7 Terms Every Aspiring Screenwriter Should Know
So, you want to tell a story on the big screen. You have the raw talent, the ambition and the writing prowess to pull it off, but you lack some of the insider knowledge to actually push your story through to a complete product. Have no fear: just consult these seven common terms.
These terms won’t go too far into the anatomy of a screenplay – in other words, you won’t find definitions for such key elements as the Action, Slugline, Continuous action, etc. For those mechanical elements of a screenplay, consult an established guide like JM Straczynski’s seminal The Complete Book of Screenwriting.
This list is more of a tour of certain common lingo you might come across when you land your first job in film industry or look for an agent. They are compiled here so that when you do come across them in the wild, you don’t have to look ignorant.
These are the building blocks of a screenplay, little units of action that make up a scene, and in turn, an act, and a full script. On paper, they are bullet points of action (“Jake denies Amy’s offer for help”, for example) and together they make a “beat sheet”. In television, this is often the first thing that gets drafted, and in a screenplay – one written independently, at least – it’s more for the screenwriter to use as a guide.
This is more pertinent to television, though movies do have cold opens. They are small scenes, often unrelated to the main narrative, that nevertheless build characters and provide some entertainment at the top of the show. To put it more simply: it’s that scene before the opening credits.
When you finish your screenplay, and ship it out to an agent, it won’t be the agent reading it first. It will be a script reader, and they will perform “coverage” on it. That is, they will summarize the story and add a short value judgment.
This is the preferred screenwriting software for many professional screenwriters. It auto-formats, auto-populates scene elements and remembers characters names. You can’t just rely on a Word processor to write a professional-looking script.
This is a more fleshed-out version of the beat sheet, complete with full descriptions of scenes. While beats are written very matter-of-factly, these descriptions should give an indication of your writing style. They should reflect the material.
Punch ups are normally to add more comedy into a screenplay. Screenwriters are great conveyors of story, but they are sometimes lousy with humor. That’s why professional comedians or comedic screenwriters are often brought in to “punch up” script with more jokes.
Spec is short for “speculative”. For the uninitiated, writing a spec script is when you write an episode of an existing show to prove that you can a) write a compelling story and b) that you can write in the tone, voice and style of an existing show.
Hopefully, all the aspiring screenwriters out there learned a thing or two with these terms. Whether you are just starting out, or already have a script to shop around, these terms will help you fake it ‘til you make it!