(SPOILERS: The Godfather)
When discussing screenwriting techniques we often discuss the structure of the entire story. We also spend a lot of time analyzing how to make an individual scene dramatic. But we pay much less attention to the way one scene flows into another.
There’s a classic rule of fiction writing – enter the scene as late as you can and leave as early as you can. This applies doubly to the highly efficient practice of screenwriting. In the first draft, it’s natural to start the scene when a character enters a room and end when they leave. But this is usually not necessary. Try to begin your scenes at the start of the dramatic action and end them when that action concludes. Don’t waste time showing greetings and goodbyes if they aren’t crucial to the story.
Similarly, once the dramatic action of the scene is accomplished, it’s time to cut out. We usually don’t need to see everyone say goodbye and head for the door. If your ending can provide some kind of a cliffhanger, it will serve your overall screenplay well. By this I mean something happens at the end of the scene that introduces a question for the audience, something that makes them go, “Uh oh, how is that going to come out?”
Often good scenes end with what is known as a “button.” This is a final moment or bit of dialogue to tie up the scene. Often in comedies it’s one last joke. You may already have a natural button in your scene – you just haven’t cut the scene off where you should.
Another thing to consider: where are your characters coming from at the beginning of the scene? What happened just before we cut in? If you start mid-action, what happened before? If they are going to enter, are they rushing from somewhere else? We don’t want the characters to feel like they were standing just off stage waiting for the scene to start. Also consider where the characters are going to after the scene. What are they planning or fearing?
Scene transitions – the way one scene joins to another – are also important to consider. When we’re reading a screenplay, one scene looks pretty much like another – black words on a white page. But on film that connection is going to play differently.
Unless you’re going for some kind of effect such as claustrophobia, it’s usually a good idea to vary up your interior and exterior and night and day scenes. Cutting from exterior daytime to interior nighttime helps the audience process the transition quickly. If you cut from a daylight scene at a park, for example, to a daylight scene at a reservoir, visually it may look like cutting from trees and grass to trees and grass. The audience may not realize at first that it’s a new scene, necessitating time consuming establishing or traveling shots. Plus, visual variety is usually desirable in film.
An easy way to check for this is to look at your slug lines as a list. Most screenwriting software make that easy. If you see too many interior scenes together, or too many night scenes together, ask yourself if that’s for effect or just coincidence? Could you reorder scenes? Maybe set a dialogue scene outside? Believe me, directors think of these kinds of things.
Beyond just interior vs. exterior and night vs. day is the content of your setting. It’s usually stronger to cut from a small, dingy apartment to a big, elegant ballroom than from one average apartment to another. Look at the settings in your slug line list – can you make each more distinctive?
The opening twenty minutes of The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) are all set at Connie’s wedding. But the scenes cut between dark, small rooms inside the Don’s house and loud, bright scenes outside, creating not just visual and audio variety, but a sense that the activities in the house are “behind the scenes.” Since those activities consist of Mafia business and Sonny’s infidelities, that’s a good metaphor.
The Godfather establishes sequences almost like chapters with its use of setting. Whenever we move from one city to another – New York to Chicago or Vegas – there is a fade out and then a montage of the new location. Also, there is contrast between the daytime California sequence, the night time sequence leading up to the Don’s assassination, the sunny exteriors of Michael’s Sicily stay, and so on. This helps separate each section.
You may also want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can add meaning by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify the connection logically, since they are in two different scenes. For example, you could cut from a close-up of a mobster who has just ratted on the mob to a dead bird that some children are poking with a stick in order to create a visual metaphor. The Godfather cuts from Michael’s wedding night with Apollonia to Kay coming to the Don’s house in New York looking for him, reminding us that Michael is betraying Kay.
Creating interesting juxtapositions from scene to scene can add depth to your story and will show your mastery of the film form.
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