Confusing Screenwriting Terms, Defined

Proper screenplay format and screenwriting terms can be daunting. It’s like learning a whole new language. The best way to educate yourself is to read professional screenplays, many of which can be found online, and model your scripts after them. But if you come across a term you’re not familiar with, check out our screenwriting term guide.

Note: most professionals write their camera actions in all caps, as indicated below. The use of bold is an optional stylistic preference.

Action

This term refers to the prose that’s written between lines of dialogue. Such as “Tara walks into the room.” In a screenwriting program, it’s also the same element used for description, such as “Dirty clothes and empty takeout boxes are strewn across the room.”

ANGLE ON

This refers to a specific shot taking place in the same location as the previous shot. For example, if we’re looking at a wide shot of a classroom but then want to cut to a specific student sitting at a desk, you could write the following:

     ANGLE ON Jeremy, furiously writing an essay.

CLOSE ON

Similar to ANGLE ON, this is a specific shot that’s a close up of a character or object. If you want the audience to be able to read what’s on a phone screen or letter, for example, you might indicate that the camera is doing a close up.

Keep in mind that shots are not specifically required in a screenplay. If you write “Emily looks down at her phone and sees a TEXT MESSAGE from Mom: CALL ME NOW,” you’re implying that the camera will need to be close enough to Emily’s phone for the viewer to read the message. When in doubt, use fewer shots (unless perhaps you’re going to direct the script yourself).

COLD OPEN

This refers to a relatively short opening sequence that drops the reader/viewer right into the action. It may or may not be related to the next sequence of the script (which could flash forward in time). In TV scripts they are labeled, but in film scripts they are not. A cold open may also be called a TEASER.

CONTINUOUS

One of the most misused screenwriting terms, CONTINUOUS is a label in a scene heading that indicates that we are moving from one room or area to another (interior or exterior) without the camera cutting. No time passes between each shot. For example, if a character is moving from a porch to the foyer of a house, you’d write the following:

     EXT. PORCH – DAY

     Sara rings the doorbell. After a moment, Casey opens the door.

     CASEY
     Come on in!
     Sara follows Casey into —

     INT. HOUSE – CONTINUOUS

Alternatively, CONTINUOUS can be used in a scene heading when a scene is picking up right where it left off after being interrupted by a flashback, flash forward, or “talking head”/interview scene (such as those you would see on Modern Family or Parks and Recreation).

CUT TO

This is a transition indicating that we are moving from one scene to the next. It goes on the right side of the script before the subsequent scene’s heading.

DISSOLVE TO

This is a transition indicating that final image of one scene gradually turns into the first image of the following scene.

screenplay terms

FLASHBACK

This refers to a scene that takes us back in time; in a script, it can also be a transition for ultimate clarity. For example:

     John looks at the diary.

     FLASHBACK TO:

     INT. HOUSE – DAY (FLASHBACK)

     John (age 15) writes in his diary.

INTERCUT

When a script alternates from one scene to another scene taking place at the same time, this is called an INTERCUT. It is most commonly used for phone calls or text messages but can be used for any alternating scenes (perhaps showing what two different characters are up to at the same time). Instead of writing scene headings over and over, you can write one scene heading for each location and then indicate that the scenes are INTERCUT:

     INT. OFFICE – DAY

     Oliver sits at his desk. The phone rings and he answers it.

     OLIVER
     Hello?

     INT. MOM’S HOUSE – SAME

     Oliver’s Mom paces around the kitchen.

     OLIVER’S MOM
     Did you ask her yet?
     INTERCUT:

     OLIVER
     Not yet.

     OLIVER’S MOM
     Why not?

When the phone conversation is over, the end of the intercut is implied; you can stay within one scene or move to an entirely new scene. That said, you can also write END INTERCUT for ultimate clarity.

HARD CUT TO

This transition indicates that a cut is particularly fast or harsh, often for stylistic or tonal reasons (it might create humor or intensity, for example).

PAN

When the camera pans, it moves horizontally across your scene. For example, you could indicate that you are panning across a playground or living room.

Scene Heading

A scene heading refers to the all-caps line at the beginning of your scene that indicates where the scene takes place, whether it’s interior or exterior and whether it’s during the day or at night. Some examples:

     INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY
     EXT. FRONT YARD – NIGHT

Some writers also get more specific than DAY or NIGHT, indicating that the scene takes place in the MORNING or at DUSK, for example. But keep in mind that this notation is not for narrative story purposes; it’s for production purposes so that the crew knows whether to schedule shooting for daylight, darkness, etc. You shouldn’t really need to use any notations beyond DAY, NIGHT, SAME (or SAME TIME), CONTINUOUS, and LATER.

Some writers like to use bold or underline to make their scene headings stand out, but these are optional stylistic choices. Capital letters are the only requirement.

TILT

Similar to a pan, a tile indicates camera movement — but you’d use a tilt when the camera is moving vertically.

WIDE SHOT

The opposite of a CLOSE UP, this is a shot notation that indicates how much of an area the camera sees.

WIPE

This transition indicates that one scene turns into another by the first scene sliding horizontally off the screen as the following scene slides onto it, replacing the first one. It’s considered a somewhat old-fashioned transition that might look silly today.

Remember that some pros use more visual or directing cues than others and that each writer has their own style. Your ultimate goal should always be clarity for the reader. More important than using a lot of screenwriting terms is helping the reader see the movie or TV show that’s in your head.

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Amanda

Amanda Pendolino is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and script analyst who reads for studios, producers, and distributors around the globe. A former talent agency assistant, she has collaborated on both TV and film projects with various producers, directors, and actors. She enjoys silly comedies, stuffy period pieces, travel, live music, yoga and ice cream.

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