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November 8, 2021

Screenwriting Terms You Should Know

If you've downloaded some screenwriting software and have decided to take the plunge and begin turning your idea into a fully-fledged script, you might feel a bit intimidated. There's a whole host of vocabulary and abbreviations that you probably don't understand.

The film and TV industry works with its own protocols and procedures. This is reflected in the language they use, just like any industry. It's best if you can get on top of this jargon, to begin with, especially if your long-term goal is to pitch your show to Netflix or a production company.

It will save you time when you write your script, and it also makes you look like a professional from the get-go. This is vitally important in a very competitive industry.

Screenwriting Terms You Should Know

Here are some key screenwriting terms that you should know before you start writing.

Slugline/Scene Heading

Sluglines are also known as scene headings in screenplay terminology. They begin every scene and indicate to the reader the location and basic details about the scene.

They tell us whether we are located outside in the exterior (EXT) or in the interior (INT). If we are in a location that could be considered both outside and inside - for example, we are inside a car or a bus - then it's common to see EXT/INT.

Basic details that follow your EXT. or INT. description could include COFFEE SHOP MORNING or LARGE APARTMENT, NIGHT.

Press the scene heading button or use the shortcut control+1 to input your headings on Arc Studio Pro.

Protagonist/Antagonist

All stories are predicated on the idea of conflict between a protagonist - the hero of your story - and the antagonist - the villain. The protagonist is the character that propels the story forward and makes key decisions that we follow. Their values also underpin the moral basis of the plot.

The main protagonist usually encounters conflict.


The antagonist is the character that frustrates this. Their values, their ideas, and their choices come into direct conflict with those of the protagonist, and they must ultimately be defeated in some way.

At the end of the story, the antagonist must either be killed or punished - maybe by being sent to jail. They could also be redeemed in a way that allows them to continue to live, having now adopted the protagonist's values, so there is no longer any conflict.

Of course, all rules are made to be broken, and there are certainly examples of films where the protagonist doesn't triumph, and there is little resolution.

Great films will also show shades of grey. They make you question whether the protagonist we are positioned with is a hero and whether the antagonist is as much of a villain as we might first think.

Pre-Production

Staging a film or a TV series is a huge undertaking. Budgets run into the millions, and since Amazon and Netflix have entered the game, budgets for blockbuster TV shows can now run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

With sometimes thousands of people involved in a film, the film's creation is broken down into three different stages.  

Pre-production is the stage you are likely to be most involved with. It begins when senior executives at the production company give the film the go-ahead.

During this stage, the script is revised until all parties are satisfied with it. The budget of the film is agreed upon, and the film is cast. Remember, the cast can change at any point, even well into the production phase. The script is storyboarded, and any special effects are planned.

How far you, as the screenwriter, will be consulted on all of this will depend on the nature of the production and how much creative control you are afforded. However, at the very least, you will undoubtedly be asked to make revisions to the script during this phase.

Production

Production is the phase of the film when the film is shot. Some screenwriters get invited onto the set and offer guidance on how certain scenes will be played out. However, a lot of the time, screenwriters are not on set and are busy working on their next project.

Post-Production

This is the phase of the production you will have least, if anything, to do with. This is the part of the process when shooting on the film or series is complete. The actors have all signed off, and the film now needs to be edited into something that can be screened at a cinema or on television.

Any special effects or CGI are added in, the film is given a color grade, and last-minute decisions to cut scenes are made.

Marketing for the film, such as the trailer, posters, and press interviews with the cast, usually begins during post-production. Depending on how big the film's launch is, you may well be invited to press interviews, but this is not guaranteed.

Super

Short for superimposed, this is the technique now of placing two shots on top of each other. It creates a sense of an illusion - as if the scene is part of a dream sequence or fantasy.

It can also be used as part of a dissolve shot to transition from one scene to another. A great example is the final sequence of Psycho. As we dissolve away from Norman Bates - after he has been caught - to Marian's car being towed out of the swamp, the two shots are momentarily laid on top of each other.

We also get a short superimposed shot during the river sequence in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to create a sense of madness and terror as Wonka leads the children deeper into his factory. Large images of rival chocolatier Slugworth are superimposed on the back wall of the tunnel as Wonka appears more and more unhinged.

Exposition

Exposition is a vital component of the three-act and five-act screenplay format structures. It is the background information about a character that we need to establish their motivations and desires and their relationships with other major and minor characters in the film.

We need some exposition to set the scene though we don't have to open with a lengthy exposition. Indeed it's better to intrigue your audience with an explosive opening before offering some expository details about your main character later on.

Exposition Dump  

Exposition dump is where we try to give too much information away about a character at once. It becomes tedious and can be a list of characteristics or details about their backstory that feel unnecessary. In your script, you must show instead of tell.

If your character has a nervous disposition, you should show them stuttering or stammering when challenged rather than having this character say directly to another character, "I am a very nervous person."

It's also easy to fall into the trap of exposition dump in the film's second half. Either when the protagonist exposes your antagonist, and in anger, they reveal the motivations for their evil plan, or your antagonist has your protagonist in a tight spot. They might arrogantly assume there is no way out for your protagonist and want to explain their agenda to them to show how smart they are. Too much explaining can leave you nowhere to go.  

Denouement

The denouement is the resolution of your film after your conflict has been resolved. It is not to be confused with the climax. It's the chance for any loose ends to be tied up and for small seeds to be planted for a sequel. The denouement to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  is part of the film after Voldermort has been defeated.

It details, for example, Harry deciding to snap the Elder Wand in half and dropping it off the side of the bridge, as well as the events of nineteen years where we find out what happened to all of the characters later in life.

Harry Potter and his friends stand in shock.

Brush Up On Your Screenwriting Terms

You don't need to know every single screenwriting term to be good at screenwriting. But as you progress further into your career, you have to understand the language of the industry to advance.

Brushing up on your screenwriting terms is an easy way to show that you are a keen professional who will operate on a film set with ease.

Level-up your screenwriting software

With Arc Studio, you stay focused while writing your screenplay, craft better stories, and collaborate with ease.

Go to Desk
Screenwriting Terms You Should Know
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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