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glossary

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  • Act — As defined by Robert McKee, “An ACT is a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values, more powerful in its impact than any previous sequence or scene.”1 The apparent precision of McKee’s definition, however, belies the fact that the “Act,” as understood in terms of traditional three-act screenplay structure (which has itself been called into question)2, is a notoriously fuzzy concept with disputed boundaries. In theater an act is a narrative segment of some length that concludes with an act break, but most feature-length screenplays do not contain act breaks.
  • Action — Action, in the sense in which it matters to those who study the screenplay, is a concept strongly tied to both Aristotle’s views of the primacy of plot over character in drama and the old adage that screenwriters should “show not tell.” While the screenwriter’s craft is one of narration (diegesis), his/her art points toward another form, the feature film, which is a craft of performance (mimesis). Characters, then, are not known to the audience by their thoughts or feelings but by their actions. For this reason, the craft of screenwriting — more than its prose counterparts — relies heavily on carefully constructed actions. Likewise, screenplays that contain more action (in the broader sense of active protagonists participating in their own destiny) tend to be more commercial and accessible to audiences than those with minimal action (again, in the broader sense of passive protagonists reluctant to participate in their own destiny). Action is also the term for the main scene text that reports on character actions and contains scene descriptions, technical comments, and other relevant story details.
  • Ancillaries — A film business term that refers to all financial revenues not stemming from theatrical box office. These include home video, television, and merchandising.
  • Antagonist — Not simply a villain, the Antagonist is the dramatic force that obstructs the Protagonist from obtaining his or her desire. In a Romantic Comedy, for instance, the Antagonist may be a rival suitor (traditional villain role) or she may be the object of affection who must be won over by the Protagonist.
  • A Priori Method — Janet Staiger defines this method of genre classification as follows: “make an a priori declaration of the characteristics of the group.”3
  • Arbitration — A process within the WGA in which disputes over screen credit are settled in a binding decision of objective parties.
  • Archetype — A character form that fulfills a certain universal dramatic or psychological function within a narrative. May be best understood as a functional “mask” worn by the character, as a character may wear the masks of multiple Archetypes throughout the story, and more than one character can wear the same mask. “Mentor” and “Herald” are just two common Archetypes. Not to be confused with a stereotype.
  • Authors linked by “&” — In formal WGA screen credit rules, authors linked by an ampersand are understood to be team writers or willing collaborators.
  • Authors linked by “and” — In formal WGA screen credit rules, authors linked by the word “and” are understood to be successive or independent co-writers or re-writers who did not collaborate together on a single draft.
  • Auteur Theory — A broad and complex theory for the critical analysis of film. However, for the purposes of screenplay studies, it will suffice to say that Auteur Theory proposes that the director is the “author” of the film.
  • Beat (in scene structure) — In terminology borrowed from music, emotional beats mark the dramatic rhythm of a scene. “A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene,” writes McKee4, while Judith Weston writes, “The ‘beat changes’ are simple changes of subject.”5 Whatever strict definition is accepted, breaking a scene into smaller dramatic moments allows directors and actors to map the emotional arc of a scene for a more thoughtful performance. One can also refer to a visual beat, which is more or less synonymous with the shot. By breaking an action down into visual beats, a director can determine what shots he or she will need in order to build the scene through montage.
  • Beat (in script terminology) — You will sometimes see “(Beat)” as a parenthetical comment in a block of dialogue text. In this case, the screenwriter is instructing the actor to “take a beat” — i.e. pause — before continuing with his or her speech.
  • Beat Breakdown — The process by which a scene analyst (usually a director or performer) maps a particular scene for all its dramatic beats.
  • Beginning — “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.”6 As obvious as Aristotle’s definition may be, many overlook its implications for narrative self-containment.
  • Blocking — The staging of the actors in the scene.
  • Blueprint Stage — The stage of readership at which the screenplay serves its intended purpose, instructing a crew of artists and technicians in the shaping of a feature film. As Claudia Sternberg writes, “The blueprint is the classic metaphor used to characterize the function and the significance of the screenplay during the production process.”7
  • Bone Structure — Lajos Egri’s terminology for the physiological, psychological, and sociological makeup of a character, what Robert McKee might call “Characterization.”
  • Catharsis — An oft misunderstood and misrepresented concept from Aristotle’s Poetics, Catharsis has possibly been given more consideration in the study of dramatic narrative than perhaps Aristotle intended. Variably translated as “purification” or “purgation,” Catharsis is probably best understood as the release of excess emotion that some viewers experience when observing a tragic performance. It is important to understand that Catharsis is not the catch-all purpose of drama for Aristotle that some would have you believe. It is rather one possible benefit for those people who suffer from excess emotion.8
  • Central Producer System — A system of management in the Hollywood mode of production. In the Central Producer System, creative power shifted from directors to a central producer who used the continuity script to control production activity.
  • Chain of title — Establishes the sequential history of ownership transfers for a particular property, in this case a screenplay.
  • Character — “Character can be succinctly defined as storyworld participants.”9 This definition, while succinct, doesn’t offer much in the way of precision. “TRUE CHARACTER,” writes McKee, “is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure,”10 or as Mamet puts it, “They always talk about the character out there in Hollywood, and the fact is there is no such thing. It doesn’t exist. The character is just habitual action. ‘Character’ is exactly what the person literally does in pursuit of the superobjective.”11 This abstract understanding of character as action is sacrosanct among screenwriters but difficult to process from an analytical perspective. For broader purposes, a character can be defined as a non-actual storyworld existent who causes or experiences change through dramatic action.
  • Character Arc — The change experienced by a character within a given narrative discourse.
  • Characterization — Defined by McKee as “the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny,”12 characterization is synonymous with what Lajos Egri terms “bone structure,” or a character’s physiological, sociological, and psychological makeup.13 While Mamet and McKee minimize the relevance of characterization in favor of action, Egri argues that an understanding of the whole person is essential to determining the motivations behind actions. “Without knowledge of these three dimensions we cannot appraise a human being.”14
  • Climax — Climax seems to be a term that has fallen out of favor with the leading screenwriting gurus. Syd Field refers to it only tangentially in his Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting, and David Trottier prefers the somewhat sillier term, “the showdown” in his Screenwriter’s Bible.15 McKee discusses the climax but doesn’t much define it except to say that it “brings about absolute and irreversible change.”16 In her four equal parts conception of screenplay structure, Kristin Thompson refers to the fourth act as the climax, in which “the action shifts into a straightforward progress toward the final resolution, typically building steadily toward a concentrated sequence of high action.”17 Interestingly, this “concentrated sequence of high action” comes closest to the traditional understanding of climax in classical dramatic structure: that of highest tension in a narrative. Writes Gustav Freytag: “the climax . . . is the most important place of the structure; the action rises to this; the action falls away from this.”18
  • Color pages — Revised pages of a shooting script are printed on colored sheets of paper during production in order to track changes.
  • Complication — Defined by Aristotle as “everything from the beginning up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune,” complication is the steady build of dramatic tension to the point of climax and resolution.19 In many screenplays, it often takes the form of a series of solutions to problems that only beget larger problems until the final solution is found (e.g. In Jurassic Park, resetting the park’s electrical systems has the unintended consequence of setting the raptors free, which makes matters worse).
  • Conflict — The straight forward clash of desires and obstacles, dramatic conflict is the essential ingredient of narrative. Conflict can come in the form of an external desire blocked by an external obstacle (e.g. humanity’s need to overcome an alien enemy in Independence Day) or an internal desire blocked only by the neurosis of the self (e.g. Charlie Kaufman’s need to evolve beyond his own self-condemnation in Adaptation).
  • Confrontation — The second act in Syd Field’s Paradigm, its ideal length is approximately 60 pages, and it contains both the second Plot Point at or around page 85 and the screenplay’s Mid-Point at or around page 60, or half-way through the script. 20
  • Consider — The “maybe” grade in studio script coverage.
  • Content — “Film content,” writes Margaret Mehring, “is what the screenwriter wants to say and the structure within which it is said. It’s the story to be told, the characters to be met, the places to go, and the theme to be communicated.”21 A nebulous concept usually discussed in dichotomy with form, content refers to the “what” that is transmitted by the “how.” In other words, a screenplay may be said to contain virtually identical content with the motion picture produced from that screenplay, but the script and the film transmit this information through drastically different forms: the script through language typed onto paper, the film through images exposed onto celluloid. Of course, this raises questions as to whether two such forms really share the same content at all, since both the screenplay and the movie will no doubt contain an excess of information exclusive to its particular form (for instance, language metaphors in the screenplay and human performances in the movie).
  • Continuity (in film production) — In film production, the script supervisor is in charge of tracking continuity from shot to shot and take to take. In this sense, continuity is the illusion that a motion picture presents a single cohesive reality rather than a series of differing performances cobbled together in the editing room. The script supervisor will track gestures, facial expressions, prop placement, the condition of wardrobe and hair, and numerous other factors to ensure the illusion of continuity.
  • Continuity Script — A precursor to the contemporary screenplay. This early shootings script was invented by Thomas Harper Ince in the 1910s as the first form of scripting capable of governing both visual continuity and budgetary fidelity.
  • Controlling Idea — According to Robert McKee, “A CONTROLLING IDEA may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”22 It builds on Lajos Egri’s concept of the Premise and adds an if, when, or because to it. (e.g. Great love conquers even death WHEN lovers sacrifice their own self-interest.)
  • Copyright — An author’s rights of ownership, i.e. the right to copy, sell, and distribute a work of art. When screenwriters sell their works, they also sell their copyright to the studio that purchases said script. This is in contrast to novelists who retain their copyright, even when a publisher purchases the manuscript.
  • Coverage — A system of screenplay evaluation within the studio system. Screenplays are read, summarized, and critiqued, often graded on such elements as plot and dialogue, and given a final determination of pass (rejection), consider, or recommend.
  • Dénouement — While literally translated as “unraveling the knot,” denouement is best understood by contemporary readers as the tying up of loose ends in the plot. In classical five-part story structure, this follows the falling action. The brief epilogue described by McKee23 and Thompson24 in their respective plot models for screenwriting is a good example of the denouement (e.g. at the end of Back to the Future, Marty wakes up to discover that the lives of everyone in his family have improved as a result of his time-traveling adventures).
  • Description — One of Claudia Sternberg’s five modes of presentation in the scene text of the screenplay, description “is comprised of detailed sections about production design in addition to economical slug-line reductions.”25 It may also be understood as the filmable imagery contained within the scene text.
  • Development — The first stage of industrial movie-making, development precedes pre-production. During this stage, a script may go through multiple re-writes and screenwriter re-assignments before a studio feel comfortable committing to the project.
  • Dialogue — The lines in the script intended to be spoken by the actors.
  • Discourse Time — The duration of the telling of a story. In the case of a feature film, its running time. In the case of a screenplay, the time it takes a person to read it.
  • Elements (in production breakdown) — In a production breakdown, a script is thoroughly read and labeled for such elements as cast members, props, set designs, costumes, animals, etc. An element, then, is any unique factor that might affect the budget of a feature film.
  • Elements (in script evaluation) — In studio script coverage, a reader will often track specific characteristics that might make the film more marketable. These are sometimes referred to as elements.
  • Elevator Pitch — A 30-second story pitch.
  • Emotional Display — The term Claudia Sternberg uses to identify a “spontaneous physical expression for momentary psychological moods,” or non-verbal behavioral cues that exhibit only temporary emotional states.26
  • Empiricist Method — Janet Staiger defines this method of genre classification as follows: “determine from empirical observation the necessary and sufficient characteristics to include a film in the category.”3
  • End — “An end . . . is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it.”28
  • Event — A moment in which change takes place. This may take the form of an internal event, in which the protagonist experiences a change in desire or disposition, or it may take the form of an external event, in which the protagonist experiences a change in fortune. Either way, there can be no event without change.
  • Exposition — Syd Field defines exposition as “the information needed to move the story forward.”29 Robert McKee seems to echo Field: “Exposition means facts — the information about setting, biography, and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.”30
  • EXT. — The abbreviation for “exterior” in the slug-line of a scene, meaning that the scene is set outside. This usually means the scene will also be shot outside, though it is entirely possible that the scene will be shot on a stage dressed to look like an exterior location.
  • External Focalization — In external focalization, narrative information is limited to a heterodiegetic narrator’s perception and excludes internal observations or states of mind.
  • Externalizer — The term Claudia Sternberg uses to identify “information about stable dispositions, opinions, attitudes, features and interpersonal relations beyond their temporary state,” or non-verbal behavioral cues that exhibit permanent emotional states.31
  • Fabula — Coined by Russian formalists, fabula is a term sometimes used in narratology to describe the raw facts and events of the storyworld of a given narrative as understood in chronological order, or the unplotted story. When engaging a narrative, particularly one that is non-linear, audiences mentally re-arrange the facts and events of the narrative as presented in the sjuzhet to fabricate a fabula in their imaginations and therefore understand the chronology of the narrative.
  • Filmic Composition Device (FCD) — A term coined by Manfred Jahn to define the narrating agent of a motion picture. If the narrating agent of an oral story is the narrating storyteller, then the narrating agent of a motion picture is everything that makes up a motion picture: the camera, the soundtrack, the performances, the editing, etc. The FCD is the hypothetical narrator comprised of all these elements.
  • Focalization — Limits the narrative information available to the reader through the perceptions of a focalizer or reflector. The reflector may be the narrator or a character in the narrative.
  • Form — Form, in contrast to content, is the term we use to single out the distinct attributes of a given narrative medium, the “how” that transmits the “what” of content. “Film form,” writes Margaret Mehring, “articulates the uniqueness of the motion picture medium — the moving and audible image.”32 The screenplay is unique in that it is a literary form that both points toward and defers to another medium, that of the motion picture. The screenwriter must evoke the “moving and audible image” of film form through typed words.
  • Formalized Non-Verbal Behavior — In contrast to naturalistic non-verbal behavior, formalized non-verbal behavior is “the use of unnatural, exaggerated body language” for dramatic or comedic effect.33
  • GenreA loose set of formal, tonal, or thematic conventions used for categorizing narrative works of art, including screenplays.
  • Hamartia — Long mistranslated as the “tragic flaw” that illustrates a particular character’s moral defect, it is better understood as a simple miscalculation, literally “missing the mark.” Aristotle argues that the most effective tragedy results from a good character’s error in judgment.
  • Haptics — Non-verbal communication through touch behavior.
  • Hero’s Journey — A common description of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth cycle.
  • Idealist Method — Janet Staiger defines this method of genre classification as follows: “find a film and judge other films against the pattern and conventions in that film.”3
  • Imagery — May refer to either word symbols or picture symbols that appear in the screenplay. Screenwriters can evoke non-filmable imagery through use of such literary tropes as simile and metaphor in their writing. While these images may enrich the reading experience, they will be lost in the motion picture. On the other hand, screenwriters can also create literal images with multiple levels of meaning (e.g. in sex, lies and videotape, Graham’s one key represents his inability to commit and become intimate with another person).
  • Information Dump — The act of inserting chunks of exposition unnaturally into dialogue without dramatic motivation.
  • INT. — The abbreviation for “interior” in the slug-line of a scene, meaning that the scene is set inside.
  • Internal Focalization — In internal focalization (sometimes called “character-bound” focalization), narrative information is limited to the perceptions of story-internal reflectors (including homodiegetic narrators). Internal focalization may grant the reader access to a reflector’s online perceptions (what is presently observed through the senses) or offline perceptions (dreams, memories, and hallucinations).
  • Iteration — an event that occurs multiple times in story time but is delivered only once in the discourse, with the one example standing in for the pattern.
  • Kinesics — Non-verbal communication through body language and facial expressions, including gestures, glance, and eye contact.
  • Leave-behind — A document created by a writer as a companion to a formal pitch, usually including at least a brief synopsis of the pitched story.
  • Linear — Presented in chronological order.
  • Literary Comment — “Passages or parts of sentences which explain, interpret or add to the clearly visible and audible elements of the screenplay” through such non-filmable images as simile and metaphor.35
  • Logline — A one sentence screenplay pitch that boils down the plot to its most essential elements.
  • Magnitude — A somewhat archaic concept from Aristotle, it nevertheless has useful implications for the screenwriter. Aristotle argued that in order for something to be beautiful it could neither be too small (since it would be imperceptible) nor too large (since one could not take in the whole). Anyone who has seen a photograph taken through an electron microscope or seen documentary footage of the blue whale knows this is nonsense. However, the spirit of Aristotle’s argument remains alive today. A screenwriter needs to carefully consider the magnitude of his narrative. While some epic scripts need to exceed 120 pages, most screenplays will benefit from cutting excessive pages. A screenwriter must keep a sober mind when evaluating the magnitude of his or her screenplay.
  • Master scene format — The standard screenwriting format in Hollywood, it eschews shot-by-shot details in favor of telling the story from the perspective of the master shot.
  • Middle — “. . . that which follows something as some other thing follows it.”36 It is important to note that the beginning, middle, and end of a narrative (sjuzhet) is not necessarily synonymous with the beginning, middle, and end of the story being narrated (fabula). In fact, it is often best to begin the narrative in media res — “into the middle” — of the story.
  • Mid-Point — In Syd Field’s Paradigm, the Mid-Point is an important scene that usually takes place half-way through the screenplay (about page 60), which of course, is also the half-way point of Act II. In fact, Field never really defines the mid-point with much detail except to say that it connects the two halves of the lengthy second act. “How that link differs from all the other links that make up the dramatic chain of events remains unclear,” writes Kristin Thompson in her critique of the three-act Paradigm. In response to this lack of clarity, Thompson posits her Four Large-Scale Parts structure model, in which Field’s Mid-Point becomes the major turning point between the complicating action and the development.37
  • Mise-en-scene — “Setting into the scene.” Involves the placement of all elements before the camera, including staging of the actors, choice of locations, production design, lighting, wardrobe, and makeup.
  • Monomyth — Joseph Campbell’s description of the common mythological story cycle he perceived to be universally present in the sacred narratives of every human tradition.
  • Montage (in editing theory) — Combining two uninflected images through editing to create meaning.
  • Montage (in script terminology) — More or less interchangeable with the term “SERIES OF SHOTS,” a montage indicates a sequence of brief shots expressing some idea (for instance, the passage of time), usually set to music. At one time, the “MONTAGE” cue was distinct from the “SERIES OF SHOTS” cut, in that montage indicated several images superimposed on one another simultaneously, such as in the opening of Apocalypse Now, but this convention is no longer observed.38
  • Motion — The quintessential characteristic of film form is motion: the movement of the celluloid strip through the camera gate in analog film production; the movement of the camera (panning, tilting, booming, dollying, trucking, craning, and the free-form movements of the handheld or steadicam shot); the movement of the actors through the set, as well as their gestures and eye movements; and the movement of the spectator’s eye as he shifts his gaze from one object of interest in the composition to another. Screenwriters can evoke such motion through explicit or implicit cues.
  • Motivation — Refers to a character’s objective or need. If an actor does not understand why the script calls for a certain behavior from his character, he may ask the director for his “motivation,” the objective or need that drives the character to the action in question.
  • MOS — A take without sound. No one knows for sure where the abbreviation originated, but legend attributes it to a German director whose broken English enunciated the phrase “mit out sound.”
  • Narrative — A series of logically and chronologically related events caused or experienced by characters and presented as a whole, unified action.
  • Narrative Cinema — Motion pictures that adhere to the rules of narrative logic (as opposed to experimental or avant garde cinema).
  • Narratology — The academic study of narrative structures.
  • Narration — The presentation of a narrative. Narration may be understood in two different senses. In the broader sense, all narratives are presented, and therefore, all narratives are narrated. In a more specific sense, narration (diegesis) may be understood as the literal telling of a story by a specific narrator (such as with an oral story or a novel), in contrast to performance (mimesis), which is the process of showing a story by acting it out.
  • Narrator — The person, group, or device that narrates. Narrators may be homodiegetic (participants in the events being narrated) or heterodiegetic (non-participants in the events being narrated). In motion pictures, the narrator is the entire industrial apparatus of feature filmmaking: the edited image and soundtrack.
  • Naturalistic Non-Verbal Behavior — In contrast to formalized non-verbal behaviors, naturalistic non-verbal behaviors “strive for authenticity” in their rendering.39 This is especially consequential when a screenwriter tackles another ethnic or culture group whose customs must be meticulously studied for verisimilitude.
  • Non-linear — Presented out of chronological order.
  • Non-narrative Cinema — Motion pictures that do not adhere to the rules of narrative logic (such experimental or avant garde cinema).
  • Non-recurring phenomenon — William Goldman’s term for a financially successful feature whose success cannot be explained by predictable Hollywood marketing logic. “What it means, of course, is this: It was a freak, a fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime occurance.”40 A non-recurring phenomenon is typically a character-driven, slice-of-life film, often with smaller stars in the lead roles.
  • Non-verbal behavior — Includes every element of body language as a method of communication, including kinesics, haptics, and proxemics.
  • Objective — What a character hopes to accomplish.
  • Obstacle — Anything blocking a character from achieving his or her objective.
  • Option — When a studio buys an option on a screenplay, they are basically calling dibs, reserving the right to purchase the screenplay in-full at a later date. This allows them to make a small investment in the picture as they determine the feasibility of the project. Options typically last for one to two years. If the studio does not exercise their option in that time frame, the option expires, and the writer is free to sell the screenplay to a rival studio.
  • O.S. — Dialogue that is spoken off screen by a character present at the current location. Also sometimes “O.C.” for off camera.
  • Package — When agents use their considerable clout to attach stars (and sometimes a director) to a particular screenplay before it has been greenlit.
  • Package-Unit System — A system of management in the Hollywood mode of production. After the collapse of the studios, creative and budgetary power over individual productions shifted away from a central producer to freelance producers. Each producer needed to put together a package in order to produce the film.
  • Paradigm — Syd Field’s three-act model for screenplay structure at 1/4 – 1/2 – 1/4 proportions.
  • Parenthetical Direction — Dialogue cues that offer clarification of a line reading. These are usually unnecessary and often ignored by actors.
  • Pass — A “no” grade in studio script coverage, as in “we’re going to pass on this script.”
  • Pay-Off — The answer to a set-up. Because screenwriting is a craft of economy, readers will assume that any seemingly extraneous information planted by the screenwriter is in fact an important plot seed that will be developed later in the script. If the thread is never followed, the reader will likely be disappointed.
  • Perspective — The point-of-view of a given narrative or narrative sequence, as in “through whose eyes and mental capacity will we view this event?
  • Pitch — A sales summary of a screenplay’s story, usually spoken in a limited time-frame.
  • Plot — Primarily the sequencing and organization of a story’s events.
  • Plot Point — In Syd Field’s three-act structure Paradigm, a “Plot Point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction,”41 or essentially what Aristotle called reversals. According to Field, each screenplay must have two plot points, one near the end of Act I and one near the end of Act II.
  • POV — A point-of-view shot, or a camera angle that presents the frame of view from the first-person perspective of one of the film’s characters.
  • Premise — Lajos Egri’s term for a particular formation of the theme. For Egri, the Premise is the screenplay’s purpose, its reason for being written. The writer writes because he hopes to prove something to be true through dramatic action. For this reason, we will define Premise as a statement of belief about what will result from a particular Universal Value placed into conflict.
  • Production Breakdown — The Production Manager reads through the shooting script, highlighting all of its important elements, and categorizes each of those elements by scene. This is the first step in both the scheduling and budgeting of a feature film.
  • Property Stage — The first stage of readership for the screenplay, during which studio executives, story editors, and agents all evaluate “its qualities as a property or commodity and its saleability.”42
  • Protagonist — The primary and central character of a narrative, its driving force, and the person with whom the audience usually shares the most empathy as he or she sets out to achieve a particular objective.
  • Proxemics — Non-verbal behavior related to spatial relationships.
  • Rainbow Script — A shooting script with lots of revised pages.
  • Reading Material Stage — The final stage of readership for the screenplay, after it has outlived its usefulness as a production document. Here it belongs to the casual or scholarly reader to be enjoyed or analyzed as a piece of literature.
  • Recognition — “. . . as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge,” writes Aristotle,43 or more specifically, the moment(s) in the screenplay in which a character learns a pivotal piece of information that reverses his or her path of action.
  • Recommend — The best grade in studio script coverage.
  • Reflector — Or focalizer: the focalizing agent of a narrative, or the character/narrator whose perspective anchors and limits the narration.
  • Rehearsal Method — Judith Weston’s approach to script analysis.44
  • Release Script — The Release Script has changes that reflect the final version of the movie (for instance ad libbed lines, added or omitted scenes, etc.).
  • Repetition — An event that occurs only once in story time that is delivered multiple times in discourse time, usually from different perspectives with new information conveyed each time.
  • Report — One of Claudia Sternberg’s five modes of presentation in the scene text of the screenplay, report is the active mode of the screenplay and “is typified by events and their temporal sequence and generally centers on the actions of human beings.”45
  • Resolution — The word “Resolution” is used by different writers in different ways. In Syd Field’s Paradigm, it is the entire third act. For Robert McKee, on the other hand, Resolution “is any material left after the Climax”46 of the third act and refers to the brief (two-page) epilogue at the end of the screenplay. Aristotle defines the Resolution as “everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end.”47 For our purposes, it will suffice to agree that Resolution calls for the problems of the plot to be resolved at the end of the dramatic action.
  • Result-Oriented Direction — Directing an actor with adjectives instead of verbs. In most cases, directing an actor to be angry at a given moment will result in the actor forcing a false emotion through exaggerated expressions. Most actors prefer direction that gives them something to do rather than something to feel. Result-oriented direction should be avoided wherever possible. This relates to screenwriting in that most parenthetical dialogue directions have the same effect as result-oriented direction and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
  • Reversal — “. . . is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.”48 Dramatic action is built on reversals of fortune for the protagonist as he encounters obstacles that thwart his objective.
  • ScenarioAn early form of script used as a narrative guide during the silent era of cinema. The scenario was typified as a list of shots, with each shot covering an entire scene.
  • Scripting – Writing for the screen.
  • Script Supervisor — Tracks continuity and coverage during feature film production.
  • “Screenplay by” Credit — The screen credit awarded a writer when the story-by credit has be given to someone else or when the screenplay is an adaptation of an existing work.
  • Set-Up — A piece of subtle plot exposition that is planted at one point in the screenplay to be paid-off at a later point (e.g. In Back to the Future, the woman collecting donations to “save the clock tower” at first appears to have nothing to do with the central plot of the film; however, her flyer regarding the lightening strike is paid-off when Doc and Marty realize they can harness the lightening to send Marty back to the future). The Set-up is also Kristin Thompson’s term for the first segment in her Four Large-Scale Parts structure model.
  • Series of Shots — A sequence of short successive shots used to cover the passage of time or quickly convey a series of actions that do not require full-scale scenes with dialogue.
  • Shooting Script — A screenplay green-lit for production, including scene numbers, often with added descriptions and technical direction, and color-coded to track revisions.
  • Shot — The smallest unit of action in a motion picture. Shooting scripts will sometimes make explicit reference to specific shots, otherwise screenplays usually leave shot design to the director. If a shot is included in a technical comment, it is typed in all caps (e.g. CLOSEUP ON, MEDIUM SHOT, etc.).
  • Sides — Short segments of the screenplay, usually printed two-up and cut to save paper and ink, offered to actors, either for audition purposes or on set to rehearse the day’s scenes to be shot.
  • Singularity — an event that happens once in story time and is delivered only once in discourse time.
  • Slug-line — The term for scene headings in the screenplay. Slug-lines indicate setting and time, whether a scene is to be shot on an interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.) set, the specific scripted location in all CAPS, and whether it takes place during the DAY or NIGHT (e.g. INT. ROOM – DAY).
  • Social Conventions Method — Janet Staiger defines this method of genre classification as follows: “use cultural expectations to categorize the text.”3
  • Spec Script — An original screenplay written on speculation to be sold on the open market. It generally avoids excessive scene description or technical direction in order to read as accessibly and concisely as possible.
  • Spine — Refers to the unified action of the Aristotelian ideal. The spine is the primary thread of dramatic action that connects the structure of the entire screenplay. One conception of the story spine comes from playwright Kenn Adams, who conceived it as a basic fairytale pattern of sentence fragments for which a writer need only fill in the blanks.50 His five stage model of the story spine boils down the plot of a given narrative to its most essential events.
  • Stages of Readership — Claudia Sternberg’s description of the three periods during which a screenplay may be read. They are the Property Stage, the Blueprint Stage, and the Reading Material Stage.
  • Staging — The placement and choreography of various elements before the camera (the mise-en-scine). The staging of actors is called blocking.
  • StereotypeA common personality clichés or cultural caricature substituting for real character.
  • Story — Any chronological sequence of events experienced or observed by a character. Essentially a collection of facts true to the storyworld, synonymous to the concept of the Fabula.
  • “Story by” Credit — The screen credit awarded when the basic narrative structure was originally conceived with intent to be used for a movie (as opposed to a short story) but the actual screenplay had different authors. A shared “story by” credit is the minimum awarded to the author of an original screenplay that has been substantially re-written by other authors.
  • Story Time — The duration of the storyworld events narrated in the screenplay.
  • Structure — Facets of screenplay structure include but are not limited to perspective/focalization, organization/sequencing, rhythm/pacing, duration, and dramatic conflict, but more often than not, structure refers to plotting.
  • Subtext — “Language is what we say with our words, and subtext is what we really say, with our body language, with the tone of our voice, with our eyes and expression.”51 It is “the life under that surface — thoughts and feelings both known and unknown, hidden by behavior.”52 “Subtext, then, is not stated in the words, but it is the pulse beating beneath those words; it is the unexpressed subconscious life that brings size and weight to your writing.”53
  • Super-Objective — Sometimes called the through-line, the Super-Objective is the over-arching goal of the protagonist that governs his or her actions from the beginning of the script to the end. A character may have any number of objectives in an individual scene, but each objective must fit within the Super-Objective that ties the script together. It is the unity of desire that drives the unity of action that is the spine of the plot.
  • Synopsis — A selling document that summarizes a screenplay in a short, concise fashion. In the earliest days of cinema, short synopses were also used as a primitive form of script.
  • Syuzhet — Coined by Russian formalists, syuzhet is a term used in narratology to describe the plotted presentation of the story or the narrative discourse.
  • Table Read — A meeting at which the entire screenplay is read aloud, usually by the cast members.
  • Tagline — In contrast to the logline, which always summarizes the plot of the script, a tagline may pitch the concept of the screenplay in a clever slogan or catch-phrase.
  • Technical Comment — One of Claudia Sternberg’s five modes of presentation in the scene text of the screenplay, technical comment refers to any explicit instructions for the crew, such as shot or sound cues, usually typed in CAPS.
  • Theme — Any value statement that motivates and/or shapes a narrative.
  • Three-act Structure — The classic conception of screenplay structure as consisting of three large-scale segments of action. Syd Field’s Paradigm is the most famous account of this structure, but alternative examples exist. While the three-act principle is virtually sacrosanct in Hollywood, there is actually little inductive evidence that demonstrates this is actually how screenplays work. In fact, attempts at following the three-act model have long frustrated screenwriters, particularly as they struggle with the ill-defined functions of the second act.54
  • Transcript — A “script” transcribed from watching the completed motion picture.
  • Treatment — A working document that summarizes each scene of the screenplay in some detail, usually without much in the way of dialogue.
  • Turning Point — A moment of reversal or recognition in the screenplay.
  • Unity — Connected by probability and necessity (causality). Aristotle argues that unity of action, not character, must drive the construction of the plot. From this principle others have derived the concepts of the Super-Objective and the Spine. The well-constructed plot centers on the necessary and probable actions of the protagonist in pursuit of a single unflinching desire.
  • Value — An issue central to human existence, encapsulated in one abstract word (e.g. love, truth). Thematic conflict is built around the opposition of one value against another.
  • Verisimilitude — Believability or realism.
  • Vertical Writing — Refers to a stylistic trait common to most screenplays in contrast to literary prose. Screenwriters typically avoid large chunks of scene text and instead write in very short paragraphs, moving the action down the page with lots of white space. This increases readability and helps maintain the page-per-minute rule.
  • V.O. — Voice-over, used when a character speaks while not present at the location, as in voice-over narration or a telephone call.
  • WGA — Writer’s Guild of America.
  • WGA Registration — A service offered by the Writer’s Guild that serves as a kind of proof of authorship. This is not as beneficial as a registered copyright, but it is cheaper.
  • Whole — “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”55
  • “Written by” CreditThe screen credit awarded if there is no source material (novel, play, article, etc.) and the same writers receive credit for both the story and screenplay.
Footnotes:
  1. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 41.
  2. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
  3. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 187.
  4. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 37.
  5. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Saline, MI: McNaughton & Gunn, 2003. Pg. 114.
  6. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 2 April 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.
  7. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 50.
  8. Heath, Malcolm. Introduction to Poetics, by Aristotle. London: Penguin, 1996. Pgs. xxxvii-xliii.
  9. Margolin, Uri. “Character.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative. Edited by David Herman. NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Pg. 66.
  10. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 101.
  11. Mamet, David. On Directing Film. NY: Penguin, 1992. Pg. 13.
  12. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 100.
  13. Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Pgs. 32-43.
  14. Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Pgs. 33.
  15. Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. 4th Ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2005. Pg. 19.
  16. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 42.
  17. Thompson, Kristen. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pg. 29.
  18. Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama: An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art. Chicago: S.C. Griggs & Co., 1895. Pg. 105.
  19. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pg. 29.
  20. Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. NY: Delta, 2005. Pgs. 24-25.
  21. Mehring, Margaret. The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content. Boston: Focal Press, 1990. Pg. 3.
  22. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg.115.
  23. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg.219
  24. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg. 28.
  25. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 71.
  26. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 117.
  27. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 187.
  28. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 2 April 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.
  29. Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. NY: Delta, 2005. Pg. 152.
  30. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 334.
  31. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 117.
  32. Mehring, Margaret. The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content. Boston: Focal Press, 1990. Pg. 2.
  33. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 126.
  34. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 187.
  35. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 73.
  36. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 2 April 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html
  37. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Pg. 31.
  38. Cole Jr., Hillis R. and Haag, Judith H. The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats. North Hollywood: CMC Publishing, 2000. Pg. 41.
  39. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 126.
  40. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 50.
  41. Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. NY: Delta, 2005. Pg. 26. Italics his.
  42. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 48.
  43. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 29 July 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.
  44. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003.
  45. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 71.
  46. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 312.
  47. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pg. 29.
  48. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 29 July 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.
  49. Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Genre Reader III. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003. Pg. 187.
  50. Ohler, Jason. Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Pgs. 120-122.
  51. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg. 85.
  52. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 252.
  53. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 125.
  54. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Pgs. 24-27.
  55. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher for The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on 29 July 2010. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html.

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