Screenwriting Terms And Phrases That Make You Sound Like A Hollywood Rookie

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

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “It’s funtastic.”  Avoid puns. They rarely produced the desired effect.
  7. “A pseudo/quasi/very very secret society.” If it’s secret, it’s secret. No qualifiers or extra adverbs needed.
  8. “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.
  9. “I’ve been working on this film for 11 years.”  You’re committed, okay, but possibly inept. More isn’t always better.
  10. “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.
  11. “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.
  12. “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.
  13. “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.

Do You Know the #1 Screenwriting Obstacle that is Holding You Back?

Screenwriting Breakthrough Quiz

Almost Every Screenwriter Struggles with 1 of 3 Common Obstacles. Take the Quiz to Find Out Yours.


Take 1 Min Quiz

Discussion About Screenwriting Terms And Phrases That Make You Sound Like A Hollywood Rookie

  1. gragusa@mail.com

    Whether people decide to feed into an idea is an open ended question in itself. There is no telling what gets the attention of the average everyday audience since so people are into different things. Some might like fashion, some like talk t.v., others like recipies and exchanging ideas. There is no science to like or dislike, except to click the channel.

  2. Charles Judson

    Phrases that make me cringe:

    Tied into number 9: “I based this on my novel I published/play I wrote…” Which always leads me to ask how those did. Too often the answer is it didn’t sell well or at all, or the play was never produced. What’s the point of bringing those up if you can’t leverage that to demonstrate the viability, marketability or proof of your concept?

    A variation of no. 10: “I sent it to X…”

    “I haven’t figured that part out yet…” or “I’m not married to that and I can change it if you need me to…” Commit to your choices.

    “I originally wrote this for Y…” This always sounds arrogant unless you actually know the actor. Plus, in my experience, it’s amazing how often a writer will demonstrate an obliviousness to the roles an actor has played or the very public comments they’ve made about particular roles. Doesn’t seem you’re actually as into Y or a student of their career as you think.

    “It’s exactly like [insert successful film]” or “It’s like [insert obscure film] so I know it can…” The more successful the film, the more obscure the film, the more intense the internal sigh. Nothing wrong with being inspired by great films, just don’t imply from jump you’ve replicated what came before. And regardless of the stereotypes, most folks are not trying to copy what other folks are doing.

    “First I have to give you a little setup or backstory…” So information that won’t be in the film that will help me understand the story? Awesome, the audience will enjoy this film even more without the benefit of footnotes or commentary. What’s worse is when a writer never needed to tell you that setup to begin with. It’s a sign you lack confidence in either your writing or that particular story.

    And my favorite: “Except here’s the twist…” “Or what they don’t know…” So one, you’ve strung me along on a story I might have liked up to that point to basically tell me you’re going to rely on a gimmick instead of actual storytelling? Two, why didn’t you set that up and have that event happening parallel? Instead of having my excitement level raised as you tell the story because I’m invested to see how these two events or characters are going clash and affect the story, I get to basically reboot and hope the pay off is worth it.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      My favorite thing you wrote (and there are so many gems in here) is “The more successful the film, the more obscure the film, the more intense the internal sigh.” So true, Charles! Thanks for these fantastic additions to the list.

  3. Mark Tilbury

    Hi Stephanie

    I am running with a script and making a short out of it.
    Am I burning my bridges in being able to sell it after the short is made?

    the movie I’m writing is very Guy Ritchie style how much do I ask for $$$$?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Making a short can be an effective sales tool, especially if it “proves” that your concept works on film. I’m working on some posts about asking for $$$$.

  4. Chris

    This is a nice list, albeit obvious. I read a lot of ‘What not to do,’ lists. It would be nice, for a change, if someone could write an article on what TO do in a pitch meeting. No one seems to do that, from what I see.

  5. Abe Duenas

    Great Post, So glad someone posted this on FB. Look to be a regular now

  6. Sal

    As an aspiring screenwriter I find this insight invaluable. Thank you!

  7. Mike Shields (@MatchesMalone)

    You forgot, “have your people call my people, and we’ll take a meeting and do lunch.”

    I’m not triskaidekaphobic, however, there are probably more than simply 13 phrases that can get you unceremoniously thrown out on your ear from a pitch meeting.

    Not having something else to pitch comes to mind. The producer may say something like, “That’s great, what else you got?” And you’ve got about 3 seconds to start into your second pitch.

  8. Hank

    Your post here inspired us to write an article about pitching on our site.

    We’d love to hear your thoughts.

    http://writetoreel.com/how-to-pitch-a-script

  9. 13 Frequently-Used Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Hollywood Rookie » Blog » Good in a Room – Stephanie Palmer | Writing and watching ... for the screen etc. | Scoop.it

    […] See esp. #4 — not only is "very unique" a redundancy, therere is a reason it has not been done before….  […]

  10. Derek Short

    Great article! I’m printing it.

  11. How To Write A Screenplay You Can Sell ‹ Studio System News

    […] Make rookie pitching mistakes  […]

  12. How To Write A Screenplay You Can Sell ‹ SSN Insider

    […] Make rookie pitching mistakes […]

  13. Top 10 Screenwriting Books Screenwriters Should Read ‹ SSN Insider

    […] of looking like a rookie, you’ll understand exactly what they mean, and can continue the conversation using the […]

  14. John

    Well that’s a positive. I’ve never done any of those and I never would.
    (Chance would be a fine thing.)
    In the music business there are well connected people called ‘songpluggers’ who are employed by songwriters to take their songs around A&R; Managers; Artists, Labels etc and try and get them used.
    Are their similar people in the Film business ?
    Or are they just called agents ?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Producers, managers, and agents try to connect scripts with potential buyers. It is similar to the music industry, but not exactly the same.

      • Gregory Watton

        There are people in the film/tv industry called SHOW RUNNERS. They typically pitch to studios and decision makers in the hopes of getting stuff picked up and/or funded.

      • Stephanie Palmer

        Good point. In TV, there are showrunners though they typically want to pitch their own ideas, rather than someone else’s work.

      • John

        Thanks Gregory. Useful. I’ve heard of show runners – I always thought they were ‘gophers.’

  15. paul

    I greatly enjoy these insights on here. It seems the great qualities to aspire to are professionalism, skill, confidence and, hopefully, originality. And yet what mostly comes out of the studio system is formulaic, bland and derivative. It’s as though the long process and many people involved in greenlighting a film somehow bleeds the life out of it. Is that fair? Or no?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      That’s a fair assessment. It’s not always that way, but it certainly can be that way. Here’s my take on why Hollywood makes bad movies.

      • paul

        That’s a great article. Thank you.

      • Mark

        Good analysis. Probably the best I’ve read. I’m pretty sure you’re right, studio execs don’t pull a “How to Make a Crap Movie” manual out when they decide to spend $50 million. Crap movies are accidents, caused by unfortunate choices somewhere along the way.

        I’ve watched otherwise good movies ruined by terrible scores (Yes, for me music can ruin a movie.) or by poor casting . I’ve read hilarious screenplays made into apparently unwatchable movies (“The Voices”). Why did “Casablanca” and “Chinatown” and “The Godfather” work? Nothing distracted or detracted. All the elements worked at once. The best we can hope for is to work hard enough to become good writers and try to ride on the coat tails of great teams.

      • Stephanie Palmer

        Thanks, Mark.

  16. L Fabry

    I’ve also found that “really good and unique” can often mean the opposite. I also may or may not say some of the above…

  17. Pidge

    Ideas? I can’t even get pass the name game. In a town where credit is king, the Industry seems more apt to buy names than ideas. I have a prime-time animation, which is a BIG ASK from a network. Frankly, I’m not “big enough” to ask it…. even if I do get into a pitch room. It’s one thing for an executive to say, “Hey fellas, it was Seth McFarlane, we all thought it would go,” and nobody gets fired. But plug in a no-name with no street creds into that equation, and the executive at the network who took the risk with someone they thought had a great idea but no track record gets a big black mark.

  18. Joseph Okechukwu

    Well, this fascinating tips that helped me to elaborate my views of understanding in script writing.

  19. Jamie Handley

    FIRST: The most important item I wish to address is the plethora of information you extend to each of us…so a big thank you to you! It’s amazing, the amount of work you’ve done. SECOND: I love how each person can add to, or voice an opinion, or whatever, on your site. There are a lot of good thoughts and writers out there with an opinion or some type of contribution that matters. Thank you to them. Thank you for your talent, words of wisdom and the opportunity to learn something new each day. Best to all.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks, Jamie. I have the best readers and I am grateful for their contributions and comments too.

  20. Carmen

    Wow, Stephanie,

    It’s amazing how consistently rich your information is. I’m always anxious to see what you’re sending and you never disappoint. Thank you!

    Carmen

  21. Garrett Thierry

    This article is very insightful, as I continue to learn, grow, and adapt with industry counterparts this information helps me to categorize and understand the pecking order of those I am interacting with. I genuinely hope serious entertainment professionals do their due diligence to learn and apply principles in this article and ones like it.

  22. Mark Wagner

    Thanks, Stephanie. Yes, I would’ve made several of those mistakes about the scripts being “unique”. All I did today was breathe deeply, and expect to remember your pro insights.

  23. sandy lieberson

    Stephanie….strange our paths have not crossed…creatures of hollywood, mgm, etc.
    anyway…just wanted to tell you how usefull your gems of wisdom are when it come to pitching and just acting like a real screenwriter. I make wonderful use of lots of your material in teaching at National Film & TV School, uk, London Film School, EICTV, Cuba, etc…thanks and good wishes

  24. Sue

    I know at some time I’ll have to pitch, but still it feels intimidating. Thanks Stephanie for your help, I’ve learnt heaps. I was just wondering, in general do many writers pitch their own ideas?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Yes, almost all writers do— it is an essential part of the process and it gives the potential buyers a chance to get to know you and decide if they can work with you. Films and TV shows are made collaboratively and pitching ideas back and forth is something that happens throughout almost every project.

  25. John

    I would probably pitch my movie with sound effects included… This most likely would be looked down upon and be a sign you are a rookie.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Unless your project is the Michael Winslow story or other sound effects driven project, I wouldn’t include sound effects with your pitch.

  26. 13 Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Rookie | indieactivity

    […] Stephanie Palmer – Rookie mistakes can add up—make enough of them in a pitch meeting, and your project may not move forward. […]

  27. Ryan Steinle

    Hi Stephanie,

    Thank you for all of your articles and free advice. I have learned a lot from what you have posted.

    I have a question:

    I live in Kansas City and was wondering if it is possible to sell a script if you don’t live in Los Angeles?

  28. John Coffman

    Do you know of anyone who has sold a script from a distance, without a personal meeting to pitch it? I live in New Zealand. Travel is a pretty expensive undertaking…( A friend tried to comfort me recently by saying, ‘Yes, you have some interesting ideas. Don’t worry. They will one day see the light if they are buried with you. You can’t keep buried a story whose time has come.” I had to laugh, “Gee, thanks.”)

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Unfortunately, I do not. This doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened, but the vast majority of projects are purchased after in-person meetings. Things can get started over Skype or even email, but if someone is interested, they will almost always want to meet in person before committing any money. But keep in mind that a Hollywood studio isn’t the only avenue to get stories seen– books, webisodes, independent films, blogs… can all be avenues to get your work seen by a large audience and these opportunities don’t require lots of expensive, international travel.

  29. Dima

    Thanx, Stephanie!
    From Russia with love!