Screenwriting: How To Write the Transitions

A big part of professional screenwriting is moving from one scene smoothly to another. Making it smooth is a matter of not only finesse, but technique, and those "moves," technically, are called transitions. There are several basic transitions (as well as some that aren't quite so common) that can help your screenplay read more smoothly. The main transitions you'll probably use are:

  • Fade In/Fade Out
  • Dissolves
  • Wipes and Irises
  • Cuts
  • Fancy Cuts

Technically Speaking

While most of a script is "left-justified" (all text lined up against the left margin,) there are "tab stops" for dialog, parentheticals, character names and transitions. Transitions should be at a tab stop 6-1/2 inches from the left side (the right margin should be set at 1 inch.) Some screenwriting programs actually "right-justify" transitions, meaning that they will feed back from the right hand margin as you type it in. Either is acceptable.

Fade To Black

Almost every screenplay begins with the words "Fade In:" A Fade-In goes gradually from a black screen to an image and proceeds (generally) with the action. A Fade-Out goes gradually from an image to black. It is actually fading from a black image to a picture frame. Much of the time, audiences don't even realize that a fade is happening.
Lap Dissolve

Dissolves used to be called lap dissolves because the two images "overlapped." Technically, it's just one image fading out (to black) overlapped with another image that is fading in (from black.) It's not used as frequently, but it is a smooth transition that much of the time is fairly unnoticeable.

Old School

A transition that was used more often in the earliest days was the wipe or iris. The wipe moves horizontally or vertically, and it essentially "wipes" one image away, replacing it with another. There is a line dividing one image from the other as it moves across the screen. The iris can move a circle in or out from one image to another. It's a contracting or expanding move, and it was virtually unseen for decades until George Lucas revived it in "Star Wars."

The Basic Transition: Cuts

The most basic transition is a cut. It is an immediate move from the last frame of an image to the first frame of another, without the elaboration of overlap, wipe, or dissolve. If the action is staged correctly, it can be seamless, and it is a work of art. (Note: the idea of a "Smash" Cut or a "Fast" Cut is unnecessary-a cut is a cut, from one frame to another, and you can't speed it up or slow it down.) It's simple, but it works.

Something More Elaborate

Many home edit systems contain additional transitions like "Mosaic" or "Tile," and they look kind of fancy or high tech, but they defeat the primary purpose of a transition, and that is to make a smooth, unnoticeable move from one image to another. These transitions are fine for home movies, but unless you want someone to notice your editing (usually you shouldn't), it's better to stay away from these.