ON THE BEGINNINGS OF SCENES
Screenplays are a very formal type of writing with a highly specific format and rules. This is because they are not just a way to tell a story, they are blueprints for making a movie. Sure, spec scripts are sometimes more sales tools than blueprints – designed to interest executives, directors, and cast in making the film. But they still have to look like a plan for production of a movie. After all, that’s the ultimate goal. With this in mind, today I want to focus on what the screenwriter must do when they open a scene. I read many scripts that fail to do this properly. Let’s start with the very first part of the scene: the slug line. First, I should address when you need a new slug line. It can be more complicated than it seems. The simple answer is that you need a new slug line any time the location changes or there is a jump in time. This indicates a new scene. Occasionally, this can get tricky. What if the characters are walking from the bedroom of their house to the living room, talking continuously? Is this a new scene? In order to make these decisions, it’s important to understand the purpose of a slug line. The slug line is really there to help the production manager schedule the shoot. Movies are often shot out of order. The production manager decides which scenes to shoot on which days, and they identify these scenes by slug line. So any time the crew might move to a new set, there should be a new slug line. Since the bedroom and the living room might actually be in different locations, moving from one to the other indicates a new scene. Slug lines have three parts: Part one is whether they are interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.). Again, this is to help the production manager decide whether they require a location or could be built on a soundstage. Sometimes, of course, exterior locations are built on soundstages and interiors are shot on location, but this is not the screenwriter’s concern. There is also a designation (I/E.) for when the scene takes place both inside and outside at the same time, such as someone looking out their window into the yard. Next is the location. Try to call the same location by the same name throughout the script. This not only makes the production manager’s job easier, it makes it easier for the reader to follow the script. So don’t call a single location SAM’S DINER in one scene, DINER in another scene, and THE COFFEE SHOP in a third scene. Finally, slug lines indicate whether it is a day shoot (DAY) or night shoot (NIGHT). Again, this is for scheduling. Sometimes writers get cute here and say something like MORNING or 3 P.M. But how will we know what time of day it is on screen? Besides, like I said, the real purpose of the slug line is scheduling, and all the production manager cares about is whether it’s day or night. It is acceptable to use CONTINUOUS if we are moving from one location to another without a break in the action. And if you must, you can identify SUNSET or SUNRISE or GOLDEN HOUR – just be aware you are making the crew’s job hard, since they will have to film the scene in a very limited time frame! You may read some scripts that don’t follow all the rules for slug lines. Perhaps they drop DAY at the end of the slug line until they change to NIGHT, for example. In a selling script, you might get away with that (it will be fixed for the shooting script). But if you are not an established screenwriter, I recommend sticking to proper slug lines. It shows that you know what you’re doing. Next we have the description of the location. While perhaps not technically a rule, it’s generally considered a “best practice” to open every scene with some basic description of where we are, even if you’re just cutting back to a scene in progress after a cutaway. In those situations, put in something simple like, “Alicia and Kim continue their discussion.” When describing the setting of the scene, you want to be brief and evocative, creating a picture of the room with a minimum of words. Here are some tips:
Don’t repeat information that’s in the slug line. If the slug line is INT. ITALIAN RESTAURANT – NIGHT, you don’t need to start your scene with, “Fatimah is sitting in an Italian restaurant.
Don’t describe everything in the room. Instead, pick one or two details that give the reader (and the production designer) the flavor of the setting.
Be specific. Like almost anything else in writing, specific is better than general or vague.
If possible, open with action – a character doing something that reveals the space. So rather than saying, “Fatimah is sitting at a table with white tablecloths and candles,” say, “The hostess seats Fatimah and lights the candle on the table, brushing a stray crumb from the white tablecloth.”
Probably the most common mistake I see is writers failing to identify who is in the room. Consider this scene opening: INT. KITCHEN – DAY Alicia enters with a tray of used breakfast dishes. She loads the dishwasher. KIM How did Dan like his breakfast? ALICIA Cleaned the plate. KIM Good. I told you that recipe would work. STEVE I still think you should have made French toast. As you read along, you might be thinking, “Wait, where did Kim come from? Wait, Steve’s there too? Who else is in this kitchen?” The scene may be clear in the writer's head, but the reader will feel confused, and if it’s someone to whom you’re trying to sell your screenplay, you’ve probably just lost that sale. Always establish all the characters in the room at the start of the scene, and indicate when someone comes and goes. This goes for unusual objects, too. If at some point in the above scene Kim uses a toaster, the reader won’t think twice. But if she hops on a riding lawnmower, the reader will be thoroughly confused. If there’s a riding lawnmower in the kitchen, you need to tell us up front! This doesn’t mean you have to cram everything into the first paragraph. Especially when you are going to introduce characters for the first time, you might spread out the introductions. But they still shouldn’t come as a surprise. You need to indicate there are other people in the room. Here’s an example that would be okay: INT. LOCKER ROOM – DAY Arthur and Ali enter the locker room. Various boys are showering, changing, snapping towels at each other. Arthur and Ali make their way to their lockers. Begin changing. A skinny sophomore approaches. This is HOWARD. HOWARD Do you guys have any extra clothes? Someone stole mine. Since you’ve established there are other boys in the locker room, there is no need to specifically mention Howard until he becomes important. When your polishing your last draft, it pays to ensure your scene openings follow these guidelines. It will help the reader follow your story and show that you know how a screenplay works. And if your film should go to production, the production manager will be very grateful!