by Jennie Jarvis
When sitting down to write a story, it’s so easy to get caught up in “bullet point” thinking: This happens, then this happens, then this happens. But, if you don’t pay attention to the transitions – how you get from point to point – then a reader or viewer can feel like your tale reads a bit robotic.
Novelists are lucky. They can avoid this rather jarring jump between ideas by using the end of a chapter to help transition from scene to scene. The beginning of a new chapter is like a fresh start, and so while how you end the previous chapter is important, it’s not quite so important as moving from one scene to another within the same chapter.
Film writers, on the other hand, don’t get the luxury of chapter breaks to help ease some of the more jarring transitions. For us, we have to write our way from page one of the screenplay all the way to page 110 (or however long our scripts come out). We must make sure that each scene smoothly moves from event to event, without causing the audience to say “Wait – what just happened?!”
Two of the best use of transitions I’ve ever seen can be found in the 2012 film The Avengers (written and directed by Joss Whedon) and the 1997 film The Fifth Element (written and directed by Luc Besson).
I have no doubt that a big part of the reason why the transitions were so smooth in both these films has to do with the fact that the director was also the writer. A film director is responsible for the overall reception of the film, so she or he must understand how a story moves its audience through the world of the plot.
For example, during the first act of The Avengers, after Loki steals the Tesseract and Nikc Fury declares that they are at war, we get to see the Avengers, one by one. Each of them are in very different places, so the cut from person to person could be jarring. However, Joss Whedon uses the dialogue as a bridge to the next location. For example, we are told that “We need a soldier” – and this takes us to a shot of Captain American boxing. He is, after all, the ultimate soldier.
Then, when Nick Fury asks Captain American about the Tesseract, he is told, “You should have left it at the bottom of the ocean.” This transitions us smoothly to Iron Man, who is – not so coincidentally – at the bottom of the ocean, converting the power to his building.
Luc Besson’s transitions in The Fifth Element are similarly genius, albeit far less subtle.
For example, when the plane heading for Fhloston Paradise is getting ready to take off, the film seamlessly transitions between the cockpit, a cabin where Ruby Rhod is having sex with a flight attendant, the outside of the plane where the flight crew prepares the flight for launch, Zorg in his office, and the interior of the airport where a criminal gets killed.
To make this transition, the music helps a lot, but there are other elements at play as well, which the writer controlled in the screenplay. For one, there is a sexual undertone to many of the scenes, regardless of whether sex is used or not. The pilot’s references to “parasites in the landing gear” are the most subtle, but considering the tongue-in-cheek humor of the film, this can be read in a sexual way. The flight crew is more obvious to their references, saying things like “we need some heat here, man” and “take that” (as he shoves a rod into a compartment). Zorg’s telephone shoots into the air like an erect penis, and asks if his lackey has “taken off.” Ruby’s scene is the most blatant scene sexually since, well… he’s having sex.
The scene climaxes – literally and figuratively – with the culmination of Ruby’s sexual encounter, the plane taking off and the explosion that kills Zorg’s underling. It’s a brilliant piece of film that showcases both the both of the visual medium and how a good writer can create a much more powerful scene by using brilliant transitions to take us from place to place.
Being a novelist who came from a film writer background, I try to use films like this as inspiration for how I might want to transition from scene to scene within my novels. Whether by being subtle with my word choices, like Joss Whedon, or by being a little more blatantly visual, like Luc Besson, I understand that the key to creating a story that flows is through successful transitions.
What films can you use to inspire your scene transitions?