How to Use Shot Headings
We've all heard the warning against overwriting our screenplays by including too much camera direction or too many slug lines. We worry about getting it wrong, because we're professionals. Or at least we want our scripts to make us look that way.
A little knowledge about how the pros use shot headings will go a long way toward equipping us to make a professional impression with every page we write. More than that, it will empower us to harness the power of shot headings to propel readers through pages that would otherwise bog down - or might not get read at all.
During my years managing the script processing department at Warner Bros., and in the years since then when I've made my living as a film and television writer and as a teacher of writers, I've found that we too often struggle against script format, rather than making it work for us. Here's some insider know-how that will give you the ability to use shot headings to your advantage. It comes from my book The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.
Also called scene headings and slug lines, shot headings can provide a wide variety of information about a given scene or shot. They can be short and sweet:
Or long and complicated:
EXT. WHITE HOUSE - SOUTH LAWN - CLOSE ON CNN CORRESPONDENT - SUNSET (MARCH 15, 1999)
How to decide when to create a new shot heading
Including too many shot headings or too few often creates problems for writers and readers alike. Too many shot headings clutter a screenplay and can make a writer appear amateurish. Too few shot headings leave the reader confused and create headaches when production approaches. In general, insert a new shot heading only when necessary. Three rules of thumb provide guidance here:
1. Insert a shot heading when there is a change in location or time.
Let's say we're inside the Oval Office (INT. OVAL OFFICE - DAY), and then cut outside to the Lincoln Memorial. We would need a new shot heading along these lines: EXT. LINCOLN MEMORIAL - DAY. That's fairly straightforward.
Now let's say we're in the Oval Office, then we cut to another scene in the same location, but it's 90 minutes later. We need a new shot heading, something like this: INT. OVAL OFFICE - 90 MINUTES LATER or SAME -90 MINUTES LATER.
Writers sometimes get into trouble when a character moves from one location to another. The following is incorrect:
INT. JOSIAH'S MOTOR HOME - NIGHT
The old guy pours himself a cup of coffee and steps outside. He climbs painfully to the ground and looks up at the stars.
We're missing a shot heading that accounts for Josiah's movement from an interior location to an exterior one, which may be shot at a completely different time and place. The sequence should be set up like this:
INT. JOSIAH' MOTOR HOME - NIGHT
The old guys pours himself a cup of coffee and steps outside.
EXT. MOTOR HOME - NIGHT
He climbs painfully to the ground and looks up at the stars.
2. Add shot headings when necessary for the visual telling of the story.
Among the screenwriter's tasks is creating the visual experience of the screen story in the imagination of the reader. Shot headings are one of the essential tools for accomplishing this task. If visual attention must be focused very specifically on a small object or detail, an extreme close shot serves precisely that purpose and is appropriate and justified. At other times, say in an ordinary dialogue scene between two characters, it might not be necessary to call attention to any particular visual detail and only the initial master shot heading is required. Add shot headings of the more visually specific sort only when you have a compelling visual reason for doing so.
3. Add shot headings when logic requires it.
Sometimes plain logic requires a new shot heading. For example, after the shot heading WILMA'S POV, a new shot heading, such as BACK TO SCENE, is logically required before Wilma can appear again on screen. Similarly, after an EXTREME CLOSEUP ON GNAT'S LITTLE TOE, logic requires a new shot heading before the expanse of the Grand Canyon may appear on screen.
4. Don't add a shot heading where there is no new shot.
Sometimes writers set up as a shot heading what is really just a movement of the camera. The following is incorrect:
INT. SUBMARINE - GALLEY - NIGHT
Nason and his guys fight the fire. They know that at this depth, they're fighting for their lives. But they're choking on the smoke. And they're losing the battle.
PAN TO ENSIGN MENENDEZ
Leading in a fresh contingent of men to join the fight.
The pan is really just a camera move within the existing shot and shouldn't logically be given a new shot heading. Instead, format the sequence like this:
INT. SUBMARINE - GALLEY - NIGHT
Nason and his guys fight the fire. They know that at this depth, they're fighting for their lives. But they're choking on the smoke. And they're losing the battle. PAN TO Ensign Menendez, leading in a fresh contingent of men to join the fight.
Other common camera moves that don't logically warrant new shot headings include RACK FOCUS TO, TILT or PAN TO REVEAL and ZOOM or TRACK TO.
An important exception to this rule occurs when we start on a closeup or an extreme closeup and pull back to reveal that we're in a whole new location. For practical reasons (namely, that production personnel need a new master shot heading to go with the new location), a new shot heading is added.
Instead of this:
EXTREME CLOSEUP - WOMAN'S FIST
opens to show she holds a house key. She inserts it in a doorknob. PULL BACK to reveal Dotty opening the front door of Frank's house. Dotty lets herself in.
EXTREME CLOSEUP - WOMAN'S FIST
opens to show she holds a house key. She inserts it in a doorknob. PULL BACK to reveal:
EXT. FRANK'S HOUSE
Dotty opens the front door and lets herself in.
5. Add shot headings to break up long passages of action and lend a sense of increased tempo.
The problem: Because of the narrow column that even intermittent dialogue makes down the center of the script page, a screenplay often contains a great deal of white space. Add in the space around shot headings, scene transitions and a few short paragraphs, and a typical script page contains relatively few words, looks spacious and reads fairly breezily. By contrast, action sequences, arguably the fastest-paced sequences written for the screen, can appear in a script like dull blocks of words crowding the page. Ironically, then, when an action sequence obliterates too much of the white space, action can end up reading so slowly that readers are tempted to skim it or even skip it entirely.
The solution: Break up the action with short shot headings to restore white space and help guide the reader's eye down the page. Compare the following sequences, the first with only a single master shot heading and the second with additional shot headings inserted to break up the page.
INT. PARKING STRUCTURE - DAY
The immaculate MOTOR HOME ROARS down the ramp into the underground garage, followed by three squad cars. Michael cranks the steering wheel hard to the right and the MOTOR HOME makes a SQUEALING turn. Ahead, a concrete beam hangs low. Too low for the high-profile vehicle. Michael ducks at the moment of IMPACT. The ROOF PEELS OFF the motor home with a METALLIC SHRIEK.
The crumpled SHEET METAL BANGS off the hood of a pursuing squad car. One of the cops slings a RIOT GUN out his window and FIRES. The GLASS in Michael's WINDOW EXPLODES. He makes a desperation left turn down another ramp but cuts the corner too close. A long slab of METAL CURLS AWAY from the side of the motor home like an orange peel. Michael plunges his giant convertible deeper into the garage, his hair blowing in the open air. At the bottom of the ramp, steel pipes crisscross the low ceiling. What's left of the MOTOR HOME GRINDS against them and debris flies as the big vehicle gets chopped down even shorter. Shreds of insulation, stuffed animals and cooking utensils fill the air. A microwave oven bounces onto the hood of a squad car and SMASHES THROUGH the WINDSHIELD, landing in the empty passenger seat. Michael finds a ramp sloping up toward daylight and heads for freedom, no longer pursued, piloting the decimated chassis of what was once his proud home.
While this might be fun to watch on screen, it looks fairly awful on the page. Here is the same action broken up with intermediate shot headings that correspond roughly to the various smaller pieces of action that make up the whole sequence:
INT. PARKING STRUCTURE - DAY
The immaculate MOTOR HOME ROARS down the ramp into the underground garage, followed by three squad cars.
cranks the steering wheel hard to the right and:
makes a SQUEALING turn. Ahead, a concrete beam hangs low. Too low for the high-profile vehicle.
ducks at the moment of IMPACT. The ROOF PEELS OFF the motor home with a METALLIC SHRIEK.
CRUMPLED SHEET METAL
BANGS off the hood of a pursuing squad car. One of the cops slings a RIOT GUN out his window and FIRES.
As the GLASS in his WINDOW EXPLODES. He makes a desperation left turn down another ramp but cuts the corner too close.
LONG SLAB OF METAL
CURLS AWAY from the side of the motor home like an orange peel.
plunges his giant convertible deeper into the garage, his hair blowing in the open air.
AT BOTTOM OF RAMP
Steel pipes crisscross the low ceiling. What's left of the MOTOR HOME GRINDS against them and debris flies as the big vehicle gets chopped down even shorter.
BEHIND MOTOR HOME
Shreds of insulation, stuffed animals and cooking utensils fill the air. A microwave oven bounces onto the hood of a squad car and SMASHES through the WINDSHIELD, landing in the empty passenger seat.
finds a ramp sloping up toward daylight and heads for freedom, no longer pursued, piloting the decimated chassis of what was once his proud home.
The passage now looks like an action sequence and reads like one. This layout also gives production personnel the material they're going to be shooting in more manageable bites. The downside for the writer battling to keep a script's page count down is that this style uses about twice as much space as leaving the text in a single block.
An important caution: For all of the reasons noted above, not every page in a screenplay should be sprinkled with so many shot headings. Use this shot heading style sparingly and only when it's genuinely justified.
Now you know what the pros know about how and when and why to add shot headings. Use that knowledge with confidence to make a strong, professional impression, and to communicate your vision with clarity and power.
Meet the Author: Christopher Riley
Christopher Riley ran the acclaimed script processing department at Warner Bros. He is a professional screenwriter working in Hollywood with his wife and writing partner, Kathleen Riley. Together they wrote the 1999 theatrical feature After the Truth, a multiple-award-winning German language courtroom thriller. In addition to writing, the Rileys train aspiring screenwriters and have taught throughout the world.