Writing transitions between scenes sometimes stumps me. I know where I want to be next, but I have trouble figuring out how to get there. Like most components in writing, it seems like there are infinite possibilities yet nothing concrete to fall back on. As a result, all too often transitions simply become linear jumps that offer very little beyond serving the utilitarian function of skipping ahead in time.
Though there may not be a writer’s guidebook on the different types of transitions, the film industry is more than willing to fill in the gaps with its own well-established set of concrete terms.
Though not all translate perfectly to writing, these terms give us a vocabulary with which to organize possible ways in which we can cut from scene to scene in our stories. Here’s a rundown of types of transitions in film editing and how they can be used in writing:
In film, a straight cut is the name for the simplest approach to transitioning between two shots. It involves the abrupt movement from Shot A to Shot B.
Translated into writing, a straight cut is the bread and butter of storytelling: a character completes one action and the author abruptly skips ahead to another scene. There’s nothing wrong with this type of transition, but there are times when something more creative could give your writing life.
Form cuts juxtapose two shots that focus on similarly shaped and positioned objects. The television show Once Upon a Time loves this type of cut. When the story jumps between fairy-tale-world and the modern world the editors will frequently transition from a shot of something like the Evil Queen’s mirror to a mirror in the mayor’s office.
An equivalent in writing would be ending a scene with a character picking up a spoon and starting the next scene with a different character picking up a different spoon. This type of transition can be useful when trying to draw an implicit comparison between two characters or situations. Maybe you don’t want to have the narrator say, “the protagonist and the antagonist had more in common than they knew…” but you want that idea to come across in a subtle fashion. The form cut is a great type of transition to convey that idea.
Contrast cuts are the opposite of form cuts. Instead of showing similar objects from Shot A to Shot B, contrast cuts go for the shock factor that results from jamming together two completely divergent scenes. An example would be cutting from a shot in which a child is falling asleep in her mother’s arms to a shot of a building being swept up in a tornado.
Using a contrast cut in writing can help a writer intensify a feeling of conflict or stress. No matter how many words you devote to explaining, “the tornado was really scary and unexpected!” it will never strike home the point as successfully as showing the tornado as being scary and unexpected through a sadistic bit of jarring contrast cutting.
Cutaways are how film editors transition between two shots that are similar but not quite continuous. Shot A might be a shot of a hawk about to snatch up a mouse, Shot B would jump to a reaction shot of the mouse, and Shot C would be a near continuation of the hawk seizing its prey from Shot A.
This is a type of transition writers use often, though perhaps unconsciously. The writer sometimes wants the best of both worlds – to show the villain from his perspective as he’s about to perform a dastardly deed on the hero AND to show the hero reacting to this from her perspective quickly before jumping back. It’s a useful trick, especially when you’re trying to slow down the narrative at a moment of crisis and give some scope.
This is a sneaky cut in which the editor blends two shots without the viewer necessarily being aware of where exactly the transition happens. An actor might step in front of the camera for a moment, blacking out the image, and then when the viewer assumes the actor is moving away we realize the editor has cut to a new shot of someone else passing in front of the camera. It seems seamless in terms of motion, but the shots have transitioned.
This seems like a very fun type of transition to play around with in writing. Screw the line breaks and asterisks we’re accustomed to seeing breaking up scenes – why not make the reader scratch his head for a second before the scene transition from one character’s perspective to another becomes obvious? When writing a character who’s a little muddled or a scene in which things are moving at a whirlwind pace, this type of cut could be productive.
The Bottom Line
Film editors discovered long ago that transitions can do so much more than jump through time. Make them do double duty in your writing by choosing a type of cut that emphasizes implicitly what you’re trying to convey thematically. Though I wouldn’t go overboard (you don’t want your transitions to seem gimmicky), don’t be afraid to think outside the box occasionally – after all, straight cuts after straight cuts can get pretty boring!
What types of transitions work for you? Are there transitions that are specific to writing that we don’t see in film?