Scene headings — also called sluglines — tell the reader that a new scene is starting.
Scene headings generally include:
- INTerior or EXTerior, describing whether the camera and main dramatic action is indoors or outdoors for this scene.
- A location name, specifying where the action takes place.
- A Time of Day, most often DAY or NIGHT.
But aside from the basics of their construction, how can you make these scene headings work for you to convey information clearly and concisely?
Separating Sluglines from Descriptive Lines
There’s a pull to create detailed, specific scene headings that stretch both ends of the margins, squeezing all the possible juice out of that space.
But look at this one-two punch from Aline Brosh McKenna’s script for The Devil Wears Prada:
INT. NATE’S RESTAURANT -- NIGHT
Nothing fancy. The kind of place that refills your Sprite.
The location name (Nate’s Restaurant) is simple, but specific: It’s a proper name that also tells you the type of place.
It’s those two sentences beneath that give you the feel of the location.
Writing that initial description in tandem with the scene heading can allow you to trim it down to its most concise form.
You’re using the slugline to move us to a new location and keep the reader from getting bogged down.
Taking this a step farther, let’s look at subdividing locations.
In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a few larger buildings are key, becoming repeatedly used locations. Some example scene headings from the script include:
EXT. FIRST REFORMED - DAY
INT. FIRST REFORMED - ENTRANCE - DAY
INT. FIRST REFORMED - SANCTUARY - DAY
INT. FIRST REFORMED - VESTRY - DAY
INT. PARSONAGE - DAY
INT. PARSONAGE - DEN - NIGHT
INT. PARSONAGE - BEDROOM - NIGHT
The extra dash sets aside a separate space within the larger building, allowing you to quickly return to a portion of a familiar location later on.
This streamlines your writing process and to makes work easier for anyone breaking down the locations within your script.
But you can take this subdivision of the slugline further when you need to suggest ways of exploring these spaces.
Moving Through and Accelerating
In Rian Johnson’s script for Knives Out, he opens the script with some quick scenes moving through the main location of the film: Harlan Thrombey’s Manor House.
First, an exterior shot establishing the overall location, giving it a sense of scale and tone.
EXT. THROMBEY ESTATE MANOR HOUSE - DAWN
The grounds of a New England manor. Pre-dawn misty.
Next comes a series of scene headings that break up multiple sub-locations within the home, suggesting quick cuts and roving movement.
INT. MANOR - PANTRY / LIVING ROOM / FOYER / HALLWAY - DAWN
INSIDE THE MANOR
Unlit and still. Gothic with a theme of antique games, arcane puzzles and decorative weapons.
First floor: A drawing room, living room, kitchen. The detritus of a party. Stray champagne flutes.
INT. THROMBEY ESTATE - 2ND FLOOR - DAWN
Follow one housekeeper named FRAN carrying a tray of coffee up a flight of stairs.
Second floor: a hallway, doors all closed. The house has not woken up, and Fran steps lightly. Up a much narrower creaky flight of steep stairs.
As the story focuses in on the particular movements of the housekeeper, Fran, the sluglines narrow their focus to specific rooms that the story will return to:
INT. THROMBEY ESTATE - 3RD FLOOR MASTER BEDROOM - DAWN
Third floor: the master bedroom suite.
Morning Mr Thrombey.
But the bed is empty, unslept in. A robe thrown across it. Fran heads out onto the landing and UP an EVEN NARROWER half flight of stairs, which leads to a single door.
Mr Thrombey you up there? Mr Thrombey I’m coming in.
INT. HARLAN THROMBEY’S STUDY - DAWN
A cramped attic study, every shelf crammed with curios.
The scene headings, coupled with the use of description, weave us through the house, setting up the locations we’ll become more familiar with. They also pull us further and further into the heart of the building, and the start of the mystery.
One Location For One Sequence
Another example of breaking up space on the page to work with the flow of the sequence comes from Jared Bush and Phil Johnston’s script for Zootopia.
Here, one scene heading acts like a title for a sequence, allowing a series of shot headings beneath it to act as nested bullet points for a montage-style series of moments.
EXT. POLICE ACADEMY TRAINING FACILITY - DAY
IN SAHARA SQUARE SIMULATOR:
ON THE VINE-COVERED MONKEY BARS:
TUNDRA TOWN ICE WALL:
IN THE BOXING RING:
IN THE TOILET:
This style works in part because of the quick beats of the scenes, the connection between all of these smaller locations to the main location of the full slugline, and the narrative momentum of Judy Hopps and her desire to show the drill instructor that she’s got the right stuff.
The test for any of these tactics comes down to answering the question: Does the reader know where they are in that moment?
Be a good GPS for your reader: Keep it clear, concise, and consistent.