotel would be a secondary location. Thus, you can use a secondary scene heading to identify that secondary location. For example, here is a secondary scene heading:

LOBBY

We’re still in the master (or primary) scene, but at a specific location (the lobby) within the broader master (or primary) location (the hotel).  You could call it a secondary scene or a mini-scene if you wish. Some screenwriters refer to a secondary scene heading as a mini-slug.

This understanding of the difference between master and secondary scenes really comes in handy when you want to describe an action sequence such as a car chase.  Just identify a broad master location in your master scene heading; for example, the streets of San Francisco. That’s a big location. Thus, we have this master scene heading:

EXT. STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO – DAY

Now you can use secondary scene headings such as McQUEEN’S CAR, BLACK VETTE, A SIDEWALK BIZARRE, AN INTERSECTION, and so on.  These secondary locations are all part of the master (or primary) location, the streets of San Francisco. If the chase continues beyond the streets of San Francisco, you will need to type a new master scene heading for the new location.

You can do something similar for an air battle; for example: EXT. SKY ABOVE IRAQ – DAY.  Having established the master scene, anything in the sky above Iraq (including different fighter jets) is a secondary location.

Where am I?

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

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 camera placement?  Did I miss something?

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 smoothly through the reader’s mind.

Master scenes and secondary scenes revisited

Let’s go to another example. As you know, you begin a scene with a master scene heading, which names 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 that includes a secondary location and then 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.

The 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.

IN THE BEDROOM

He stumbles in and falls on his bed sobbing.

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

What if you want to show John sobbing on the same bed hours later?  Well, you could write:

INT. SMITH HOUSE – BEDROOM – HOURS LATER

That would be technically correct, or you could use the following secondary heading:

HOURS LATER

John continues to sob.

You do not need a new master scene heading for a change in time, but you will for a change in camera location from interior to exterior or vice versa.

Description in scene headings

If I may, I’ll mention one other common formatting fumble—including description in the scene heading.  To wit:

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

That should actually be 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 and make him or her a happy reader.  A happy reader can make you a happy writer.

(I should mention that there is a third type of scene heading.  It’s a special heading and is used for montages, flashbacks, intercuts, series of shots, and so on.  But that’s a subject for another day.)

A final word

In any case, use terms that work best for you. As long as you understand the purpose of a formatting or writing device and what it really is, then you can more easily figure out how to use it in a variety of situations, and avoid being slugged by it.  Best wishes and keep writing.

Dave Trottier has more formatting tips in his book, Dr. Format Tells All, as well as in other content on his author page at The Writers Store.

18 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Sluglines Slugfest

  1. Steve

    Thanks for this, Dave.

    I have a scene with a small tent in the woods. Dialogue takes place between one character in, and the other outside the tent. As dialogue progresses, the tent flap will open, and they will speak face to face, one in, one out.

    Technically there will be am EXT. CAMPSITE and an INT. TENT, but the scene is somewhat fluid.

    Can you suggest a model for this?

  2. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Jenna, it’s hard to make the master scene/secondary scene system work if you use the specific-to-general method for scene headings. Some writers like to type a master scene heading and follow that with the first secondary scene heading just below. For example:

    INT. RICK’S PLACE – NIGHT

    AT THE BAR

    A lovely woman downs a drink.

    AT A TABLE

    …And so on.

  3. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Chris and Jenna,

    Thanks for writing.

    There are potential problems with listing the specific location first.

    One is the specific location is not the master location, so it negates the entire master scene/secondary scene system that screenplay formatting is built on, and that can lead to other problems. Thus, there is the potential of confusing or losing the reader.

    Second, it is not very readable or interesting.

    So I urge you to use correct format.

    Chris, notice in your scene heading, you’ve made New York and Fifth Avenue an interior location. Also, how will the movie-going audience know the barber shop is in New York? One way to handle this situation is as follows:

    EXT. NEW YORK’S FIFTH AVENUE – DAY

    Cars and pedestrians everywhere. It’s rush hour. There’s a little barber shop on the corner.

    INT. BARBERSHOP – SAME

    And you probably don’t need “SAME” because it is understood to be the same time.

    Now, we haven’t broken any rules plus the revision is more interesting and more readable.

    Now, having said all that, I should also mention that most everyone has his or her own take on formatting specifics. And established writers don’t have to abide by the rules because they are (generally) writing shooting scripts and because they are established. In addition, formatting fads come and go.

    Thus, there is an overriding principle here: Be absolutely clear and readable.

    What a reader wants more than anything is clarity and readability (translated: an easy “read”) and a wonderful story with fascinating characters.

    If you decide to use another system, make sure you are absolutely clear and that a reader is not going to get lost, and you’ll probably be just fine.

    And that brings me to a final comment: formatting does not have to be perfect. Just do your best. Script appearance is important, but it is not as important as your characters and story.

    Good luck and keep writing!

  4. Chris

    Hi Dave,

    As my favorite guru on proper formatting…

    I’m hearing from an “expert” that SLUGLINES are best ordered from SPECIFIC to GENERAL — the opposite to your teaching. Examples:

    INT. BARBERSHOP – FIFTH AVNEUE – NEW YORK – DAY
    rather than:-
    INT. NEW YORK – FIFTH AVENUE – BARBERSHOP – DAY

    The reason given seems logical: READERS tend to skip, vertically reading down the left-hand edge, so there is a higher likelihood of them missing the new location if it’s far over on the right.

    In a similar vein, one has to read seventy-five percent of the SAME SLUGLINE to learn where the different location is — shown far right.

    Makes sense — but I wondered if you could comment from an “acceptability” point of view for Hollywood, as I’ve not heard of this method before.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  5. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Susan, your formatting is generally correct. However, there are few minor adjustments that need to be made.

    Use a dash to separate two locations in a scene heading. Thus, our first scene heading becomes:

    EXT. SMALL WESTERN TOWN – STREET FRONT – DAY

    The town is the master location and the street front is a secondary location.

    The outside (EXTERIOR) of the sheriff’s office is another secondary heading. All you need to do to that second scene heading is omit the period. Do not end any scene heading with any kind of punctuation. I assume we are looking through a window in this second scene. However, if we go inside the sheriff’s office, that requires a new master scene heading:

    INT. SHERIFF’S OFFICE – DAY

    To retain that style you have established, your third scene heading should look like this:

    INT. SHERIFF’S OFFICE – SECOND CELL – DAY

    You could omit DAY if you wish, since it’s obvious it is still DAY.

    Your SHERIFF’S OFFICE MAIN ENTRANCE is perfectly correct as a secondary scene heading. However, as an alternative and since you’ve already established the sheriff’s office, you could write:

    MAIN ENTRANCE

    I’d like to explain the Harry Potter scene heading. When you use a slash between scene headings, it means that we are in any or all of those locations at the same time. That’s why an INTERCUT of a telephone conversation will look something like this:

    INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION – JIM’S ROOM/JANE’S KITCHEN

    Thus, the Harry Potter scene heading means that the Smith House is the master location, and the camera can be in the living room, hallway, and/or bedroom at any point in time. This method is used rarely.

    Keep writing!

  6. Susan Modregon

    I read that this format was right for close ups, but I worry that it can easily be confused with a poor secondary scene heading. Is there a better way to avoid confusion? Is it okay as is? I put my whole opening to get your opinion. Is this written in the best way to grab interest?

    EXT. SMALL WESTERN TOWN, STREET FRONT – DAY

    A small western town. A row of traditional buildings behind a dirt street. There’s a saloon, a three story hotel, and between them

    THE SHERRIFF’S OFFICE.

    In the window there is movement. A SMALL BOYISH FIGURE can be seen through the black iron bars. We pass BETWEEN the bars, to see closer.

    INT. SHERIFF’S OFFICE – DAY (SECOND CELL)

    Inside the open jail cell is an underling of a cartoon character dressed in traditional western clothing with a cowboy hat and a brown vest that bares a silver star deputy badge. He’s small and meek, and piccolo theme music follows with every step.

    He flips a sheet and it softly lands covering the mattress. He tucks one end. The other end un-tucks. He walks back. Tucks it again. Then the other end untucks. He grows aggravated. His head jerks with an idea. He flips the sheet un-tucking it and blankets the mattress top.

    He hammers the sheet in place at animated speed. He stands back eying his work. Dozens of nails stick crookedly out of the wood bed frame. He nods satisfied. None of the bed is tucked now, but the top is covered.

    Despite his badge, he looks no older than twelve. He has no place. No name. He’s just this CHARACTER.

    SHERIFF’S OFFICE MAIN ENTRANCE

    Character rushes out of the cell to the front.

    —-About the scene headings, I also found an example of another way to do an action scene in the Harry Potter 2 script. Your scene can also be written like this, can’t it?

    INT. SMITH HOUSE – LIVING ROOM/HALLWAY/BEDROOM – DAY

    John slams the front door and races out. He runs through the hallway past pictures of his family, stumbles in his room and falls on his bed sobbing.

    Thanks for all the feedback.

  7. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Jack, your example is perfectly correct. However, I should point out that you have the camera inside the car for the entire scene. You may want to allow for the camera to be anywhere, so I suggest:

    INT./EXT. BILL’S PORSCHE (MOVING) – DAY

    Keep writing!

  8. Scott Wallace

    Peri Menopausal, A SIDEWALK BIZARRE could be a walkway weird or a spelling strange. Anyhow, it’s Dr. Format, not Dr. Proofread, so don’t worry about it and try not not think about a pathway preposterous.

  9. Peri Menopausal

    Dude,

    “A SIDEWALK BIZARRE??” Seriously? That is just bazaar. I mean, if you can’t even get that right, why would I take anything you have to say about writing seriously?

  10. Naomi Bigelow

    This article was a timely gem; however, I’m waiting expectantly for a reply to Jack Bennett’s question above. My moving auto is a mere rust-bucket of a Firebird, but you know…same question. The “As the Expert” series is a treasure of brain-pickings. Thanks!

  11. Jack Bennett

    Dave, Great Stuff!

    What about Car scenes.

    INT. BILLS PORSCHE – MOVING – DAY

    Bill spots the bar where his wife is arguing with the DOORMAN. He pulls the car over and jumps out.

    Is that correct or how might you like to see it/write it?

  12. Alex Stirling

    As a Screenwriting teacher, I encounter this “most common formatting error” in a great number of student scripts. Thanks for your “Sluglines Slugfest” response. As usual, you provide clear options and useful advice. (I tell my students that your Screenwriter’s Bible should be on every ‘developing’ screenwriter’s desk.)

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