Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scene Transitions

When you’re writing a spec script to sell, you’re primarily worried about conveying a story and characters and scenes that will wow a reader. When you’re writing a script to be produced, however, you have some different concerns. It’s no longer just how the story will play out on the page, it’s how it will play out on screen.

I think it’s best, of course, if you concern yourself with those things even in the “selling script.” Studio execs and even producers might not notice, but directors and some actors sure will. Ultimately writing for production is a good defense against getting replaced if the script goes into development (though your odds of getting replaced are still unfortunately high).

So what does writing for production mean? A big part of it is considering how stuff will come across visually. This is obvious in some ways but there are some subtleties we as writers who work with words on a page might not think about. One of those is scene transitions – the way one scene joins to another.

You most likely have considered the use of dissolves or fades. I would caution against overusing these the same way you don’t want to overuse camera direction. But to show passage of time or a flashback, a dissolve can be a nice device. And of course you need the FADE IN and FADE OUT to start and close your script!

There’s also the use of an audio pre-lap. In essence, you’re writing an editing trick to help keep the scenes flowing. Here’s an example from Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally):

    Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter.
    Dr. Chilton at the asylum will go
    over the physical procedures used
    with him. Do not deviate from them,
    for any reason. You tell him nothing
    personal, Starling. Believe me, you
    don't want Hannibal Lecter inside
    your head... Just do your job, but
    never forget what he is.

         (a bit unnerved)
    And what is that, sir?
             CHILTON (V.O.)
    Oh, he's a monster. A pure

                                         CUT TO:


CLOSE ON an ID card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo, official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."

     It's so rare to capture one alive.
     From a research point of view, Dr.
     Lecter is our most prized asset...

As I said, these are essentially editing tricks that you might indicate in a screenplay occasionally to ease the flow from scene to scene. But there’s something more to consider as a writer: The juxtaposition of image across the cut.

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 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 makes 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.

You also may want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can gain added impact by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify them 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.

This can feel really heavy handed if you go for such meaningful cuts every scene, so again, be judicious. But it’s worth considering what the ending image is in one scene and the beginning image of the next. At the very least you want to avoid unintentional visual metaphors!

It should be fairly obvious that scene transitions are most important to worry about in the latter stages of the rewriting process. In the first few drafts you’re likely going to add, delete and reorder scenes anyway. The exception might be specific visual metaphors. Whenever you do it, writing good scene transitions demonstrates to savvy filmmakers that you are a writer of movies, not just scripts.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Contagion Analysis

(SPOILERS: Contagion)

I don’t normally do film reviews here because I figure who needs yet another person on the internet telling you whether they liked a film or not. But occasionally I’ll talk about a film I saw that did something interesting – either good or bad – in the writing.

I finally saw Contagion (written by Scott Z. Burns) last night and thought it tried to do some very unusual things with its narrative. To get the review part out of the way, I kinda liked the movie, but found it frustrating.

What’s interesting about the approach is that rather than telling a character focused story, the movie tries to tell the story of what would happen to the world if a new, fast spreading, high mortality virus appeared in the human population. It looks at the event from many angles – the CDC, World Health Organization, journalists, government, and a handful of normal citizens. This is the story of humanity vs. a virus.

There is an emotional, single-character story line that provides a loose skeleton for the structure. This is the story of Mitch, played by Matt Damon, a normal person dealing with the death of his wife, the first American victim, and then trying to survive with his daughter as the disease slowly destroys the fabric of society.

This story is done well, and we are moved by Mitch’s loss and experiences. It’s a good choice, because he’s an ordinary guy, presumably similar to a lot of the audience. But the movie doesn’t survive on his story – though we check in with Mitch regularly, he’s in less than a quarter of the scenes. Rather, it’s humanity’s response to the disease that gives the story its structure from our first encounter with the virus to the teetering of civilization to the eventual discovery of a cure.

It seems we’re not meant to engage the movie emotionally so much, but intellectually. Which works fine, actually, as long as the intellectual questions raised are compelling enough. And the ideas about power and science and the value of the individual, not to mention human vulnerability and the tenuous hold we all have on life, are pretty compelling.

In addition to Mitch’s storyline, there is one other way the film tries to engage our emotions. We are given several significant characters cast with stars. The filmmakers cleverly kill the first one introduced – Beth, played by Gwyneth Paltrow – right off the bat. This is a signal that nobody is safe. We can’t assume that all the movie stars are going to get out of this alive. This creates some tension for the audience.

But as an audience we’ve seen this trick before, and since it happens so early, we might quickly become immune to its effect. “Oh, they stunt-cast Gwyneth Paltrow for shock value,” we think, “how clever.” Then we feel safe that nobody else played by a famous person will die. So in the middle of the movie they do it again – Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears from the CDC dies. Now we really don’t know what might happen. And since we like these stars (presumably) and most of their characters are pretty heroic, we have tension over the outcome.

So Mitch’s storyline and the fate of our heroic movie star characters gets us to invest emotionally in the film just enough for us to care about the plot. But the structure is more about the progress of humanity facing this horrific disease. It’s a script structured around a concept. Does it work?

Partly. The broad scope is interesting, but it feels crammed into a two-hour movie. As a miniseries it might have been much more successful. Given the limited amount of time available for each aspect of the story, most of the storylines feel undercooked.

For example, the story about a World Health Organization worker kidnapped in Hong Kong vanishes for the middle of the movie. When she reappears, it’s almost jarring – we’d forgotten about her. That story could have been interesting if fully developed, but it would have required a lot more screen time. Better, I think, would have been to cut it out entirely and devote more time to the political issues, another area that seemed underdeveloped.

But now I’m more just angling for the parts of the story I find most interesting. The real issue here is that the narrative is spread so thin, none of the stories ends up fully realized. A movie just based on the CDC’s response to the disease, for example, might not have been as ambitious but could have been more successful.

Would it be possible to do a broad, conceptual structure more successfully? I think so. Contagion doesn’t wander or feel boring. Interestingly, it doesn’t feel episodic because all the stories relate to the overall structural tension of whether humanity can overcome this virus. But perhaps this particular issue just has too big of a scope for a two-hour movie.

In any case, I’ll still give them a big cheer for ambition.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I was once hired to consult on a screenplay that was over 200 pages long. The writer was desperate to reduce the length, but said he couldn’t figure out where to cut. When I got the screenplay, the scenes looked something like this:


A desk sits at the west end of a small office. The floor is carpeted in blue shag that’s seen some wear and tear. Two floor lamps provide illumination. There are paintings of ocean landscapes on the wall and two guest chairs in front of the desk.

JOE sits in a leather chair behind the desk. He’s about thirty, tall, lean with brown hair carefully parted. He wears a blue suit with a red and blue striped tie, brown shoes and an expensive gold watch. He looks at a piece of paper, signs it with an expensive fountain pen, then places the paper in the out-box. He takes a sip from an enormous coffee cup. He picks up another piece of paper. Studies it, his brow wrinkling.

There is a KNOCK at the door. Joe puts the paper back in the in-box and slips the pen into his shirt pocket. He stands up and smoothes his clothes. He walks across the room and takes the door handle. He pulls the door open.

SALLY, a pretty young woman in a red dress, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, is standing behind the door. She smiles broadly at Joe. He frowns. Sally looks down. Joe sighs and stands aside. Sally enters. Joe walks back to the chair behind the desk. He gestures at the guest chair, then sits down. Sally walks to the guest chair and sits down while Joe finishes off his coffee.

I’m really not exaggerating. The solution was easy – the story was the right length, the writer had simply described everything in too much minute detail. This is called “overwriting.”

I know why it happens. When you’re writing a scene, you’re probably picturing it in your mind. And you write down what you’re picturing. But we don’t need every single detail. The reader will fill in the blanks. Plus, when you actually get into production, chances are a lot of these details will change anyway.

Though it might seem harmless, there are several good reasons to avoid overwriting. The most obvious is that you slow down the pace of the script. If you’re trying to sell it as a spec, get an agent, convince a studio to greenlight the movie, or lure a star to play the lead, you don’t want to bore the reader.

Industry readers have a habit of skimming or skipping the description and only reading the dialogue. If your description seems generally long and pointless, you’re encouraging that practice. If you put important stuff in your description, which you probably will if you’re a good writer, this is bad. If you want people to read carefully, demonstrate that everything you write is relevant and important.

There’s also the matter of timing the final film. The industry rule of thumb is that one script page equals one minute of screen time. This is only approximate – action will take longer on screen than it does on the page and dialogue will move faster – but over the course of a movie it’s a pretty reliable measure. Unless you overwrite.

Perhaps a more important problem for the writer is burying important information. Without looking back at the scene description above, do you remember where the fountain pen is? Probably not. If the reader needs to remember that for something to make sense later in the scene, they will likely be confused.

The trick to writing description is to give just enough carefully chosen, specific detail to make the scene come alive. And if there’s something you want to emphasize, make sure you hit it hard. Let’s revisit the previous scene and see how we might do it better, emphasizing the final location of the fountain pen.


JOE, thirty, tall and lean and dressed in an expensive suit, sits at a desk going over some papers. He signs one with an expensive fountain pen. There is a KNOCK at the door.

Joe puts the fountain pen down on the desk, but then reconsiders and slips it in his shirt pocket.

He answers the door. SALLY, a pretty young woman, smiles broadly at him. Joe frowns, and Sally’s smile fades. He leads her over to the desk.

I dropped it from 246 to 82 words without losing significant content. Not exactly scintillating, perhaps, but it is simple and clear and you’ll probably remember that Joe stuck that pen in his shirt pocket.

Overwriting is not bad on a first draft. In fact, it may be best to allow yourself to get down everything in your head at that stage of the game. But when you rewrite, you need to tighten up your description and make sure the important facts are highlighted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Fargo)

One of the concerns you’ll often hear from studio execs is whether the main character is likeable enough. This begs the question: do we have to like the main character to enjoy the movie? Many would say yes. Why do we want to spend two hours with someone we don’t like? Why would we root for someone who we despise?

Good arguments. Luke Skywalker is likeable in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Elliot is likeable in E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison). Harry is likeable in When Harry Met Sally… (Written by Nora Ephron). And as a result we care about what happens to them and root for them to succeed. These characters are good-hearted underdogs fighting for what’s right. Not hard to get behind that kind of character.

But what about Joe in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond)?   He’s introduced as a cad who gambles, lies, sleeps around, and generally doesn’t think about anyone but himself. And how about Richard, the main character in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt)?  He’s introduced as a pathetic aspiring motivational speaker who is selfish with regard to his family.

Likeability sometimes runs up against the desire to create a character arc. If a character is going to change for the better, they obviously have to start as less than perfect.  So how do you get the audience to root for a flawed hero?

First of all, Richard and Joe’s flaws are not really evil. They do cause people pain, but their intention is not to hurt others. Also, neither is particularly powerful. They are struggling in an inhospitable world, which mitigates their more selfish behavior. It’s easier to root for a character with these kinds of flaws than a serial killer or rapist or corrupt politician or dictator.

We can also show that the characters have hope for improvement. We all have flaws. But if the character’s weaknesses are balanced by strengths, we’ll root for them to overcome their flaws. Richard is a hard worker with a vision he’s passionate about. Joe is charming and carefree.

Another techniques used in both Some Like It Hot and Little Miss Sunshine is to give the hero likeable companions. Jerry is obviously a good guy, and since he likes Joe, we’re hoping that Joe becomes a better person. Similarly, Olive is adorable. We’re rooting for her, and since Richard is key to her success, we root for him as well.

The way you introduce the character is important here. If we see the good in someone first, we’ll be more accepting of the bad. You can also use a “save the cat” scene. These are scenes where an otherwise unlikeable main character does something heroic (such as save a cat) that tells us deep down there’s some good in them.

Joe and Richard are complex, flawed characters we can root for. But Michael in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) poses a bigger challenge. Are we really rooting for him to become a mafia kingpin, a coldhearted killer, and a man who lies easily to his sweet, innocent wife?

No, we’re actually rooting against this. But what’s important is that we are rooting for something! Just because the outcome is not what we were hoping for does not lessen our investment in the story. Michael is still likeable because we understand and empathize with his motivation.

It’s no accident Michael is introduced as a war hero. Though it happened before the start of the movie, this is a typical “save the cat” beat. It’s also important that Michael is not planning to become a criminal. When his girlfriend realizes that Michael is from a mafia family, he tells her, “That’s my family, Kate. It’s not me.”

So what is the motivation that changes Michael? Greed? Anger? Meanness? No. Michael decides to commit murder because someone has shot his father. He wants to avenge the attack and prevent another assassination attempt. Love for his father – that’s a motivation we can empathize with. And though we may be heartbroken that Michael turns to evil at the end of the movie, we care precisely because we saw the potential for good in him and yet understand why he’s chosen the path he did. That’s what makes the ending tragic.

On rare occasions the main character of a movie may be completely unlikeable and the movie still works. Fargo (written by Ethan & Joel Coen) is one such movie. Though you probably remember Marge Gunderson best, structurally she’s the antagonist, not the main character. The main character is Jerry, and he’s pretty unlikeable. But here we have a movie where we’re actively rooting against the main character. And we have an antagonist who is likeable who we can root for. Remember, the main character is a structural concept – usually they’re also who we root for, but they don’t have to be.

(For more discussion of Fargo, check out this series of posts.)

The likeability question is one that filmmakers will always wrestle with. It’s certainly a lot easier to sell a movie with a hero who is “heroic.” And it’s easier to get the audience to root for such a hero. But if we limited ourselves to that kind of main character, we’d never get such great movies as The Godfather and Fargo. Or Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane or Bonny and Clyde or Liar, Liar or Up in the Air

You get the idea.