The ABCs of Scriptwriting
The following are common terms used in writing screenplays.
Adherence to these terms and guidelines is not as strict
as it used to be a decade or so ago, but generally speaking, the
more closely a screenwriter follows the accepted norms, the more
professional his or her work product will be.
The text that is displayed in all caps and marks the beginning
of a scene. Slug
lines briefly describe the scene’s location and time of day.
Example: INT. JACK'S
KITCHEN - NIGHT
Note: Once scenes have
been introduced, slug lines can be abbreviated to as little as
"LATER" or "LIVING ROOM."
SCENE: An event
that takes place solely in one location or at a single time.
If a character moves
from one location to another—inside a house to the outside, for
example—a new scene has been created.
If the character is shown at a later (or earlier) time,
that is a new scene. Scenes
can range from a single shot to many multiples, and they are
distinguished by slug
This is part of what a slug line describes.
It is a combination of
things—the scene, the characters’ movements, and the sounds.
Example: The ROAR of his
MOTORCYCLE broke the EARLY MORNING calm as Hal accelerated and
(aka DISSOLVE TO):
This is most often used in the context of dissolving to a
particular time or to a color.
For example, the script may read:
FADE TO: BLACK
FADE IN: NEXT SCENE
This usually connotes the end of a major segment of the
narrative. The next
scene will frequently be set days, weeks—or even farther—ahead
(or back) in time. Sometimes titles can be utilized and appear
on the “fade-to [color]” screen in order to denote a passage of
time or a major shift in the status of one of the main
for “superimpose,” which means the superimposition of one image
over another in the same scene or shot.
For example, sometimes
titles are superimposed over scenes, or an image can be
superimposed over a montage shot.
This term is used when moving titles or text are superimposed
over a scene or shot—they are referred to as “rolling.”
For example, this
technique is often used to roll the credits at the beginning
and/or end of a film.
Scriptwriters use this term to signify an interruption in a line
of dialog. A beat lets
the actor know to pause a moment before continuing.
Beats are often
punctuated with ellipses ( ... ).
If a screenwriter intends for an actor to deliver his or her
lines in a particular way that is not obvious by simply reading
the script, the writer will utilize parentheses to explain the
intended delivery. Parentheticals
should only be used, however, when the intent is not obvious.
If used too frequently, this type of writing can be
construed as to have wandered into the domain of the director,
which is not good.
“(slowly)” parenthetical below lets the actor know that this is
a counter-intuitive way of delivering this piece of dialogue:
Run. Scram. Get out of here fast.
O.S. or O.C.: This
designation is for an off-stage or off-camera speaker.
These terms are interchangeable.
A voice-over is generally used for narration purposes or to
expose a character's thought processes or express an inner
abbreviation “V.O.” is used adjacent to a character’s name
before his or her lines in the script.
A log line is a short, but dynamic statement of a film’s
storyline. It is a
concise summary of the concept, and its purpose is to provide a
clear sense of the story, while leaving the reader with the
feeling of “tell me more!” It is somewhat like a promo book
review—but much shorter.
A treatment is basically an expanded log line.
It is usually a 1 to 5 page written pitch that is
commonly used as a sales tool and as a method for testing the
concept before actually writing the screenplay.
It is always good to get
the input of others who may be interested (such as agents,
producers, or potential investors and buyers), so the more
compelling the treatment, the higher the likelihood of its
getting a green light.
Unlike a log line or a treatment, an outline is a real
working document, rather than a sales tool.
By its very nature, it
is longer and more complete than the other two, and it serves as
a blueprint for the script. An
outline is also useful in that it can serve as an effective
communication tool between the writer and others, such as the
producers, who may become involved in the process of developing
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