NINE GREAT TECHNIQUES FOR SCENE TRANSITIONS
The scene is written. Your characters pursued their goal, encountered obstacles, faced a dilemma, and settled on a course of action to take in order to move forward. The scene is over and it is time to move into next the scene. So how do you do this?
This week I thought I’d share some techniques, lifted from Erik Barnouw’s brilliant “Handbook of Radio Writing” (1947), that I find helpful.
These are a variety of devices that can be used to transition from one scene to another. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The last few words of the previous scene are faded out, a pause occurs, and the first words of the new scene fade in. Generally the new scene is suggested in the closing words of the old scene.
A scene fade-out should be spread over four to fifteen seconds and, as a rule, the last few words in the fading of a speech should be confined to words of no importance to prevent important information being lost to people with their audio set low – words like good-bye, or repetitive phrases are good.
Likewise the fade in to the next scene should begin on an unimportant phrase.
The pause-transition works best at a moment of suspense, relying on anticipation for the next scene to maintain dramatic interest over the dead-stop of the pause.
It can also be a helpful device when there is a very close connection between the material faded out and in – as where an individual begins reading a diary in one scene and fades to the voice of the original writer narrating the events in the next.
A pause doesn’t announce the end of the scene in as obvious a manner as music does.
Many speeches do not make good fades (do not provide suitable unimportant words at the end to make the fade effective).
The dead stop of the pause can come at the cost of the listener’s continuing dramatic interest.
No music or sound effects are required to achieve the pause-transition. This makes it cheaper and less effort to accomplish.
It can create a more natural feel in a show (since it doesn’t introduce any non-natural elements such as sound and narration).
Sometimes the transition from one scene to another is handled by a narrator saying something like “Meanwhile, three miles out of town camping in a dried up creek bed the Dalton gang plan their next move”.
Narration doesn’t quite provide the effect of a curtain on its own so the fade out of the old scene is usually still needed. Generally only a three to five word fade is required (unlike the pause transition which requires a longer fade).
The story doesn’t need to halt when a narrator aids the transition. The pause between dialogue and narration can be almost negligibly short.
Narration-transitions come in at full volume and do not needed to be faded in.
Narration also allows the writer to introduce fast and frequent changes of scene.
The narrator can be used in a clumsy manner if a proxy-listener character must be brought to the foreground. Transitions are better handled by the narrator alone rather than the narrator in dialogue with a proxy-listener.
Some folks feel narration breaks the sense of immersion built up by the dialogue. This is not necessarily the case since the listener participates actively in maintaining the illusion of being present on the scene.
The above point is very controversial for some folks (many producers of modern audio drama are highly vocal in their dislike of narration in general). Personally I enjoy it, even if I don’t use it much in my own scripts.
SOUND EFFECTS TRANSITIONS:
Particularly useful in action drama, the sound effect makes a great means of shifting the scene. As with the pause transition, it works best when the setting of the new scene is foreshadowed by the concluding words of the old. It is also more effective where the sound background is repeated/repetitive (as such sounds can be faded out easily without creating confusion).
For example, a protagonist ends a scene by mentioning the need to catch a train (fading out), the sound of the train is introduced (fading in), and the conductor asks for tickets or calls “all aboard” as the sound is faded into the background.
Where the fade-in has been handled by the sound effect, dialog can come in at full volume and get right down to business.
The sound effect transition is also a very quick transition. In some cases it can even overlap a scene (particularly useful for flashbacks)
The sound effect transition tends to work best in action stories and doesn’t lend itself particularly well to stories with a home atmosphere.
The sound effect transition also works best where the effect is created through an ongoing background noise (such as an engine, background babble of a theater or restaurant etc. that can be faded in and out).
This is probably the most common form of transition used in audio drama. It is probably the clearest form of auditory “curtain” used between scenes
A musical transition is easily recognised as a curtain by the listener.
The musical transition can be varied to communicate a particular mood (anger, joy, triumph, despair, etc.) as well as signal the end of a scene.
Bridging musical transitions can move the audience from the feeling of one scene into the mood of the next (assisting in the narration).
A musical transition can be used without requiring the old scene to be faded out.
Dialog in the new scene does not need to be faded in.
Music can transition into the sound of the next scene where the sound effect carries a similar rhythm.
The main disadvantage of the musical transition is the cost of commissioning the music itself. However, there are large libraries of free and public domain music that can be approached for pre-recorded music.
A combination transition is a complex transition in which sound, music, and narration are combined to curtain the scene.
By combining transition techniques the shift between one scene and another can be made much more immersive and dramatic.
Complex transitions of this type, if not directed carefully, can be very confusing for the audience.
A note on consistency in transitions
Never feel constrained to use one and only one transition. Non-naturalistic transitions (like music and narration) should probably be established early, but transitions are tools and should be selected for their contribution to the telling of your story and not for the sake of consistency.
Some sounds have taken on a conventional meaning over time. The slide-whistle and chime both can indicate a magical occurrence. The Chinese gong or cymbal crash often indicates a dramatic transition. A harp glissando often indicates the shifting of time (into the past and back again) for flashbacks etc. Be careful of using these conventions, however. Their very popularity has made them into something of a cliche.
DIALOGUE ON THE MOVE (simulating movement in audio)
Characters can move from place to place while engaged in dialog. There are two techniques which can help to sell the idea that movement is occurring during conversation.
FADE OUT AND FADE IN:
One way to achieve this is to fade the conversation out and then back in to suggest the movement (the actors moving away from, and then back towards, the microphone). The audience members identify themselves with a fixed point in one location, listening to the conversation depart, and then with a fixed point in the new location, listening as the conversation approaches.
THE MOVING MIKE:
The second way to achieve this effect is to use sound effects to give the impression of movement. Going from inside to outside one might keep the actors voices level in the foreground but include the sound of footsteps, a door opening, and fade in the sound of bird noises etc to indicate the outdoors are being approached.
And there you have it, a set of simple transitions. Are there any techniques you particularly recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.