From Writing Treatments That Sell
by Ken Atchity & Chi-Li Wong
by Ken Atchity & Chi-Li Wong
[click on book to order from Amazon]
act break. Free TV term describing the end of each of the seven acts of a film, marking the place for a commercial or station break to be inserted.
action. What's happening in a story to move it toward its dramatic conclusion. Dramatic action normally consists of action proper (fights, chases, gestures) and dialogue.
adaptation. The process of transforming a story already written in another medium (novel, stage play, short story) into a motion picture treatment or screenplay.
advertiser supported networks. Free broadcast networks, including ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, whose revenues come from sponsors who buy commercial time. advertiser supported cable-delivered network. Include A & E, CNN, Discovery, Lifetime, PBS, TNT, and USA.
agent. Broker, paid on commission (generally 10%), who sells stories and talent to the production companies.
antagonist. The force or forces that stand in the protagonist’s way. Antagonist is the dramatist’s term for the protagonist’s opponent in a story, sometimes confused with the term “villain.” The antagonist is sometimes but not always a villain; but he’s always opposed to the protagonist. In Scarface, Pacino’s character is the protagonist; the law is the antagonist.
arbitration. Formal process by which the WGA determines writer's credits when they are under contention. The arbitration board consists entirely of writers.
associate producer. Entry-level production title, given to a member of the producing team for a variety of reasons, including bringing in the story, participating in financing, and/or actually working on the pre-production, production, and post-production of the film.
attachment. "Is there anything attached [to this story]?" is an industry question meaning, on a positive note, "Is there a star or director interested?" On a negative note, the question means, "Are there so many producers or writers attached to the deal that the deal becomes unmanageable from a budgetary or administrative viewpoint?" Such excess attachments are known as:
baggage. Industry term for the people "attached" to a motion picture script or treatment, adding to the film's budget and sometimes "killing the deal." "Star baggage" means executive producers, family members, etc., who the star considers necessary to his or her participation in a film.
"based on a true story." Story involving no fictionalization or an insignificant amount of fictionalization.
beat. Important moment in a drama's development where conflict produces change.
beat sheet. A writing tool used to identify the sequence of events, and actions in your story, s an abbreviated way to break down the structure of your story, making it easier to organize and change. The beat sheet charts the sequence of events that cause your main character to do something and maps how your main character changes from the beginning to the end of your story.
bible. Treatment for a proposed dramatic television series, including various elements outlined in chapter 4.
bidding war. What happens when two or more buyers make a bid on the same screenplay.
broadcast television (also known as "free TV"). Includes advertiser supported broadcast networks and cable-delivered advertiser supported channels.
buzz. Industry term for “gossip,” “grapevine,” “rumor,” all with positive connotation. The manager’s goal is to create a buzz around his client’s new work.
cable. Television programming available for a fee to a subscriber, and delivered to his household via cable.
castable. Adjective describing a character's desirability to a major star.
cliffhanger. Turning point in a story that propels the audience to continue watching to find out what happens next. In TV, the suspenseful beat at the end of an act that keeps the viewer tuned in through the station break.
climax. High point of dramatic action, where all its elements come to focus as the protagonist faces the antagonist in the ultimate confrontation.
collaboration. Any creative partnership, memorialized by a “collaboration agreement” that spells out the responsibilities and rights of each party to the collaboration.
conflict. The heart of drama, conflict should characterize not only every act but also every scene, every line of dialogue.
continuing characters. Characters in a dramatic television series who continue from episode to episode, as opposed to "recurrent characters" who show up from time to time.
co-producer. Production title used in film and television to designate a position above associate producer and beneath producer.
copyright. Legal protection of intellectual property through due processes administered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
coverage. Descriptive and diagnostic document of a treatment, book, or script provided by story department readers for executives making acquisition decisions in theatrical film and television. Includes synopsis plus the reader’s opinion.
"created by." WGA designation for the originator of a program for television, requiring payment for residuals.
creative elements. See elements.
credits. Designation used for individual names and their functions in a production when they appear at the end of the program, as opposed to “titles,” used when they appear at the beginning.
crisis. Maximum point of accumulating obstacles faced by the protagonist in a drama, and leading to the climax, which occurs when he deals with the crisis.
deal. Term that describes the decision to move ahead with a project toward production.
defamation of character. Causing damage to a person's reputation by saying untrue things about him.
deficit financing. When a television film is sold to a network, it's sold for a licensing fee that generally does not cover the entire budget (NBC, for example, may pay $2.8 million to license a film that costs $3 million). The difference, or deficit, must be covered by a deficit financier who the network knows can deliver the film at the budget and quality level it demands. In exchange for taking this risk, the deficit financier retains the non-network rights to the film (including syndication rights, foreign rights, video rights, etc.).
demographic. Term describing statistics defining a particular focal audience. For example, "The twenty to twenty-five white female demographic."
development. Production cycle that begins with acquisition and ends with pre-production, during which a story's elements, including script, director, and cast are finalized in preparation for preproduction.
development deal. An agreement in which a writer is hired to develop a screenplay from idea or treatment through completion of a first draft and usually two sets of revisions and a polish.
development hell. Because relatively few films make it to production, "I have six films in development" may translate, in Hollywood jargon, to "I'm broke, and may never see the light at the end of the tunnel." In other words, "I'm in development hell."
development meeting. Brainstorming session when the writer and his production executives in discussing, or developing, various story elements.
dramatic rights. The rights to adapt a non-dramatic work, such as a novel, book of nonfiction, or newspaper or magazine article, into a motion picture or a stage play.
dramatis personae. "Characters of the drama," classical Latin term for the list of major characters in a play.
docudrama. The depiction of an actual event in dramatic form, using actors, actresses, and a full screenplay. This shouldn't be confused with a documentary, which is a filmed, but not dramatized, account of an actual event as it happens.
documentary. A filmed account of an actual event, without dramatization by actors or actresses. Not to be confused with docudrama.
elements. "Creative elements" refer to a director, a star or stars, or a major writer that may be "attached" to a property being offered for sale (as opposed to "attachments" or "baggage," describing personnel involved in a deal that are not considered to be "elements").
E&O coverage. “Errors & omissions” insurance that protects the policy owner (usually a production company) from non-malicious errors and omissions, like losing a title credit in the editing machine or failing to register a copyright claim in a timely manner.
episode. An instalment in a dramatic series, or the teleplay of that instalment.
episodic. Term used, generally with a negative connotation, to describe a story which has no structural unity, whose parts don't unfold inevitably toward a focused climax.
episodic series. A dramatic television show with one or more continuing characters whose various adventures or emotional entanglements are followed on the television each week at the same time slot. Also known as "dramatic series."
executive producer. (1) In television, the producer with maximum creative authority, usually the originator of the project and very often the writer. (2) In feature films, title given to one of the producers who is generally involved more in the deal than in the actual production.
fair use. Legal doctrine that allows quotation of copyrighted material for academic or review purposes, with a limited number of words (the limit is not specified by law, and is subject to the court's judgment about its fairness).
FCC. Federal Communications Commission, the government agency in charge of administering the public airwaves.
feature film. A film made for release in motion picture theaters.
financier (financier). Source of production funding.
"first look" deal. Loosely-defined industry term defining a company's right to see a producer’s or writer’s dramatic properties before anyone else in town sees it. Sometimes combined with:
first refusal, right of. Legal term defining a company's right to have the first opportunity to accept or refuse a dramatic property.
franchise. This term is used to describe the "dramatic setting" of a dramatic series, such as the Golden Girls' ranch house, Archie Bunker's brownstone, the emergency room in "ER," the radio station in "Northern Exposure."
“Franchise” also means the protagonist’s unique skill or character that allows him or her to intrude into the lives of others.
free TV. See broadcast television.
green light. The final "yes" from the powers that be that puts a project into production.
"hierarchy of rights." Rights pursued when turning a true crime into a film, in order of importance (depending on the exact situation):
!the victim's rights
!the perpetrator's rights (check Son of Sam Law)
!the investigator's rights, the families' rights (of both the victim and the perpetrator)
!friends' and neighbors' rights, etc.
high concept. Hollywood term to describe a literary property or idea that can be pitched in six words or less: Under Siege was sold as "Die Hard on a boat" ("in a tunnel": Daylight; "on a bus": Speed). AEI-Zide Films sold Meg to Disney as "Jurassic Shark." One of the jokes going around Hollywood, reported by Thomas Taylor in ScreenWriter Quarterly, tells of a young agent saying to his new client, "Why don't you go write 'Die Hard in a building!'" A story that takes a paragraph to pitch is not high concept.
hook. Inciting incident, scene, or image that captures the interest of the audience.
housekeeping deal. When an independent production company (headed by a producer, star, or director) is attached to a financier, who, in return for funding his overhead has a "first look" at, or a “right of first refusal” for, his acquisitions.
inciting incident. Event occurring early in a drama that cranks the primary story line into action.
independent producer/production company. Producer who pays his own overhead in exchange for the freedom to "set up" his stories with any studio or financier.
infringement. Legal term to describe the unauthorized use of written material, a violation of the copyright laws.
in-house producer/production company. Producer with a housekeeping deal that pays his overhead in exchange for giving his host a "first look" at any story he wishes to produce.
"inspired by a true story." A story that, although derived from the truth, is significantly fictionalized.
leave-behind. A brief treatment of a story being pitched as a motion picture that is left with the person to whom the pitch is being made as an aid to memory (and to establish the writer’s legal right to the story, which he has registered with the Writers Guild of America).
legs. General industry term for "potential," or "longevity," as in "Recent Nielsen reports prove that this series continues to have legs"; or, "The writer's outstanding bible makes it clear that the proposed series has legs."
libel. Legal term designating the crime of saying untruthful negative things about a person's character.
license fee. The amount of money negotiated between seller and buyer to give the buyer the right to air a television project for a limited number of showings. For example, NBC might pay the production company a $2.8 million license fee to show a movie twice within a 12-month period.
life rights. The right given to a writer or producer to make a film from a living person's life story.
line up. A television broadcaster's programming, time slot by time slot, for an entire week.
location. Place, outside the studio sound stage, where shooting takes place.
log line. One-line description of a story, like those that appear regularly in TV Guide, aimed at making someone want to watch it--telling the reader what this story is about.
long form. Term used in television to designate movies and miniseries.
manager. Industry representative who works with writers (as well as with other “talent” such as directors, actors, and actresses) to develop their careers, both creatively (through consulting on story development, time-management, and prioritizing) and financially (through marketing the client’s products). They perform many of the same services as do agents, but are not allowed to secure employment for their clients. Managers are, however, allowed to produce films (Chuck Bender, for example, produces films starring his client Sharon Stone), whereas agents are not. Managers often work in tandem with agents.
miniseries. A movie for television that takes more than the normal two-hour time slot, usually running over a period of two or three days.
mission. In dramatic writing, term used to describe the protagonist's quest.
motivation. The protagonist's psychological makeup, determining the dramatic pattern of his actions.
network. A group of television stations, located throughout the United States, that are interconnected by satellite and are primarily programmed from a single corporate headquarters.
network executive. Individual employed by a network to supervise programming, and/or to meet with writers and producers to acquire and develop stories.
Nielsen ratings. Ratings reported daily by the Nielsen company indicating statistical realities of the day's audience behavior.
obligatory scene. Dramatic term for a scene without which the story makes no sense. In a murder mystery, the revelation of the killer, for example, is obligatory.
obstacle. A dramatic hurdle the protagonist must confront in order to accomplish his mission.
open market. Term used to describe a free for all offering of a property, without encumbrance by a right of first refusal and often after refusing, or ignoring, a preemptive bid.
option. Legal term for the document by which a producer acquires control of a story, equivalent to an "option to buy" in real estate.
original. Industry term used to define a "new take" on a familiar subject.
outline. Unlike the treatment, which is a narrative, the outline is a skeletal list of the scenes in a cinematic story.
packaging. Putting the elements of talent (actors, director, (rewriter, name producer) together on a project to make it a more attractive property.
pay-per-view. Subcategory of pay television in which individual events, instead of monthly service, are sold separately at premium prices.
pay TV. Another name for subscriber cable television.
pilot. Sample episode of a proposed series which introduces the leading continuing characters, sets up the franchise or setting and the series style.
pitch. The act of relaying a project conversationally, to a prospective representative or buyer, for the purpose of marketing an idea, adaptation, or true story with a view toward its eventual production as a film.
plagiarism. The act of using someone else's intellectual property without obtaining rights or permission to do so.
player. Industry term for a person who is regularly making high-visibility deals in either television or film.
plot. Pattern of elements that make up the action line of a story: The situation that brings a story into focus.
postproduction. Term describing the period after the shooting of a film during which the film, music, and soundtrack are edited.
preemptive bid. Term to describe a bid made by a prospective buyer, giving a short deadline before its withdrawal. Disney Pictures bought Meg on a preemptive bid of $700,000, giving AEI author Steve ALTEN until 6 P.M. the day the bid was made to accept. The preemptive bid keeps the agent/manager from taking the property into the "open market."
premise. A dramatic story's focus, or moral.
preproduction. Term used to describe the period, following development, when a film is officially prepared for production. During preproduction, the art department is set up, locations scouted, casting completed, transportation and craft services lined up, etc.
principal photography. The filming of the primary script, as opposed to “second unit” shooting with a secondary director of photography and crew that might, for example, pick up location shots from distant cities to provide ambience. Writers’ “rights payments” for the screenwriter and owner of the underlying literary material are generally due and payable no later than the first day of principal photography.
producer (production company). The person with overall responsibility for a project from its initiation to its final distribution.
production. Term used to describe the period during which the film is actually shot.
property. Literary material--whether treatment, script, book, or article--that forms the basis for a film project.
protagonist. The "primary actor" or initiator of the action in a story (sometimes loosely termed “the hero,” even though the protagonist can be villainous or unheroic).
psychology of the audience. Term used by British drama critic Kenneth Burke to describe the audience's expectations when they arrive at the theater (The audience comes to be edified, or terrified, or moved to tears). Burke used the term to distinguish the psychology of the audience from (a) the psychology of the author (who writes to seek revenge on her ex-husband) or (b) the psychology of the character (is Hamlet being consistent when he tells Ophelia he loves her and orders her to get herself to a nunnery?). The greatest script writers and directors are masters of the psychology of the audience, always seeming to give us exactly what we want at the precisely most dramatic moment.
public domain. Term used to describe the availability to the public of an intellectual property that is not under copyright, trademark, or other private claims.
recurrent characters. Characters in a television dramatic series that appear frequently, as opposed to "continuing characters" that appear in each episode.
registration. The act of filing claim to ownership of an intellectual property, either with the U.S. Copyright Office or with the Writers Guild of America.
release form. Legal document stating that if someone reads a script the writer will not subsequently sue him for plagiarism. Usually required if a writer has no agent.
residual. Money paid by production companies for each airing of a program after the initial license period as expired, or for each episode of a dramatic series. Similar to the publishing industry’s concept of royalties.
resolution. The last act or scene of a story, in which all dramatic elements are tied up to a satisfying conclusion.
reveal. A moment in a story when a previously hidden element is made known to the audience, as when, in The Crying Game, the hero discovers, in bed, that his sweetheart is a man: That’s a reveal!
right of first refusal. See first refusal, right of.
scene. The basic building block or unit of drama, involving a protagonist in a situation of conflict. Like the entire treatment itself, the well-made scene has an involving beginning, a well-developed middle, and a conclusive and compelling ending.
scene cards. File cards used in the process of story boarding.
self-promoting. A project is termed "self-promoting" when it involves a topic that is already a “household word” to theater-going or television-viewing audiences
series. Dramatic television programming that airs weekly on an ongoing basis. Also known as "episodic television."
setting. The place in which a drama occurs.
seven act structure. Format used by network television movies, allowing for commercial breaks after each act.
share. Nielsen Ratings' term for the percentage of the viewing audience captured by a particular program on a particular night, as in "NBC's Shadow of Obsession garnered a 21 share."
shop. Verb used to describe the offering for sale of a dramatic property to the various buyers, as in "The minute we began to shop the treatment around town..."
show runner. Term designating a TV writer-producer with enough clout, talent, or experience to run an entire series.
sitcom. "Situation comedy"--a dramatic television series based on the humor that arises from everyday situations in a given setting or "franchise."
slot. The time available for a TV program; for example, "NBC's 8 P.M. slot is weak because the ratings are dropping."
sound stage. Enclosed studio environment where shooting can be done under optimum controlled conditions.
spec. Short for “speculation,” the industry term for work done without a contract, “on the come,” and therefore solely owned by the writer. A “spec script,” if the buzz around it is hot enough, is often auctioned.
stakes. What's at risk if the protagonist fails.
standards and practices. Broadcaster's need to comply with the regulations set by the F.C.C. regarding violence, explicit sex, language, etc.
"story by." Credit indicating that a film is based on a story originating with the writer named in the credit.
story editor. Writing supervisor on a series who is responsible for its consistency and style.
speculation, or "on spec." Writing an original project on the sheer speculation that it will sell, without being commissioned or paid to do so.
subplot, or secondary action line. A minor plot that serves the main plot by reflecting, or contrasting with, it.
subscriber cable television. Term used to describe all networks and cable-delivered stations--including Cinemax, Disney, HBO, and Showtime--that cost the consumer an extra fee.
"suggested by." Story that is predominantly fiction, though vaguely related to a true event.
syndication. Free television outlets, other than the major networks, formed by a special "syndication" of independent stations (known as a "syndicated network") formed specifically for the purpose of airing or producing particular programming. An episodic series might be syndicated, but also a sports event or a movie.
synopsis. Matter-of-fact summation of a story's plotline; a shorter version of the screenplay. A synopsis is distinguished from a treatment primarily by its writing: where a treatment is written in a compelling dramatic style, a synopsis tends to be bare-bone, dry, and analytically accurate.
T&A. Short for "tits & ass," insider slang for shows or movies that exploit female flesh (for example, "Baywatch," on TV; or the feature film Blame It On Rio).
tag. Descriptive characteristic used to make a character memorable, like those given to each of the Seven Dwarves to distinguish them: Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, etc.
take. Industry term for what journalists call the "angle," as in, "What's the new take on the O.J. Simpson situation that would justify doing another movie?"
tangible medium. Legal term describing a material object from which written work can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as books, manuscripts, sheet music, film, videotape, computer discs, or microfilm.
teleplay. Alternate term for a screenplay written for television.
theme. What a story is about.
through line. The movie's backbone, its main story line that continues through to the climax.
titles. Term used for names of individuals involved in a film and their respective functions when they appear at the beginning of a program, as opposed to “credits” (the term used when they appear at the end).
trackers. Production company assistants whose job it is to track down stories as they are happening, or to pursue novels they "get wind of" at early stages in the publishing process.
trades. Industry periodicals such as The Hollywood Reporter, Weekly Variety, and Daily Variety.
treatment. A relatively brief and loosely narrative pitch of a story intended for production as a film for theater or television broadcast. Written in user-friendly, dramatic, but straightforward and highly-visual prose, in the present tense, the treatment highlights in broad strokes your story's hook, primary characters, acts and action line, setting, point of view, and most dramatic scenes and turning points.
turnaround. When a studio fails to produce a literary property it's purchased outright within a stipulated amount of time, the project "goes into turnaround"--which means that it becomes free for re-sale, but that the new buyer must pay a "turnaround fee," usually equivalent to the old buyer's purchase price, before he can proceed to make the movie.
twist. Unexpected turning point in the story when the characters move in dramatically unpredictable directions under the impulse of previous events and their character makeup.
vehicle. Industry term for a script that offers a potential star his or her breakthrough to stardom, as Clueless did for Alicia Silverstone.
viewpoint. Perspective through which a story is told, usually associated with that of the protagonist.
WGA. The Writers Guild of America.
work for hire. Term used in Copyright Law to describe the situation in which an employer hires a writer to write a work for which the employer will hold the copyright.
Writers Guild of America. Trade union of writers for television, motion pictures, and radio; with offices in Los Angeles (WGA-W) and New York (WGA-E).
"written by." Credit meaning that the writer or writers whose names appear wrote the entire original script, including the "story," from their own idea or concept.