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.
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:
INT. LOCATION – DAY
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:
INT. MYSTERY MAN’S KITCHEN – NIGHT
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:
IN THE GREAT HALL
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.