Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shhh… It’s a SECRET!

Shh... Don't tell anyone this.

We screenwriters cannot (and SHOULD NOT and WILL NOT) allow ourselves the LUXURY of (GASP!) discussing insights about the craft. With anyone.


So let's just keep this between us, okay?

(Because I honestly don't know what'll happen to me if I tell you this.)

Are you ready? This is my secret:

I fucking love Secondary Headings.


And do you know what else? I can't believe HOW GOOD IT FEELS to tell someone! I love READING them. I love WRITING them. I love ALL THE POSSIBILITIES they bring to the screenwriting table! It’s my MOST FAVORITE device in a screenplay! THREE CHEERS FOR SECONDARY HEADINGS! HOORAY! HOORAY! HOORAY!


Pardon me while I have a quick smoke.

But ya know, amateurs and pros alike hardly ever use them, which I cannot fathom. I do not see how any truly devoted craftsman can live without Secondary Headings. They are nothing less than your golden ticket to freedom in screenwriting.

So let's take a look at them. As I’m sure you know very well, STUPID BORING Master Scene Headings usually look like this:


Trottier is pretty strict about how Master Scene Headings should look. It’s INT. or EXT., LOCATION, only ONE DASH, and then DAY or NIGHT (or CONTINUOUS or SAME or LATER). There are very few liberties you can take with Master Scene Headings. You can, at times, have two dashes in the event of a FLASHBACK SEQUENCE, but that’s about it.

To me, Master Scene Headings have always felt so confining and full of limitations with the way they force you to be stuck in one location until you move on to the next Master Scene Heading. Does that not feel completely wrong to you guys? All the great movies I’ve seen are FULL of movement. Thus, I love so very much Secondary Headings, which is a perfectly groovy and acceptable industry standard technique.

If you have different scenes taking place in the same building (or general location), all you need are Secondary Headings. For example, if you have, say, early in your script, one big talkative 6-page scene with 5 characters in a kitchen, you’re running a huge risk of losing the reader and the audience. However, you could (through Secondary Headings) break up that monster conversation into short vignettes that take place in, say, the Family Room, Master Bedroom, Back Patio, and Garage. Plus, in the process of breaking up that long talk, you can eliminate all the non-essential lines in that one scene and shrink those 5-pages down to maybe 2 good, tight pages full of movement.

Spacing wise, you should treat Secondary Headings as you would Master Scene Headings. They're painless, too, because all you have to type is the location:


Jack the Ripper grabs a steak knife.


Mystery Man foxtrots with Mystery Woman.

Or (praise the movies gods) Secondary Headings can also be prepositional phrases:


Mystery Man foxtrots with Mystery Woman.

Secondary Headings can also offer movement:

Jack the Ripper tip-toes into the


and hides behind a statue of David.

Question - using today’s industry standard format, how would you handle multiple conversations taking place in different locations at the same party? Like, for example, the wedding reception at the beginning of The Godfather? Secondary Headings, of course - BY THE BUFFET TABLE, ON THE STAGE, IN THE PARKING LOT, etc.

How would you handle long tracking shots like the great ones we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s films? Secondary Headings. (I love long tracking shots. There was always a point to Kubrick’s tracking shots, too, you know. Kubrick was, in essence, marrying his characters to their environment and saying, “Hey, look, these characters are products of their environment” or “They are being horribly affected by this environment.”)

How would you handle the dogfight sequence at the end of Top Gun? EXT. BLUE SKY – DAY and then fill it with Secondary Headings - INSIDE MAVERICK'S TOMCAT, JUST ABOVE THE WATER, INSIDE MIG TWO, etc.

Are you seeing the possibilities? Because great movies are EXCITING and full of movement and (to me) Secondary Headings is just one of many keys to great craftsmanship.

More examples:

The Other Side by Mickey Lee – The opening sequence took place inside a Television Studio. With the use of Secondary Headings, Mickey Lee cut seamlessly between the DRESSING ROOM, the SET, and the CONTROL BOOTH, and all the while, he established his characters, built tension, and got his story rolling along in great style.

The White Pyramid by Ross Mahler – Ross offers a wonderful sequence about 30 pages into his story that takes place at the far end of the Great Wall of China at Lao Long Tou in which the hero, Chance, dives into the ocean where the dragon's snout meets the sea and he searches for a stone with a serpent carved on it. With Secondary Headings, Ross cut between Chance UNDERWATER and his friend Benny standing at the END OF THE DRAGON'S SNOUT. Very cinematic.

The Mine by Matt Spira & Russell Totten – This story takes place primarily in mines underneath No Man’s Land during WWI. However, in one of the early sequences, Matt and his partner Russell take our mind's eye sweeping across No Man's Land in the Ypres Salient and thanks to Secondary Headings, we spend time IN THE GERMAN TRENCHES and IN THE BRITISH TRENCHES. It was exciting.

Of course, like everything, there can be pitfalls to Secondary Headings. One can have too much movement, movement that makes no sense, too many quick scenes in a row, etc. It’s a technique that, like everything else, has to be mastered. But, ohh, how fun it is when an artist masters the form and delivers a truly great cinematic experience.


Unknown Screenwriter said...

Hey... There's NO BETTER way to write in those camera angles... LOL.

Seriously though... Secondary slugs make for a much faster read. I use them quite liberally and no matter what, I can almost always go back into a draft and use these to either...

a) tighten up a scene and make it read faster.

b) cheat the page length. Yeah, you heard me... LOL. I can ALWAYS stretch 106 or 107 pages to 110 by going through the script and rewrite utilizing secondary slugs...

c) directing the page... Since the percentage of US using secondary slugs is small, this is a perfect way to direct your screenplay without seeming like you're directing i.e., inserting actual camera angles. Combine this method with some amazing transitions and visuals within your action lines and you'll go FAR to getting your reader to SEE what you're writing.

In MM or FD, just use the SHOT element to type in your secondary slug line.

Okay... I'm done. Couldn't help it.


wcdixon said...

Yeah - I like writing that way, generally do...but good to differentiate between the reading or show script, which is what you/we are talking about, and the shooting script. Whenever I do write that way and it goes to production, the producers/AD's generally ask to give those location changes their own slug line so they can board them and schedule them. For what its worth...

Mickey Lee said...

Curse you, Mystery Man! Are you going to give away ALL our secrets and make us work that much harder to reach excellence??

Seriously though, I love the secondary headings and I implore everyone to use them.

Interesting sidebar on secondary headings. It seems, according to Trottier, that you only need ONE space before a secondary heading as opposed to two for a master scene location. But I've seen writers put two spaces before them. Just my opinion, but I go with one space -- saves pages!

LoveStrong said...

And I am taking foxtrot lessons as we speak, MM, so...

GimmeABreak said...

MM has an MW?? Her name's Mata Hari?

I love 'em, too. Used 'em in every SP I've written during the last 2 years. Gives a much smoother flow to the read if done correctly.

GimmeABreak said...

p.s. The topic image looks like the mansion (Chateau de St. Martin?) from The Ninth Gate (the script calls it Chateau de Saint-Damien).

Miriam said...

Yeah, per wcdixon, that's the only drawback to mini-slugs (my fancy term for them). AD's use the master headings to storyboard the shots and schedule things like actors and props.

I have used them, but sparingly, and mostly to show a moving camera. In my latest break-down, in an early scene, the protag walks slowly through the main hall of his apartment and looks for his girlfriend in every room. The camera moves with him.

But moving a camera from room to room like that is harder than doing lots of different static set-ups. You have to light everything, for one thing. Since most indy productions rent their equipment, the director usually gets only enough for one room, so right away you're increasing the budget for rented lights, gels, filters, cables, etc.

I love to read scripts with mini-slugs. They are a lot easier to read, and make the action more vivid. I guess the answer is we're going to use them in our specs, but we should plan the master headings to replace them when the script goes into pre-production.

GameArs said...

Does the author of the spec normally get hired to draft the shooting script? I wonder.

Miriam said...

I think the answer is usually no, Carl. The bigger studios usually hire pro writers to turn specs into shooting scripts.

But I defer to the wisdom of the people who contribute here who actually work with these big studios.

Mystery Man, anybody who has read The Toy Maker knows how much you love those secondary headings. I have to say the scenes where the chair whizzes Jenny around the mansion are very active and visual because of them.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

I love the freedom secondary slugs offer.

Check out Robert Rodat's Saving Private Ryan, esp. the opening on Omaha Beach. Lots of secondaries put to good effect.

Unknown Screenwriter said...


They'll have to PAY ME to change each secondary slug into a location heading.

Of course I already have that version... LOL.


Mystery Man said...

Unk - I just can't bring myself to call the "slugs." That's how much I love them! Hehehe...

Mickey - Great point.

Lovestrong - You'll have to teach me. "Foxtrots" was a more fun verb than "dances."

Gimme - Yeah, there's usually an MW around. MW 1, 2, 3...

Dix & Miriam - I wouldn't disagree. In a first-read spec, I love 'em. The point is to have fun, isn't it? If you, however, get a sale and you're preparing for a production, well, that's a different ballgame. Changing/fixing secondary headings is really no big deal. That doesn't bother me.

Carl - It all depends on who you're dealing with, frankly.

Ryan - Thank you for that. I had no idea he used that in SPR. That's very cool.

Unk - It's complicated. Sometimes, that's part of the deal, ya know.


Vince DC said...

As a screenwriter, I LOVE THEM.

As a development exec, they make the job of reading so much easier and pleasant if properly done.

However, AD work also puts food on the table so...


Reason's already been given in the comments. I have to turn those lovely headings into master ones so I can break them down and board them.

Mystery Man said...


Of course, we're only talking about specs and not shooting drafts, but let me tell you something. I love ADs, actually, and I know very well your pain.

I'm a little unusual in that I would try to make myself known to you, and I would be happy to work with you to help you in any way that I could including the conversion of all those pesky secondary slugs because that's the kind of team player I am.


It's great to meet you, Vince.


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