Written by Stephanie Palmer
Screenwriting terms are the vocabulary of professional screenwriters and Hollywood insiders. Some screenwriting terms relate to screenwriting; others to the pitching and selling process.
Screenwriting Terms – Overview
Unfortunately, there are a number of screenwriting terms, phrases, and sentences that can make even a more advanced writer sound like a rookie. The problem is that no one will tell you when you use them.
The reason many new writers use these screenwriting terms is because they have learned from watching film and TV about Hollywood. Much of what you see on TV and in the movies is true, but some is not.
Don’t Be Fooled By What You See on TV
Entourage. The Player. Californication.
You see the screenwriters acting slick and sales-y. Pumping up the people who are listening.
Using insider screenwriting terms like:
“This is really high concept. We’ve had lots of interest. Tom Cruise was attached….”
Having participated in thousands of pitch meetings as a studio executive at MGM Pictures, I can tell you that the screenwriting terms you see on TV and film are good for storytelling, and are a version of what often happens… when meetings don’t go well.
So let’s talk about 13 phrases which make you seem like a rookie–even if you’re not.
13 Screenwriting Terms And Phrases to Avoid
- “High concept.” If your idea is high concept, it’s obvious. If it’s not, saying it is just makes you look like a rookie who doesn’t understand what “high-concept” means.
- “We’ve had a lot of interest.” To a decision-maker, this is code for, “Lots of people have read this but none of them have liked it enough to get involved.” This is related to how people try to amp up the decision-maker in advance of the pitch by saying positive things—a common pitch meeting mistake.
- “With the right cast….” Yes, of course. Every project needs the right cast. If you need stars to make your script work, the decision-maker will guess the story isn’t that good.
- “This is a very unique project.” This sentence sends up a red flag. If it’s “unique” it usually means that you haven’t done enough research to understand the genre, or that your project is so particular that it could be impossible to sell. Neither is good.
- “Trials and tribulations,” “Thrill-a-minute.” If you speak in clichés in the meeting, the decision-maker will assume that your writing is full of clichés.
- “It’s funtastic.” Avoid puns. They rarely produced the desired effect.
- “A pseudo/quasi/very very secret society.” If it’s secret, it’s secret. No qualifiers or extra adverbs needed.
- “With a message.” When you highlight the message, this means that you’re focused primarily on teaching the audience a lesson instead of telling a great story.
- “I’ve been working on this film for 11 years.” You’re committed, okay, but possibly inept. More isn’t always better.
- “Attached was (some star) and (some director).” This is the equivalent of saying, “Here is a list of the people who have already passed on this project.” Don’t talk about who has read, or been interested, or previously was interested.
- “I’m not very good at pitching.” A surprising number of new screenwriters do this, but if you apologize for yourself before pitching, you’re not making a good first impression. Buyers want to work with professionals.
- “And… you can fill in the blank….” This isn’t a game of Mad Libs. No one appreciates gimmicks to try and “intrigue” them. Filling in the blank is your job
- “You’ll have to read the script to find out what happens.” I’ve never heard of a script being purchased when this line has been uttered in the room. It’s your job to create a great ending to your story and be able to pitch it effectively.
If you avoid these thirteen screenwriting terms and phrases, you’ll soon discover that you’re not embellishing, qualifying, or obscuring. You’ll just be acting like a professional and expressing yourself in a clean, simple, and clear way.
Can you add any rookie screenwriting terms and phrases to this list? Would love to hear your thoughts.