Like any other business, screenwriting has a lot of jargon that’s intimidating to the newer writer. Luckily, none of it is too technical, so today I’m going to run through a mixture of business and craft terms so that you can hold your own in a discussion about screenwriting.
A feature script (derived from “feature-length”) is another word for a screenplay that is intended to be turned into a movie. The term comes from back in the day when theaters would show multiple movies in the same showing, all centered around the main feature, usually the longest and most prestigious of them all. A feature script tends to run between 80-130 pages.
The counterpoint to a spec script, for-hire work is when a screenwriter is specifically hired by a company to write a script on assignment. This is the vast majority of screenwriting work currently around in today’s movie industry. If you cultivate a reputation for writing scary scripts, a studio with a horror IP may get in contact and hire you to write a script for them.
IP (or “intellectual property”) is the legal owner of creative ideas, characters, or stories. The strict definition can get a bit loose, but this is the reason why no one but Marvel can make movies about some of your favorite superheroes like Iron Man or Captain America. If someone profits off another’s IP then they are liable to be legally sued for the infraction. That means that you can absolutely write an Iron Man movie, but if you profit off it then you’re going to get in trouble.
A pilot script is a teleplay written to be the first episode of a new TV show. The pilot is meant to function as a representative example of what the rest of the show will look like. It will introduce the show’s premise, the characters, and what a typical episode will feel like. Pilots are sometimes produced by a company before investing many more resources into making it an entire show.
A spec script (short for “speculative script”) is a screenplay that is written by a writer with no pre-existing contract set and is based on an entirely new original intellectual property. If you are writing a script based on an original story idea, with original characters, on your own whim, then you’re writing a spec script. The dream is to sell these scripts to studios that would like to make that story.
You’ve probably heard of action movies, but “action” in a script indicates any line that describes what happens on-screen (except for dialogue, which we’ll get to in a moment). Often action tells us about where a character is in a scene, what they’re doing, their behavior and demeanor, as well as any evolving elements in the setting. This is the closest a screenplay gets to traditional prose. Here’s an example of action:
Dialogue is what a character says in a script. In a screenplay, it is formatted centrally on the page under a capitalized version of the character who speaks. Dialogue can be a great way to tell us how a character thinks and what their priorities are. A character who uses long and complicated words gives a different impression to one who uses slang. Here’s an example of dialogue in our example scene:
A parenthetical is a bracketed piece of information placed between the character name and the dialogue that helps contextualize the tone of the speech. Generally, screenwriters are wary of overusing parentheticals as it takes away the agency of the actor’s job in interpreting the lines, but they can be very helpful if the dialogue’s tone isn’t immediately clear by what’s being said. Here’s a parenthetical used in our example scene:
In a screenplay, a scene heading is a technical line placed at the top of any new scene to indicate a shift in space and/or time. It usually starts with an INT or EXT (Interior or Exterior), followed by a description of the scene (e.g. Warehouse) concluded by a time of day (most often DAY or NIGHT). This is a relic of the screenplay being a technical document for production and is intended to help them get a scene ready for a shoot as quickly as possible. Here’s an example scene heading:
Stories would be chaotic if not for structure. Some academics think that it’s impossible for a human to tell a story without an innate sense of structure guiding it. While there are many ways to structure a story, the broadest way is by splitting it into acts, an inherited method that came from theater. An act has a beginning, a middle, and an end that leads into the following acts. Movies are generally considered to have three acts whereas a 60 minute TV episode is thought to have five acts.
The dark mirror of the protagonist, the antagonist is the character that opposes the protagonist’s goal. Commonly an antagonist is a villain that believes in the opposite values as the protagonist. The antagonist is usually stronger than the protagonist, and only by undergoing the narrative journey of the story is the protagonist able to (typically) defeat them. The antagonist isn’t always a villain. Sometimes they can be a good person that opposes the protagonist, or they can be an insentient force like a tornado or earthquake.
Characterizations are the methods a screenwriter uses to communicate information about a character. The easiest way to do this is through dialogue as it’s direct, but often great characterization comes from how a character acts, not what they say. For example, imagine an antagonist that calmly watches the protagonist approach versus an antagonist that nervously scratches their leg and fiddles with a pen. Clearly, these are two different kinds of people. The best kind of characterization is shown in how a character chooses to act in a moment of narrative crisis.
Exposition is the process of relaying crucial information to understand the story to the audience. Some form of exposition is essential for a story to function, but too much can lead to an “exposition dump” where the writer “dumps” a lot of exposition quickly in one scene to get it over with. Too much exposition can overwhelm the audience, or it can make the story feel fake and “written” which is, ironically, a bad thing in screenwriting.
Plot is what literally happens in a story. Imagine reading the Wikipedia summary of what happens in a movie. This summary rarely tells us the emotions tied to the events, but it does accurately relate each narrative event in sequential order. The plot is often the vehicle that the protagonist drives so that they can learn an important thematic lesson.
Time to get into some dramatic terminology. The protagonist is the central character of the story, otherwise known as the main character. The plot of the story revolves around this protagonist, and they often are the emotional anchor for the story. When things go great for the protagonist, we should feel great, and vice versa. Generally, the protagonist will be in most of the scenes and actively drive the narrative to its conclusion.
An act is made up of scenes. These are discreet beats within a story, usually set in one location, that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, where something fundamentally changes or progresses by its end. A scene is the basic unit by which a screenwriter advances a story. Inside a scene, a screenwriter can have characters clash, evoke amazing setpieces, or explore a thematic concern. A scene can be as long as an entire act (or longer in some extreme cases) or it can be as short as a few seconds.
While a plot is just a series of events, it turns into a story when properly embodied with a theme that is tied to the protagonist’s arc. A theme is a kind of subtextual argument that underlies the story, making the audience ask questions about larger elements of life. For example, the theme of Finding Nemo argues that helicopter parenting will stifle your children. Whether the audience agrees or disagrees with the theme, its goal is to lend the story emotional gravitas and make the reader consider greater issues.
At some point in your screenwriting journey, you may be told to “show, don’t tell”. Often beginner screenwriters will have characters outwardly state their emotions and ideas, which can feel fake. Similarly, characters can sometimes say something happened in the plot, where it would be much more interesting for us as an audience to be shown the event. It’s the difference between Rick saying “I saw Josie get shot” and actually having a scene where we see Josie getting shot. One is clearly more visceral than the other.
Human beings are very bad at seeing things at just face value. When we see an image of a castle, we don’t just think about a castle. We think about the status of those who live in a castle, the riches needed to upkeep it, the history of its inhabitants, the socio-political environment that led to it being constructed. In other words, the castle is a symbol for much more than just a castle. It is representative of more abstract ideas. A writer can make use of symbolism for dramatic or comedic effect to make mundane scenes feel much grander by evoking these subtextual representative ideas in the audience’s mind.
A screenplay is just what is written on a page, right? Not really. Our brains are rarely satisfied with just reading what’s on the page. We love to read in between the lines, find the unsaid meaning, and figure out what it all means. The text is what is physically on the page, the subtext is what goes unwritten, but can still affect the story immensely. Think about a Scorsese gangster movie when an assassination is ordered. The gangsters rarely say the words “kill this man”. Instead, they leave it in the subtext, talking around the taboo rather than directly addressing it, evoking an excruciating unsaid tension in the scene.
Hopefully now you have a better idea of the world of screenwriting — or at least the words people use inside of it. It would do you some good to study each of these terms and understand why they’re important for honing your craft but also taking the next step in your creative career.
Good luck and happy writing!