Rewriting – sequence and act bridges

by Alexandra Sokoloff 

I don’t know what it is, but my family’s Christmas gatherings always seem to  involve aliens in some way. Possibly stems from all those years we spent road-tripping on (the former) Route 66. 

This year it was watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (again).

I haven’t seen the film in a while and it turns out to be a great example of a concept I’m always trying to get across to this college film class I’m teaching: act and sequence transitions. To get across the idea of the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure, I show them films to illustrate that accomplished filmmakers often use a recurring image or device to indicate the end of one sequence and the beginning of another (not always for every sequence, but VERY frequently for the transitions between the four acts). 

Since my New Year is all about rewriting, two different projects, I wanted to talk about some examples today and hopefully get some from you all.

Some are very obvious, like:

– The still shots of wedding invitations that set up each act of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL

 – The six stages of a con that set up the sequences of THE STING: The Set-Up, The Hook, The Take, The Wire, The Shut-Out and The Sting … and which are delineated by still paintings on title cards.  (Yes, that’s just six – the first sequence is the incident that compels Hooker to want to do the long con to begin with, and the eighth is the wrap-up.)

– The old newsreel-style shots of the map of the globe with the superimposed plane flying and the red line marking the journey and the sequence transitions in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Others are more subtle but easy to spot if you train yourself to look, like:

– The long overhead shots of Jamie Foxx’s cab cruising through the streets of L.A. between each sequence of COLLATERAL. (There are similar long shots of the spaceship Nostromo gliding silently through the vast emptiness of space that mark the sequence breaks in the first ALIEN)

– The shots of seasons (fall, winter, spring) and specific holiday decorations in the Great Hall that delineate the sequences and acts in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.

– Another film I just love, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, cuts away from the main story of Westley and Buttercup to the framing story of the grandfather reading the book to his grandson at each sequence and act break – slyly demonstrating the power of cliffhangers.

– And in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, after the climax of each sequence, there is a cut to a short scene of the team of scientists, led by a mouth-watering François Truffaut (just saying) racing to yet another spot on the globe to investigate another UFO sighting.  These scenes appear every fifteen minutes like clockwork – not as blatant as still shots and title cards, but equally effective as the demarcation between sequences and acts.

Personally, I just love how these bridges, or markers, or transitions, or whatever you feel like calling them, create a symmetry and forward momentum to a story. It signals an audience that the story is moving into a different phase, and gives the audience a chance to take a breath and mentally prepare, even for a second, for the next stage of the journey.

I think it’s really useful to train yourself to look for how your favorite storytellers might be using these transitions, on screen and on the page. It will get you thinking about how you might use some kind of bridge scene yourself. It’s not that you HAVE to do it, not at all!  But maybe there’s a hint of some perfect recurring transition scene already in your first draft that you can build on to create a whole series of transitions that will give your story that perfect symmetry and momentum.  Something to think about!

In novels, one of the most obvious act bridges is dividing your book into Part I, Part II, and Part III.   Sounds simplistic but it really works to give the reader a breath and a moment to reflect before starting a new action. Another common bridge is to write sequences from different characters’ points of view (my favorite example being Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE.

So do you have any examples for me?

And Happy New Year to everyone!  May all your writing dreams come true this year.

– Alex

5 thoughts on “Rewriting – sequence and act bridges

  1. Richard Maguire

    Happy New Year, Alex. It's a while since I've seen the movie, but I remember the opening image in WITNESS of the summer breeze moving through the cornfield. And I think it recurs later in the movie just as the bad guys show up…then again at the end as John Book is leaving the Amish community, forever.

    BTW – I read HUNTRESS MOON during the holidays and loved it. And I think it may have cured me of this odd quirk I have of being pulled out of a story written in present tense. The alternating chapters in HM which follow the lady in black, and are in present tense, unfolded in my mind's eye as though I was watching a movie. A very visual story, so thanks for an exciting, gripping read.

  2. Sarah W

    I've watched several movies–LOTR, for one–in which the last thing a character says trails into the opening of the next act,and often foreshadows or introduces it:

    Gandalf: "I just hope Frodo and Sam are doing well. [change to show Frodo and Sam accepting candy from a badly disguised Sauroman] It's dangerous in the wild world for two such naive, trusting souls . . . . " (taken from the over-extended version)

    Do these 'vocal bridges' count?

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, first, thanks so much for the feedback on HUNTRESS MOON, I'm thrilled that you liked it. You have no idea how many times I went back and forth between present tense and past with her, to try to find the right way to express her. I'm so glad it worked for you.

    That's interesting about WITNESS. I remember the grain shots as a recurring thematic image but now I want to see it again to see how many times it's used – it may well be a bridge. Thank you!!

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, vocal bridges totally count, and are used often. LOTR also DRAMATICALLY changes setting between sequences. Even when there are two sequences in a row in the Shire, the first is daylit and green, and the night part of it is bright and warm with lights,, and the second is night but cold and ominous. It's very distinct.

  5. Reine

    As I read this it occurred to me that I could use transitions to get through the day. I could place them ahead of myself and look for the signposts for change.

    I don't need a to-do list. I need a book of changes. Transitions. A map to move through time. A piece of music. Sequence marked by progression.

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