Danny Manus gives you the screenwriting tools for the proper screenwriting terms to help you learn how to market a script and deliver that screenplay correctly and in industry-standard screenplay format.
Essential Screenwriting Tools
There seems to be confusion among some burgeoning screenwriters on what types of documents or selling tools you need to create – or will be asked to create - and the differences between them. Part of breaking in means knowing the terms, knowing what’s being asked of you, and how to deliver correctly. If someone asks you for a logline and you give them a tagline, or a mini-synopsis, they will know you’re an amateur and don’t know what these terms mean. So, I want to go through these common screenwriting tools so you never have to wonder again.
Breakdown of Screenwriting Tools
TAGLINE – A Tagline is the 6-8 catchy, memorable words that a marketing department will come up with to grab people’s attention and sell your movie on posters, commercials, radio spots, etc. It should relate to your story, be identifiably specific to your story, set up a tone or genre, and may even be an intriguing line of dialogue from the script. But a tagline will never tell us what the plot is or any specific details of the story or characters. If you have a GREAT tagline as part of your screenwriting tools, it can be a plus in a pitch but no one will ask you for it because it’s not your job as the writer to create one.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.”
“Houston, we have a problem.”
“You don’t get 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
“The mind is the scene of the crime.”
LOGLINE – Totally different from a tagline, a logline IS your job to add to your screenwriting toolbox and presents the dramatic narrative of your story boiled down to its sellable core. It’s your take on your concept put into dramatic form. It is often the only thing anyone will read of your work. The number ONE rule of a logline is it needs to make a reader believe that millions of people will pay to see your story. Unlike other tools in this article, you will always use a logline no matter how famous a screenwriter you become. In short pitches, long pitches, queries, script hosting sites, contests, finance proposals, emails, Kickstarter campaigns, even the announcement in the trades once you’ve sold it. Your logline doesn’t just follow you – it precedes you. So it has to be good.
The logline should tell us WHO the story is about, WHAT the situation is your character has gotten into, WHAT they must accomplish, WHAT stands in their way, and WHAT is on the line if they fail. Make it clear you have written a story, not just a situation. Loglines should include what the external driving force is in your story, not just internal.
My Basic Logline Template is: When THIS happens, THIS (adjective) person must VERB THIS, before or else THIS consequence occurs. Or, in other words - INCITING INCIDENT, MAIN CHARACTER DESCRIPTION/INTRO, CHARACTER GOAL, MAJOR OBSTACLE, CONSEQUENCES/STAKES. That’s the core format of a logline and you can jazz it up from there.
Wizard of Oz – After a twister transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey alongside some eccentric new friends to defeat the Wicked Witch and find the Wizard with the power to send her home.
Silence of the Lambs - A young F.B.I. cadet must rely on an incarcerated and manipulative cannibalistic killer to catch another deviant serial killer who kidnaps and skins his victims before it’s too late.
Mud – When two young boys encounter a fugitive they form a pact to help him evade the vigilantes on his trail and reunite him with his true love.
Edge of Tomorrow - A futuristic soldier fighting a deadly war with aliens finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in battle, but every time he dies, he gets closer to learning how to win.
Die Hard – An off-duty cop visiting Los Angeles at Christmastime must battle his way through a high-rise filled with armed terrorists to save a group of hostages, including his wife.
THEME – Your theme is a central and driving principal, idea or belief that can serve as the backbone of your story, the realization of which is the goal of your character’s internal arc and is often the universal connectivity that allows different demographics to relate to your story. There are very few original themes. It’s about what your angle on the common theme is and how you interpret that through story, character and action. Theme should be constantly tracked throughout your story, and subplots are often used to underline theme and connect to your main storyline.
Theme can be a strong screenwriting tool, helping with plotting and outlining in that if you have 25 pages that do connect to your theme, you may be diverging from your core story or those may be cuttable scenes. Themes should be subtle, and not be stated or set up by your protagonist because then their arc is over. Pitching your theme is NOT the same as a logline or a tagline or hook. Execs may want to know what your underlying theme is, but writers and execs care more about theme than audiences. It is important, but no one has ever walked out of a theater saying “I hated the story, the characters were awful, the dialogue was painful – but man did I love that theme!”
“True love conquers all”
“Man vs. Nature”
“Grass is always greener”
“Triumph over adversity”
“How Technology affects us”
MESSAGE – A message is much different than a theme. A message is YOUR personal feeling, agenda or belief that you want to get across directly to the audience. It is YOUR personal take and belief about a theme; a lesson you believe needs teaching. “All you need is faith” is a theme. “All you need is to believe in your lord and savior, Jesus Christ” is a message! Messages are usually much less subtle, and are usually overstated throughout the script. And most of the time, no one gives a shit about your agenda. Themes are for scripts, messages are for blogs (and apparently the faith-based market).
SYNOPSIS – A Synopsis is a 1-2 page slightly more detailed (compared to a query letter or one-sheet) but very simply written plot summary of your script. It should include your main characters (I’d suggest capitalizing their names like you do in your script) and the broad strokes and main structural beats of your story in a naturally flowing, readable way. It should tell us the setup, the execution, and the payoff of your main storylines, main conflicts, what’s at stake, and briefly the world you have created (if different and special). And it should highlight the ways you exploit your hook and what’s different about your story. Do not include unimportant characters, minor storylines, details, descriptions or actions. And you should tell us the ending!
Synopses are usually less about voice and a bit more about the driving forces in your story, however each paragraph should flow into the next and it should read as compelling. Use a present tense active voice, not past tense. If after you pitch, an exec asks you for a synopsis before asking for the script, it means they are unconvinced you have executed your concept correctly and they’d rather read 2 pages before agreeing to read 100. You NEED to write a synopsis, as it is often the bridge-gap between hearing your idea and requesting the script.
Other sites with examples/tips on writing synopses -
- ScriptMag's Free How to Write a Synopsis Download
TREATMENT – Treatments are individual and there is no one way to write them. They are, on average, 3-10 pages, and written in prose form. They include main characters and a bit of description, the main structural beats or an act by act breakdown of the plot of the story. However, some treatments are much longer and more detailed. Some set up general story beats and then bullet point ideas or scenes, some include a few lines of dialogue, etc. Treatments used to be the life blood of pitches, but they are not anymore. These days, treatments are more of a plotting and outlining tool that writers use privately that no one else will really ask for.
The only time a feature writer will be asked to produce a treatment is if they are asked to give THEIR take on a company’s concept that they have pitched to the writer. If you are in the WGA, ask your rep before you complete or submit one. Do not worry about the format of your treatment – it’s whatever works for you to help you flesh out your story. The other upside of a treatment is you can register it with the WGA.
SCRIPTMENT – A newer kind of screenwriting tool, it’s like a very extended detailed treatment that can be 30-60 pages and include a few full specific scenes or dialogue passages. There are numerous writers, including my former boss J.S. Cardone, who prefer writing scriptments because it makes writing the actual script much quicker as much of the work is done. He would take months on a scriptment, and then 2 weeks to write the script. No one will ever ask you for one. It’s all about what process works for you.
OUTLINE – An outline is more of a structural breakdown of your story and may include story beats, a beat sheet, bullet points, a breakdown of what occurs scene-by-scene or important details of what each scene must contain. It is also a personal plotting tool and there is no one right way to complete one. Outlining is more of a PROCESS than a document. Some use note cards, some use dry erase boards, some use certain software, etc. When creating your outline, you want to make sure you are tracking all the major elements of your story and your character arcs, theme, subplots, time clocks, etc. And you want to make sure that your conflict and stakes are increasing as the story goes on, not decreasing or staying stagnant. No one should ever ask you for your outline, as that is almost always a very private thing. Finding a process of outlining that works for you will be key to your writing career.
QUERY LETTER – The query letter is often a writer’s first and only impression. It is a condensed ½ to ¾ page sales pitch that should tell the reader what is different about you or what inspired you to write this, what your story is about, and make them want to read more. It should include your title, genre, comparison films, logline, 6-12 succinct and well-written lines introducing your world, characters, concept and HOOK. It should set up the context of your script so execs know why it’s something they will want to read.
It should set up the world and what’s different about it (if important), tell us what thrusts your main character (and us) into the story, what they must accomplish, what is stopping them, some broad strokes of important plot points in second and third acts, and allude to your big climax and ending without giving it all away (unlike in the synopsis). And in doing so, it should be clear what your hook is – what sets your story apart – and what the demographic is and if it’s commercial. Short and sweet is nice, but it can’t sound vague or generic. It should have voice and wordplay, be complimentary but not braggart. Unlike the logline, synopsis or treatment, query letters are only used by writers still trying to break in and get read or rep’d. If you have sent out 100 queries and have gotten no responses, you’re doing something wrong and should go back and rework your query. If you're looking to get read, this can be one of the best tools you have.
ONE-SHEET (or ONE PAGER) – Both of these screenwriting tools terms are used interchangeably. A one-sheet is basically a one-page pitch document that is much like a query letter except it’s not in letter format and should be a bit more visual. A one-sheet is what you are going to leave behind in a pitch at a conference or pitchfest so that the exec you pitched will remember you 2 weeks later when they start going through the 50 pitches they received to decide what they will request. It is a reminder of what your pitch was, what your story is about, and why they liked you.
It should include your name, contact info, any important info about you (contest wins, rep’d, published, etc.), title, genre, logline, 6-12 lines (not sentences – lines on the page) about your plot that will make them remember your pitch and want to hear more, etc. Unlike the query letter, you can also include 1-3 other loglines on other projects if you wish, in case the exec did not like your pitch, but liked you and would be interested in another project. Make it visual – it doesn’t have to be a professional movie poster, but using a harder stock of paper and/or some sort of visual that relates to your story will make it stand out as long as you don’t do it in a cheesy way. If you DON’T have a one-sheet, execs will never remember you. Bring one even if the event tells you not to.
NOTES VS. COVERAGE – I realize some people use these terms interchangeably – but these people would be misinformed. I learned my lesson on the difference between notes and coverage the hard way. I had a job interview many years ago at a major production company. I did my research, knew every one of their projects, knew what writers and directors were up and coming, and I killed it in the interview. Killed it. And they thought so too, so they gave me a script and said, “Do some notes on this.” Unfortunately, I didn’t realize he said “notes”…and I gave them coverage. And I never heard back.
Coverage is written so that no one else has to read the script. Notes are given so that everyone else will want to. You can quote me on that one.
Coverage is usually a 3-5 page document including a one-page synopsis, 2-3 pages of general positives and negatives of the script and writing, and a basic grading sheet and recommendation. It usually covers overall characters, concept, story, dialogue, etc. It is mostly used internally at production companies and agencies to decide if a project is worthwhile and is created by interns, assistants, readers and low-level execs so that their bosses never have to read the scripts. It’s a great way to see where your script might stand in the marketplace, and should not usually cost much more than $100, though coverage services can charge between $50-150 on average.
Notes, on the other hand, are often 5-15 pages of specific and more in-depth, constructive points about what needs to be improved upon within the script and different options and suggestions on HOW to accomplish that. Notes may be given by phone, in a written document, or on the page. They are usually written by mid-higher level executives, managers and script consultants and they usually cover many more elements of the script than coverage. Unlike coverage, they are written TO the writer not as general third person statements, and are usually more expensive if purchasing from a consulting service. Prices can range from $100 up to $2000. Personally, I don’t think your script should cost as much as your car.
There are many consultants out there offering notes and coverage and you should do your due diligence before ordering either type of service. But of course if you’re interested in NOTES on your project, I encourage you to check out my site, www.nobullscript.net.
I hope that will help clear the air and make it clear what is a writer’s responsibility and what is not and what each of these terms mean so you never have to get it wrong again! Knowing is half the battle.
- More articles by Danny Manus
- Balls of Steel: Script Consultants - Are They Worth It?
- Submissions Insanity: Query in 10 Steps
- FREE Screenwriting Downloads from ScriptMag
Get more advice from Danny Manus in his webinar
What the Heck Are Executives Thinking? Looking at Your Script from the Exec’s Point of View