Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Screenwriting Basics #2 – Sluglines and Action Sequences

3771819483_a7e0db754a_zBe honest; when you saw the word ‘sluglines’ is this what you imagined in your head? I hope not but, if you did, allow me to suggest that you make a quick pit stop over at part one of this tutorial series? It’ll take you but a moment to read through it, and it’ll give you the intro to the terms we’ll be using throughout the series… which is kinda useful, right?

So… in this lesson I’m going to be teaching you a little about sluglines – the lines of text which tell us where a particular scene takes place – and action sequences which, frankly, covers just about everything else you see on the screen that isn’t dialogue. Seriously, dearest Trainee Writer, this is the big one. You’re going to be using these things a lot, so let’s get on with it.

Slugline Structure

Unlike the trails left by actual slugs, the sluglines we use in the language of film are actually completely straightforward and come in three parts. Actually, come to think of it, most things in screenwriting come in three parts. Yes, we’re going to pick that conversation up in future, too. It’s a doozy, though, so stay tuned…

The first part of the slugline is very simple; it tells you what kind of location we’re in. Most of the time, this is going to be one of two options: Interior or Exterior. When we use them in a screenplay, we tend to just abbreviate them to INT. and EXT. – the shorthand makes for a much easier read which, ultimately is always our goal.

The difference between the two should be fairly self-explanatory; an interior location is one that takes place inside a building, while an exterior location is outside. As I said, simple, right?

The second part of the slugline is the location itself. This part, again, is very straightforward. It’s where we are. A warehouse, a dog track, a church, a park, a house, even a particular room of said house. As long as your INT. or EXT. match up with your location – you know, you’re not writing INT. A FIELD or something – then you’ve got this one nailed.

See how simple this is so far? That’s what we’re going for. I’m not going to bog you down in unnecessary complications on this journey. I want you to be able to read these tutorials and get going. Although, to be honest, I’m probably burning more words than I should be. Ah, well. If you’re a writer and you’re not a little verbose, I’d be surprised. Although, ironically, that’s actually not a good thing in a screenplay always. More on that later, too!

Let’s wrap up our slugline by talking about the third part: the time. This can be simple, or it can be complicated, but here’s the most basic way of doing it: use NIGHT or DAY. If it’s supposed to be light outside, it’s daytime. Dark is night-time. Simple, right?

Now, there are other ways of doing this. You can be more specific as long as you’re consistent and the information is vital to the script. Is it DAWN? Is it DUSK? It could be. Does one scene immediately follow another? Then it’s CONTINUOUS. Is this scene in the same location as the previous one but at a different time? Try LATER and variations of it. Maybe you’ve lucked out and you’re writing an episode of 24 or something in a similar, ‘real time’ vein… you could even specify the exact time. There are no hard and fast rules here, but as a Trainee Writer, I say keep everything simple. Baby steps, you know? Stick to DAY or NIGHT for now and the rest will follow. I promise, I’ll get deeply into when the other variations are appropriate down the line, or you can feel free to ask me in the comments section.

So, what does the complete slugline look like? This:

Frozen slug

Yeah, I went back to my graphical well. Sue me. (Please don’t sue me.)

Seriously, though… how easy was that. Try writing one of your own. See how simple that is? Dearest Trainee Writer, you just started writing your first scene. Awesome right? Good job!

Ready to move on to writing an action sequence? I’ll bet you are! Let’s do this.

Action stations

Remember what I said before? That writing action is the bulk of writing a screenplay? Master that and the rest will follow. I promise.

An action scene describes EVERYTHING that happens in a scene that isn’t someone talking. Think about that. If a character walks across a room, opens a jar of pickles, punches a cop, drives a car or turns into an alligator… it’s an action and you have to write it down. But here’s one caveat that I’ll have to really cover in detail at a later date: only write it down if it’s important. If it doesn’t matter than your character opens that jar of pickles, don’t write it down. Simple enough, right?

You also use action to introduce characters to a scene. This is an important thing that many writers will continually get wrong that I want to address while you’re still a new Trainee Writer. If it’s the first time a character appears in a script, you capitalise their name. If it’s the second, tenth or thousandth, DO NOT CAPITALISE THEM.

The reason for this is for the benefit of your reader. If a name is capitalised, it draws attention to the fact that you’ve introduced someone new that they need to add to the casting breakdown if they decide to buy from you. It doesn’t matter if this character is your lead, a supporting character or the waitress that appears for one scene, when they appear for the first time, you have to call that out.

The other key thing when you introduce a character, and only when you introduce that character, is to give some kind of description of who they are. Don’t be too specific if it doesn’t need to be specific. When I started to write screenplays the rule of thumb was that you always write the character’s age and a physical description every time you introduce them. Frankly, this is becoming obsolete and many writers don’t realise it. Yes, I’m trying to start you ahead of the curve again. Instead, try to write what the character actually is. You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about

You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about this, because it’s so new as a concept for society. I’m trying to keep this progressive!)

You don’t need to tell us the character is ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ – this is the movies. Everybody is pretty unless you state otherwise! You don’t need to say that a character is tall or fat or Asian or Jewish, either, unless it’s relevant to your plot.

Keep it simple. Just tell us their name and a few personality traits, along with their actions. For example:

  • This is DAVE; clumsy and impulsive, he’s carrying a traffic cone.
  • Meet JANE, a carefree schoolteacher trying to juggle textbooks and coffee.

Why do we do this? In the past, there was an almost overbearing trend of casting on the page. Everyone was 19, white and blonde or 85, black and walked with a stick. It never had any bearing on their character, though. Dave is clumsy and impulsive. Why tell anyone if he’s black, white or Martian or how old he is if it’s not absolutely vital? If you’ve said he’s a 25-year-old tall white guy, but the guy who can play the role best is Kevin Hart, why would you rule him out at the script stage? Leave the possible casting for your roles as open as possible. Same with Jane. If you give her a wooden leg and tell us she’s overweight, you’re limiting the casting pool. Without that description, maybe that’s the perfect role for Jennifer Lawrence. How many overweight, one-legged schoolteacher type actresses can you name? I’m waiting…

We’re trying to sell these screenplays. Don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks.

I guess we should talk about the actual exercise of writing action. Here’s what it looks like:

labor day action

Notice how it looks like prose but… badly written prose? Well, that’s kind of how it is, but it’s a fantastically written action passage. We’re trying to tell as much story as we can, in actions, in as few words as possible. That means we have to cut corners sometimes. Short, even abrupt, sentences peppered with descriptions. Describe as much as we can as quickly as we can.

The other thing to notice is that we always write in active verbs. Everything is happening now, not in the past-tense. Notice how the hand in the example above ‘goes’ through the closet? The clothes ‘are’ worn and a little dated? Imagine it like this: you’re watching the scene happen, not telling your friends about something you just saw. Take a look at this GIF:


Think about how you would describe that in prose, or if you were telling a friend about it. “Batman glided to the ground, lowered his cape and stared menacingly” or something similar, right?

Well, in a screenplay, we’d describe it like this: “Batman glides to a the ground, halting abruptly as he wraps himself in his cape and stares menacingly..”

It’s a simple change of tense, but see how that one tiny detail makes everything seem way more important, immediate and urgent? Try it yourself. Pick a movie scene, and write it in past and present tense and see which one you like the best. See which version you can imagine in your head.

And with that, I think I’ve covered most of the basics of how to do sluglines and action sequences, but – as always – if you have questions or if you’ve spotted anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter (@chasinglamely) and I’ll try to answer as best I can.

Thanks for reading, and have a productive week!


July 29, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment