A screenplay is the beginnings of a film or TV show. From plot and character to setting and dialogue, the screenplay is the blueprint for all your favorites.
With such a wealth of information, it is crucial that as screenwriters, we orient our readers and ensure that each scene is clearly defined.
So, what is a slugline? Sluglines are key tools in a screenwriter’s toolbox. They are a single line in uppercase letters that draws attention to specific points in a screenplay and highlights what is important to a reader.
For example, a slugline indicates whether a scene is taking place inside or outside, day or night, and any specific location requirements. They’re concise and straightforward, so they’re easy to read and comprehend when reading through the script.
There are two different types of sluglines: master slugline (scene headings) and sub-sluglines (subheadings).
Let’s begin with master sluglines. Situated at the start of a scene, these will give us any essential details and determine the location and time, but no other details. They are always written in uppercase letters.
Take this master slugline example from the opening page of 2019’s Knives Out. Writer Rian Johnson begins outside the Thrombey Estate Manor House.
Notice we only have the key information regarding the location and time of day. All other details are reserved for the action lines following. Then Johnson moves inside Thrombey Manor.
Here we have a slightly more specific location in terms of the bedroom. But, again, that’s all the information we’re given. This is the point of sluglines, as they give concise and simple information that can be used by the director and the rest of the film crew to determine exact scene locations.
Subheadings are just that, smaller elements underneath the master slugline to indicate small location, visual or time changes.
What if we wanted to move between rooms? Well, this is where our sub-sluglines (subheadings) come in. Let’s take a different example, 2013’s American Hustle. First, we have the master slugline:
Here in capitals, we have the introduction of a second room where we see further action. Each subheading should be written on a separate line and again in uppercase letters. Subheadings can be extremely useful in situations where characters move between rooms. By using subheadings, it can improve the pace of the script.
Now, subheadings aren’t just used for a change of location, but also in a change of point of view or visual direction. Screenwriters are often discouraged from giving specific camera directions in their scripts, as this is usually the role of the cinematographer and director. However, where it is necessary to indicate a visual direction, subheadings can be extremely useful.
Take this example from Toy Story 3 (2010). We find ourselves in Andy’s yard, viewing Woody darting from a tree to a boulder. Then the scene switches to Woody’s point of view, indicated by the subheading.
Notice how Woody’s POV is indicated in its own separate line and in capitals. Not only does it clearly change our perspective as a reader, but sets the pace of the film. We don’t know what Woody looks at when he speaks, but then we’re immediately granted access to what he sees. It helps drive the story forward and create snappy action.
Another example where subheadings can help show the passing of time is if you stay in the same location, but immediately come back a few minutes or hours later. This is a technique used by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz in the script for 2005’s Blood Diamond:
The main purpose of these types of subheadings is to make the script as easy to read as possible. Script executives often talk about ‘white space’ in screenplays, and it’s ideal to have as much white space as possible, your script written in the most concise and impactful style possible.
In this instance, there’s no need to write an entirely new master slugline if the characters remain in the same location.
You may have seen characters in films and TV shows read newspapers, books, text messages, etc. that are important to the ongoing plot. To add such a perspective into your script, you can use what is called an INSERT SHOT. Again, these are perfect to use to highlight a specific visual in a scene without using camera directions.
A great example of insert shots is in the script for 2002’s The Bourne Identity.
Here, writer Tony Gilroy has shown where the audience’s eyes need to be, highlighting the desk and the phone/answering machine. Both the silhouette on the desk and phone play key roles in the plot development.
The Anatomy of a Slugline
The Anatomy of a Master Slugline
Let’s begin again with the master slugline determining the location and time frame of a scene. Our example scene will be set in a doctor’s waiting room in the daytime.
Establishing whether a scene is internal or external (INT. or EXT.) is the first piece of information in a master slugline. If your scene moves from inside to outside, you can use INT/EXT. Or vice versa: EXT/INT.
As our doctor’s waiting room scene is set inside, we’ll select INT.
Next, we need to establish the specific location: a doctor’s surgery. This is preceded by a period to separate it from the beginning of the slugline.
Finally, we need to establish the time of day. Many screenwriters will simply use DAY and NIGHT, but if there is a specific reason why you need to narrow that down, you can use DAWN, DUSK, NOON, AFTERNOON, MORNING etc. For the purposes of our slugline, we’ll use DAY. The time of day is always preceded by a dash to separate it from the rest of the slugline.
If one scene moves directly from the previous scene, you could also use CONTINUOUS as a time of day. However, be careful that you don’t use this too much. Sometimes it makes sense to use DAY or NIGHT for ease and clarity for your reader.
The Anatomy of a Subheading
To recap, the subheading is used to determine a slight change in location, for example from room to room or a point of view.
Continuing with our doctor’s surgery, here is an example of where we could use a subheading.
Now let’s add in an insert shot to add some extra interest to the scene and drive the plot.
Immediately, we know that the letter from the CIA will be a strange object to have in a doctor’s surgery, so therefore we have a moment of intrigue for the audience. We could have just shown the receptionist reading the letter, rather than a key detail that wouldn’t necessarily spark the same degree of interest.
Be careful not to overuse insert shots or subheadings in your screenplay, and keep their correct use in mind. Always use master sluglines to begin a new scene, and ensure to include all required information: internal/external, location, and time of day.
Sluglines in Journalism
The term slugline is also applicable to journalism. Typically, sluglines are one to two sentences long and give a concise overview of the story.
In fact, the term slugline comes from journalism. The word ‘slug’ is associated with newspaper printing presses where type was set by hand. Metal slugs were used to make up the words printed on a page. Over time, the term was adopted within the film industry, as sluglines give a brief overview of the scene.
Best Practices for Sluglines
Keep it concise!
Ensure your scene headings and sluglines aren’t too detailed and only show the key information. For example, if your scene is in a movie theater, you don’t need to determine the exact seat your character is sitting in. Safe that for the scene description and action.
Follow Industry Standards
As screenwriters, we read hundreds of scripts, all with their own slightly different style when it comes to sluglines and throughout their entirety. But it’s important to note that these will mostly be scripts from established writers who have already forged their way into the industry. If you’re undiscovered, it’s important to be aware of and follow industry standards to the letter.
If you’re serious about breaking into the industry, perfect formatting is a must, and to give your reader the best possible experience in reading your script.
All your sluglines should follow the same formula. If you use the same location throughout your script, make sure all the sluglines read the same (depending on whether you’re maintaining the same time of day and internal/external).
Sluglines and Screenwriting Software
The wonders of modern technology have graced us with screenwriting software, most of which will format your script for you – like Celtx! So, the format of sluglines will already be built in and automatic as you write.
No matter which software you use, it’s always a good idea to double check all your formatting. The film industry is the busiest it’s ever been, with thousands of scripts circulating. Perfect formatting is vital if you want to break into screenwriting professionally. It may seem unfair, but any error can stop your script from being read altogether.
We cannot emphasize enough how sluglines are a key structural element in your screenplay. They indicate location and time of day at the start of every scene, as well as help indicate the flow and pace of the story. By breaking up longer sections of a script, sluglines make for a more enjoyable experience for a reader.
Keep every slugline concise and simple, so they’re easy to follow and set the pace for your script. Remember, slick formatting is key in all elements of your script.
Need some top tips on writing your first script? Check out our article How to Write a Script: From Idea to Screenplay.