Screenwriting, like every profession, has its own specialized collection of terminology, slang, industry terms, and jargon. Here are a few terms you might find helpful:
Every scene in a script begins with a slugline — also known as a scene heading — a short description of where the scene takes place. Sluglines always indicate whether or not a scene is interior or exterior, where it is exactly, and time of day. A scene that takes place on Tatooine, for instance, would begin with a slugline like:
EXT – TATOOINE – DAY
A slugline inside the Death Star would look like:
INT – DEATH STAR – NIGHT
And so on.
Action lines are simple and declarative, and after you get them out of the way you can start describing the setting with action lines, which might sound like:
“Fade in on a desolate desert planet. We see R2-D2 and C3PO walking across the seemingly endless dunes.”
Action lines give readers an idea of what should be happening in the scene, and what the characters are doing when we see them.
Dialogue usually takes up most of a movie script. Dialogue has the character’s name above it and is usually written without quotation marks. It’s also written with large margins or is centered to set it apart on the page from action lines and other copy. For example, Han Solo bragging about the speed of his ship would be:
You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!
Sometimes dialogue contains special instructions or notes in parentheses, like if a character is offscreen or doing a voiceover. Obi-Wan telling Luke to turn off his targeting computer could look like:
Use the Force, Luke.
Important events or moments in a screenplay are known as beats. “A story beat is some significant moment,” says Bernstein. “It’s when things can turn in some different direction.” Examples are a detective finding an important clue, an action hero getting injured, or the leads in a romantic comedy having a conflict or misunderstanding that drives them apart.
“The logline is the summation of the story in one sentence,” says Bernstein. A logline is often the first thing studio decision-makers hear about a movie, and screenwriters often start their screenwriting process with a logline and go from there. However, it’s always possible to change a logline after you’ve written a final draft.
Loglines often contain a hook. “Usually there’s some kind of irony in the logline,” says Ingram. That irony usually shows off how the film is different or unusual. “I’ve never known a film to sell on a logline,” says Bernstein, “except maybe Snakes on a Plane.”
Elevator pitches are a bit longer than loglines, but still short. An elevator pitch is a short description or synopsis of a project that usually takes up about 30 seconds, the length of an elevator ride. The elevator pitch for Hamlet would sound something like:
“The king dies, and his brother assumes the throne. The dead king’s son suspects that his father was murdered, and works to bring down his uncle.”
Obviously this leaves a lot out, but the focus is on describing the movie quickly.
A treatment is a written document that outlines the story and main ideas of a movie. It’s usually written in the present tense and sticks to the main story beats and big moments of the film. Treatments are usually much shorter than screenplays, but they can sometimes be up to 60 pages or so.
Once a film is in production, a shooting script is created. This version of the screenplay numbers the scenes to help all departments coordinate their work — especially helpful as most films are shot out of order (not chronologically based on the events of the screenplay).
For example, if a movie has several separate scenes that take place in a casino, the shooting script uses numbers to note that all of those scenes can be filmed in the same block of time, even if they appear at different times in the movie.
Colored pages are used in shooting scripts to help teams ensure they are working with the most recent version. Any updates are added to shooting scripts in a new color.