Cuts and Transitions

One fundamental aspect of comic scripting is the transition from scene to scene. Transitions allow the writer to change perspective and advance the story.

Artfully done they provide a seamless flow from one part of the narrative to the next. Or more accurately, they CONTROL the flow of the narrative from one scene to the next and in turn control the reader’s experience.

Scenes in a comic are like chapters in a novel. While it really doesn’t matter where you open or close a novel (or comic), chapters work as natural stopping points.

For the comic writer, being able to retain your reader’s interest during the transition from one scene to the next, is crucial.

(This is especially relevant for people perusing your book in a store. In the few seconds someone reads through your book, if you let their attention drift just for a second via a badly executed transition, there’s a good chance they’ll put the book back on the shelf. Conversely and perhaps more importantly, if you can snag a potential reader with a well done transition, it may land you a sale and lifelong fan.)

While sharing similarities with chapters, comic scenes are even more closely related to film scenes and as such can be handled with some of the same tools used in film.

If you’re a comic writer and you don’t study film, if you don’t study motion picture technique, you’re really doing yourself a disservice. There is a lot we can learn from our sister visual art, cinematography (Hmmm, I wonder if we should coin a term, wink emoji to those who have read the Working Writer’s Guide to Comic and Graphic Novels).

For example, when your scripting a continuous sequence in a comic scene, did you know you’re really doing the same thing as a JUMP CUT in film? Don’t believe me—check this out:

Every time you work in a transition into a script, you have one paramount consideration.

Do you want it to hit the reader in the face, or do you want it to blend away in the background.

Generally speaking hitting the reader in the face will slow down the pacing, whereas more subtle transitions pull the reader along.

Because comics are static, all scene transitions are essentially, basic hard cuts. One frame is in scene 1, the next frame is in scene 2.

We can manipulate panel designs and layouts to more closely mimic movement in cinematography. It’s possible to produce transition effects such as WHIP PANS, INVISIBLE CUTS, IRIS CUTS etc… but that’s a more advanced discussion for another time. Here we’re talking more about the fundamentals.

And the fundamentals say if we’re conscious of what’s going on in the narrative across one scene ending and another beginning, we can take control and apply some technique to the process.

We can do things like:

(By the way, you can google all these cuts for a million actual examples online.)

MATCH CUT – Matching action, composition or even dialogue.

Matching on action might be a swordsman moving to chop someone’s head on a chopping block, then in the next frame and new scene, an axe falls splitting wood. It could be one character exiting a room and another character in the next frame entering a room (although entrances are generally too mundane for comics).

Matching on composition could be a close up on two lovers holding hands, then in the next frame and new scene, two inmates’ hands viewed cuffed together.

The more similar the subject the more impactful the transition.

To match on dialogue, you would leave off the final words of the last panel (usually making them obvious to the reader), then lead off with them in the first panel of the new scene . So both panels create a continuous flow, not visually but through the dialogue.

L CUTS and J CUTS – Are commonly used techniques in film that rely on audio juxtaposition.

L CUTS carry audio over from one shot into the next and J CUTS get the audio in the first shot just before the second shot comes up.

Both of these cuts translate into comics as OVERLAPPING DIALOGUE.

You can use dialogue from one character to provide the segue into the second scene. The dialogue should be somehow relevant to the new scenes setup, referring to it, describing it or making some other type of association guiding the reader along.

For example. Let’s say a couple of detectives are discussing a suspect. The first panel of the next scene might be the following. (Note: I’m making these panel descriptions inaccurately short just for the sake of space.)

Panel 1: Suspect is sharpening a knife. In the foreground we see an unconscious woman.
1 DETECTIVE JOE   (OFF PANEL)   Murdock wouldn’t have the balls to hurt the defense attorney.

Overlapping dialogue transitions give way to the REFERENCE CUT. When one character makes a specific reference of something and then “that something” immediately follows. Like this:

Panel 1: Close up of Indy.
1 INDY   Snakes… Why’d it have to be snakes.

Panel 2: Full shot of a large pit of snakes.

SMASH CUT – Smash cuts are especially jarring transitions. You can either go from something low intensity to high intensity or vice versa. The key in the smash cut is the contrast itself.

For example. Let’s say Kingpin is talking to a mobster about splitting the take from a robbery. It’s a very low key, dark scene. Then you cut to the bank robbery in progress leading off with a huge explosion of the vault door.

REACTION CUT – Reaction cuts are usually done within a scene itself, focusing on one character while they hear or see something (usually) from another character in scene.

Often the reaction cuts contain overlapping dialogue. An example of this might be a hostage character panicking as the villain is sharpening his knife or loading his gun in the previous panel. While reaction shots are often done in the moment, they can also be done at the scene level (across vast physical distances and even times).

For example, let’s say you just knocked off Spider Man-kaput, dead… finito. You could then immediately cut to a new scene of Aunt May collapsing as she gets the news.

CUT AWAY – Another useful transition is the cut away. In film, this basically inserts a quick shot into another longer one. Action, break, back to the original action.

For example: Two bad guys are tearing it up downtown L.A. with automatic weapons. As they laugh and unload, you cut to a small building collapsing from their destruction, then back to the baddies as they continue shooting.

Technically the cut away as described above isn’t transitioning to a new scene, but simply an insert or shot. This doesn’t always have to be the case. You can get creative.

Of course you don’t always have to rely on a creative, clever cut.

But keep in mind, if you’re going to hit a transition cold, without any connection with one of the cuts noted above (or one of their relatives). Consider ending your scene with one of the following:

HIGH EMOTION – It’s hard for someone to abandon a story during a moment of high emotion. If you evoke strong emotion in the reader, a rough transition will have less effect.

INTENSE ACTION – Intense action usually carries higher emotion, but beyond this, cutting on the action does two things. First, the reader actively looks to the conclusion of the action. This means you have their attention. All you have to do is keep them engrossed with the next scene whatever it is. It’s a bait and switch. One the reader won’t fault you for it as long as they’re still being entertained.

Second, if you cut during action the reader doesn’t feel satisfied (in a good way). They want more of what they just saw and they’re likely to stick around until they get it.

Of course the old stand by, for ending a scene–throw in some sort of,
HOOK — Not necessarily a cliffhanger, but a hook—some new bit of information that presents a question the reader absolutely wants to get answered.

For example: Frank Castle has saved a woman from the gun toting crazies shooting up LA. Frank leaves the lady somewhere safe then goes off on his own. But just before we leave, we see Frank run his hand inside his coat. He brings it up before him and we see it’s covered in blood. He got hit. Clearly he’s not dead, but how bad is he hurt? What is he going to do now? His situation just got a lot more complicated. Or even better, he pulls up his hand and it’s covered in green blood. Ok seriously, WTF, I’m not going anywhere until I find out what’s up with that.

Transitions have a major influence on the pacing of your comic and the overall emotional ride.

The cuts listed above are only a few of the transitions we can steal from cinematography to control and fine tune our work.

Implement them and your script will be “better, stronger and faster”… cue the music–dah dah dahhh dahhhhhh.  ▪

About the Author —
Newcomer or veteran writer, if you’re working on a project that needs commercial success, Nick urges to you read this intro article.

Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.

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