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A Glossary Of Screenwriting Terms & Filmmaking Definitions

By Dan Bronzite

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This comprehensive glossary is provided as a reference for novices learning the craft of screenwriting or professionals with a limited understanding of film-financing and production terminology. When you are writing a script there are certain technicalities you need to understand outside of the creative process such as script formatting and using the correct film language, and while at first learning the "rules of screenwriting" may feel like a distraction from actually writing your story and script, it won't take long for you to get into the groove, especially if you let screenplay writing software such as Movie Outline do most of the work for you.

Screenwriting Terms & Filmmaking Terminology

Action
  The scene description, character movement, and sounds as described in a screenplay.

For example:

The sounds of TYPING rise above all the rest as MAX sits at his computer writing his essay. He stops to sigh. Looks at what he's written. Reaches over to the mouse. Highlights it all. And erases it.
AERIAL SHOT
  Use only when necessary. This suggests a shot be taken from a plane or helicopter (not a crane). For example, if a scene takes place on a tall building, you may want to have an aerial shot of the floor the action takes place on.
ANGLE ON
  A type of shot. This usually occurs in scenes taking place in large settings.

For example: if you're at a playground and little Billy is playing in the grass while his sister Jenny is playing on the structure. To get from a detail shot of Billy playing to Jenny playing you'd use "ANGLE ON STRUCTURE" to suggest a new shot featuring Jenny. You're still in the same location, but the director knows to point the camera a different direction.

Note: this is often implied by simple scene description. Use ANGLE ON with good purpose.
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Beat
  Many scripts will use the parenthetical (beat) to interrupt a line of dialogue. A "beat" suggests the actor should pause a moment, in silence, before continuing the scene. "Beats" are often interchangeable with ellipses "..."
b.g. (background)
  Used to describe anything occuring in a rear plane of action (the background as opposed to the main action or attention is focused in the foreground). Always use this term in lower case initials or written in full ("background"). For example: two people talk as Bill and Ted fight in the b.g.
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Character
  In a screenplay, the name appears in all caps the first time a character is introduced in the "Action." The character's name can then be written normally, in the action, the rest of the script.

For Example: The limo pulls up to the curb. DAISY, an elderly woman sits in the car as MORGAN, the driver, steps out and opens the door for her. Daisy is dressed in evening-wear, ready for an Opera. Character's names always appear in all CAPS when speaking.

For Example:

  DAISY
You've been a darling, Morgan. Here's twenty dollars.
CLOSE ON
  See also INSERT and Shot.

CLOSE ON is a shot description that strongly suggests a close-up on some object, action, or person (an expressive body part such as the face, or a fist).

May also be seen as CLOSEUP / C.U. or CLOSE SHOT
CLOSER ANGLE
  We move in for a new angle nearer to the subject. This is more of an editing term, but can be mentioned in the screenplay when necessary.
CONTINUOUS
  Sometimes, instead of DAY or NIGHT at the end of a SLUGLINE/Location Description, you'll see CONTINUOUS.

Basically, continuous refers to action that moves from one location to another without any interruptions in time. For example, in an action movie, the hero may run from the airport terminal into a parking garage. The sequence may include cuts, but the audience would perceive the action as a continuous sequence of events from the terminal to the lobby to the street to the garage to the second floor to a car etc. CONTINUOUS is generally optional in writing and can be dropped altogether.

For Example:

INT. AIRPORT LOBBY - DAY

JANET looks over her shoulder. The MEN IN BLACK are still after her, toppling innocent passersby and sending luggage flying across the linoleum floor. Janet faces forward again and nearly runs smack into a nun. She apologizes and pushes through the glass doors.

EXT. STREET - CONTINUOUS

Janet stumbles to the curb, stopping short of the honking traffic. As a bus flies by, blasting her with wind, she steps out into traffic. A car SWERVES to avoid her! She GASPS, looks back. The men in black are there.


Here CONTINUOUS is used for the slugline (EXT. STREET - CONTINUOUS) and represents no time passing between changes in location.
CONTRAZOOM
  The Hitchcock zoom, also known as the contra-zoom or the Vertigo effect is an unsettling in-camera special effect that appears to undermine normal visual perception in a way that is difficult to describe. This effect was used by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Vertigo. It rarely appears in a screenplay.

In the Hitchcock zoom, the setting of a zoom lens is used to adjust the field of view at the same time as the camera moves towards or away from the subject in such a way as to keep the subject the same size in the frame throughout.

Thus, during the zoom, there is a continuous perspective distortion, the most directly noticeable feature of which is that the background "changes size" relative to the subject. As the human visual system uses both size and perspective cues to judge the relative sizes of objects, seeing a perspective change without a size change is a highly unsettling effect, and the emotional impact of this effect is much greater than the description above can suggest.

The Hitchcock zoom is commonly used by film-makers to represent the sensation of vertigo, or to suggest that undergoing a realization that causes them to reassess everything they had previously believed. A notable use of this effect is in Jaws when Chief Brody sees the mayhem in the water from the beach, or in Goodfellas, where director Martin Scorsese uses the Hitchcock zoom in a scene during the climax of the film: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) are sitting in a restaurant, talking. Henry realizes that Jimmy is setting him up and betraying their lifelong friendship; as this happens, the perspective in the background changes in a slow, gradual manner.
CRAWL
  This is a term used for superimposed titles or text intended to move across/up/down/diagonally on screen. For example, the text at the beginning of Star Wars  movies "Crawls" up into infinity. Or, the written words "(crawl)" in Unforgiven.
CROSSFADE:
  This is like a "Fade to black then Fade to next scene." In other words, as one scene fades out, a moment of black interrupts before the next scene fades in. It is not to be confused with DISSOLVE, since CROSSFADE always involves a black or blank screen.
CUT TO:
  The most simple and common transition. Since this transition is implied by a change of scene, it may be used sparingly to help intensify character changes and emotional shifts. The transition describes a change of scene over the course of one frame.
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Dialogue
  Very simply, this is what people are supposed to say according to the script.
Director
  The person who visualizes the movie based on the script, creates shots, suggests how the actors should portray their characters, and helps to edit the final cut. Basically, the person in charge of putting converting a script into a movie.
DISSOLVE TO:
  A common transition. As one scene fades out, the next scene fades into place. This type of transition is generally used to convey some passage of time and is very commonly used in montages such as seen in Bugsy.
Dolly
  A mechanism on which a camera can be moved around a scene or location. Simple dollies involve a tripod on wheels. Dolly shots are moving shots.
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ESTABLISHING SHOT
  A shot, usually from a distance, that shows us where we are. A shot that suggests location. Often used at the beginning of a film to suggest where the story takes place. For example, if our story takes place in New York, we might use a shot of the Manhattan skyline as an establishing shot.
EXT.
  Exterior. This scene takes place out of doors. This is mostly for producers to figure out the probable cost of a film project.
EXTREMELY LONG SHOT (XLS):
  Means the camera is placed a very long distance from the subject or action. Generally, this term would be left out of a screenplay and left to the director to decide. Use only when necessary.
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FADE TO: / FADE IN:
  See also DISSOLVE TO:

This is commonly used as a DISSOLVE to a COLOR. Commonly, you'll see this as:

FADE TO:
BLACK

FADE IN:

NEXT SCENE


This usually suggests it's not the end of the movie, but it is the end of a major movement in the film. The "Next Scene" is often days, months, or years after the previous scenes. Sometimes titles will appear in the blackness to declare a passage of time. But this transition is often a sign of a major shift in time or emotional status for the main characters. It may also be used to suggest a character has been knocked out or killed. Fade In is also sometimes used at the start of a screenplay.
FAVOR ON
  A particular character or action is highlighted or "favored" in a shot. The focus is basically centered on someone or something in particular. Use only when necessary.
Feature Film
  In the olden days of cinema, people watched a series of short films. Then, as films became longer, they would watch some short films and one long film. The long film became the main attraction, hence the term feature film. Today, feature films are generally defined as any film at least one hour long that people pay to see.
FLASH CUT:
  An extremely brief shot, sometimes as short as one frame, which is nearly subliminal in effect. Also a series of short staccato shots that create a rhythmic effect.
FLASHBACK:
  Sometimes used as a transition or at the start of slugline to denote a sequence that happened in the past. This can be followed by BACK TO PRESENT DAY if required or the writer can use PRESENT DAY as the time of day at the end of the proceeding slugline instead of just DAY.
FREEZE FRAME:
  The picture stops moving, becoming a still photograph, and holds for a period of time.
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INSERT
  When a writer pictures a certain close-up at a certain moment in the film, he or she may use an insert shot. This describes a shot of some important detail in a scene that must be given the camera's full attention for a moment. Inserts are mainly used in reference to objects, a clock, or actions, putting a key in a car's ignition.

For example: if there's a clock in the room. the writer might have reason for the audience to get a good glimpse of the clock and as such would use an insert shot to suggest the director get a closer shot of the clock at a particular point in the scene.

Note: often; writing important objects in CAPS will convey their importance in the scene and give the director more freedom and a greater feeling of importance. Use inserts only when truly important.
INT.
  Interior. This scene takes place indoors. This is mostly for producers to figure out the probable cost of a film project.
INTERCUT: / Intercutting
  Some scripts may use the term INTERCUT: as a transition or INTERCUT BETWEEN. At this point, two scenes will be shown a few moments each, back and forth. For example, if Laura is stuck in her flaming house and the fire department in on the way, a screenplay may call for intercutting between the flames closing in on Laura and the fire fighters riding across town to save her.

Note: this is a style that can be written around with standard scene breaks. It's more to prepare the reader for the upcoming slug line bonanza.
INTO FRAME:
  See also: INTO VIEW:

The audience can only see so much through the window of a movie screen. Use this term to suggest something or someone comes into the picture while the camera stays put. It's like a character or object coming from off stage in the theater. For example: Forrest Gump sits on the bench. OLD WOMAN INTO FRAME. She sits next to him.
INTO VIEW:
  See also: INTO FRAME:

The audience can only see so much through the window of a movie screen. Use this term to suggest something or someone comes into the picture while the camera pulls back (pans, etc) to reveal more of the scene.
Iris Out
  See also WIPE TO:

Also written as: IRIS FADE OUT or IRIS FADE IN. Used at the end of Star Wars  scripts, this term refers to a wipe from the center of the frame out in all directions. It's as if the iris of a human eye were opening for dimly lit situations to take us into the next scene or the ending credits as is the case with Star Wars.
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JUMP CUT TO:
  A transition which denotes a linkage of shots in a scene in which the appearance of real continuous time has been interrupted by omission. Imagine setting a camera down to film a person. You record him for five minutes. But as it turns out, you have only a one minute time limit on your project. You have no special editing tools, just a couple of VCRs. But you realize that most of the important stuff is said in a few short moments. If you cut out the unimportant parts and edit together the parts you want based on a single camera angle, you will have what are called jump cuts. Transitions from one moment to the next within a scene that appear jarring because they break the direct flow of filmic time and space. This transition is usually used to show a very brief ellipsis of time.

A good example of Jump Cuts can be seen in the movie Elizabeth when the queen practices her speech. The jump cuts make us disoriented and nervous along with the queen, giving us the tension and humor of the situation as if it were an out-take reel. Bad examples of Jump Cuts would be in B-movies like Mothra where they don't have the money to get scenes from various angles, so they cut from one important moment to the next from the same angle.
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LAP DISSOLVE:
  See also DISSOLVE:

A transition between scenes that is achieved by fading out one shot while the next one grows clearer.
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MATCH CUT TO:
  A transition often used to compare two completely unrelated objects. It's film's version of metaphor. This involves cutting from one object of certain color, shape, and/or movement, to another object of similar color, shape, and/or movement. For example, a circular saw to a child's merry-go-round.

A commonly studied example of match cutting comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The classic cut comes towards the beginning of the film. After the apes have used a bone as a weapon for gathering food, an ape throws the bone into the air. As it falls, we match cut to a space ship carrying nuclear warheads. Both the bone and the ship are of similar shape and color, and both happen to be moving towards the bottom of the screen. The cut relates all of technology to the development of weaponry as it cuts out all of human history.
MATCH DISSOLVE TO:
  See also MATCH CUT TO: / DISSOLVE TO:

This contains similar qualities to the MATCH CUT. A match dissolve involves two objects of similar color, shape, and/or movement in transition from one scene to the next.

For example: if Scene A is following (tracking) an arrow whizzing through the forest, one might match dissolve to a tracking shot, in Scene B of a bullet whizzing through the inner city.
Montage
  From the French term "to assemble". In film, a series of images showing a theme, a contradiction, or the passage of time. This film style became common in Russia in the early years of cinema. Russians were the first to truly use editing to tell a story. Some early examples of montage include City Symphony's and Man With a Movie Camera. Modern day examples can be seen in Goodfellas and Bugsy.
MOS
  Mit Out Sound (Original German) Moment of Silence (Made up English memory device). Now hardly ever used.
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O.C. / O.S.
  Off-Camera or Off-Screen. This is the abbreviation sometimes seen next to the CHARACTER'S name before certain bits of dialogue. It means the writer specifically wants the voice to come from somewhere unseen.
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Pan
  See Also: Swish Pan

Camera movement involving the camera turning on a stationary axis. Imagine standing in one spot on a cliff in Hawaii. You want to absorb the view so you, without moving your body or feet, turn your head from the left to the right. This is the same effect as a pan.
Parenthetical
  If an actor should deliver his or her lines in a particular way, a screenplay will contain a description in parentheses to illustrate the point. Parentheticals should be used only in cases where a line of dialogue should be read in some way contrary to logic. If used too often, actor's and director's egos get hurt, and things get messy. It should not be used for action decription.

For Example:
  JULIE
           (calmly)
I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
POV
  Point of View. The camera replaces the eyes (sometimes the ears) of a character, monster, machine, surveillance camera, etc. As a result, we get to see the world through the sensory devices of some creature. This can be used to bring out the personal aspects of a scene, or it can be used to build horror and suspense. An example of horror and suspense in POV can be scene in the opening shot of Halloween.
PULL BACK:
  The camera physically moves away from a subject, usually through a zoom or dolly action.
PULL FOCUS:
  The camera focus changes from one object or subject to another.

For example:

PULL FOCUS TO INCLUDE POLICE CAR IN B/G.
PUSH IN:
  The camera physically moves towards a subject.
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REVERSE ANGLE
  Often used to reveal things for comic or dramatic effect. Could be described as a counter POV shot. Basically, the script suggests the camera come around 180 degrees to get a shot from the "other side" of a scene. For example, in the There's Something About Mary script, Tucker is playing a joke on Mary in her office in one scene that the writers didn't want to reveal right away. They use a REVERSE ANGLE to show that he's got two tongue depressors in his upper lip to represent teeth. This reverse angle is used for comic effect.
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Scene
  An event that takes place entirely in one location or time. If we go outside from inside, it's a new scene. If we cut to five minutes later, it's a new scene. If both, it's a new scene. Scenes can range from one shot to infinity and are distinguished by slug lines.
Shooting Script
  This is the truly final draft used on set by the production people, actors, and director to make the movie from the screenplay.
Shot
  One image. If there's a cut, you've changed shots. Shots can range from split seconds to several minutes. Shots are generally chosen by the director although the writer can use capital letters to suggest where the camera should be. When a writer absolutely must have a certain shot at a certain moment in a film, he has a few options each described in detail elsewhere in this list: INSERT, ANGLE ON, and CLOSE ON.
Slug Line
  The text in all CAPS at the beginning of a scene that briefly describes the location and time of day.

For example:

INT. JIMMY'S BEDROOM - NIGHT

Note: sometimes sluglines are abbreviated to something as simple as "LATER" or "BEDROOM" to maintain the pace and flow of a sequence.
SMASH CUT TO:
  An especially sharp transition. This style of cut is usually used to convey destruction or quick emotional changes. For example: If you were writing a horror movie but wanted to lighten the gore at the beginning, you might have:

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT

A YOUNG GIRL races away from her tormentor but then trips and falls. The KILLER enters the forest clearing, taking a moment to savor this death. The Girl shakes her head, as if begging for the killer to change his mind. But no, he closes in, a black cloaked arm raising the knife into the air. The knife catches the moonlight for just a moment before it races downwards.

SMASH CUT TO:            


EXT. HIGH SCHOOL COURTYARD - DAY

It's a bright and beautiful morning and a bunch of kids wander the courtyard on their way to class.


The sudden shift from a dark forest to a bright schoolyard on the first stab would convey the distress of the murder without showing it.

Note: this transition is often a director's choice. As a writer, use this sparingly if at all.
Spec Script / Screenplay
  If a writer finishes his/her own screenplay outside the studio system (it isn't an assignment) then sends it to the studios for consideration, it is a spec script.
SPLIT SCREEN SHOT:
  The space of the frame is split into two, three, or more frames each with their own subject. Usually the events shown in each section of the split screen are simultaneous. But Split screen can also be used to show flashbacks or other events. For example, two people are talking on the phone. They're in different locations, but you wish to show the reactions of both simultaneously. Split Screen is used prominently in 24 to show simultaneous action and events unfolding.
Steadicam
  A camera built to remain stable while being moved, usually by human hands. Occasionally, seen in scripts to suggest a handheld shot be used in a scene, although a steadicam is smoother than a regular handheld shot and as such produces a different result.
STOCK SHOT:
  Footage of events in history, from other films, etc. Basically, anything that's already filmed and you intend to be edited into the movie. For example, the Austin Powers movies use stock footage for comic effect. Some old B films use stock footage to keep their budgets low.
SUPER:
  Abbreviation for superimpose. The superimposition of one thing over another in the same shot. Sometimes TITLES are superimposed over scenes. Or a face can be superimposed over a stream-of-consciousness montage shot.
Swish Pan
  A quick snap of the camera from one object to another that blurs the frame and is often used as a transition. Sometimes called a FLASH PAN. Cuts are often hidden in swish pans, or they can be used to disorient or shock the audience.
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TIGHT ON
  A close-up of a person or thing used for dramatic effect. A tight frame encloses a subject with very little space surrounding it. Not in common use. Use only when necessary.
TIME CUT
  When you want to cut to later in a scene, you have the option of writing TIME CUT as the transition. For example, if two people walk into a restaurant and their conversation is important at first then veers off into topics not important to your story, then you might want to time cut from the drinks to the main course and then again to paying the check.
Tracking Shot (Track, Tracking, Travelling)
  A tracking shot involves a camera following a person or an object. As long as the camera isn't locked down in place by a tripod, for example, and is following (tracking) a subject, then it's a tracking shot. For good examples of tracking shots, watch the one take episode of The X-Files, any episode of ER or the first shots of Touch of Evil  and The Player.
Trailer
  In the olden days of cinema, the advertisements for upcoming attractions were usually played after the end of the movie. Hence, they became known as trailers. But, as credits reels have grown in size over the years, audiences would often leave before watching these advertisements and "trailers" became "previews." But the name is still in common use. A trailer is a theatrical advertisement for an upcoming film attraction.
Transition
  These describe the style in which one scene becomes the next. Used appropriately, these can be used to convey shifts in character development and emotion. In other words, a CUT TO: is not required at every scene change. Some major transitions include CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:, MATCH CUT TO:, JUMP CUT TO:, SMASH CUT TO:, WIPE TO:, and FADE TO:. Occasionally a writer will make up his own transition. In these cases, the transition is usually self-defined (such as BRIGHT WHITE FLASH TO: suggests whiteness will fill the screen for a brief moment as we pass into the next scene).
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V.O.
  Voice Over. This abbreviation often appears beside a CHARACTER'S name before their dialogue. This means the character voices that dialogue but his or her moving lips are not present in the scene. Voice-over is generally used for narration, such as in the beginning of The Mummy. Or a character's inner thoughts said out loud such that only the audience will hear.
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WIPE TO:
  A transition in which one scene "wipes away" for the next. Imagine Scene A is water and Scene B is the substance underneath. A wipe would look like a squeegee pulling Scene A off of Scene B. These usually suggest a passage of time from one scene to the next. The most common and obvious example of wipes is in the Star Wars  franchise.
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ZOOM:
  The image seems to close in on a person or object making the person or object appear larger (or smaller) on screen. Technically, the lens mechanically changes from wide angle to telephoto or vice versa. Notice and recognize the difference between a zoom and a push in (camera moves closer to subject). Use zoom only when necessary.
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About Dan Bronzite

Dan is a produced screenwriter, CEO of Nuvotech and creator of Movie Outline 3 screenwriting software. He has written numerous specs and commissioned feature scripts including screenplay adaptations of Andrea Badenoch's Driven and Irvine Welsh's gritty and darkly comic novel Filth. Dan is a contributor to Script Magazine and has also directed two award-winning short films Finders, Keepers... (1995) and Absolution (2001) which have played the international festival circuit. His most notable feature to date is Long Time Dead, a supernatural horror for Working Title Films starring Lukas Haas, Marsha Thomason, Lara Belmont, Alec Newman and Joe Absolom. His spec horror Do or Die was recently sold to Qwerty Films and he is in the process of developing his directorial feature debut and various US and UK projects.

Screenwriting Article by Dan Bronzite

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