Format 101: Continuous versus Transitions

Primary slug indicators are pretty straightforward. We’re either inside written as INT., or outside written as EXT., at a specific location like JOHN’S HOUSE and it’s either DAY OR NIGHT. For example:

EXT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY

The writer might show John shoveling snow in the driveway, then he goes back inside. Assuming the story continues with John, the writer might write INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY and continues the story. This is acceptable.

Or the writer could write INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – CONTINUOUS since the interior location is a continuation of the exterior scene. This is also acceptable.

While both are acceptable and a writer might select a specific style to suit his taste, there is a better way. In fact, writers might be shocked to learn that some story analysts consider CONTINUOUS lazy writing that breaks pacing to remind the reader that they’re engaging in a screenplay rather than keeping the reader involved on a visceral level with the story.

An alternative is one that’s often ignored by aspiring writers or they don’t know about the technique works or how to effectively use it. It’s called a transition. There are many variations of transitions in motion picture screenplays; dialogue to dialogue, sound to sound, visual to dialogue, overlapping, location transition, reversal transition, time jump transition, next day transition, sequel transition and many more.

A transition is how one scene ends and the next one begins, whether the two scenes are CONTINOUS or not. For example, if a character picks up a phone at the end of one scene and in the opening of the next scene we hear a phone ringing, this is a visual to sound transition. Visual = seeing the phone being picked up. Sound = ringing phone. This creates a smooth flow between scenes.

Screenwriters should use transitions between ALL scenes. Transitions tell the producer the writer is a professional rather than an amateur that hasn’t mastered the art of screenwriting.

The argument for using transitions instead of CONTINUOUS is clear. The transition provides a smooth flow for the reader (and later the audience), while CONTINUOUS breaks the flow and reminds the reader they’re reading a screenplay. Secondly, CONTINUOUS is the easy way out, while a transition shows the writer is a master creator who has taken the time to think through the intricate logistics of the story’s flow and pacing.

Let’s take a look at a transition from the Oscar-winning movie Forrest Gump. Forrest and Jenny are outside watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. The scene goes to a CLOSE UP of the fireworks, then when it pulls back we see fireworks on a TV and the characters are inside the house. The writer used a visual to visual transition with the fireworks to transition from the EXT. to the INT.

The writer could have just showed Jenny and Forrest headed back to the house and wrote CONTINUOUS, but using the transition allowed the audience to stay in the moment and flow effortlessly from outside to inside.

Yes, it takes more creative thoughts and planning to pull off professional transitions for every scene in a screenplay, but that’s what separates the pros from the aspiring writers.

Can a screenwriter use both? Yes, but that’s cumbersome and why bother using CONTINUOUS that stops the story’s flow when a transition keeps the reader engaged? Some screenwriters may disagree. It’s the writer’s choice, but consider how the script looks to a producer. If the writer’s set on using CONTINUOUS, then keep it consistent throughout the script and be aware of how it makes the writer look.

Next, let’s take a look at a few transitions listed in this article, but please be aware there are many different types of transitions. Here are the ones that are most used in a motion picture screenplay:

DIALOGUE TO DIALOGUE

A character in one scene says something at the end of a scene and the next scene opens with a different characters saying the same thing, or concluding the dialogue. A BOYFRIEND might say, “I love her because…..” and the next scene opens with the GIRLFRIEND saying, …’he’s the best thing that every happened to me.”

VISUAL TO VISUAL

A scene ends with a visual that carries over in one form or another to the next scene. Like the fireworks scene in Forrest Gump.

DIALOGUE TO VISUAL

A character says something and it’s followed into the next scene by a visual. For example, a character might ask about Susan and then the next scene opens with Susan.

SOUND TO VISUAL

We hear a sound at the end of a scene and at the beginning of the next scene we visually see where it’s coming from. A hero receives a threatening call from the nemesis and we hear TICKING, then the next scene opens and we see a bomb.

OVERLAPPING

If the writer’s stumped for a transition, here’s a transition to consider. At the end of the scene, begin the dialogue for the next scene and make it a (V.O.) that transitions into the new scene with the character continuing the dialogue. For example, and the end of a boat scene, we hear a LAWYER (V.O.) I intend to prove Mary is guilty…..then the next scene opens in a COURTROOM and the lawyer continues to speak, LAWYER (V.O.)….of first degree murder.

This transitions uses overlapping dialogue to bridge between two scenes and can be used when the writer doesn’t have a better, more creative option available.

LOCATION

Transitions aren’t restricted to how one scene ends and another begins. The Location Transition doesn’t refer to where the story takes place, but rather where the story begins and ends.

A location transition brings the story full circle by ending the story where it began, one way or another. For example, the story might open with the hero in a jail cell and end with the hero walking out of the jail cell. The story’s establishing shot can also be used. For example, the story might open with an establishing shot or the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC and end with the hero driving out of NYC via the Brooklyn Bridge.

The screenwriter can get creative with this transition. For example, the opening scene might be a CLOSE UP of a globe and introduce us to an aspiring astronaut and in the end we see the hero looking out the window of the space station at planet Earth.

REVERSE

This transition really stands out in a screenplay and ranks the writer a pro. It’s a simple transition to use. End a scene with a character saying he absolutely won’t do something, then in the next scene we see him doing it. For example, in Lake Placid, the heroine says she’ll never go to the wilds to check out a crazy alligator story, then the scene ends and the next scene opens with her flying in an airplane over Lake Placid.

In this scenario, the writer used the reverse transition as part of the heroine’s reluctant hero angle, but there are many creative ways to use this transition. The key is to open the next scene immediately after the hero says he won’t do something.

NEXT DAY

If a scene continues into the next day, the writer can write INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – NEXT DAY, but that’s as bad as using CONTINUOUS. The usage is okay, but pro-level writers will put more creative thought into how to transition between to the NEXT DAY in the same location.

The problem with the usage of NEXT DAY in the primary slug indicator is the audience won’t see the screenplay, so how do they know it’s the NEXT DAY? The best alternative is to use a visual to visual transition into the NEXT DAY. For example, we might see a cafe OPEN sign being turned to CLOSED, then turned again to OPEN. Mail delivery can signify a new day, a clock, or repeating something that happens on a daily basis, like a school bus’s arrival or even a character’s change of clothing.

Some writers prefer to use dialogue, like having a character say, “Good morning” to reveal it’s the NEXT DAY. But visuals are the best. An old standby if the writer is out of ideas is to use a setting sun, then a rising sun.

Try to select a transition that’s reflective of the story and its genre.

TIME JUMP

Readers hate to read ONE HOUR LATER, 3p.m., TWO DAYS LATER, FIVE WEEKS LATER, etc. Instead of using these easy references, get creative and remember that the audience won’t see these references. Get creative. For example, if the hero’s son is getting married in two weeks, don’t open a wedding scene with TWO WEEKS LATER in the primary slug indicator or via a SUPER. Instead, have the hero tell her friend her son is getting married in two weeks, then end the scene with that line and open the next scene at the wedding. That creates a natural TIME JUMP of two weeks that doesn’t require the reference in the primary slug indicator or via a SUPER.

The time jump transition can also be used for FLASHBACKS to provide a smooth transition between the past and the present.

SEQUEL

Producers love a screenplay that has sequel potential. Franchising a movie into two or three films is profitable and guarantees work for the producer, crew and talent for years to come, plus the writer!

First, the writer MUST resolve the plot in the screenplay. A sequel transition is a few seconds at the very end of the movie that implies a sequel in the making. Horror is the best example. Remember the hand coming out of the grave in the classic Carrie or the blinking eye in Hocus Pocus? These movies had resolutions, but the final image implied the potential for another go around, a sequel. This is how to add a sequel transition at the very end of the movie and it could entice a producer to purchase the screenplay.

CONCLUSION

Learning to use transitions as a bridge between scenes will set you apart from amateurs because pros use transitions 100% of the time compared to aspiring writers that only use transitions 2% of the time. Use transitions between every scene, to tie the beginning and end together and to hint at a sequel.

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