Screenplay jargon untangled
Sluglines/sluglines in a screenplay aren’t slimy. Not usually, anyway.
If you’re a brand-new screenwriter, you’ve probably seen a screenplay or a play in written form, but you might not yet know how it breaks down into parts.
A spec screenplay (i.e. written “on speculation” – not commissioned) requires a particular format. But all scripts consist of three main elements: Scene Headings, Action Lines, and Dialogue.
Of course, these also have nicknames in the business lingo. Action lines are referred to as “the black” for example, and scene headings are called Slug Lines (or Sluglines). Pick the one you like and stick to it.
What does it look like?
Slug lines/sluglines must be written in all caps. They can be bolded. Or not. They can be underlined. Or not. As long as you’re consistent, you can choose your personal preference.
A slugline (scene heading) consists of three parts, which each tell everyone involved with production a lot of details with just a few words. 1.) Whether the scene is indoors (INT. – for interior) or outdoors (EXT. – for exterior); 2.) A short phrase identifying where the scene physically takes place (ALICE’S BEDROOM); and 3.) Whether the scene takes place during the DAY or NIGHT.
So the full slugline (scene heading) looks like this:
It’s tempting for new screenwriters to jazz things up by, instead of DAY or NIGHT, writing EARLY EVENING or SUNSET. Don’t do this. Just use DAY or NIGHT. If you need to describe the time of day, do it in the action lines.
If you’ve read some of my blog pieces, you’ve heard me say that a script needs to look right. There’s a right way to format sluglines and other screenplay elements.
So, if you’re serious about learning how to write screenplays, don’t just read blog posts like this. Get yourself a copy of Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible, which teaches you by multiple examples how to format properly. Here I’m just going to outline the basics, but Dr. Format, as Trottier is known, can give you all the details.
For me –and this is a personal choice– I like to take the opportunity to add a little more locational information in the slugline. Like, for example: INT. ALICE’S NYC BEDROOM – DAY or INT. ALICE’S COUNTRY HOUSE BEDROOM – NIGHT.
But be careful. Sluglines should never spill over onto a second line.
So, that covers the first main element of a screenplay.
Next, Action Lines
After any scene heading, the action lines give a visual description of what’s going on in the place and time you’ve named in the slugline. You tell the reader who’s in the scene and what they’re doing.
Action lines are one, two, three, four, or five lines max. Two or three is common. You better have a valid reason if your action lines run four or five lines long. Definitely refrain from making max-length action blocks a habit.
Remember that action lines are camera shots. So only write what the camera can see. See my piece on showing, not telling if you’re not sure what that means.
Also, the language you use to write action lines in a screenplay is simple present tense. Never past tense (Alice walked); never future tense (Alice will walk); never past subjunctive (Alice would have walked). And never present tense continuous, as in “Alice is walking.”
If you’ve already tucked into your first (or second and third) screenplay, you can find and fix these errors simply. Just run a search for “is” or “ing” and replace those verb phrases with simple present tense.
Always write your screenplays only in simple present tense: Alice walks. But, do try to use a more interesting verb than walks. Take a look at my writing tips cheat sheet to help you.
Write in ‘Active Voice’
The other rule of “the black” is to always write in “active voice.” What’s that? Write your action lines in active voice – that’s an example of active voice. Action lines are best written in active voice – that’s an example of passive voice.
An active voice sentence is structured as subject-verb-object, where the subject does something to the object.
Here’s another example: Bob (subject) dries (verb) the dishes (object). The passive voice version would be: The dishes are dried by Bob.
This is a solid writing habit no matter what type of prose you’re producing, so it’s worth understanding and mastering. If you write blogs, your SEO checker will highlight too many passive voice sentences in your post. Even Grammarly will flag your passive voice construction. In the case of screenplays, try to avoid passive voice throughout your script.
To find the culprits, search your document for “is” and “are” followed by a past participle, like ‘written.’ Then rewrite the sentence into active voice.
Now, let’s talk about Dialogue
Dialogue is the words you write that – at least you hope – actors will speak out loud.
Grammar doesn’t count here. Your characters each have their own particular way of speaking. In fact, good writers can write dialogue that doesn’t even need a character name attached to it. An experienced reader should be able to recognize which character is speaking by their unique voice.
Dialogue, like all the other elements, requires a particular format. The best way to get the format right, along with the guidance of a good book like Dave’s, is to use a professional screenwriting program.
You want to make sure the margins and indents are right and the script looks like it should. If you wing it, no matter how savvy you think you are at Word or Google docs, a gatekeeper reader will know.
There are a few more things to know about formatting, like parentheticals, occasional use of camera directions, when to use (beat), whether to use scene numbers (never in a spec) and if FADE IN/FADE OUT is passé (the jury’s still out). I may deal with those in another blog. And I definitely want to discuss the Master scene heading (master slugline) in a screenplay, and the mini-slugs that accompany it. But that’s for another day. In the meantime, keep reading scripts. And keep writing.