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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

  Secondary Scene Headings (Slugs)


 
A question that often arises is  "how to handle minor location changes within a scene, such as going from the living room to the kitchen in an apartment or from a cubicle to the break room at the office.?"
 
Consider the following scene. It takes place in Jen’s apartment. She’s there with Tina, and they’re talking about anything but boys.

 

INT. JEN’S APARTMENT - NIGHT

Jen and Tina lounge on the couch, passing a joint.

                        TINA
       I’m crazy thirsty. Gonna get a beer.

Tina gets up, bracing herself against the spinning room, and heads into:

THE KITCHEN

She opens the fridge and lingers, lost in the choices.

                       TINA
      What did I come in here for?

                      JEN (O.S.)
      Hey bring me some whole potatoes,
      I want to do a science experiment!

Tina closes the fridge, grabs a couple potatoes from the pantry and goes back into:

THE LIVING ROOM

She plops down next to Jen, who’s already asleep.

 

So what’s happening here?

We establish what’s called the “master location” in the master scene heading. Jen’s Apartment.

Depending how you have your locations set up, you may label it JEN’S LIVING ROOM instead but we’re not making a shooting script here, it’s enough to say “apartment” and describe them on the couch.

Now one character wants to go get a beer and we want to follow her action instead of staying on Jen.

By setting off a new line and typing THE KITCHEN in all caps, we are establishing a “secondary scene heading”. This says “we’re technically in a new place, but it’s in the same master location in continuous time.”

"Continuous time" is an important part of this, because if any amount of time has passed that we don’t see on screen, we can’t use the secondary slug. If we want to cut to Tina having cooked a gourmet munchies-meal, we’d need a new master scene heading, because we are describing a CUT.

Here's another example to illustrate the difference:

 

INT. HOTEL ROOM - DAY

Our hero hears something weird, looks at the window just in time to see it SHATTER as a NINJA rappels in. Without thinking, our hero kicks down the door and bolts into:

THE HALLWAY

Sprinting past doors, not looking back. Skipping the elevator, he bursts through a door into:

STAIRWELL

He makes a snap decision to go up, taking them two at a time. He’s not even breathing heavy. He gets to the top and throws his shoulder into the emergency exit door.

EXT. HOTEL ROOF - DAY

Our hero looks around frantically, trying to find somewhere to hide.

 

Here we have an action sequence. We use the secondary slugs to describe each new area of the chase, but then we do a hard cut on the roof. Why? Because we go from INT. to EXT. so we need the new master scene heading. Sure, a director might make this a continuous handheld shot in continuous time, but that’s not our decision to make in the script.

Ultimately, like many things, this comes down to a matter of style, as well. You’re never wrong if you’re writing this as individual scenes with full scene headings, but I think that the secondary slugs can be used to great effect to not break up the narrative flow.

As a side note, that second master heading could also be written EXT. HOTEL ROOF - CONTINUOUS (more common in TV than features). 

Yes, it’s continuous and there’s no break in time, but the language of the scene description leading out of the stairwell and onto the roof tells us as much, without needing to specify it in the heading.

COURTESY of Scott Reynolds

    A SCREENPLAY ISN'T A SENTENCE - IT'S TWO SENTENCES

 

Screenplays are predominantly made-up of two types of sentences:  narrative and

discourse sentences.

 

The narrative sentence is found primarily in THE BIG PRINT. It gives information by showing

the ACTION, but has no addressee within the screenplay itself, and comes from no addressor.

It apparently gives information to no one in particular, although in fact it is addresses an

imaginary reader, which – unless the screenwriter is fully conscious of his/her audience –

is a non-existing referent.

 

Narrative sentences, with all their impersonality, give a screenplay an air of “telling itself.

By virtue of its being a narrative sentence, it invariably announces its own arbitrariness, as well

as an impersonality that often works to distance the reader from the emotional bodies of

the characters.  In such cases, the narrative sentence is not an act of communication: it

doesn’t solicit a reply nor does it demand action.  Indeed, it may even render the reader

passive, if in fact it even bothers to take its referents into account. Imagine reading the

big print of a screenplay in which every sentence was prefaced by an invisible “Once upon a

time.”

 

The second type of sentence is the discourse sentence, which usually is expressed in dialogue.

It is the expression or representation of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is detectable

by a quality of present-tense-ness. It happens here, now, and is readily distinguishable from

the maintenance of distance one encounters in a narrative sentence.

 

These two sentence types are the source of a great deal of stylistic schizophrenia one

encounters in most screenplays; they are also a chief source of confusion when a writer

substitutes narrative for discourse in the dialogue. Show, don’t tell is a fundamental principle

of successful screen storytelling.

 

The tyranny that the big print can exert is under-appreciated. It can be downright intimidating

and can work in unpredictable and insidious ways to sabotage the writer’s and the story’s

best interests.

 

While it might seem that these two sentences forms should not e mixed up with each other, this

 
is not the case. The use of discourse sentences in the big print can be positively illuminating.
 
Take for example this section of big  print from the script, Dog Day Afternoon:

 

He hangs up, and looks from the gun up to Sal's blank hard face.  
To his own amazement, he grins: a hopeful grin that says: 
"Like me - don't hurt me."  And he's embarrassed by it. As we watch, 
his smile turns sour.
 

The inclusion of discourse sentences within the action, far from confusing the image and

action, makes it more vivid.

 

Likewise, in this scene from The Apartment:

 

A new channel pops on.  It features a Western -- Cockamamie Indians are attacking a stagecoach. 

 
That's not for Bud.  He switches to another station.  In a 
frontier saloon, Gower Street cowboys are dismantling the 
furniture and each other.
 
Bud wearily changes channels.  But he can't get away from Westerns -- 
on this station, the U.S. Cavalry is riding to the rescue.  
Will they get there in time?  
 
Bud doesn't wait to find out.  He switches channels again, and is 
back where he started.  On the screen, once more, is the announcer 
standing in front of the crisscrossing searchlights.
 

Wilder and Diamond don’t employ “dialogue” in the conventional sense, but the

discourse sentences and markers are there in “cockamamie Indians” and “Will they get there

in time?”

 

And what about first-person narration?  It’s a misnomer, mainly because it usually has an

addressor – The narration in Stand By Me, for example, at first appears to be addressed to

no one in particular, but then at the end of the film we realize it grounded firmly in story

and character.  And we are all familiar with such narrative conventions as “Ladies and

gentlemen of the jury,” (for instance, in Lolita). 

 

If the big is to keep its audience inside the story, moving with it as it builds and releases energy,

it must not fully divorce itself from the “voices” of the characters. Likewise, if the characters

are to be emphatically present, we must not write unnecessary narrative into their discourse.

           SAVING PRIVATE RYAN - The Opening Big Print

 
Thanks to Scott Myers 
 

I doubt anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan (written by Robert Rodat, directed by Steven Spielberg ) will ever forget the film’s opening 20 minutes. So incredibly graphic, I can still remember the special ABC’s Ted Koppel did with some of the Normandy invasion survivors, screening the movie with them, many of them moved to tears at how well the film conveyed the chaos and horror of that initial amphibious assault on June 6, 1944.

Here we look at the opening few pages of the film’s screenplay to see how Rodat manages to orchestrate the action while conjuring up a vivid sense of what it felt like to hit the Normandy beaches on that fateful day:

 

FADE IN:  CREDITS: White lettering over a back background. The THUNDEROUS 
SOUNDS OF A MASSIVE NAVAL BARRAGE are heard. The power is astonishing. 
It roars through the body, blows back the hair and rattles the ears.  
 
FADE IN:  
EXT. OMAHA BEACH - NORMANDY - DAWN  
The ROAR OF NAVAL GUNS continues but now WE SEE THEM FIRING.  
Huge fifteen inch guns.  
 
SWARM OF LANDING CRAFT  
Heads directly into a nightmare. 
 
MASSIVE EXPLOSIONS from German artillery shells and mined obstacles tear apart 
the beach. 
 
Hundreds of German machine guns, loaded with tracers, pour out a red 
snowstorm of bullets.  
 
OFFSHORE  
 
SUPERIMPOSITION:  
OMAHA BEACH, 
NORMANDY June 6, 1944 
0600 HOURS  
 
HUNDREDS OF LANDING CRAFT Each holding thirty men, near the beaches.  
THE CLIFFS  At the far end of the beach, a ninety-foot cliff. Topped by  bunkers. 
Ringed by fortified machine gun nests. A clear line- of-fire down the entire beach.  
 
TEN LANDING CRAFT  Make their way toward the base of the cliffs. Running a 
gauntlet of explosions.  
 
SUPERIMPOSITION: 
THE FOLLOWING IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY  
 
THE LEAD LANDING CRAFT  Plows through the waves.  
THE CAMERA MOVES PAST THE FACES OF THE MEN  
 

Note how Rodat uses Secondary Slugs to ‘direct’ the action.

Here they are in a list, stripped of any other scene description:

 

SWARM OF LANDING CRAFT  OFFSHORE  THE CLIFFS  TEN LANDING 
CRAFT  THE LEAD LANDING CRAFT  A DIRECT HIT ON A NEARBY 
LANDING CRAFT THE LEAD LANDING CRAFT  THE CAMERA MOVES PAST 
THE FACES OF THE MEN  

Some observations:

* Rodat goes on to use some of the secondary slugs simply to identify a location (e.g., OFFSHORE, THE CLIFFS) or a character (e.g., A FIGURE, MILLER), but other times he conveys action within the slug itself:

 A DIRECT HIT ON A NEARBY LANDING CRAFT, THE MOTORMAN IS RIPPED TO BITS, THE LEAD LANDING CRAFT HITS THE BEACH.

 He could have chosen to do this:

 

A NEARBY LANDING CRAFT  Hit directly by an artillery shell.  THE 
MOTORMAN is ripped to bits.  THE LEAD LANDING CRAFT hits the beach.

 

But he didn’t. Why? I think the reason he put the action in the slugs is

because by capping the description, he makes the action BIGGER, befitting how big this sequence is. In other words, he makes the action impossible to ignore.

* Each secondary slug suggests a different camera shot, so in effect Rodat is able to ‘direct’ the action without using directing lingo — except of course when he does, which is twice:

 

THE CAMERA MOVES PAST THE FACES OF THE MEN  
PAN DOWN TO MILLER'S HAND

 

But aren’t we told not to use directing language? Yes, and that still

holds — for selling scripts. That’s the draft we write to sell the story.

A shooting script is for purposes of producing the movie. In this case,

Rodat already knew the script was sold: When Steven Spielberg and

Tom Hanks say they want to make a war movie, you’ve pretty much

already got a green light. So this draft is, while not quite a shooting

script, also not quite a selling script either.

 

 I’m sure Rodat had been working very closely with Spielberg as he

wrote this draft and those two shots are probably something that

Spielberg insisted go in the script, specific shots reflecting how

Spielberg planned to shoot the scene.

 

And really, both shots are classic Spielberg, small human moments amidst

the larger chaos, something viewers could dial into and experience to

enhance the emotional connection to these characters as they

transitioned into a living hell…

 

… a row of frightened young men, an incredible range of fevered emotions etched in their faces as the bombs rain down all around them…

 … and a close up of Miller’s hand shaking to belie his own fear as well

as set up a significant recurring image — Miller’s shaking hand is

called back several times in the movie — shaking that ends only when

Miller’s life ends, his hand finally still.

 

Secondary slug-lines are one of the most valuable tools a screenwriter

has to write action scenes, not only to direct the action by suggesting

camera shots, but also, as Rodat demonstrates, by putting action in

the slugs, we can convey to the reader just how big the action is.

 

Now put on your screenwriting hat and watch this scene from the

opening of Saving Private Ryan. Imagine how you would write it using

secondary slugs.

 

GENERAL ADVICE CONCERNING FIGHT SCENES FOR SCRIPTS

- Consider your medium. Choreography makes or breaks fight scenes in film and other visual media– but is less important for writing. 

- Find a happy place in between being too specific and too vague when describing the action. A move-by-move checklist of what everyone is doing can get boring fast (especially if it’s too technical for your readers to easily visualize and you never explained what it looks like), but glossing over things too heavily leaves the audience confused about what is happening. 


- Consider details beyond the fighting itself. In one of the best (real) verbal accounts of the events leading up to an aborted fight that I’ve heard, the narrator talks about his shoes. Because he’d been going to a party and not planning on starting anything, he was wearing shoes with flat soles– the kind that don’t grip at all. Outside, the pavement was icy. The fight ended up being totally avoided because both participants knew that the narrator would slip immediately– and the other combatant didn’t want to face the repercussions for crushing someone from a rival gang flat. 


- Think about where the combatants are, mentally. Are they happy and relaxed because they are sparring for fun with a friend? Extremely reluctant to fight because the consequences for fighting will be harsh? Scared? Angry?


- When it comes to violence, accuracy proves intimacy. 

 

READ MORE 

                  WRITING EFFECTIVE SCENE TRANSITIONS

Courtesy of Doug Eboch 

 

You most likely have considered the use of dissolves or fades. I would caution against overusing these the same way you don’t want to overuse camera direction. But to show passage of time or a flashback, a dissolve can be a nice device. And of course you need the FADE IN and FADE OUT to start and close your script!

There’s also the use of an audio pre-lap. In essence, you’re writing an editing trick to help keep the scenes flowing. Here’s an example from
Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally):

               CRAWFORD
    Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter.
    Dr. Chilton at the asylum will go
    over the physical procedures used
    with him. Do not deviate from them,
    for any reason. You tell him nothing
    personal, Starling. Believe me, you
    don't want Hannibal Lecter inside
    your head... Just do your job, but
    never forget what he is.

                  CLARICE
         (a bit unnerved)

      And what is that, sir?
 

                   CHILTON (V.O.)
      Oh, he's a monster. A pure psychopath...

                                    CUT TO:

INT. CHILTON'S OFFICE - BALTIMORE STATE HOSPITAL - DAY

CLOSE ON an ID card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo,  official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."

                      CHILTON
        It's so rare to capture one alive.
        From a research point of view, Dr.
        Lecter is our most prized asset...


As I said, these are essentially editing tricks that you might indicate in a screenplay occasionally to ease the flow from scene to scene. But there’s something more to consider as a writer: The juxtaposition of image across the cut.

Unless you’re going for some kind of effect such as claustrophobia, it’s usually a good idea to vary up your interior and exterior and night and day scenes. Cutting from exterior daytime to interior nighttime helps the audience process the transition quickly. If you cut from a daylight scene at a park, for example, to a daylight scene at a reservoir, visually it may look like cutting from trees and grass to trees and grass. The audience may not realize at first that it’s a new scene, necessitating time consuming establishing shots. Plus, visual variety is usually desirable in film.


An easy way to check for this is to look at your slug lines as a list. Most screenwriting software makes that easy. If you see too many interior scenes together, or too many night scenes together, ask yourself if that’s for effect or just coincidence? Could you reorder scenes? Maybe set a dialogue scene outside? Believe me, directors think of these kinds of things.


You also may want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can gain added impact by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify them logically since they are in two different scenes. For example, you could cut from a close-up of a mobster who has just ratted on the mob to a dead bird that some children are poking with a stick in order to create a visual metaphor.


This can feel really heavy handed if you go for such meaningful cuts every scene, so again, be judicious. But it’s worth considering what the ending image is in one scene and the beginning image of the next. At the very least you want to avoid unintentional visual metaphors!


It should be fairly obvious that scene transitions are most important to worry about in the latter stages of the rewriting process. In the first few drafts you’re likely going to add, delete and reorder scenes anyway. The exception might be specific visual metaphors. Whenever you do it, writing good scene transitions demonstrates to savvy filmmakers that you are a writer of movies, not just scripts
.

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