Thursday, October 11, 2007

Secondary Headings

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.



Laura Deerfield said...

So what about a location that has an interior and exterior? I have several scenes in a house, moving around the house - including the front and back yards, and the back yard also has a pool. When the movement is from INT to EXT or vice verse should there be a new master scene in a spec script? Should it only be there the first time, and then can I make the back yard a secondary heading?

It would just flow so much better, when I have one character chasing another from the yard into the house not to be have a new master heading in between two lines of action (character A enters house, character B stumbles over a chair outside, character A runs up the stairs, character B enters the house and so forth.)

(also some parts of scenes are from the pool - trying to decide whether to give these a separate heading than the rest of the back yard scenes or not - when the shot should clearly be from the pool looking at the house or yard)

GimmeABreak said...

I LOVE secondary headings!

Mim said...

I don't use secondary headings because of storyboards and shooting schedules. Things may have changed since the last time I had any exposure to these things, but my theory is it will be easier to break down my script into a storyboard and shooting schedule if I use only Master headings.

I LOVE the idea of secondary headings, especially if it's one of those party scenes, such as the wedding in The Godfather, or the Fish Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future. Of course OVER BY THE PUNCHBOWL and BEHIND THE CAKE work better than simply writing another paragraph. But I've been told by several people that translating these into proper primary headings is part of the breakdown process.

And I don't understand at all why you would mix INT. and EXT. shots under a primary heading in secondary headings. You have to get completely different things out of the gaffer's truck to light them. One requires lights and stands and gels and miles of that heavy cable, and the other requires reflectors and stands. Okay, so the stands are common to both kinds of shots.

So I love the idea of secondary headings. I just always see myself in front of a producer's desk agreeing to change them all to primary headings before I turn in the final copy of the script.

Unknown said...

I found that secondary headings are very useful when you've got a lot going on in a scene, like a battle scene. Then you can keep the action flowing without always having to have the reader recalibrate.

Laura Deerfield said...

mim: "I love the idea of secondary headings. I just always see myself in front of a producer's desk agreeing to change them all"

Yeah, I think it's one of those areas where one format gets you past the reader's desk, but another format may be needed to get the producer's OK.

I lean toward using full headings, because I see each scene as a shot, but when moving between different areas quickly, they do visually slow down the action and I understand the usefulness of secondary headings for that.

Christian H. said...

Great post MM. I have learned to swear by Secondary headings.
They do work for almost every occasion. I use them for everything from room changes to character movements and distance descriptions.







I love it.

Joshua James said...

You had me at


Awhile ago . . . I'm converted . . .

Line producers HATE THEM.


Almost as much as I love CAPS

I'm still mystified how ONE guy wrote a book called the screenwriters bible and annoited himself the divine authority on format . . .

I think you should do that, MM, you're better than Trottier . . .

Mim said...

"I use them for everything from room changes..."

This is what I don't understand. The film might be shot in one house, or it might be shot in a series of houses. When I was in college, we used one apartment for a dining room scene, another for a bedroom scene, and yet another for a scene set outdoors, by the pool.

I can understand using secondary headings when the scene takes place in one big room, like the gym in Carrie, or the dance in Back to the Future. But if it's a different room, it's going to be a different set up, and maybe even a different day when it's filmed.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Laura - Ya know, Trottier actually says you can use secondary slugs if you go from inside to outside (or vice versa) so long as it's in the same general location, and so I think you'd be okay with them in the example you gave. Master Scene Headings can be so jarring. If the secondary slugs make the read smoother, I say go for it.

Thanks so much, Pat.

Bob - Yes! Battle scenes! I recall Matt Spira used it well in his script, "The Mine." In fact, I wrote about it: "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."

Christian - Sounds like you have a lot going on in that girls' house. Hehehe...

Joshua - Thanks, man. I'll follow-up on your email about dialogue shortly. Trottier's a great guy, and the industry needs a foundation. It's all good, man. And using all the tools of formatting, HELPS you.

Mim - We're just writing specs, not shooting scripts. With specs, the emphasis is story told visually. Besides, they have to change all those headings to add those scene numbers when they're convert it to a shooting scripts anyway. (Well, depending upon who you're dealing with. Really small indie companies may not.) Even then, Secondary Slugs will stay in the shooting if you're in the same general area, particularly if you're writing an action script. Did you see my review for Mickey's new script? Consider this:

"It is downright impossible to write a truly impressive action sequence without using Secondary Headings. Consider the truck rescue sequence starting on page 44 - that would be an absurd amount of Master Scene Headings if you were to cut back and forth between the interior back of the truck, interior front of the truck, exterior top of the truck, hood, etc. In both pro and amateur specs, I've found so many action sequences to be weak because the writer simply doesn't want to write a billion Master Scene Headings. For God's sake, all you need are Secondary Headings. They give you the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. There is nothing you can't do in a screenplay. Not only that, the Secondary Headings helped Mickey to quickly cut back and forth between two sequences at the same time, like in the opening sequence when you had Garrett inside the castle and the rest of his buddies in 39 Commando setting the explosives."

I want to say, too, that with respect to the different rooms in a house, it makes for a quicker, smoother read if you use secondary headings, and it gives the impression these things are taking place at the same time within the same general sequence of scenes. But when you have to read a Master Scene Heading, you have to sorta slow down a little, consider the "day" or "night" or "later," and try to figure out how this compares to the previous scene you just read. More often than not, I think people would be grateful for the little touches like that that make the read smoother.


Mim said...

MM, that's an excellent point. We are writing specs, not shooting scripts.

Well, I will have to experiment with Secondary Headings, but I still don't see why I have to use them when I go from INT. KITCHEN - DAY to INT. RAY'S BEDROOM - DAY.

I do, however, have a very specific scene in mind that I'm going to start with: a voodoo ceremony.

Jason said...

You know I love secondary headings too! Great blog MM! Thanks so much!

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, man! It's the key to screenwriting freedom, baby! Hehehe...

You're very kind.


Unknown said...

I think everybody should read P.T Anderson's Magnolia, there is a sequence in this film that I think is one of the best follow shots of all time, the story constantly moves from one follow shot to the next, also I was watching the Wrestler recently it also had a large amount of follow shots

Mystery Man said...

Tom - Interesting. Thanks for that!


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