Wednesday, December 21, 2005


William Goldman once said, "Nobody messes with the cinematographer, because nobody knows what the hell a damn f-stop is -- but everybody knows the alphabet." Terry Rossio then proposed that screenwriters needed to come up with obscure technical lingo for our own craft, so that producers and executives can't mess with our work so easily. He was half-joking, but you know what? I think we should give it a shot.

Terry's examples mostly (mis-)used grammatical lingo so as to confuse executives, but I think we need to focus on the actual hard story elements and devices that we use. It's not about the language, it's about the mechanics. One problem is that we can't change certain words that people in production need to use -- like scene, line, slugline, shot, beat, etc. But there's a lot that goes into story creation that has nothing to do with the format in which it's presented, and that's where we attack.

Thusly, here I present the first (small) edition of the Obfuscatory Screenwriting Terminology Guide - the OSTG. Part of the idea is that we come up with frightening-sounding acronyms for well-known devices, or construct technical-sounding terms for simple concepts. My favorite example of this is the fearsome Thermoelectric Phase Converter, also known as... an oven.
  • EMD (Ex-Machina Device) - Any element, plot device, or character in a screenplay that functions as a deus ex machina.
  • inflection point - Any story event that causes or triggers character change.
  • OTTP (One-Two-Three Punch) - When a plot element is used once to establish its existence in the screenplay's world; used a second time to cement its place in that world; and a third time, with a twist, to surprise the audience and provide drama and/or growth. Canonical example is Marty's guitar-playing ability in Back to the Future.
  • subtend - In mathematics, an arc spans from one point on a circle to another, and we say it "subtends" a number of degrees. In a screenplay, a character thusly "subtends" their character arc. Can also be used to mean "change," e.g. "The confrontation between Frank and Sally causes Frank to subtend toward his terminus."
  • terminus - The points in the story when a given character is at the beginning or end of his arc.
Play along at home! Suggest your own terms!

There is at least one practical problem with this, in that if a screenwriter is working alone, then we can't get into the situation where two writers are sitting in front of an executive and a producer, flinging obscure technical terms back and forth, and causing the suits to get totally lost. Alas.