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Embarking on your screenwriting journey can be both exciting and challenging, especially when navigating the unique language and jargon of the craft. That’s where steps in with our comprehensive guide to screenwriting terminology. This essential resource, designed to boost your screenwriting confidence, covers everything from fundamental concepts to lesser-known terms that will help you communicate effectively with directors, actors, and crew members alike.

No more stumbling through conversations or second-guessing your script’s formatting – our glossary will be your trusty companion throughout your creative process. Keep it handy as a cheat sheet, or use it as a reference tool to enhance your storytelling skills. So, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer looking to refresh your knowledge, dive into StoryCoach’s extensive guide to screenwriting terms and elevate your screenwriting prowess today!



Action refers to the descriptions of what is happening on screen, including the characters’ physical movements and the setting. Action is written in the present tense and helps convey the visual aspect of the story.

Example: “John walks down the street, his hands in his pockets, as the sun sets behind him.”


An act is a major division in a story, usually marked by a change in the plot’s direction or tone. Acts help structure the narrative and provide a framework for organizing scenes and sequences.

Example: The three-act structure is a standard screenplay format that divides the story into three major sections: setup, confrontation, and resolution.


A beat is a small moment or action that reveals a character’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations. Beats can be used to pause the story, emphasize a point, or add nuance to a scene.

Example: A beat in a romantic comedy could be a character’s nervousness before asking someone out, illustrated by them fidgeting with their clothes or stumbling over their words.


Characters are the people or entities that inhabit the story. They drive the plot, engage with one another, and evoke emotional responses from the audience.

Example: John is the main character of the story, a young man searching for his true purpose in life.

Character Arc

A character arc is the emotional or psychological journey that a character undergoes throughout the story. This transformation can be positive or negative, and it often reflects the theme or message of the story.

Example: In the movie The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes through a character arc from a civilian war hero to a ruthless mafia boss, reflecting the corrupting influence of power.


The climax is the high point of the story, where the main conflict is resolved, often through a dramatic confrontation or a moment of great emotional intensity. It represents the culmination of the plot and the turning point for the characters.

Example: In the movie Rocky, the climax is the final fight scene, where Rocky proves his worth as a boxer and achieves his personal victory.


The denouement is the resolution or aftermath of the story’s climax. It provides closure for the characters and the audience, tying up loose ends and revealing the consequences of the story’s events.

Example: In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, the denouement shows the main character, Andy Dufresne, starting a new life after escaping from prison and reuniting with his friend Red.


Dialogue refers to the words spoken by characters on screen. It reveals their thoughts, feelings, and relationships, and can also convey crucial information to the audience.

Example: “I can’t believe you did that,” Jane said, her voice trembling with anger and disbelief.

Establishing Shot

An establishing shot is a wide shot that sets the location and setting of a scene. It helps set the tone and context for the upcoming sequence and provides a visual transition between scenes.

Example: An establishing shot of a city skyline at dusk can help set a moody and introspective atmosphere for the upcoming scene.


A flashback is a scene that shows events that occurred before the current timeline of the story. Flashbacks can provide important backstory, reveal character motivations, or create emotional resonance.

Example: In the movie Forrest Gump, several flashbacks are used to show how Forrest’s life events, from childhood to adulthood, have led up to the present moment.


Foreshadowing is a hint or clue that suggests a future event in the story. It can create tension, build anticipation, or add depth to the narrative by hinting at a connection between seemingly unrelated events.

Example: A character’s offhand comment about a particular detail could foreshadow a major plot twist later in the story, such as the true identity of a mysterious figure or the outcome of a dangerous situation.


The genre is the category or type of story, such as action, comedy, drama, or thriller. Genres help define the story’s tone, themes, and expectations, and they guide both the writer and the audience in understanding the conventions and tropes of the narrative.

Example: A writer may choose to write a screenplay in the science fiction genre, exploring themes of technology, humanity, and the future.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion and initiates the conflict. It usually occurs early in the story and disrupts the status quo, compelling the protagonist to take action or make a choice.

Example: In the movie Jaws, the inciting incident is the first shark attack, which propels the characters into a struggle for survival against the deadly predator.


A logline is a one or two sentence summary of the story that captures its essence and piques the reader’s interest. It concisely conveys the protagonist, their goal, and the central conflict, often hinting at the story’s themes or unique qualities.

Example: The logline for the movie Die Hard could be “A cop tries to save his wife and several hostages from terrorists in a high-rise building, using his wits and resourcefulness to outmaneuver the heavily armed criminals.”


A MacGuffin is an object, goal, or device that drives the plot but is ultimately unimportant to the story. It serves as a catalyst for the characters’ actions and motivations, often leading to conflict or adventure.

Example: In the movie Pulp Fiction, the briefcase that the characters are chasing is a MacGuffin, as the contents are never revealed, and its true importance lies in the various encounters and confrontations it sparks.


A montage is a sequence of shots that shows the passage of time, the completion of a task, or the development of a relationship. Montages can convey information quickly and efficiently, often accompanied by music or voiceover narration.

Example: “MONTAGE – John studies for his exam, runs through the park, and works on his project, all while growing closer to his new friend, Sarah.”


A payoff is the resolution of a plot point or the fulfillment of a promise made earlier in the story. It can be a moment of triumph, revelation, or emotional catharsis, often echoing or contrasting with a previous setup.

Example: In the movie Inception, the final scene is a payoff to the setup of the spinning top as a symbol of reality, leaving the audience to question the nature of the protagonist’s world.


A pitch is a verbal presentation of the story to producers or executives in order to persuade them to buy or produce the screenplay. The pitch often includes a summary of the story, the characters, the themes, and the unique selling points, as well as the writer’s enthusiasm and passion for the project.

Example: A writer may pitch their screenplay to a producer in order to secure funding for the project, highlighting the timely themes, engaging characters, and visually striking set pieces.


The plot is the sequence of events that make up the story, unfolding through the characters’ actions, choices, and interactions. The plot is driven by a central conflict and follows a structure that includes a beginning, middle, and end.

Example: The story’s plot revolves around John’s journey to find the missing artifact, facing numerous obstacles and challenges along the way.

Scene Heading

A scene heading, also known as a slugline, is a description of the location and time of day for a particular scene. It serves as a guide for the reader and the production team, indicating where the action takes place and the general atmosphere of the scene.



A screenplay is a written document that details the story and serves as the blueprint for the film. It includes scene headings, action descriptions, character dialogue, and important visual or audio elements. Screenplays follow a specific format and structure to ensure clarity and ease of reading.

Example: The screenplay for The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, adapting Puzo’s novel into a compelling and visually rich film.

Script Doctor

A script doctor is a writer hired to rewrite or polish an existing screenplay. They may be brought in to improve dialogue, pacing, structure, or character development, often working under tight deadlines and with specific goals in mind.

Example: A script doctor may be hired to enhance the emotional impact of a pivotal scene, or to ensure that a character’s motivations are clear and believable.

Set Piece

A set piece is a scene or sequence that is visually impressive and memorable, often featuring elaborate action, special effects, or dramatic confrontations. Set pieces can serve as highlights of the film, showcasing the director’s vision and the production’s technical prowess.

Example: The opening scene of the movie The Dark Knight, where the Joker orchestrates a daring bank robbery, is a memorable set piece that sets the tone for the rest of the film.


The set-up is the story’s beginning, which introduces the characters, setting, and conflict. It establishes the status quo and the protagonist’s ordinary world, often foreshadowing the challenges and transformations that lie ahead.

Example: In the movie The Hunger Games, the set-up includes introducing the main character Katniss Everdeen and her life in District 12, as well as the oppressive regime that controls the dystopian society.

Spec Script

A spec script is a screenplay that is written on speculation, without a contract or commission. It is intended to showcase the writer’s talent and originality, often serving as a calling card or a way to attract attention from producers and agents.

Example: A writer may choose to write a spec script for a high-concept science fiction thriller, hoping to demonstrate their ability to create a gripping and imaginative story.


Subtext is the underlying meaning or tension in a scene that is not directly stated in the dialogue. It can be conveyed through tone, body language, or the choice of words, often hinting at deeper emotions or conflicts between the characters.

Example: In a scene where two characters are having a conversation about something mundane, like the weather, the subtext might be that they are actually talking about their strained relationship or unresolved feelings.


A treatment is a summary of the story that serves as a blueprint for the screenplay. It outlines the story’s structure, characters, and major plot points, often providing a detailed roadmap for the writer to follow as they develop the full script.

Example: Before writing the screenplay, the writer may create a treatment to help plan out the story, ensuring that the narrative is coherent, engaging, and well-paced.


Voiceover is narration that is heard over a scene, typically spoken by a character in the story. It can provide exposition, commentary, or insight into the character’s thoughts and feelings, often adding depth or context to the on-screen action.

Example: In the movie Goodfellas, the main character, Henry Hill, provides voiceover narration throughout the film, offering a unique perspective on his life as a gangster and the events that led to his downfall. Through the voiceover, we hear Henry’s personal experiences, thoughts, and emotions as he navigates the world of organized crime, from his early days as an ambitious young man attracted to the power and wealth of the mafia, to his eventual decline as he becomes embroiled in drug trafficking and betrayal, culminating in his decision to become an informant and leave his former life behind. The voiceover adds depth and intimacy to the story, allowing the audience to connect with Henry and understand the choices he makes throughout his tumultuous journey.