Expert screenwriters say one of the best ways to learn to write a screenplay is to read screenplays that have been produced. You may come across some unfamiliar terms while doing this, especially if you’re new to the craft. We’ve put together a quick read for you to refer to when you come across a word or acronym you don’t understand. These are also good to know when you dive into your screenplay masterpiece, of course!
Showing through action is generally better than telling through dialogue. Action is the description of the scene, what the character is doing, and often a description of sound.
- ANGLE ON:
A camera shot used to instruct the director that we’re in the same scene, but changing shots to focus on something in particular. Use camera positions only when necessary, as it can disrupt the flow of the screenplay. Camera angles are often reserved for shooting scripts as opposed to spec scripts.
This can mean a couple of things, but when you see it written out in a screenplay, it means a brief pause.
Background, always written in full or abbreviated in lowercase letters. This can be used to describe action occurring in the background as opposed to the main action of the scene.
The name of the character appears in all CAPS upon the first mention in the action description. The name can then be written normally in subsequent action description, but should still be capitalized when the character is speaking.
- CLOSE ON/INSERT
Shot description that calls for a close up on an action, person, or object that takes the camera’s full attention for a moment.
Instead of DAY or NIGHT at the end of a location description, you may see CONTINUOUS. This implies action that moves from one location to another without interruption in time.
Used to describe superimposed text moving across the screen in any given direction.
- CUT TO:
Transition used to change scenes over the course of one frame.
- DISSOLVE TO:
Transition used to imply that one scene is fading out and another is fading in, often used to convey the passage of time.
Extreme close up.
- ESTABLISHING SHOT:
A shot that typically is used to establish the location, most often used at the beginning of a film.
- EXT. / INT.
Exterior, takes place outdoors. Interior, takes place indoors. Producers use these descriptions to factor in costs for production.
- FADE TO:
This transition suggests the end of a major movement in the film, and that the forthcoming scene is taking place days, months, or years later. Typically, FADE TO is followed by a color, such as FADE TO BLACK.
- FAVOR ON
An object, character, or action is favored in a shot.
Denotes that the upcoming action or dialogue happened in the past. If necessary, you can write PRESENT DAY to change out of the flashback.
- FREEZE FRAME
The frame stops moving for a period of time. Can be used when a scene becomes a still photograph.
- INTERCUT BETWEEN
Indicates that two or more scenes will be shown, back and forth, for a few moments at a time.
- INTO FRAME/INTO VIEW
Action, character, or object comes into the frame while the camera is stationary.
- JUMP CUT TO:
A transition that pieces together continuous elements, giving the effect of jumping forward in time. These cuts feature the same subject and the same or very similar camera position, with no transition in between them but the “jump” to the next frame.
- MATCH CUT TO:
A transition between scenes that matches the end of the action from a previous scene to the beginning of the action in the next. For example, a woman plunges a knife tip down to an intruder, that matches to a chef stabbing a piece of meat on his cutting board.
A sequence of shots showing a character or characters completing several actions over time.
Moment of silence.
- O.S. or O.C.
Off screen, or off camera, describing action or dialogue that is taking place outside of the visible frame.
In parentheses, before the dialogue but after the character name, that indicates actor direction or instructions on how he/she should deliver the line.
- PULL BACK
The camera moves away from the subject, object or action.
- PULL FOCUS
The camera focus transitions from one subject, object or action to another.
- PUSH IN
The camera moves toward a subject, object or action.
Point of View.
An event that takes place in one location or time. If we move from one scene to another, a slug line will indicate the new location, whether that’s a new room, or a new time (i.e., 10 minutes later).
- Shooting Script
The final draft of a script that includes production notes and is used by the production staff, actors, and director to make a film out of the screenplay.
- Spec Script
A script written by a screenwriter who has not been hired to do so, outside the studio system. A screenwriter may choose to write spec scripts and then later send them to studios for consideration.
- Slug Line
The text written in ALL CAPS at the beginning of a scene that includes INT. or EXT., location, and time of day.
- SMASH CUT TO:
Used to imply destruction or emotional shifts, this sharp transition could be used in a horror film, as the killer lifts his knife at the victim, and just before the gore, the camera SMASH CUTS TO a beautiful garden filled with butterflies.
- STOCK SHOT
Used to insert footage from another source, i.e., a news clip, historical footage, or other films.
- SUPER/SUPER TITLE/TITLE
Superimposed over the current shot. For example, titles, location description, or the passage of time may be indicated on the screen.
- Swish Pan
A transition shot where the camera quickly pans from one object, action, or subject to another, often creating a trailing blur.
- TIGHT ON
Camera direction used for dramatic effect, where a person, object or action is shown up close.
- Tracking Shot
The camera follows the subject, as opposed to being locked in place on a tripod.
The style used to get from one scene to the next.
Voice over, meaning the character is speaking, but we don’t see them on camera, or don’t see their mouth moving.
Extreme long shot, meaning the camera is placed far away from the subject, object or action.
And there you have it! This glossary covers most, but not all, of the major words or acronyms you’ll see in a screenplay. If you find another that stumps you, tweet me @Courtonthecoast and I’d be happy to explain! Otherwise, I’d suggest you bookmark this page for easy access.
Now devour some screenplays!