CUT TO:s and
CROSS FADE:s you can throw on the page won’t help unless you consider why you want to join two moments together.
Let’s look at some of those reasons with examples from the page:
Question & Answer
A transition can answer an on-screen question, either as a joke or to pull the audience deeper into the drama. By letting the audience connect the dots between these two seemingly disjointed moments, you make them feel like they’re doing some detective work instead of passively listening to a response.
For example, in Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s script for Crazy Rich Asians, there’s this scene early on:
Well… My family is much like anybody else’s. There’s half of them that you love and respect, and then there’s the other half.
Which half am I meeting?
INT. MOVIE SET (TAIWAN) - NIGHT
A HERO faces off against a VILLAIN. In the b.g., a BUXOM HEROINE is chained to a wall. The Hero and villain launch into a fast-paced, stylistic KUNG-FU FIGHT. The Hero wins and sets free the Heroine, who clutches him.
Well, there’s my cousin Alistair, based in Taiwan, works in movies.
The jarring transition from the comfortable first-class plane cabin to a noisy, chaotic action film set shakes up the audience, just like how meeting Nick’s family will feel startling to Rachel.
Using Rachel’s question to propel us to the answer keeps things light, concise, and engaging.
Cause & Effect
Much like with answering a question with the next shot, sometimes a transition will show us the start of an action, cut out the middle, and jump to the end result.
There’s a moment from the beginning of Greta Gerwig’s script for Lady Bird that isn’t technically written on the page using a transition, but it still showcases the idea.
To end an argument with her mother while driving back from looking at a college, Lady Bird takes drastic action:
CALL ME LADY BIRD LIKE YOU SAID YOU WOULD!
You should just go to City College, with your work ethic. City college and then to jail then back to City College. Maybe you’d learn how to pull yourself up and not expect everyone to do everything for you…
They slow for a stop light and Lady Bird dramatically opens the door and rolls out of the car. Marion Screams.
INT. IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY. DAY.
Close on a cast. In very small letters is written “fuck you, mom.” The cast belongs to Lady Bird. She follows along with the mass.
Does the audience need to see everything in-between those two moments? Not really.
We know that a person who jumps out of a moving vehicle will likely be injured. We know that Lady Bird did this acting out against her mom.
By jumping from the end of the argument to the note she wrote on her own cast, it shows just how far Lady Bird is willing to go to tune out the voices she doesn’t want to hear and take control of her own life (even if it hurts her).
Again, it doesn’t use a technical transition element, but the first action paragraph after the new scene heading begins with
Close on, focusing the reader in a similar way that a
CUT TO: would indicate the pacing between these moments.
Compression of Time
Transitions can also smooth the flow between scenes, compressing time the way memories can capture snapshots of moments.
In David O. Russell’s script for Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany and Pat’s dance rehearsal turns into a flow of moments:
And on the way back, he stopped on 76 to help a guy with a flat tire and he got hit by a car and killed. And the Victoria’s Secret box was still in the front seat.
That’s a feeling.
Pat, visibly upset, watches as Tiffany turns on her iPod. Bob Dylan’s “Girl From North Country” duet with Johnny Cash starts.
Pat and Tiffany sit on the floor, facing each other as they listen.
Tiffany leads Pat onto the dance floor.
Okay, this is the waltz. I’m gonna teach you the waltz step.
What follows this are a series of short scenes of rehearsing, preparing, and Pat’s home life with his parents. It all runs together, showing the connections between these moments and accelerating the pace of the story.
But this quick moment, where the story jumps ahead from listening to the song to dancing together cuts out that middle moment where they have to stand up. We flow from moment to moment the way they flow from dance step to dance step.
Montages come with their own tropes and cliches, but the basic principle is about compressing time.
Taking out some of those in-between moments and focusing on the key emotional beats, like what happens through this sequence of Silver Linings Playbook is a good example of moving nimbly through the story.
When You Can, Write Like An Editor
Take time to notice the transitions when you’re watching a film. Think about the pacing, and the way one image can jump to something completely different, but deeply related.
If you can see it and describe it, you can write it on the page.
Finding those strong places to deploy transitions can help show the difference in craft between a writer who can tell a good story and a writer who can tell a good story for the screen.