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Glossary of Screenwriting Terms

Act One Crisis: An event at the end of the first act that forces a protagonist to take an action or else suffer dire consequences (stakes). A crisis always brings change—and we are all resistant to sudden change. This should have emotional impact because it makes it necessary for a protagonist to take an action, i.e. make a plan in order to overcome the crisis.

Active goal: The protagonist chooses to take a dynamic action in the face of a crisis or obstacle. Also known as a plan or strategy.

Antagonist: Also known as the villain or nemesis. This is the character that is most actively trying to impede the progress of the protagonist’s goals. Antagonists needn’t be evil, but will challenge the protagonist’s “comfort zones” the most. To determine the true antagonist in a movie, look to the climax and see with whom the protagonist is involved in a showdown of wills (or clash of agendas). Ultimately, all protagonists will also have to face his/her internal antagonist, his/her inner demons. All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains. For example, in a romantic-comedy, the protagonist usually fears intimacy and his/her love interest challenges those comfort zones and thus becomes an antagonistic force.

Backstory: All events that occurred in the past prior to page one of the script. 

Catharsis: This term comes from Aristotle and literally means “the purging of pity and fear.” It is impossible for the audience to undergo catharsis (have a cathartic response) to the drama unless the protagonist is being forced to face his/her fears. Catharsis is the top priority of any good screenplay. The movie needs to make us feel something: laughter, sadness, or fear. Suspense is an essential aspect of catharsis. Another way of thinking about catharsis is the healing of emotional wounds from the past.

Cause-and-effect plotting: This is the best kind of plot because every event in the script grows out of its antecedent. A cause-and-effect plot is the opposite of melodrama.

Character motivation: The external (circumstances of plot) and internal (psychological) causes for the protagonist to pursue his/her goals. All character motivations must be based on necessity and be emotionally based. 

Climax: The highest level of conflict in the story. This moment will occur near the very end of the screenplay. This is usually a showdown between protagonist and antagonist and will lead to an ultimate catharsis for the protagonist. But more important: the climax = the truth not only on the external (plot) level, but also as the protagonist is able to finally face his/her internal demons and the “true self” can emerge. Every scene in your screenplay must contain its own inherent conflict.

Conflict: The obstacles that impede the goals of the protagonist. Every scene must have its own conflict! Movies are about people with problems and as the story progresses, their problems get worse and continue to intensify. 

Dramatic tension: The cohesion of each conflict to create a taut narrative through line from start to finish.

Epiphany: This term comes from James Joyce and is defined as a “sudden realization” about what is truly important in one’s life. An epiphany for a protagonist will ideally come at the end the second act and provide the dramatic heat and intensity to fuel the climax. An epiphany will always place a protagonist at a symbolic crossroads wherein he/she must now make a choice. An epiphany must be dramatically “earned” throughout the second act. While it may be a “sudden” realization, it is actually the outgrowth and sum of the second act events. An epiphany can be either positive or negative—or both. 

Existential dilemma: This occurs (ideally in the middle of the story) when a protagonist begins to change his/her perspective of life in terms of values, priorities, and how he/she might see the ordinary world from which he/she originated. 

Fatal flaw: A psychological wound that can be overcome, but could be fatal if it’s not overcome. 

Flashback: The visual representation of backstory to provide context for the present story. Flashbacks should be used judiciously and only when necessary to tell us something essential. It is important to clarify at the end of a flashback when we cut back to the present (indicated as “BACK TO SCENE” in the script) so the reader doesn’t become confused or disoriented.

Flashcut: A very brief, quick, often disorienting flashback. Many times a flashcut comes like the flash of a camera, and then we cut “BACK TO SCENE” (back to the present action).

Genre: The category of your movie. It’s generally best to decide on one main genre as opposed to a “mixed genre” piece because it’s generally easier to sell and to market a film in one particular genre: the studio can target a particular audience who enjoys seeing that genre. Types of genres include comedy, drama, action-adventure, science-fiction, thriller, horror.

Grey areas: Highly desirable for character development and depth. Neither pure goodness nor pure evil, this is the “grey area” in between. Ideally, your protagonist will have flaws and your antagonist will have sympathetic qualities.

Inevitable plot: The most desirable kind of plot because it effectively manages to pay off the setup in an organic, satisfying way without feeling forced of predictable—which we must always avoid. The opposite of a predictable plot.

Love interest: The person most desired by the protagonist. Almost all romantic-comedies contain a love triangle, and it’s often not until the end of the movie that the protagonist fully realizes who his or her true love really is, because this love must be mutual (requited) and based on honesty (and many romantic comedies depend upon a deception of some kind). 

Melodrama: An unsatisfying plot in which events just happen to the protagonist without clearly defined motivation or cause and effect; this kind of plotting usually involves a passive protagonist (to be avoided).

Mentor: Usually this is a wise elder character that provides wisdom and advice to aid the quest of the protagonist; often the mentor is introduced as part of the setup (in act one) and we don’t necessarily need to ever see him or her again (or we might cross them again, in some fashion, at the end of the movie). Examples:  Yoda in Star Wars, Glynda the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz, the personnel director (played by Olympia Dukakis) in Working Girl. In some cases, the mentor is also the same person as the pivotal character.

Midpoint: The middle of the screenplay (usually around page sixty) at which point there is an unexpected reversal that the protagonist must confront and may or may not overcome by the end of second act. Ideally, this midpoint will also initiate an existential dilemma for the protagonist.  Also known as the central plot twist.

Negative goals: The protagonist’s active goals that we believe will lead to negative results (consequences) and are based upon fear, pessimism, and/or paranoia. Note:Protagonists in movies will ideally have both positive and negative goals. This +/- dichotomy will generate heat. The +/- charge is the way both energy and drama work!  And all goals must be active.

Nemesis: The term used to describe lesser antagonists (to distinguish them from #1 main antagonist); nemesis characters co-exist with the main antagonist in the overall plotline, challenge the protagonist, and may also try to obstruct the truth from coming to light.  Nemesis characters are like “speed bumps” in the road; they tend to be obstacles in the path of the protagonist. Examples:  Tommy Lee Jones’ Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, the Flying Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the wicked step-sisters in Cinderella.

Ordinary world: This term originates from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and establishes in the beginning of the screenplay the usual “ordinary” life of the protagonist; the idea is to establish a “typical” day in your character’s life and then to disrupt the order of his/her world with the crisis at the end of the first act. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale’s “ordinary world” is the farm in Kansas prior to the cyclone and her being swept off to Munchkin Land. 

Passive goal: To be avoided. This is when events just happen to the protagonist and he/she just reacts—instead of taking an active role to drive the plot. Avoidance is a passive goal; taking a specific action to get out of harm’s way (an active form of avoidance) is an active goal. This is an important distinction. We never want protagonists to be passive; it destroys dramatic tension and suspense.

Payoffs: The events in act two and primarily in act three that are a dramatic resolution to the setup events of act one. All payoffs must grow out of events setup earlier in the script.  Payoffs that seem to just come “out of the blue” tend to feel contrived and unsatisfying. 

Pivotal character: This is usually a stranger that the protagonist meets who, by the middle of the movie, becomes an agent for change. The protagonist’s path intersects with this person and their interaction causes the protagonist to re-examine or re-evaluate his or her priorities, values, morals, and/or existence. The midpoint of a movie’s structure can also be referred to as a “pivot point” because this is the point where the seeds of change are planted for the protagonist—and they will later sprout into a full epiphany; the pivotal character often plays a vital role in this evolution. Note: The entire plot of the movie usually hinges on this pivotal character! Examples: Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost, Will Smith’s character in Six Degrees of Separation, Shane in Shane, Brad Pitt’s hitchhiker character in Thelma and Louise, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella

Plot Point One: An event that occurs at the end of act one that creates jeopardy for the protagonist and forces him/her into a crisis. Plot point one needs to force a usually reluctant hero into action based on necessity more than merely desire. This creates an urgent need versus simply a want or even a choice. This will spark the need of the protagonist to make a plan.

Plot Point Two: An event that occurs at the end of act two that grows out of the extraordinary circumstances of act two—and will often be caused (sparked) by an epiphany

Positive goals: The protagonist’s active goals that we believe will lead to rewards and beneficial (positive) results and are based upon the protagonist’s hopes, dreams, and optimism.

Protagonist: Also known as the hero or main character; the dominant character in the screenplay who has the most active goals, faces the greatest obstacles to those goals, and the most to lose (stakes) should he/she not achieve them; he/she will also be the one who changes the most over the course of the story. Generally, the story will be told from the protagonist’s POV (point of view). 

Rashomon: A story told from multiple points of view in which the audience doesn’t know the full truth until the climax. Originated from the 1950 Japanese crime mystery film Rashomon, directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

Resonant ending: A satisfying ending of the script that is at once inevitable, emotional, unpredictable, thematically accessible, and honest. 

Setup: The events in the first act that inevitably lead to the crisis at the end of act one which forces the protagonist to take an action.

Shape-shifter: This can be either an ally or mentor whom the protagonist discovers later in the story is actually a nemesis or the true antagonist (example: Dr. Richard Kimble’s best friend Dr. Nichols in The Fugitive) or a seemingly antagonistic character that turns out to be an ally or mentor (example: Darth Vader in Star Wars). The whole point about a shape-shifter is that he or she is able to transform from good to bad or vice versa. In a supernatural movie, this transformation can be quite literal. Example: The Green Goblin in Spider-Man, the evil queen played by Susan Sarandon in Enchanted. In a thriller, this transformation might be kept as a secret from the protagonist (and the audience) until the climax of the movie (example: Keyser Sose in The Usual Suspects, the dead child in The Sixth Sense). And sometimes this secret is revealed to the audience early on (example: Patrick Swayze’s best friend, played by Tony Goldwyn, in Ghost), but withheld from the protagonist in order to generate greater suspense. 

Stakes: Something valuable in a protagonist’s life that he/she stands to lose. The higher the stakes, the better—as long as what is at risk is credible and consistent with genre and tone. Stakes are essential for drama and must continue to escalate as the story progresses. 

Suspense: The audience’s emotional investment in the outcome of the protagonist’s goals. The currency of suspense is expectation, surprise, and anticipation. But its main ingredient is our emotional investment. We need to feel worried about the protagonist’s well-being at all times—until the end. Again, clearly defined goals and high stakes will accomplish this.

Theme: A universal truth to which most people in the human race can relate. It’s most useful for a screenplay to pose a thematic question at the end of act one that demands an answer at the end of the movie. All themes are related to the power of the human spirit.  Examples: Love conquers all; True love never dies; No man is an island; Crime doesn’t pay; You can’t escape your past; The truth will set you free. 

Through line: The narrative line on which to plot the goals and obstacles of your protagonist from page one to the end.

Ticking clock: A symbolic or sometimes literal deadline that the protagonist must beat in act three to add more dramatic heat and intensity to the climax. 

Tone: The more specific articulation of a particular genre; for example, if it’s a movie in the comedy genre, is it a very broad slapstick comedy? Or a more nuanced subtle comedy with more dramatic elements (which is also known as a “dramedy”—a hybrid of comedy and drama)? Another way to think about tone is if genre is a kind of music, then the tone is the volume at which the music is playing.

Tragic flaw: A psychological wound that cannot be overcome and will ultimately destroy the protagonist, making him/her a “tragic hero.” Ironically, the key ingredient to tragedy is potential.

True self: The person the protagonist yearns to be at the beginning of the movie, but is limited by fear to make it happen. In the ordinary world, most protagonists are wearing a metaphorical “mask” (this is the false self usually based upon a misconception) and at the climax when the true self is able to emerge, the mask can be removed and the protagonist will feel much freer.