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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. 


Note:  Once scenes have been introduced, slug lines can be abbreviated to as little as "LATER" or "LIVING ROOM."

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 lines.

:  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 spun away.

(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 characters.

An abbreviation 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 ( ... ).

PARENTHETICAL:  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.

Example:  The “(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 monolog.  The 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. 

OUTLINE:  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 the script.






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