Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jump Cuts

Many of us were taught by well-meaning English teachers to notify the reader of a transition of time or place. We worked to perfect transition sentences and to use what "Hooked" author Les Edgerton calls various transition techniques to transport the reader hither and yon: flashbacks and flashforwards and location changes, or focusing on another character, as the story required."

Edgerton explains how literature influenced silent films. "MEANWHILE BACK AT THE RANCH" lingered on an otherwise blank screen. When movies first incorporated sound, a voice-over, or a voice over and text pronouncement, delivered notice of every time or setting transition.

The first film to use a jump cut--a transition where the narrative simply jumps to the next scene without forewarning the viewer--was Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless." Godard had shot 8,000 meters of film, and the producers had a maximum limit of 5,000 meters. Godard had to cut the film down or it would be unsellable. According to Godard, he and his editor flipped a coin at each scene in a sequence and let fate determine which footage to cut. Necessity invented the jump cut.

Some critics hated this new storytelling technique, but others loved it, and "eventually, the new kids on the block ruled." Now screenwriters just write the next scene without any labeling, regardless of its placement in the narrative, chronological or not.

Edgerton says film and television are doing the most in training readers these days. "The astute writer will realize that and write accordingly."

I've received critiques that faulted me for not demarking transitions in character POV, or time and place. In many places, a clarification was needed. At others, though, the flow for the reader seems uninterrupted. Then I debate: do I add words to for a more detailed transition? Or will the reader appreciate the lack of a pause in the action or emotion?

I feel transitions should be long jumps. Maybe triple jumps. But not sack races.


  1. Interesting post.

    If I'm switching POV or switching scenes I usually add a row of 4 asterics. (What my publisher prefers.)

    Depending on what's going, this can sometimes be intrusive, if the POV switch occurs in the middle of the scene.

  2. I do the same as Debra - either a row of asterisks or an extra space if I'm changing POV (even in the middle of the scene).
    However, in my recent galley prints, I notice that the editor has not done this, but simply let the change happen without any 'notice'. One assumes that the reader will realise the POV has changed!
    In other cases, she has inserted a row of asterisks when the scene changed to the next day (or some time period later) - but not always, so I'm not sure just what criteria she uses for the row of asterisks (but that's another story!)

  3. As a writer, I find these jump cuts hard to do. I get on such a one person, one scene track.


  4. I also do the same as Debra and Paula, but I try to keep in mind that the reader is not in my head, and doesn't have the benefit of seeing the scenery change (like in a movie), so I add transitions when necessary to smooth things over for the reader. I want to keep them interested and not lose them along the way.