A Few Words Worth Knowing

Forewarned is forearmed. This business has more than a few words and phrases that may sound strange if you’re not yet fluent in the strange language of screenwriting. Here is a screenwriting vocabulary starter set to help you set off on the right foot as you navigate the strange world of Hollywood.

Act One

In 3 act structure, this is the beginning of the movie, roughly the first 30 pages, which introduces the protagonist, recurring themes, and any obstacles the protagonist must overcome to accomplish their goal. Act one is the set up for the movie. It establishes the world as it is and demonstrates what needs to change for the protagonist to survive and thrive.

Act Two

In 3 act structure, this is the middle of the movie, roughly page 30 through 80-90, in which the protagonist enters a new world, encounters the b-story and supporting characters, and encounters the antagonist and whatever forces they control that stand in the protagonist’s way. The protagonist learns how to accomplish their goal in act 2 and actively sets out to do so.

Act Three

In 3 act structure, this is the end of the movie, roughly page 90 through the script’s end (usually fewer than 120 pages). The protagonist has learned all they need to know in order to accomplish their goal and now must have a showdown with the antagonist in order to do so, at the end of which is the denouement.

Action

A genre of movie that tends to tell its story and resolve its conflicts with exciting (often expensive) scenes and sequences full of danger and peril. Action can also simply refer to what the characters are doing in a screenplay when not talking and is described by the writer in blocks of exposition.

Adaptation

A movie or television show that is based on existing source material like a book or a video game.

Agent

Someone who acts on behalf of a screenwriter, often locating potential writing jobs within the industry. Different from a “MANAGER” in that a manager does not actively seek work for a writer but assists with the writer’s content creation.

Antagonist

The character who stands in direct opposition to the protagonist in a story. Often a villain or someone with nefarious intent when compared to the protagonist, but they can simply be someone with a belief system that opposes the protagonist’s and whom the protagonist must overcome to achieve their goal.

Anthology

A television series that occurs in either episodes or full seasons that are contained within themselves and which usually do not directly relate to each other. The Twilight Zone is an episodic anthology series, while American Horror Story is an anthology series that occurs over individual seasons.

Arc

The path along which a character progresses through a story. The character’s journey and all the trials, tribulations, and changes they endure en route to achieving or falling short of their goal.

Archetype

A type of character that speaks to some sort of universal pattern in humanity and is therefore easy to relate to. The idea of the “archetype” comes from various studies into mythology that discovered that storytelling throughout human history focuses on a certain set of character types that recur often enough that we recognize them without even thinking about it. The “hero” is the most common archetype, because all of us feel as though we are the hero of our own life story.

Backstory

A character’s life story prior to the beginning of a movie, often containing their motivation for achieving their particular goal or the reason why they are afraid to leave their comfort zone.

Beat

A written pause in dialogue or action used to create dramatic effect. A beat is also an individual plot point within a story. See “BEAT SHEET.”

Beat Sheet

Similar to an outline but more sparse, a beat sheet is a rough compilation of story beats to illustrate a general understanding of plot prior to writing a screenplay.

Biopic

A movie that tells the life story of a real historical figure. I, Tonya and Mary Queen Of Scots are biopics.

Bloat

Excessive exposition or dialogue in a screenplay that slows down the read and has an adverse effect on the story.

B-Story

A plot line in a story that offers a break or respite from the main plot and introduces new characters whose arc and development will relate to and influence the outcome of the main plot. The B-Story in a screenplay will typically occur near the beginning of act 2 when the protagonist has entered the new world and encounters new characters.

Callback

A moment that refers to something that occurred earlier in a story or screenplay.

Caps

When a character first appears in a script, their name should appear completely capitalized followed by their age and an introductory description. You may also use all capital letters when emphasizing something very important that might otherwise be missed in your exposition, or when re-introducing someone or something from previously in the script that the reader might have forgotten by now. Some writers also capitalize sound effects, like BOOM or SWISH.

Cast

A list of all the characters – main, supporting, and minor – that appear in a script.

Catharsis

Similar to denouement and resolution, catharsis is a fulfilling ending to a character’s story that ties together all emotional and thematic lines.

Character

A person who appears in a story in either a speaking or non-speaking capacity. “Character” can also refer to the defining moral attributes of those people within a story.

Cold Open

See TEASER.

Contained

When a movie is confined to and focuses on only a few locations. A movie that takes place completely within one house would be contained, ie, limited to only the few rooms within the house.

Continued/Continuous

Often abbreviated to “CONTD” or “CONT’D,” this is a parenthetical guide that appears either at the end of a slugline or after a character’s name in dialogue to indicate that the action is continuous from the previous scene or that the character’s dialogue carries over from their previous line. 

Crime

A genre that deals with criminal acts, often focusing on those committing the criminal acts as the protagonists.

Denouement

The final part of a movie in which major themes, conflicts, and threads are drawn together for an ultimate explanation and conclusion.

Detective

A genre in which an investigator looks into the details and nuances of a crime in the hopes of bringing the perpetrator to justice.

Dialogue

A conversation between two or more characters, ie, what your characters say to each other.

Drama

A genre of movie that typically deals with everyday hardships faced by real, believable people.

Draft

A preliminary version of a written screenplay. A writer will likely write multiple drafts before a screenplay is ready for production.

Dual Dialogue

Written dialogue within a screenplay that is formatted side by side on the page to indicate that two characters are speaking at the same time.

Episode

A single 30 minute to 60 minute installment of a television series.

Establishing Shot

A scene written into a movie or television episode to give the audience an idea of where they are. If diving into the action might be disorienting, a brief establishing shot may be used. It is recommended not to overuse establishing shots, as they can interrupt narrative flow.

Exposition

Pertinent background information that the audience needs to know for a story to make sense. “Exposition” can also refer to the written parts of a script that contain character action and scene description. In both cases, less exposition used well is always better.

Exterior

A scene that takes place outdoors in a screenplay and is indicated as EXT. in the slugline.

Fade In

In screenwriting terms, this indicates the beginning of a script. It can also be used as a transition tool if “fade out” has been used to indicate a significant passage of time and/or place. In classic filmmaking terms, it literally indicates that the scene we are seeing fades into view.

Fade Out

In screenwriting terms, this indicates the end of a script. It can also be used as a transition tool to indicate that a significant amount of time and/or distance will occur prior to the next scene, and it will be followed by “fade in.” In classic filmmaking terms, it literally means that the shot will fade to black.

Feature

A full length movie, 90 minutes to 120+ minutes, as opposed to an episode of television which is 30 minutes to 60 minutes or a short film.

Film Noir

A genre marked by fatalism, pessimism, and menace, often focusing on detectives or police solving crimes or on the criminals navigating a seedy underworld. Film Noir is a subgenre of Crime and Detective, but it can focus on everyday people thrust into similarly menacing situations.

Fish Out Of Water

A story that focuses on a protagonist pulled from their most comfortable environment and forced into a world completely alien and unknown to them. It evokes the idea that a fish can’t survive out of water for long.

Flashback

An exposition tool within a movie or television episode that reveals a character’s backstory by taking the audience back in time to show it. They should be used sparingly by beginning writers because they can interrupt the flow of a narrative.

Flaw

A character quirk that stands in the way of their journey towards their goal, often making them make bad decisions or leading to misunderstandings.

Foreshadowing

An indication (hopefully, without being too heavy-handed) that something in a story will return later.

General

A general is a meeting that’s usually (but not always) one in a series on a water bottle tour where a writer meets with development executives and producers after they’ve hit it out of the park with a spec script. Usually, it’s just “getting to know you” chit chat, but you should always have something ready to pitch if you get the big question.

Genre

A category of movies that are characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter. Action, Crime, Fantasy, Horror, and Sci-Fi are examples of genres.

Goal

A character’s active objective in a story. Both the protagonist and antagonist should have clear goals towards which they strive.

Grounded

A movie that may fall within a seemingly epic and broad genre like Sci-Fi or Horror but which limits the extent to which those elements are used, making it seem based more in reality than the fantastic. Star Wars and Bumblebee are not grounded, while The Arrival and The Martian could be considered grounded.

Half-Hour

A format of television series that occurs in individual episodes that are roughly 30 minutes in length. They usually focus on Comedy as opposed to Drama, although this is changing in our new TV landscape.

Hard Cut

A heavy transition from one location to another, usually indicated within a script with the phrase “CUT TO.”

High Concept

A broad term for a movie that has a certain combination of characters, ideas, and themes that come together to create a unique and memorable experience that is easily accessible by the audience.

Hook

Similar to a teaser in television. A brief opening for a movie that is intended to grab the audience’s attention and never let them go.

Horror

A genre of movie that is intended to frighten, scare, or disgust, and which typically deals with supernatural or paranormal subjects, although forces of nature can be subjects of Horror, as well. Night Of the Living Dead is a Horror film, and the case can be made that Jaws is also Horror.

Hour-Long

A format of television series that occurs in individual episodes that are roughly 60 minutes in length. They usually focus on Drama as opposed to Comedy.

Inciting Incident

The moment in Act One in which the protagonist’s world is turned upside down and they learn for the first time that change is necessary. Sometimes referred to as the “Call To Action.” It can fall anywhere from page 10 to 17. The Inciting Incident in Star Wars is when Luke Skywalker stumbles across Princess Leia’s distress call. The inciting incident in Jaws is when Chief Brody finds the remains of the first shark attack victim.

Intellectual Property (IP)

A movie or television series that has been developed from pre-existing content that is protected by third-party copyright law. Anything protected by copyright falls into Intellectual Property. Video games, graphic novels, comics, songs, newspaper articles, etc.

Indie

A production done independently of a major studio and therefore, usually, on a much smaller budget than what a major studio would provide and without the broad theatrical release. The appeal is that being outside of a major studio means the filmmakers have more freedom to include what they want in an indie production.

Intercut

An editing method within a screenplay when action and dialogue cuts back and forth between two different locations. Often used for telephone conversations, but can be used in other situations.

Interior

A scene that takes place inside or indoors and which is indicated as INT. in the slugline.

Later

A slugline direction used to indicate the passage of time within a scene. If a scene takes place in a KITCHEN and something happens later, the direction would read “KITCHEN – LATER.”

Location

The setting of a scene within a screenplay and movie. The location is indicated as either interior or exterior in the slugline.

Logline

A roughly one sentence description of a television show or movie that boils all of the important elements – character, set-up, central conflict – into a brief but powerful teaser. A good logline will make you see the entire movie in your head.

Low Point

Also referred to as the “All Is Lost” moment, the low point occurs at the end of Act 2 and is where the protagonist is seemingly as far away from their goal as possible, either through the death of a mentor or loved one, by losing an initial showdown with the antagonist, or through making a mistake while en route to their goal. The low point sets up the protagonist’s entrance into Act 3.

Manager

Someone who helps cultivate the career, business aspects, and creative direction of a screenwriter.

Meet Cute

A funny or charming first encounter between two characters that marks the start of a romantic relationship between them.

Midpoint

The middle of a story. Generally, a major event occurs at the midpoint of a screenplay that turns the story on its head and propels the protagonist in a new direction.

Mini Room

A smaller version of a writer’s room that has been brought together for a short time to hash out an idea for a project without any guarantee that the project will be made. Here are the WGA’s guidelines for negotiating a deal for a mini room. 

Monologue

A lengthy piece of dialogue spoken by a character while in the presence of other characters. Jules’s famous “Ezekial 25:17” speech in Pulp Fiction is a monologue.

Montage

A compilation of brief scenes and moments that tells a condensed story within the story, often to show a character’s progression through a training regimen or to demonstrate a typical day in their life. There is usually no dialogue in a montage, just a series of scenes that tell a contained story.

Motivation

A character’s reason for achieving their goal in a story. It can be related to their backstory or be the result of something that happens to them early on.

Offscreen

Action, dialogue, or other sound effects that occur outside of the intended view of a shot within a screenplay. Indicated as (O.S.).

Option

A contract that allows the opportunity for someone to buy or sell a writer’s screenplay or an artist’s intellectual property within a certain amount of time. An option typically comes with a fee separate from whatever monetary value is secured by a subsequent transaction.

Outline

The scene-by-scene guide constructed by a writer when developing a story for a screenplay and which is followed through the course of writing. It can be tweaked and altered as necessary.

Parenthetical

Dialogue instructions for a character written in parentheses directly beneath the character’s name and before the written dialogue block. They only need to be a few words and should be used sparingly. Sometimes referred to as “wryly,” as in “So-And-So should speak this dialogue ‘wryly.’”

Payoff

The return of something in a screenplay with adequate prior set up, culminating in a major moment of comedy, triumph, terror, or some other emotion.

Pilot

The initial episode in a television series that sets up the protagonist’s journey, arc, and overall conflict through the course of the following episodes.

Pitch

A verbal or visual presentation of a writer’s screenplay that is intended to convince another party to put that screenplay into full production.

Pitch Deck

A brief visual presentation, often in PowerPoint or a similar program, used to supplement a pitch. It is similar to a bible in that it gives a general idea of story, setting, and character, but it is intended to be a visual selling point.

Plot

A story’s structure of action and emotion that leads to a satisfying resolution.

Producer

The person responsible for the major financial and managerial aspects of television and film production.

Protagonist

The main character in a story and the primary point of view for the audience’s experience. The hero or heroine of the story and the person the audience should be rooting for to achieve their goal.

Public Domain

Any work of literature, music, or art whose copyright has expired now exists within the public domain and may be adapted or otherwise referenced without acquiring the property.

Punch Up

Generally, this is the process where a group of writers (typically comedy writers) are brought in to make the jokes in an existing script funnier. 

Query

A message sent by a writer to an agent, manager, producer, or someone similar which is intended to pique interest in a story idea or in the writer themselves.

Resolution

See “DENOUEMENT.”

Rewrite

Part of the drafting process. A rewrite is literally another draft of a script. After you have taken in all the notes for your first draft, you implement them in the rewrite. And you rewrite again. And again. And again.

RomCom

See “ROMANTIC COMEDY.”

Romantic Comedy

Also called a RomCom, these films are light-hearted tales that tells the story of two people falling in love through trial and tribulation with added comedy for effect. Sleepless In Seattle and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are Romantic Comedies.

Same

When a subsequent scene in a screenplay is intended to occur at the same time as the previous scene. Usually used when two characters are speaking to each other in two different locations but need to appear on screen in rapid succession, or when a particular action occurs at the same time as a previous scene. Usually indicated at the end of a Slugline as (SAME).

Scene Cards

Similar to an outline, generally 3×5 index cards on which individual scenes for a screenplay are written and detailed and arranged into an outline on a cork board or other adequate surface. Most modern screenwriting software offers the option to create a scene card outline.

Sci-Fi

Shortened colloquial for “Science Fiction.” A genre of movie that deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts like space travel, time travel, advanced technology, scientific research, and extraterrestrial life.

Series

A story, usually television, that is told in a succession of individual episodes that directly relate to each other and progress an broader arc. A story can also be told in a succession of feature movies, eg, the Marvel Comics Universe Series of movies.

Sequence

A series of events or scenes within a story that come together with a clear beginning, middle, and end, resulting in a “story within a story” that directly impacts the larger narrative. EXAMPLE: The Omaha Beach landing at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan is a sequence that sets up the danger and seeming randomness of the war for the rest of the movie.

Set Piece

Usually found in Act Two of a movie, a Set Piece is a scene or Sequence that stands out within the story but which logically fits and propels the narrative. A solid action sequence would be considered a set piece.

Set Up

Similar to foreshadowing. Set up is when a character says something, does something, or uses something that is important to an event that happens later in the narrative. Set up is necessary for continuity so that major events don’t just happen out of the blue, but heavy-handed set ups can come across trite if the writer tips their hand too far or too often.

Shooting Script

This is the final script in terms of drafting a screenplay. The movie will be shot from this script, and it will be filled with camera directions and other notations necessary for filming. A writer SHOULD NOT write a shooting script when writing an early draft of a screenplay.

Shopping Agreement

A legal contract that allows a party to seek interest in an artist’s intellectual property. It’s different from an option in that there is no payment for rights with a shopping agreement and it is generally more informal and non-committal.

Showdown

The final encounter, typically between protagonist and antagonist, in a screenplay’s Act Three in which all major themes and conflicts finally find their resolution. It can be as epic as the Rebel Alliance racing to destroy the Death Star at the end of Star Wars, or it can be as grounded as William finally getting his interview with Russell in Almost Famous.

Showrunner

The person with overall creative and managerial control of a television series.

Show Bible

Also known as a “series bible” or “pitch bible,” this is a reference document used by screenwriters that contains detailed information about characters, settings, and themes that are central to a television or film project. Bibles are compiled by the creator(s) of a project to provide a clear understanding of their story and can vary in length — anywhere from a few pages to a few dozen pages is acceptable, depending on the series.

Slugline

A line within a written screenplay that appears entirely capitalized and sometimes in boldface that reveals if the following scene is either interior or exterior, where the scene takes place, and whether the scene occurs at day or at night. EXAMPLE: “INT. PRODUCER’S OFFICE – DAY”

Smash Cut To

Similar to Hard Cut and Cut To. Smash Cut To indicates a hard transition to another location and/or time that may not be easily accomplished otherwise.

Soliloquy

A lengthy piece of dialogue spoken by a character when no one else is present. Hamlet’s famous “To Be, Or Not To Be” speech is a soliloquy.

Spec Script

A script that is written in the hopes of attracting a potential buyer to put it into production. It is an original, unsolicited idea. “Spec” is short for “speculative.”

Stakes

What a character stands to lose if they fail to achieve their goal. The higher the stakes – ie, the more they have to lose – the better.

Streaming

Content that is available from an internet service such as Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, or Amazon Prime.

Structure

Often referred to as “Three Act Structure” in terms of screenwriting, structure is the sequential organization of major events in a screenplay. In general terms, the three structural parts of a screenplay are “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.” In broader terms, they are called “Act 1,” “Act 2,” and “Act 3,” and are equally distinct in what they accomplish according to when they occur.

Subtext

An underlying or distinct theme in dialogue. When characters talk about something without actually talking about it.

Super

Short for “superimpose.” This is a device written into a script when words have to appear on the screen. Like “Five Years Later” or “Omaha Beach, Dog Green Sector.”

Synopsis

A brief summary or general survey of a story, generally no more than a page or two.

Tag

The ending section of a television episode or even a feature that ties up loose ends and provides a hook for the following episode (or possibly the sequel).

Teaser

A brief sequence at the beginning of a television Episode, usually the Pilot and before the opening credits, that tells a contained story and is intended to ensnare the audience’s interest and keep them reading or watching for the rest of the episode.

Theme

The underlying meaning that a screenwriter explores in their story, accomplished through a combination of character, setting, dialogue, and plot. The bigger picture of a story.

Thriller

A genre of movies that are exciting and typically focus on crime, espionage, or other kinds of peril. Not the same as Horror, in that the peril isn’t supernatural, but Thriller can be crossed with other genres. Eg, a Romantic Thriller or Sci-Fi Thriller.

Ticking Clock

Also called a Timelock, is when a character literally has a limited amount of time within the universe of the screenplay to accomplish their goal or perform a task. Similar to stakes, in that there is generally a “do this in X-amount of time or else” attached to the ticking clock.

Title

Similar to “Super.” When the title of the movie or television episode appears on the screen. “Title” can also be used in the same fashion as “super” when writing your script.

Title Page

The cover page for a script that contains the title and author’s name as well as the writer’s contact information. 

Trade Journal

Often shortened to “Trade.” A periodical publication either online or in print that reports on recent activity within the film industry. “Variety” and “Deadline” are examples of trade journals.

Transition

The smooth flow from scene to scene within a movie so that the story flows seamlessly and is easy to read.

Treatment

Longer and more detailed than an outline or a synopsis, a treatment is a prose document that describes a story in the present tense and offers directorial ideas that an outline or synopsis would omit. Treatments can be the next step after outlining and before writing a first (vomit) draft, and they can also be used when pitching or generating interest in a story.

True Story

Any movie that is based on actual, historical events. Different from a biopic in that a biopic tells the life story of a historical figure while a true story focuses on a single historical event.

Voice

A mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes a screenplay flow in a manner unique to its writer. Voice gives a glimpse not only into the nature of a story’s characters but also the nature of the writer.

Voice Over

Dialogue that is spoken by a character who is not present within the scene, usually as a narration or as exposition. Identified as (V.O.). This is not the same as dialogue spoken Offscreen (O.S.). Offscreen dialogue is literally a character who is not within the shot (e.g., through a door or on the phone), while voice over dialogue is someone who may not even be present within the movie (e.g., a narrator or a character’s own train of thought).

Vomit Draft

Your first draft without a solid outline. Don’t be shy to make mistakes in your vomit draft, because this is the draft you get to have fun with and really start to see where your characters want to take you.

Want

What a character actively strives for. It can be their active goal and can stand in opposition to the character’s need.

Writer’s Room

A workspace where a group of writers brainstorm ideas for (typically) a television series. The writer’s room is where entire seasons are mapped out and individual stories are outlined before actual writing occurs.