Glossary of some terms I use


  • Alt: An alternative joke or moment for a script. Example: TED: Great idea… not! (alt) That’s like the opposite of a good idea!
  • Bottom of the scene: Refers to stuff that happens near the beginning of a scene.
  • Call out: Moments where dialogue or action underlines unusual behavior. Could be a mention, or even a character making a dubious expression. (see also: justify)
  • Choreography: Needless description of things that don’t merit it. Example: He opens the box. He takes out a cracker. He lifts it to his lips. He eats the cracker VS He eats a cracker from the box.
  • Conceptual Specificity: Moments in the script that could only be achieved
  • Editorializing: Moments where the script betrays the author’s unvarnished point of view. Example: The two thugs attack Ted, acting real sneaky like all people from Boston are.
  • Externalizing: Taking an abstract idea like “he’s the kind of guy who’s a bully, but a suckup to superiors” and actually demonstrating that behavior in a scene.
  • Fluff: Unnecessary space filler.
  • Function: What the line is literally there to do. Usually a placeholder. Example: TED: I must express that I am the President. And also a caring dad.
  • Justify: A way of explaining unusual behavior. Example: TED: I know it seems unlikely that he’s never used a phone, but you gotta understand, he grew up Amish.
  • Slugline: Another name for scene heading. The things that start with INT. or EXT.
  • Top of the scene: Refers to stuff that happens near the beginning of a scene.  (see also bottom of the scene):
  • Unfilmables: Moments in a script that could on
  • World building: Moments where the script explains the rules and politics of the setting as opposed to advancing the story or characters.

The difference between world building and story: Character

A world-building script is a script that is heavily reliant on its setting. These are commonly genre scripts, but not always. A script that’s got an esoteric historical setting or relies on a densely woven political backstory has the same strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

There’s nothing wrong with world building scripts, indeed many great stories have richly imagined worlds. Unfortunately, when beginners write world building scripts they often over-focus on world building at the expense of telling a story.

Here’s an example of a world building detail from our own universe:

The Rohingya people are a minority in Myanmar. They face extreme oppression from the government.

This is factual, true, but uncompelling. It’s sad, but there’s a lot of sad stuff in the world, and people have limited bandwidth for macro level detail, even in their own lives. That’s the power of story, finding the unique, human connection that makes use of larger bodies of information.

Here’s a hypothetical: imagine you’re in an airport, waiting for your flight. You see a little girl, plainly alone and frightened, standing by herself. She sees you, and instinctively runs over to you for help and comfort. You stand there awkwardly for a moment as she hugs you tightly, tears streaming down her face.

You go to talk to the airline people and shortly a pair of foreign aid workers come over. They thank you, show the right credentials, and explain that she’s a Rohingya orphan on her way to a foster family in Nebraska. As the little girl is carried off, she tells you “thank you” in badly accented English.

I’d wager you’d remember that little girl for the rest of your life.

Stalin said that when a person dies, it’s a tragedy, when a million die it’s a statistic. Like most of Stalin’s quotes, it’s incredibly cynical, but contains a germ of narrative truth. It’s weird that it’s easier to connect to one hypothetical little girl (who’s fortunate in the grand scheme of things) than it is to connect to the plight of suffering thousands. It’s weird, but that’s the way it is.

Hence, when you’re writing a story, be it a mundane one or one with fantastical world building, it’s important to keep things focused on the characters. Worlds are thinky and often daunting. Characters connect us to narrative.

RELATED: Emotional grounding/ Orienting

Difference between world building and story.

Terminology: World building scripts

A world-building script is a script that is heavily reliant on its setting. These are commonly genre scripts, but not always. A script that’s got an esoteric historical setting or relies on a densely woven political backstory has the same strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

MINORITY REPORT is a sci-fi world building story. Much of the texture and fun of the movie comes from its densely imagined future.

THE WIZARD OF OZ is a fantasy world building story, one full of witches, magic, and flying monkeys.

GAME OF THRONES marries a fantasy world with internecine imagined politics.

Before you write a feature ask yourself – does this really need to be a feature?

I read for a living. I’ve noticed that most beginner scripts fall into one of 7 subgenres that make them a non-starter.

Of these, the worst is what I call “the glorified short.” These are scripts that have core ideas that would be better served by being written as a short film, a pilot, or even a high concept music video.

This is the note I hate giving the most, because I’m essentially saying, “Hey, you know this thing you’ve spent six months of your life on and that you’ve pinned all your hopes on? It doesn’t work.”

I get it. Shorts are unpopular, and most people screenwrite because they want to change their lives, which a feature sale will do. But that creates a kind of tunnel vision that makes people stretch a passibly amusing five minute idea over 100 pages.

The best way to avoid this problem is to spot it before you start writing:

  • Does your outline require a lot of flashbacks and dream sequences to get your idea up to 40 or so index cards? It might be a glorified short.
  • Does your story spend more than five pages cutting to a newsanchor/Larry King/a ubiquitous reporter commenting on the action? It might be a glorified short.
  • Do your characters spend more time planning to do something, wrapping their heads around a problem, commenting on what’s already happened then they do “doing stuff?” It might be a glorified short.
  • Do you find yourself tweaking the margins to get your script from 69 pages to 84 pages? It might be a glorified short.
  • Could you conceivably tell your story in three well chosen scenes? It might be a glorified short.
  • Does your outline necessitate a funny third character who spends more than 10 pages doing something that has nothing to do with the main idea? It might be a glorified short.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to write your logline out and then pitch yourself six fun scenes that directly stem from that logline. If you can’t come up with six setpieces easily, it won’t be any easier to find them when you’re in the throes of writing your first draft.

The first step to avoiding this problem is to acknowledge it exists. Finding a great idea for a script is like meeting the love of your life – you know it when you see it, but often times we delude ourselves into kissing a lot of frogs. If you feel this could be you, it’s often good to come up with a few other ideas before you start writing “the one.” If those other ideas feel easier to fill out, strike your friends and family as more interesting than the idea you really want to pin your hopes on, it might be worth rethinking your project before you commit to a draft.