Slugs and Beats
By David Trottier
You’ve often heard the terms slug, slug line, mini-slug, and beat in reference to screenwriting. Understanding these terms is paramount, so let’s first explore the slug family first.
Most common formatting error
The most common formatting errors I see in developing writers’ screenplays are with confusing and improper scene headings. That implies a possible lack of understanding of what they actually are and how they should be used.
Sometimes calling something by its given name rather than its nickname helps us understand its use. I’m sure that is one reason you will find the term scene heading rather than slug line used in the software applications Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. Incidentally, the term slug line originated in journalism, while the term scene heading is purely a screenwriting term. Let’s discuss why.
A scene heading, thus, identifies something about the content of a scene: primarily, the camera placement (interior or exterior), the location, and the time (usually DAY or NIGHT).
INT. HOTEL – DAY
The above is called a master scene heading because it identifies the master or primary location of the scene. Any location within the interior of the hotel would be a secondary location. Thus, you can use a secondary scene heading to identify that secondary location. For example, here is a secondary scene heading:
We’re still in the master (or primary) scene, but at a specific location (the lobby) within the broader master (or primary) location (the hotel). You could call it a secondary scene or a mini-scene if you wish. Some screenwriters refer to a secondary scene heading as a mini-slug.
This understanding of the difference between master and secondary scenes really comes in handy when you want to describe an action sequence such as a car chase. Just identify a broad master location in your master scene heading; for example, the streets of San Francisco. That’s a big location. Thus, we have this master scene heading:
EXT. STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO – DAY
Now you can use secondary scene headings such as McQUEEN’S CAR, BLACK VETTE, A SIDEWALK BAZAAR, AN INTERSECTION, and so on. These secondary locations are all part of the master (or primary) location, the streets of San Francisco. If the chase continues beyond the streets of San Francisco, you will need to type a new master scene heading for the new location.
You can do something similar for an air battle; for example: EXT. SKY ABOVE IRAQ – DAY. Having established the master scene, anything in the sky above Iraq (including different fighter jets) is a secondary location.
Where am I?
INT. A HECTIC BREAKFAST – DAY
“A hectic breakfast” is not a location. Where am I? Here’s another goof.
EXT. OCEAN – DAY
Marion runs through the waves.
Marion reads a book.
How can a library be part of the ocean? Is it a floating library? And how did we get from an exterior camera placement to an interior camera placement? Did I miss something?
Do you see the potential confusion? It’s not good for you to have a reader stop and try to figure something like this out. You want the story to flow smoothly through the reader’s mind.
Master scenes and secondary scenes revisited
In addition, it’s okay to add a secondary location to a master (primary) location in a master scene heading. I’ll illustrate all of these points below.
First, we’ll begin with the master scene heading that includes a secondary location and then move to other secondary locations.
INT. SMITH HOUSE – LIVING ROOM – DAY
John slams the front door and races down the
and into his
where he dives on top of his bed and sobs.
The above is correct, but it could have just as easily been written like this, which is also correct:
INT. SMITH HOUSE – DAY
John slams the front door and races out.
He runs past pictures of his family.
IN THE BEDROOM
He stumbles in and falls on his bed sobbing.
As you can see, any number of secondary headings can follow as long as the locations are part of the master (primary) location. Once we change the camera placement to an exterior location or to a location that is not part of the master location, we must create a new master scene heading.What if you want to show John sobbing on the same bed hours later? Well, you could write:
INT. SMITH HOUSE – BEDROOM – HOURS LATER
That would be technically correct, or you could use the following secondary heading:
John continues to sob.
You do not need a new master scene heading for a change in time, but you will for a change in camera location from interior to exterior or vice versa.
Description in scene headings
EXT. A WINDY NIGHT WITH A PALE MOON SHINING THROUGH TREES IN THE WOODS
That should actually be written as follows:
EXT. WOODS – NIGHT
A pale moon shines through trees buffeted by a stiff wind.
Save the description for the description (action) sections of your script. And save the reader a lot of pain and make him or her a happy reader. A happy reader can make you a happy writer.
(I should mention that there is a third type of scene heading. It’s a special heading and is used for montages, flashbacks, intercuts, series of shots, and so on. But that’s a subject for another day.)
The beat goes on
Even so, I have a suggestion regarding its use for the developing screenwriter who has to prove himself by writing a fascinating script. You see, an established writer does not have to prove herself. You do. Here’s one strategy you can use.
Beat means pause. In my view, that pause often (but not always) provides an opportunity to characterize your character or the action of your scene, so instead of writing “a beat,” you could write “He strokes his gun” or “She dabs her eye with her hankie.” You get the idea. That simply makes the scene a little more interesting and provides a little more character information. After all, you are a creative writer.Which of the following three examples creates more interest and characterizes the character?
None of the three examples will win any prizes, but certainly the first is the boring one. The second is dramatic. The third is funny (or disgusting). Here is the point. The word "beat" is the most colorless, lifeless term you can use to indicate a pause. Instead, use specific words that add to the story or help characterize your character.
A final word