Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Best Of - Secondary Headings

Hey guys,

I had written quite extensively in my reviews on TriggerStreet and here on the blog about Secondary Headings, but this post compiled all of that information into one resourceful place. This is a perfectly acceptable industry standard technique, and I believe Secondary Headings are crucial to great craftsmanship in specs. This is what gives you the freedom to go anywhere and do anything in a screenplay. This is what gives you long tracking shots, implied closeups, camera directions, as well as big, seamless action sequences.

I don't know what possessed me to use these photos. They're pretty funny, I guess. Anyway, hope you enjoy it.



What kind of photos does one use for an article about Secondary Headings? How about some imaginative (photoshop’d) locations thanks to Worth1000? Because if locations like these were in your scripts, you’ll probably need to use some Secondary Headings to get around.

I’ve said so many different things about Secondary Headings in so many different places that I’ve been wanting to put it all together in one comprehensive post. 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. And there is just no excuse for pro readers to not know what they are and how they work. Because if Trottier says it can be done,
Screenwriter's Bible, well, it CAN be done. Period.

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.

Master Scene Headings have always felt so confining to me and so 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.

Let me ask you - 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 - 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 third act dogfight sequence in Top Gun? Start with EXT. BLUE SKY – DAY and then fill it with Secondary Headings - INSIDE MAVERICK'S TOMCAT, ABOVE THE SEA, INSIDE MIG TWO, etc.

Secondary Headings have had a long and treasured history in cinematic storytelling. There was Lawrence Kasdan with
Raiders (I'll never forget those Secondary Headings in that famous opening sequence like "HALL OF SHADOWS" and "CHAMBER OF LIGHT" and "THE SANCTUARY" - didn't know those rooms had names, did you?). Spielberg also used them prolifically in Close Encounters. And there was Ted Tally with Silence of the Lambs (probably the most famous and chilling Secondary Heading in screenwriting history - "DR. LECTER'S CELL"). There was William Goldman with All the President's Men, and John Milius with Apocalypse Now, and Robert Towne with Chinatown, and Paul Schrader with Taxi Driver, and Randall Wallace with Braveheart, and Scott Frank with every script he's ever written but lately Minority Report and The Lookout, and of course, a classic - Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles with Citizen Kane.

Secondary Headings are so popular right now amongst the pros that some ONLY write Secondary Headings and NO Master Scene Headings AT ALL. Like the Coen brothers.
Fargo is one that comes to mind. Or take, for example, their latest script - No Country for Old Men. It's so downright minimalist without any primary slugs at all that it's just plain weird-looking. (I can't say I approve of this, but hey, they're writing for themselves nowadays.) I recently did a review of a Billy Mernit screenplay. I didn't mention this in the review, but he didn't use ANY primary slugs either. This is the trend. (Of course, this means nothing to us. We have to continue to follow industry standard format as outlined in Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible and prove to all those intelligent industry people how well we understand how a screenplay FUNCTIONS. Once we become "established," THEN we can take a left turn at Albuquerque and do crazy things like not write any Master Scene Headings.)

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.



Emily Blake said...

They especially come in handy when writing a script for a short film because those often take place in one location. For instance, a story in a boxing ring with two active corners needs some way to differentiate the location without having to repeat that we are INT BOXING RING - CORNER ONE every thirty seconds.

Christian M. Howell said...

The biggest problem is that too many writers think screenwriting is a slacker job.


Maybe everyone should have to take a Trottier quiz before querying anyone. I mean, my brain is on fire from all of the studying I've done since last year.

But please don't let me go off on a tangent about underachieving.

Kwinnky said...

Hello. I happened upon your blog while searching for information on secondary headings. I use them, but I am unsure about how to use them when referring to characters. For example:


Steve and Irene kiss.


looks on and frowns.

Now, would I have to enter another secondary heading to go back to Steve and Irene, or could I just start another paragraph.

Mystery Man said...

You could do either, and it depends upon the kind of shot you are implying. To do a Secondary Heading of a character's name implies a close-up. So if you want to suggest a close-up of those two, you could do another heading. If not, and you're just imagining a medium shot, then just write a paragraph.

Hope that helps.


Kwinnky said...

Thank you, your blog is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if I can use secondary scene headings while jumping from one place to another. Let's say, from a battle inside a castle and another outside, in the open.

I understand secondary scene headings are used okay when they refer to the same location.

Here I set up two locations with master scene headings, use secondary scene headings for action in the same scene but ALSO on the other location.

I want to avoid restating the master scene headings while dealing wit parallel actions in two different places.
Does it work?

Thanks a lot!

Mystery Man said...

In a situation like the one you described where there's action inside the castle and outside the castle, I'd recommend you use Master Scene Headings when changing from interior to exterior or vice versa.

Hope that helps.


Anonymous said...

It does.

Thank you so much from Bucharest, Romania.

Isn't the Internet amazing?

Anonymous said...

What happens if its a scene where two things are happening simulatneously but in two different houses and for dramatic reasons you want to cut between both locations. For example a boy is kidnapped while waiting at the bus stop. At the same time his mother is in a business meeting oblivious to all of this. could you start with a master scene like EXT. BUS STOP and then use secondary heading "OFFICE BOARDROOM" to cut between both locations without having to write a master heading

Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry said...

This may not be a usual secondary heading, but, When I submitted to Cowritescript, I wrote the kids' escape from the Panic Room via a conduit to the stormdrain ... And because time had elapsed I needed them going out at the instant the scene began--


Escape suits left. Nora lastly, flashing a Lighter and LED;

Fully half-a-cask remains the
sober truth! Come this-way one
blue-moon, But sip-and-leave a


Jonas tries. Can't. Freddie crowds, "Scuse me." Both prone: Both the handle ... CREAAAK--! Opens into VERY-DIM DRIPPING RUNNING WATER, FIRE ENGINES PUMPING ABOVE. "Oooh. Stinky."

The sewer main?

Smoother-- The Amontillado.


So, I have one true-blue secondary heading; But what of the other two headings: Are they even legal age?


Mystery Man said...

Dude - I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're doing there. You only need one "INT" for a heading. I have no idea what this means "(OC:HOLLOW)". You should get yourself a copy of Trottier's "Screenwriter's Bible."