Screenwriting Glossary Act

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Screenwriting Glossary

Act

A traditional story structure has three acts, Act 1, the beginning, the set up; Act 2, the middle (with a climax) and Act 3, end (with a resolution). Each act also has a set up, a climax and a resolution.


An Act is made up of Sequences. Sequences are made up of Scenes. Scenes are made up of Beats (and/or Bits).
Act Break

The Act Break is where one act resolves and the next act begins (or the story ends).


Backstory

Backstory is what happened to the characters or in the world of the characters before the current story began. For example, the process by which Cinderella becomes orphaned is the backstory. The Backstory informs and influences the current story.


Beat

A Beat is the smallest unit of storytelling. A single story event. An act is made up of scenes, a scene is made up of Beats. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets and ultimately melts the Wicked Witch of the West by throwing a bucket of water in her face. That would be a scene. The specific event of throwing the bucket of water in her face would be a beat in that scene.


Bit

Like a Beat, a Bit is a small unit of storytelling, though usually comic. While a Beat is integral to a scene, a Bit is self-contained, a moment complete unto itself. It can be dropped in, cut out or have another Bit substituted for it without changing the essential meaning of a scene.

Character Arc

The Character Arc refers to the way any particular character grows or changes in the course of the screenplay. For example, the character arc for Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol would be going from a penny-pinching miser to open-hearted philanthropist. In many cases, however, the character’s essential nature does not change. The character’s arc might be growing into the kind of human being capable of confronting the challenges in front of him or her.

Climax

The Climax is the point to which the entire story builds. The highpoint of the action or emotional intensity in the story. This is the point where the protagonist fails or succeeds, lives or dies.


Concept

The basic idea or premise of your story, often best expressed as a question. For example, “How could a young girl, transported to from Kansas by a cyclone to a magical land called Oz, ever find her way home?” Or, for Citizen Kane, “What pain could cause a young boy to grow up to be an obsessive workaholic, maniacally amassing a fortune in artwork he never sees and ultimately dying alone, having alienated anyone who ever loved him?”


Conflict

Discord between incompatible parties, objects or ideas, giving rise to the dramatic action of a story.


Dialogue

Discussion between two or more people. In storytelling, these exchanges often reveal conflicts in intention as well as philosophical, spiritual and ethical conflicts.


Directing from the Page

To be avoided. Directing from the Page involves telling the director or cinematographer where to place the camera, telling the actors how to play the scene or instructing the editor how the scene should be cut.


Directing from the Page is generally off-putting and is often the mark of an amateur writer. One might find published screenplays with many examples of Directing from the Page, but these are generally scripts put together by the director and include his notes on how he plans to shoot the film. While there are rare occasions where these sorts of directions are necessary to tell the story, Spec Scripts should not as a rule include these directions.

Dramatic Irony

When the audience knows more than a particular character in a scene. For example, in All About Eve, Eve’s roommate places a desperate call to the married Lloyd Richards, saying she’s afraid Eve is considering suicide. Lloyd jumps out of bed to hurry over. As Eve’s roommate hangs up the phone, Eve is standing next to her, an evil smile on her lips. The audience has more information about what’s happening than Lloyd.

Dramatic Irony is an effective means of building Suspense.
Exposition

Action or dialog that reveals information about plot and character. Because it is often done badly, the word “exposition” has developed a negative connotation, but almost every story will need information revealed. A good rule of thumb is to show rather than tell. For example, rather than having two characters discussing Susie’s possible mental illness, show Susie frying ants with a magnifying glass and quietly smiling to herself. The same truth is revealed, but more effectively.


Establishing Shot

Usually the first shot in a new scene, an Establishing Shot is used to provide perspective on the scene’s setting and the overall placement of the characters and significant props within that setting.


Flashback

A term generally used in linear storytelling, Flashback refers to a scene that jumps back in time to reveal information about a character, setting or prop in a story, or the story itself.


Foreshadowing

A story event that predicts a larger, more important, perhaps violent event to come. For example, a husband arrives home from work. He sneaks into the living room and pulls a butcher knife from his brief case. He hides it under a throw pillow before calling out, “Janet? Are you home?”


Genre

Genre is a method of categorizing films. While the definition of genre is widely debated, most agree that films can be categorized by their narrative elements, such as milieu (a world full of organized crime, a science fiction future, a battlefield or a sports field), their tone (horror, comedy, romance, thriller), their format (live action, documentary, animation) and/or their target audience (children, young couples, nihilists). Examples of film Genres include Film Noir, Westerns and Romantic Comedies.

Hook

Generally the opening scene of a screenplay, designed to grab the audience’s attention and fill their minds with questions about what happens next. In Jaws, the Hook is the opening scene when the skinny-dipping girl is eaten alive by a shark. The audience can’t leave the theater until they find out, “What can the other characters do to avoid a similar fate? Will other people get eaten? How can this menace possibly be destroyed?” They’re hooked.

Inciting Incident

A story event that radically upsets the balance of the life of the story’s protagonist, creating a profound need in the protagonist to restore that balance.


INT

Screenplay shorthand for “interior” used in the screenplay’s sluglines.


EXT

Screenplay shorthand for “exterior” used in the screenplay’s sluglines.


Logline

The story of a screenplay boiled down to three, perhaps four sentences.


For example,
“A cyclone whisks a young girl, Dorothy, and her dog Toto from the harsh plains of Kansas to the magical land of Oz. In the climactic scene, the young girl destroys the scourge of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West, on a promise from an unethical wizard that if she does so he will transport her back to Kansas. When the wizard is unable to make good on his promise, Dorothy must find the power to transport herself back to Kansas on her own.”
Master Scene

In a Spec Script, a writer generally creates a Master Scene. The writer sets up the action to come with a brief description of the location and mood of the scene (refraining from using camera or editing directions).


For example:
EXT. OTTO’S USED AUTO PARTS – NIGHT
Macon inches along the wall behind the building, a tire iron in his hand. He reaches into the inky blackness for the back doorknob. It’s not there.
The door has been kicked in.
Master Shot

When shooting a scene, most directors will shoot a Master Shot, a wide shot incorporating all the action of the scene to come, before moving the camera closer to the actors, significant props and/or points of view.


A writer might keep this Master Shot in mind when writing his Master Scene description, refraining, of course from telling the director or editor where to place the camera or how to cut the film.

Montage

A series of very short shots or scenes, usually without dialog, used as a storytelling shortcut.

For example, a humanoid alien might have just rented an apartment and wants to decorate it like the humans do. One might create a Montage of quick scenes and shots showing the humanoid visiting various furniture stores and thrift stores, bringing home inappropriate objects and placing them around the apartment, ending with a shot of the satisfied alien looking proudly at the mess he’s assembled.
Mood

When creating the Master Scene description, the writer will want to set the mood of the scene by describing what is seen and heard.


For example, is there the sound of a gentle brook? Is there a young girl sleeping on a blanket under a tree in midsummer, sunlight and shadow dappling her creamy skin? Or do we have a young girl in battle armor, crashing through the glass of a rusty-framed skylight and dropping into a long-abandoned mall, making her way past the mummified corpses of long-dead shoppers?
Planting and Payoff

(Also referred to as Setup and Payoff) A screenwriter will often plant a piece of information or several pieces of information that will later be brought back or tied together for intense dramatic or comic effect.


For example, in Meet the Parents, the screenwriter establishes that a specific urn contains the ashes of the family’s beloved Grandmother. This Setup pays off later when Greg spills ashes and the family cat uses them as kitty litter.
Plot

The concrete events of a screenplay narrative.


Premise

The set-up of your story, the information the reader quickly needs to learn before the story kicks into gear. Establishing the Premise would involve introducing your protagonist, examining the main problem he or she faces, examining the dire consequences of not solving the problem and the plan for addressing that problem.

Resolution

The Resolution comes after the climax of the story. This is the point where any of the screenplay’s loose ends are tied up and resolved.

Reversal

A moment in the plot of a screenplay where the protagonist is dealt a setback, or even, perhaps the exact opposite of what he has been trying to accomplish.


Scene

Scenes are the building blocks of acts, and are themselves made up of Beats and/or bits, Scenes may also be seen as building blocks for Sequences, which ultimately make up Acts.


Like the entirety of the screenplay, and each Act, a Scene has a premise, one or more complications, a climax and a resolution.
Sequence

A Sequence is a series of scenes within an act with it’s own set up, climax and resolution, usually with a mini-goal.


For example, there is a Sequence of Scenes when Dorothy meets Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz. Professor Marvel’s goal in this sequence is to get Dorothy to return home to confront her problem (rather than running away). He reminds her how much her family loves her and in the climactic moment, he pretends to see Dorothy’s Aunt Em in his crystal ball, grabbing her heart and collapsing on her bed. The resolution of this sequence is Dorothy hurrying away, determined to get home to help her Aunt.
Setting

Setting might refer to the world in which the entirety of a screenplay takes place or the location where a specific scene occurs.


Setup and Payoff

(Also referred to as Planting and Payoff) A Setup is a bit of information or several pieces of information that will later be brought back or tied together for intense dramatic or comic effect.


For example, in Meet the Parents, the screenwriter establishes that a specific urn contains the ashes of the family’s beloved Grandmother. This Setup pays off later when Greg spills ashes and the family cat uses them as kitty litter.

Slugline

A Slugline introduces each new scene. It includes, first, whether the action takes place inside or outside (INT. or EXT.), second, where specifically the action takes place (for example, Joe’s Bar and Grill or St. Mary’s Home for Wayward Youth), and third, whether the action takes place in daylight or at night.

Here is an example of a properly formatted slugline:
EXT. LOWELL OBSERVATORY - NIGHT
Stage Directions

Directions given by the screenwriter as to the movements of the characters in a scene. The screenwriter should be spare in these directions, limiting them to only what is necessary to tell the story, and avoiding Directing from the Page.


For example, one might write, “Emily hears a car pull up on the gravel outside. She pulls herself away from the empty cradle and goes to the window.” But not, “Emily leans over the empty cradle, one hand on her forehead, the other on her heart. She cups her hand to her ear when she hears a car pull up in the driveway. RACK FOCUS TO THE WINDOW. Emily hurries to the window and watches, a single tear sliding from her left eye. CUT TO: EXTREME CLOSE-UP of the tear splattering in SLOW MOTION on the window sill.”
Scene Headings

See: Slugline


Structure

The mechanics of how a screenplay is to be put together. The blueprint. Some basic elements of Structure are the Inciting Incident, various complications, the Climax and the Resolution.


Subtext

That which is not said or shown in a screenplay, but which is integral to the story.


For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois never says, “I’m terrified. I’ve lost my home. I’ve lost my job for having sex with an underage young man. Flirting with men is the only way I’ve ever known to secure what I need and I’m losing my looks. And my sanity.” Rather, she smiles and laughs, she flirts. She makes sure she’s only seen in dim lighting. Her terror is the Subtext of everything she does.
Suspense

Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty. Heightening suspense can profoundly intensify the climactic moment of a screenplay.

One common way of building suspense is by using the Ticking Clock. That is, establishing an amount of time a character has to complete an action before he or she will be met with dire consequences. (The clock on the time bomb is ticking. Should Judy cut the red wire or the blue wire?)

Another common way to build Suspense is the use of Dramatic Irony. (The audience knows the escaped mental patient is hiding under the stairs, but Judy is unaware as she fumbles around the basement in the dark, searching for the fuse box.)
Tag

A Tag is a word, phrase or idea repeated in a screenplay for dramatic or comic effect. For example, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy’s father repeatedly digs at his son by referring to him as Junior, a Tag continued in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, wherein Indy repeatedly puts his own son in his place, referring to him as Junior.


In an episode of the television show Seinfeld, Jerry and George are mistaken as gay lovers. The repeatedly deny that they are gay, always carefully adding the Tag, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Teaser

A Teaser is a short scene meant to hook an audience’s interest and attention. In a screenplay for television, a Teaser scene is often placed just before a commercial break to keep the audience engaged enough to stay tuned to find out what happens next.


Theme

The main message of a screenplay, what the story is about on its deepest level.


The theme of The Pawnbroker might be, “If you don’t confront evil where you find it, it will find you.” The theme of Casablanca might be, “Even if two people belong together romantically, there may be larger issues that make it necessary and right for them to be apart.” Or perhaps, in terms of its World War II context, “One can’t remain neutral forever.”
Ticking Clock

A method of building Suspense wherein a certain event must happen by a certain time to avoid dire consequences.

Tone

The overall attitude of your screenplay. If your screenplay were a person, would he or she be resigned? Snarky? Hilarious? Insane? Bitter? Inspiring?

Turning Point

A Turning Point is a moment in your screenplay that profoundly shifts the protagonist’s plan of attack to achieve his or her objective, or perhaps changes the objective itself.


For example, In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s objective is to find her great passion. For most of the story, she believes Ashley Wilkes secretly loves her, and only married his wife Melanie to satisfy family obligations. A major Turning Point occurs when Scarlett realizes Ashley really did love Melanie, and the great passion of Scarlett’s life should have been Rhett Butler. Scarlett hurries to Rhett’s side, but she’s too late.
Twist

A sudden and unexpected revelation that profoundly changes the direction of a story or changes how we understand a character or a story.


Late in the film Monsieur Hire, we realize that Monsieur Hire had been stalking his object of affection for months before he actually introduced himself and won her trust. And he has damning information that could send her and her boyfriend to jail for the rest of their lives.
Three Act Structure

The classic story structure first identified by Aristotle. In its simplest terms, the Three Act Structure has a beginning (a set up), a middle (complications leading to a climax) and an end (the resolution).


WGAw Format

Formatting a screenplay according to basic WGAw guidelines calls for the following:


MARGINS:
Top Margin: 0.75" - 1.0"
Bottom Margin: 0.5" - 1.5"
Description

Left Margin: 1.5" - 2.0"

Right Margin: 1.0"
Dialogue

Left Margin: 3.0"

Right Margin: about 2.3"

Character:

Left Margin: about 3.7"

Right Margin: about 3.0"

Center the title in quotes at the top of page 1 of the body of your script.
TITLE PAGE:
The title should be centered and 3” to 3.5” from the top of the page.
1” below the title and double spaced should read:
a screenplay
by
John Doe
Information in the bottom left corner should read:
Copyright © Year by John Doe

Address Line One

Address Line Two

Phone contact


IN ADDITION TO THE TITLE PAGE:

The title should be appear again on page 1 of your screenplay, centered at the top of the page.


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