Why the Proper Use of Scene Headings (aka Slug Lines) is Necessary to the Conveyance of Your Story
by Ann Marie Williams
Script scene headings may seem clunky, obtrusive, and just plain awkward. It can feel like they “get in the way” of your story. That the break the flow. That they pull the reader out of the emotional and intellectual story-bubble you’ve so tirelessly created for them.
But, believe it or not, when used correctly, scene headings actually make for an effective and impactful way to help convey a story. It is only if scene headings are used incorrectly that they become clunky, obtrusive, and yank the reader out of the emotion and flow of the story.
Breaking Down the Scene Heading
For a great explanation of how to properly format and use scene headings, check out this post by Dave Trottier: https://www.keepwriting.com/tsc/formatclear.htm
But, in a nutshell, a scene heading typically has three or four pieces of information to convey the time and setting of a scene: interior or exterior, day or night, and location (which can range from very broad to very specific—e.g. New York City or Meredith’s Kitchen).
While these brief pieces of information may seem constricting at first, they are actually an effective way to convey to the reader what the screen audience will experience.
The information in that one scene heading on the page (INT. MEREDITH’S HOUSE — KITCHEN — DAY) is the reader’s first introduction to a new scene on the page. And that same information will be the first information coming at your screen audience at the start of that scene.
In a way, scene headings are a written representation of how we typically process information in film and real life. We see “the big picture” first, then the details. We see “it’s a kitchen, it’s daytime.” We process this information before we see that Meredith is kneading the bread with a bit too much vigor or that the water was left running (the information that would come next in the narrative description).
And, yes, you could start a scene focused on the faucet, or the dough, and pan out to the kitchen. But, for the most part, we see the big picture first. Our minds process location and time of day without even realizing it — and that’s how scene headings should work. The reader should be able to process the information in the scene heading almost unconsciously.
Of course, the first time the story takes place in a location, we have to read (or look) a little more carefully to understand where we are. But, after that, when we know what’s coming (when transitions are used effectively) or when the story’s returning to a location already visited, we can almost gloss over the scene heading, the eyes flow easily and naturally with the progression of the story—just as the screen audience identifies a familiar or properly set-up setting without really knowing they are doing so.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you end a scene with James on the phone saying, “It’s all set, Sarah. I’m leaving right now and will meet you at the park.” Then James hangs up the phone and grabs his keys. It seems like the next scene should be James and Sarah at the park. So, if the next scene reads like this:
EXT. PARK – DAY
Followed by the description:
James and Sarah stand under a willow tree.
Then in this case, the reader’s eyes would probably glide right over that scene heading in an almost automatic way—and that’s okay because you led the reader there. The scene heading won’t disrupt the flow of the story.
Now, maybe you don’t want the next scene to be what the reader/viewer expected. For example, if James says, “It’s all set, Sarah. I’m leaving right now and will meet you at the park,” and the next scene heading reads:
INT. HOSPITAL – DAY
Followed by the description:
James on a gurney, unconscious.
Now the reader is wondering, “What happened on the way to the park!?” But that’s the same reaction you want the viewing audience to eventually have, too, so it works. It’s part of the story. It can shock the reader/viewer and pull them further into the story, instead of pulling them out of the story.
What will pull a reader out of the flow of the story? An improperly formatted scene heading… An unclear location… An unexpected location that isn’t properly described… This isn’t to say you can’t have mystery surrounding a location or time — you can! But if that’s your goal, then the reader should (if the story is conveyed correctly) be aware that the uncertainty is intentional. The problems arise when the story proceeds under the assumption that the reader understands when and where a scene takes place, but the scene headings haven’t done their job to convey this information correctly. Then the reader has to stop reading in order to review the script to try and discern the location and time of the scene. And once a reader has to stop reading, they’ve been pulled out of the story.
Bottom line: scene headings are only obtrusive if they aren’t used correctly. Used correctly, they aid in the conveyance and flow of the story.
Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, www.keepwriting.com), Professor Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), Professor Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts), script editor Lucy V. Hay (www.bang2write.com) and Emmy-wining writer Ken Levine (Hollywood and Levine).