The All-Time #1 Formatting Goof
(and how fixing it makes your reader happy)
By Dave Trottier
About 90% of the formatting complaints I hear from agents and producers have to do with scene headings, sometimes called slug lines. 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.
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 steadily through the reader’s mind.
In view of that, here are your key principles for scene headings.
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
and into his
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
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 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.
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.