When we initially put together our stories for our screenplays, we typically think about all of our major story beats, jotting them down on notecards or writing bulletpoints in outlines. Everything looks great on our whiteboards or corkboards or cinema displays and we're ready to dive into the screenplay itself. We come to the end of our first scene and realize something is missing. Transitions are the glue that holds our screenplays together, the peanut butter between our scene-size crackers, the chewed-up gum in our MacGyver writing contraptions (alright, I'm trying too hard here). Without transitions, we're left with a bunch of scenes and no cohesive story. On a recent episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, John August and Craig Mazin offer the following five tips on screenplay transitions to help you keep the reader and the viewer engaged in your story.
1. "Don't write directions in your screenplay" is bad advice.
Before diving into the discussion about transitions, Craig Mazin points out that many screenwriting gurus tell new writers not to put any directions in their screenplays because directors hate being told what to do by the screenwriter. In fact, in Mazin's experience working with directors, this is nonsense. The screenwriter needs readers to see the movie in their heads as they read the screenplay, and sometimes directions are necessary to evoke specific framing or images. Mazin quickly points out that directors obviously can ignore the directions a screenwriter puts in the screenplay, but as this relates to transitions, he notes:
I find that [directors] tend to appreciate that you’ve written with transitions in mind because it’s really important to them. And, frankly, if you don’t write with transitions in mind, some directors aren’t going to notice and they’re just going to shoot what you wrote and then it won’t connect.
Transitions are a super important part of moving from one scene to the next so you don’t feel like you’re just dragging your feet through a swamp of story, but rather being propelled forward through it.
2. Transitions are much more than the screenplay element "CUT TO:" (which is rarely used).
John August clarifies for his listeners that their discussion about transitions isn't really about the Transition screenplay element (i.e. "CUT TO:", "CROSSFADE TO:", etc.). Those screenplay elements are used very rarely in scripts nowadays, and usually CUT TO: is only used when the screenwriter is making a hard cut between scenes and wants to draw the reader's attention to the jump in space and time across the cut. Instead, August wants his listeners to think about transitions as how scenes flow from one to the next in the screenplay so readers understand why they are moving from one scene at a particular moment and entering the next scene at another particular moment.
3. Here are five examples of scene transitions to help your story flow through your screenplay.
Together, Mazin and August outline five different types of scene transitions that work well in screenplays, including:
- Size: going from a very tight shot to a super wide shot or vice versa (this transition helps readers see the movie in their heads)
- Music or sound: audio, usually in a prelap (meaning introduced over the visuals at the end of one scene and continuing over the cut) gives the reader and the audience the cue that we are in a new environment
- Misdirect: playing off the action or dialogue of the first scene, a cut is made that the audience believes is still part of the first scene, but then is revealed to be in a different location with a different character in the following scene (Mazin and August point out not to overuse this transition in one screenplay or you will drive your readers crazy and the misdirects will lose their effectiveness)
- Q&A: ending a scene with a question and giving the readers and audience the possible answer to the question on the other side of the cut
- Thematic: addressing the image that is in the reader's (and viewer's) mind at the end of a scene with a meaningful image on the other side of the cut (August gives the famous example of Peter O'Toole blowing out the match just before the cut to the sunset in Lawrence of Arabia)
4. Save big transitions for key moments in your screenplay.
August reveals that the reality for most people in the industry who read lots of screenplays, including himself, is readers tend to skip over sluglines as they read through the heart of a screenplay and go straight to the first line of action or dialogue in a scene. With this in mind, screenwriters should use their big transitions for key moments in their screenplays when they really need the readers to notice the transitions in their stories.
5. Find your own transitions that work for your style.
Mazin acknowledges that the examples of transitions they provided above are generic for the purposes of the discussion on the podcast and encourages writers to find transitions that work the best for their styles. Moreover, writers need to make sure they aren't simply lining up a bunch scenes that bump into each other with nothing creating a natural flow between the scenes to connect the story. When we use notecards or outlines to beat out a story, we typically focus on individual scenes and not necessarily the connective tissue between those scenes. This is why transitions become so important when we move to the screenplay stage of our writing process so all of our story beats mesh into a cohesive and compelling story for the reader and ultimately the viewer.
You can listen to the full conversation between John August and Craig Mazin on screenplay transitions in Episode 89 of the Scriptnotes podcast. If you don't already subscribe to Scriptnotes, stop what you're doing right now and subscribe. Scriptnotes is like a weekly master class in screenwriting and it's absolutely free. Your screenwriting will improve just by listening to Scriptnotes on a regular basis.
What kind of transitions do you use to pull readers through the story of your screenplays? What are some of your favorite transitions in film and why do you find them so effective? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments.