Screenplay Taxonomy

When writing a screenplay, the word ‘scene’ has a very specific definition. More or less, whenever the scenery on screen changes, it’s a new scene. Walk from the kitchen to the living room, new scene. Walk back, new scene. Simple enough. At first blush it seems similar to the scenes of a stage drama, but it really isn’t. In a screenplay, scenes can change quite frequently, and may only last a few seconds. You can have many scenes that fill the dramatic role that a single scene does on stage. For instance, in a screenplay, the scene can change several times during the course of a running battle.

I’m working with script-writing software that allows me to rearrange scenes, but what I really want is a way to manipulate the groups of scenes that comprise the larger dramatic unit. All the scenes that are part of a chase, for instance. I’ve been fooling the software by calling the scenes that make up the sequence “shots”, so they are treated as part of the same dramatic unit. While this leads to correct formatting and lets me manipulate my script the way I want to, it subverts the meaning of ‘shot’ in a screenplay. It’s not a bid deal for me since calling shots is way, way, down the production road, but it’s still a little off to mislabel script elements like that.

From a storytelling standpoint, the larger unit is the important one — the continuous action that can span several scenes but has a clear identity in terms of the story. I think ‘sequence’ is the word I’ve heard used in that context, but it’s imperfect, and the script-writing software I’m using has no concept of the sequence to help me organize my scenes. Jer’s Novel Writer allows the user to define things like that quite easily, and JersNW performs way better than Celtx on my old laptop, but Celtx provides other shortcuts and automatically formats things in an industry-standard way.

I think it would take me two months to make a screenplay version of JersNW. (If I didn’t use the time to also upgrade the way the documents are structured, which I would do.) It wouldn’t have all the features to help production that Celtx and Final Draft have, but it would be writer-friendly. I often joke that Final Draft is a fine piece of software once you have a final draft – it’s not very good for the actual writing. Celtx seems to want to pursue Final Draft, once again at the expense of the writer.

But all that’s a digression. I really just wanted to ask folks if they knew a better term for ‘group of scenes that comprises a dramatic unit in a screenplay’. It really seems like there should be one.

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