Screenwriting terms every screenwriter should know

Screenwriting is an art form that requires more than just creativity; it demands a thorough understanding of the craft. From formatting to storytelling techniques, mastering the language of screenwriting is essential for aspiring screenwriters. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer, familiarizing yourself with key screenwriting terms can elevate your scripts and enhance your communication within the industry. In this blog post, we’ll delve into some indispensable screenwriting terms that every aspiring screenwriter should know.

Storytelling terms

Act

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.

Characterization

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. 

Plot

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.

Scene

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.

Theme

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. 

Formatting jargon

Action

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. 

Dialogue

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

Scene heading

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). 

Parenthetical

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. 

Cinematography

Capturing the excitement and intensity of action sequences requires skilled cinematography. Cinematographers choose camera angles, movement, and lighting to enhance the impact of the action while maintaining visual coherence. Techniques like handheld cameras, crane shots, and slow-motion capture are commonly used to add energy and drama to the scene

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