A Collection of Screenwriting Terms and Their Meanings
“A” story is the main story/theme while “B” story refers to the background story.
One of three sections that make up a unit of drama (scene, sequence, episode). Acts in features describe structure, not used in the script. Used in sitcoms.
The scene description, character movement, and sounds written in present tense.
Action Block (Description)
A paragraph of descriptive script text. Action paragraphs describe the setting, physical actions, characters, or other important information. Be as Spartan as possible with action text.
Rewriting of fact or fiction for film, usually in the form of a screenplay, or a proposal treatment.
Instructs actors to improvise dialogue or even action bits in spontaneous reaction to the given situation of a scene.
A moment of calm during which the characters are able to digest a scene of intense conflict.
A scene that includes all or most of the main components of drama.
Used to add greater depth to particular events and situations in the film. References are made to external phenomena such as persons, places, things, and occurrences. Indirect references are also used through screen images or scenes even to another film. Associations are meant to indicate contrast, emotions and ironic twists.
A lack of clarity or an apparent contradiction in a story-line. This is done intentionally in some films or unintentionally due to poor writing. Character development is occasionally but purposefully hindered by the use of ambiguity. Ambiguity is an artistic ploy to capture the imagination, perhaps through confusion, of the audience.
Directs the camera to a particular person or object. The character’s name itself could be written as a heading in CAPS and serve the same purpose.
Comment specifying the source of each script element that is not wholly fictional, including all characters, events, settings, and segments of dialogue.
Character with a single objective in conflict with the Protagonist. Not necessarily a villain.
When the audience is expecting a peak in the action and it doesn’t occur. It is often used to convey the ordinary events in the life of a character and can also effectively be used to distract the audience from the actual climax. Also, anything that happens in the final few moments of a film that dulls down the story crescendo and leaves the audience feeling let down and unsatisfied.
Protagonist who has pronounced personality or character defects or eccentricities which are not usually associated with the hero archetype.
The modern, ‘energetic’ method of organizing a plot, such that the story generates increasing dramatic tension as it develops, culminating in a potent climax which relieves the tension.
Tone or dimension added to the action by concrete or nebulous qualities or elements such as rain, wind, heat, cold, danger, spookiness, tranquillity.
A statement in descriptive that takes the reader out of the story in order to clarify or help tell the story.
Experiences of a main character which contribute to character motivations and reactions, that either occurred in the past, or are separate from the main plot.
Back To Scene
Secondary heading that indicates a return to a scene after a Montage or Series of Shots.
Interrupts dialogue to tell an actor where to pause in speech. Avoid. Beats are often interchangeable with ellipses (…).
An abbreviated description of the main events in a screenplay or story.
Describes anything occuring in a rear plane of action (as opposed to the main action). Not recommended.
Structural technique in which a script begins and ends with a “bookend” scene that encloses the whole. Frowned upon by Readers as an overused storytelling gimmick.use this term in lower case initials or written in full. Not recommended.
The brass pins used to bind a standard three-hole-punched screenplay. Any other method of binding is verboten.
Action increases, the pace and intensity of the film increases, the music crescendos, and culminates with a major scene.
A troublesome element in a script that negatively deflects the reader’s attention away from the story.
A TV writing term referring to a witty line that “tops off” a scene.
Any person or entity appearing in a film. A bona-fide character has a speaking role, or performs an action that drives the plot.
Formulaic inferred curved line which traces the emotional progress (development, growth, and transformation) of a character during the story.
The process of creating characters in fiction. One of the major elements of screenwriting. Readers look for characters who are diverse (ie, they don’t all look, sound, or act alike), interesting, sympathetic, and who seem to have a life independent from the main plot of the screenplay.
When any character speaks, his or her name appears on the line preceding the dialogue.
Cheat a script
Fudging the margins and spacing of a screenplay on a page (usually with a software program) in an attempt to fool the reader into thinking the script is shorter than it really is.
Moment of high drama, frequently used at the end of serials. An unresolved plot point that comes at the end of an act or story. A form of foreshadowing.
Derived from the Greek “klimax” meaning ladder. The plot point that resolves the second act, resolves the issues raised by the action and provides the dramatic answer. The most intense plot point. Usually occurs at the end of the work, but resolution and high drama do not always occur simultaneously.
A V.O. objective opinion or description of characters or events either occurring in the film or to fill in information without wasting a great deal of film time.
The second act of a three-act dramatic structure, in which “the plot thickens,” peaking at its end.
Central idea around which a screenplay is built.
The force which opposes a character and prevents them from achieving their goal.
Indicates continuing speech when interrupted by descriptive, no longer used.
Dialogue spoken by the same character that continues uninterrupted onto the next page.
Used instead of DAY or NIGHT as third element in a slugline to indicate the action moves from one location to another without any interruptions in time. Optional, can be dropped altogether.
The main font in use in the U.S. by both publishers and the Hollywood film industry.
The notes prepared by script readers at a literary agency, film production company, or script competition.
Obstacles and degrees of conflict encountered by the protagonist grow increasingly intense.
Interweaving pieces of two or more scenes, usually in order to show simultaneous actions or illuminate themes, as with telephone conversations. Can be written with standard scene breaks. It’s more to prepare the reader for the upcoming slug line bonanza.
Indicates a sudden break or for emphasis ( — ).
Concluding scenes where the story elements are finished and the characters’ status after the climax is shown.
Deus ex machina
An external solution to a problem that arrives without preparation to make things easier for the protagonist. An easy solution.
Diabolus ex machina
Arbitrary, unjustifified obstacle for the protagonist.
Speech between characters in a film.
To the question posed in a drama, can be positive or negative, rarely unresolved.
Gives the audience information at least one character is unaware of. The audience knows that the character may not be acting in the character’s own best interest when taking a particular position because of the information disclosed to the viewer.
Unresolved issue facing the protagonist.
Three characteristics needed for a drama, according to Aristotle, are a beginning, middle and end. These elements include an exposition, or revelation to the audience of what will be going on, a development, in which the plot unfolds, a climax, where all events come to a peak, and the denouement, when everything in the plot is unraveled and resolved. Most story-lines follow this format.
Will the protagonist achieve his objective?
Dual (Simultaneous) Dialogue
When two characters speak simultaneously. Their dialogue is placed side by side on the page.
Used when dialogue trails off, and when it continues again. (…)
From Aristotelian theory. An Energetic protagonist actively influences or “drives” the plot forward, creating their own destiny, as it were.
The manner (and effectiveness) with which a story’s elements are assembled by the writer.
Most often the beginning of a dramatic structure, in which the main conflict and characters are revealed. Also, the details of the plot. Good scripts are said to ‘show, rather than tell’ their stories.
Slugline indicating an outdoor scene.
Placed in parentheses () to the right of the Character name. Denotes how the character’s voice is heard – e.g. (O.S.).
Transitional shot, and the first words typed in a script.
Image fades to black. Last words in a script.
Describes anything occurring in front of the main action. Not recommended.
Once used to indicate dialogue on a radio, TV, etc. Passe.
Everything that happens before the protagonist’s objective is clear.
In a linear screenplay, a scene or sequence which jumps back in time (or one that occurs earlier than the main storyline) that interrupts the action to explain motivation or reaction of a character to the immediate scene (exposition). Use with caution.
Similar to a flashback, except the scene jumps ahead in time.
The look of the printed text on the page. For screenplays, Courier(New) 12 is the standard.
Preparation that hints at developments to come.
Usually refers to a “sure-fire” method of structuring a script (i.e. it must include certain elements and arrive at a certain ending).
The Fourth Wall
Said to be breached any time the author introduces himself into the script, or makes any reference to the fact that a script is fiction. Not recommended.
FX or SPFX
Special effects – a term not needed in a spec script.
The category assigned to screenplay to describe it – such as: thriller, romantic comedy, action, courtroom drama.
An element of a Production Script occupying the same line as the page number, which is on the right and .5″ from the top. Printed on every script page, header information includes the date of a revision and the color of the page.
Master headings begin each scene with camera location (INT. or EXT.) scene location and time of day. Secondary headings are shots within a scene.
Used interchangeably with Protagonist.
A basic movie idea felt to have tremendous potential appeal.
The thing that catches the public’s attention and keeps them interested in the flow of a story.
Eschews traditional screenwriting convention, seeking instead to weave seemingly disparate moments into a unified, effective whole.
A plot point in the first act which disturbs the life of the protagonist and sets them in pursuit of an objective.
Used in a slug line, indicates that the scene occurs indoors.
When one character cuts off another character’s dialogue, sometimes marked with an ellipsis (…) but better marked with an em dash (–).
Title card appearing intercut with a scene.
Element used in an earlier draft that’s no longer useful.
The story in one active sentence, focusing on the concept, main character and main conflict. Ideally in 25 words or less.
Term used by Alfred Hitchcock to refer to an item, event, or piece of knowledge that the characters in a film consider extremely important, but which the audience either doesn’t know of or doesn’t care about. May be a stolen map or secret papers.
Master Scene Script
A script formatted without scene numbering (the usual format for a spec screenplay).
Midpoint (Main Marker)
Major plot point in the second act which usually begins or ends a sequence.
Lengthy dialogue blocks in which a character speaks without interruption for more than three lines. To be avoided in spec screenplays.
Sequence of brief shots expressing the same or similar theme, a contradiction, or the passage of time, all related and building to some conclusion.
Indicates when a character’s dialogue doesn’t end at the bottom of the page. To be avoided.
Without sound. Originated with German director Eric von Stroheim. Rarely used.
A screenplay or story in which events are ordered contrary to their natural sequence in time.
Expected by the audience relative to the genre. Love scenes in romances, shoot-outs in Westerns, the unraveling of a mystery in a detective film, and the rescue of a protagonist in an adventure film are all examples.
(External) Not related to the character. (Internal) Part of the character’s nature.
O.C. (Off Camera)
Same as O.S., now used only in TV. Character speaking is in the scene, but not on camera.
O.S. (Off Screen)
Placed beside a Character Name to indicate that the character speaking is in the scene, but not on camera. Dialogue or sounds heard while the camera is on another subject.
The Opening Ten
The first ten pages of a script. Typically, if a script has not made a favorable impression by this point, it will soon be consigned to the Round File.
Out of Character
The description of a character who does or says something that is not consistent with the established pattern of behavior.
Characters have simultaneous dialogue.
Actor’s instructions. A mark of amateur screenwriters. Should be used only in cases where a line of dialogue should be read in some way contrary to logic. Use sparingly.
Negative. Passive Characters are said to be moved by the plot, rather than actively driving (affecting) the story. A Passive Protagonist is always reacting to events rather than causing them.
The moment when something that was set up earlier becomes meaningful.
Not quite synonymous with Story. Plot, according to Aristotle, is the arrangement of a story’s events such that one follows logically from the other.
Theoretical entity devised by writer Syd Field. Event or information that turns the protagonist in a new direction and moves the action forward. Found at the boundaries between acts or sections.
Point Of No Return
Moment, usually in the first half of script, when the protagonist will never be the same, or can’t turn back.
The basic idea for a story often taking the form of a question or a problem. The story’s starting point, including major traits of main characters and the inciting incident.
Setup so that what comes later will make sense.
Character who has the most conflict. Serves as the focus of the plot, driving the story forward with their intentions and actions.
Preparation or subplot intended to mislead the audience.
Unneeded, repetitious words or phrases in a screenplay.
The third act of a dramatic structure, in which the conflict comes to some kind of conclusion: the protagonist either wins or doesn’t.
A place in the plot where a character achieves the opposite of his aim, resulting in a change from good fortune to bad fortune.
Events in a story build upon one another with increasing momentum.
Slugline heading for time of day, indicates scene takes place at same time or directly after previous scene.
An event that takes place entirely in one location or time, or following a particular character. If it moves outside from inside, it’s a new scene. If it cuts to five minutes later, it’s a new scene. If both, it’s a new scene. Scenes can range from one shot to infinity and are distinguished by slug lines.
Method used by some writers to outline their script by describing each scene on an index card, then arranging and rearranging them to work out the story structure.
Scene Heading (Slugline)
The text in all CAPS at the beginning of a scene that briefly describes the location and time of day.
A scene with all the characters together, trying to work out their individual problems.
Everything that takes place as the protagonist tries to achieve his objective.
Group of scenes that follow one objective. For example, a car chase sequence.
Series Of Shots
Quick shots that tell a story.
The time and place in which the story takes place.
The function of the first act in posing of the problem which the story will try to resolve. In a more general way, the process of laying the groundwork for a dramatic or comic situation which will later be complicated, and then resolved or paid off.
One image from a single point of view. If there’s a cut, you’ve changed shots.
SFX (Sound Effects)
Indicates sound effects, no longer used.
A screen with different scenes taking place in two or more sections; the scenes are usually interactive, as in the depiction of two sides of a phone conversation.
Story outline of the major scenes, each described in a few lines.
The main points of twists and turns in the story. A film may have a dozen beats or more.
One of screenwriting’s key elements. The way in which events are organized in time. Screenplays are extremely brief, and require careful organization of events and ideas in order to coherently tell an energetic story.
Also called the “B Story” weaving in and out of the main action. Story within the main story, usually not with the main character, with its own objective.
Words superimposed on the screen which mirror the dialogue (usually in another language) heard at the time.
The laying of one image over another, usually words over a filmed scene, in the same shot.
1-3 page summary of a screenplay told in present tense.
Epilogue, brief ending of a TV show that ties up loose ends. A short scene at the end of a movie that usually provides some upbeat addition to the climax.
Brief initial act that establishes a TV show episode.
Set up something clumsily, so it’s obvious to the audience.
The overriding idea behind a story. More complex than a simple moral argument, Theme is an expression of Truth.
Everything that happens after the protagonist has achieved or abandoned his objective.
The classical form of storytelling in film. Based on Aristotle’s three act dramatic structure which includes: the set-up, the complication, and the resolution.
A dramatic device in which some event looming in the near future requires that the conflict reach a speedy resolution.
A page equals one minute of screen time.
Shot designed to move a script from one scene to another.
A scene by scene description of a screenplay, told in present tense and generally with no dialogue. Anywhere from 15-60 pages, typically from 20-30 pages.
A plot point that’s a major surprise to the audience.
Refers to a script’s cohesiveness. In a Unified script, all the elements work subtly together toward a cumulative effect.
V.O. (Voice Over)
Used to the right of the character’s name before dialogue. Dialogue by a character not in the scene, or not seen speaking the dialogue. Used to indicate a character is speaking via telephone, or for narration.
Uses Aristotelian structure, which posits a lone, Energetic hero, the Protagonist, facing a single, overriding Conflict, embodied by the Antagonist, leading toward a dramatic resolution.
How “white” a page appears. Pages which have an inordinate amount of text on them (especially long, uninterrupted action blocks) are tedious to read.