Monday, 10 November 2008


Why write CUT TO: at the end of a scene? Why do it?

I mean, how else is the editor to get from one scene to another? They don't need us to tell them to cut from one scene to the next.

And what the hell, exactly, does QUICK CUT TO: mean?

Not so long ago, it was common practice to have loads of neat CUT TO:s lining the right-hand margin of the screenplay. But, little by little, we began to realise a couple of things.

1) the producer knows that we're going to be cutting - it's not as if an experienced script reader will get to the end of a scene and then stop, wondering 'But how do we get to the next scene? How?'

2) how much space is taken up by writing CUT TO: after every scene?

It is a paradox of screenwriting that, while 100 to 120 pages feels like a great wilderness of space to be filled, on each page of script the space is severely limited.

One page of script = one minute of time. The script has to keep moving. Every time we stop to write CUT TO: we are depriving ourselves of script space. We are wasting a precious commodity.

There ARE occasions when it can be useful, if not indeed necessary, to give the reader a break and drop in a CUT TO:. But they can be few and far between.

Let's think of a script not as a succession of scenes but as a number of sequences. To be honest, I'm not a great fan of scenes. Of course they're the building blocks of drama. But they can often be short and stumpy. In television (that great monster) they can also be clumpy. The format in which TV scripts tend to be written (not the same as screenplay format) tends towards scenes which function as blocks of action. One block of action comes to an end, and everything stops. CUT TO: And we're off into another block.

I always like interweaving my scenes. It creates a sense of pace. It allows the boring parts of scenes to be politely dropped. It makes separate actions seem concurrent. It can build tension.

But this means that the concept of the scene dwindles. The scene can cease to be a discrete block of action and become something more fluid. Which means that each scene is really just an integral part of a sequence.

At the end of a sequence of scenes it can be beneficial to write CUT TO: almost as a punctuation mark. It's as good as saying 'End of Sequence; take a breath'. This way, instead of breaking the script up into literally dozens of tiny bits (scenes) we get a handful of more substantial sequences.

The script moves quicker. We're not wasting space. And each scene, instead of being a lump of action, becomes a thread in the overall tapestry.

But we still have to move from one scene to another.

Dropping all those CUT TO:s allows us to focus on the art of screenwriting.

Because if there is one thing which can distinguish a professionally-written screenplay from an amateur one, it is the quality of the transitions between scenes.

Thinking more in terms of sequences than scenes tends to help the forward momentum of the script. And a screenplay is all about forward momentum. We can break at the end of a sequence in order to acknowledge that a new sequence is about to start, but during each sequence the emphasis is on keeping things moving. Seamlessly.

One of the smartest ways of moving from one scene to another is the question-and-answer approach. This is particularly appropriate because, one way or another, all scripts rely on questions and answers.

The audience starts posing questions in their minds from the very outset. The screenwriter's job is to prompt those questions and to answer them as and when. For the script to work, the reader must be asking questions constantly (if unconsciously) and the writer must provide only enough information to keep the reader glued to the script and the unconscious questioning to develop. Only by the end of the script should all the questions be answered.

(A lot of producers and script editors, reading scripts in offices, question EVERYTHING in the script. They lose sight of the fact that, on screen, the forward momentum of the story should negate a whole lot of questions. The problem comes from being too picky, and leads to the kind of drama in which every question is answered without the story maintaining momentum - result: dull drama.)

Question and answer. This goes to the heart of drama. It's a kind of 'will they, won't they'? Will they find the secret? Will they survive? Will the cavalry arrive in the nick of time?

One way of getting from a scene to the next is to pose a question, which is immediately answered at the start of the next scene.

This links the two scenes. In TV drama, cutting from one scene to another often slows the momentum. But stitching the scenes together using the Q-and-A technique keeps the thing moving.

There's another form of transition I like. It's a bit tricksy, but it can work beautifully. Technically speaking, it involves cutting the picture and the dialogue at different moments. So that the dialogue from the first scene continues, briefly, over the start of the second scene, or the other way round. The dialogue from the top of the second scene can start while the image of the first scene is still being played on the screen.

Again, just like the Q-and-A technique, this approach knits scenes together. The act of cutting between scenes does not then create a 'jump', as it might otherwise. Instead, one scene flows relatively smoothly into the next. If you will, the reader or viewer is carried over the transition, either because the two scenes are linked by an idea (or question/answer) or because the break between scenes has been staggered.

Obviously, one must exercise caution. Too many fancy transitions between scenes could make for a script which is just too darn clever-clever for its own good.

But surely devising innovative and satisfying transitions between scenes is better than cluttering up a script with loads of redundant CUT TO:s.

And besides - it makes the script feel more professional. So what's not to like?

P.S.: All those 'jargon' terms for interesting cuts - QUICK CUT, JUMP CUT, TIME CUT, DISSOLVE, FADE, MIX, etc. - are kinda pointless. You can embed brilliant transitions in your script without scattering this kind of rubbish throughout. As with all 'tricks', like flashback or voice-over, try it without them, and then only put them in if there really is no better way.

P.P.S.: Hi Ted!


ted stratford said...

my friend. nice drink we must do it again. Don't forget to read my Hardtown stuff when you have time of course.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

i totally love your blog.

but isn't "DISSOLVE TO:" the same as "CUT TO:"???

I only use Dissolve/Cut To: in my screenplay WHEN I start a new scene that's like, a few hours later/days/months later.

otherwise if I start a new scene that's in a different location (like CONTINUOUS or LATER) I don't use CUT TO, I just use a new scene heading.

I checked my screenplay yesterday, a total of 100 pages and i only have 3 CUT TO:

whoo hooo!

oh I never heard of QUICK CUT or JUMP CUT in any screenplays. I did see "SMASH CUT TO:" in one of Diablo Cody's screenplays but I have learned that it is very amateurish so I'll never use that.

script doc said...

Cut to and Dissolve to aren't quite the same thing. The dissolve takes place over time - anything up to a few seconds - as opposed to the crisp, sudden change of scene which comes with a cut. It is permissible to put DISSOLVE TO into a script - although only rarely and only when warranted - although, realistically, it's the sort of decision that gets taken by a director and a producer.

SMASH CUT is an American version of the less frenzied, but still absolutely pointless, QUICK CUT. Using them tries to make out that something really exciting is happening in the script. Naturally, only the script can decide if anything really exciting is happening and any amount of window-dressing can't disguise that fact.

Good for you, just having three cuts. But then, you're immersed in the American tradition, which has a slightly different approach to the way screenplays work.

And thanks once again for your kind words.

TED - will do!

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I was thinking about your response for a few days to try to understand the difference between "DISSOLVE TO" and "CUT TO" (maybe I think too much).

so my understanding is that DISSOLVE TO would involve a black screen, of a few seconds, where we immediately sense that a passage of time has occured.

for CUT TO, it immediately goes to a new scene, right away, like POW! no black-out screen.


i'm sorry if i sound like a mentally incompetent, stupid annoying retard to you, it's just that maybe I think too much all the time.

script doc said...

Not quite. A DISSOLVE gradually fades or mixes from one image to the next. You're thinking of a FADE TO BLACK. That's a real punctuation mark - I read a script recently which concluded several sequences with FADE TO BLACK and I pointed out that this became repetitive (a black screen is dead time - you might get away with it if you've just given the audience a lot to deal with, but, again, it's really a decision taken in the edit stage).

Think of a DISSOLVE as a smooth transition. It used to be an optical process, in which two strips of film were overlaid and subjected to different exposure times, so that as one image begins to fade away, the other simultaneously fades into view. There is no loss of picture: rather the progessive replacement of one image with the next.

In many ways, it feels as if the DISSOLVE is a bit old-fashioned, anyway. And, furthermore, the script can live without it: passage of time can be established by other means. And, realistically, passage of time was the only reason to DISSOLVE in the first place, as if the gradual transition between scenes gives the impression of time blurring.

All in all, if in doubt, don't bother.