Transitions are a subject that I don't often see discussed on screenwriting blogs, a fact that I didn't consider until a few weeks back when I read a spec script that made no effort at smooth transitions in its first 30 pages.
Guys like me harp a lot on the importance of the first ten pages of a spec script. We tell you to get the story rolling in those pages and if possible, get all of the major characters on the board in those first ten or twelve pages. And that's sound advice, don't get me wrong. The problem is when a writer tries to put 15 major characters in play in the first 12 pages. This only gets exacerbated when the characters are introduced three or four at a time in successive scenes with no connection to each other.
Let me set up a scenario so you can understand better what I'm getting at:
Scene one: 3 pages - three terrorists (let's call them LARRY, MOE, and CURLY) are putting together a bomb and going over their plans. No one in this scene is the clear leader, so it's hard to break it down to "This is our main bad guy and these are his thugs." Worse, they all sound identical.
Scene two: 4 pages - a high-school classroom where the TEACHER lectures about how they will be expected to behave on their class trip "downtown" today. In this sequence we meet BRIAN (the geek/brain), CINDY (cheerleader/hottie), AUSTIN (the asshole bully), TRACY (the popular overachiever) and PRINCIPAL CURTIS stops in to say hi. There's tension between the Principal and the Teacher, suggesting that the teacher might be the lead, but there's also emphasis on Cindy and Tracy's friendship (Tracy helped her with her homework) and Brian's crush on both of them. The thing is that the scene could be about either Brian trying to work up the guts to flat out ask one of them out, or it could be about Cindy's exasperation with ever guy in school coming onto her. The fact that Austin smacks her ass just after knocking Brian's books out of his hand could speak to that. Or it could be about Tracy's own quiet crush on Brian and her obliviousness to how guys are interested in her.
Scene three: 2 pages - College Student BRETT packs up for the weekend, preparing to leave his dorm. He mentions he's going home and then tells his girlfriend LILY that something came up suddenly. LILY isn't happy, but then calls her sorority friends....
Scene four: three pages - A drug deal in a back alley goes wrong. A kingpin's LIEUTENANT kills a couple corner boys who it turns out have been treading on their turf. It's the Lieutenant's bad luck that while he's making the hit, his car is stolen off the street by JACK. Worse, there are about 15 kilos of coke in the car.
So I ask you, what the hell is this movie about? Who is the lead? Who am i paying attention to? What's the thru-line?
Obviously, I changed all the names and fudged some of the scene details but this is pretty much the sort of spec I was greeted with recently. Strong transitions between the scenes wouldn't have fixed everything. After all, when a movie starts off like this, it's a good warning sign that the writer is trying to juggle too many characters at once.
But let's say that the terrorists are planning on bombing a downtown government office. Furthermore, let's also assume that said office is adjacent to a downtown science center and they specifically mention that the center will be a good place to lay low and escape immediately after setting the bomb. If that building was specifically name-dropped in this scene, it might be important later...
...like in the classroom when Brian maybe mentions to Tracy that it would be pretty easy to slip away from their field trip at the GOVERNMENT OFFICE BUILDING to the Science Center next door. Just a throwaway mention like that would have tied these scenes together and also immediately identified Tracy and Brian as the most important characters in this subplot.
And how about if that scene ended with texting his brother Brett, asking what time he'd be home? Now we know how Brett plays into this. Brian's probably the main lead and Brett will be important, but in a supporting capacity. This also suggests we don't need to worry too much about Brett's girlfriend Lily as a character. She's probably just there for color rather than being a developing subplot we'll need to pay attention to.
Now, there's not much that can be easily done to tie Scene 4 to the other three scenes, but the other three scenes do such a good job of putting a possible through-line in place that the audience can safely assume that these characters are destined to end up in the same downtown complication.
Strong transitions won't completely fix a screenplay that has other fundamental problems, and I admit, this example is an extreme one. Hopefully the point still comes across. Never underestimate how just a few lines tying one scene to the next can help guide your reader as the story is still taking shape.
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