Montage scenes are visual tapestries that stitch together moments, creating cinematic magic that propels the narrative forward.
Here is how to write montage scenes:
Write montage scenes by seamlessly interlinking key moments, matching the story’s pace and tone, using strategic music choices, and evoking strong emotions. Steer clear of overuse and ensure each clip serves the overall narrative. Montages can be short or long sequences.
In this guide, you’ll discover the nuances and techniques essential for crafting compelling montage scenes.
1. Define Your Purpose
Before diving into your montage, you need to pinpoint its purpose.
Are you showing a character’s transformation, the passage of time, or a series of events leading to a climax?
Once you’ve determined the purpose, you can tailor every element of your montage to serve that end.
Example: Consider the training montage in Rocky. Its purpose is clear: to showcase Rocky’s dedication, transformation, and preparation for the big fight. Every push-up, every early morning run, and every punch thrown serves this central narrative.
2. Keep It Tight and Purposeful
A great montage doesn’t overstay its welcome.
While it’s tempting to show multiple moments, it’s vital to ensure every clip serves the overarching narrative. Anything extraneous can dilute the impact.
Example: In The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Dufresne is secretly working on the library over the years, we see a montage of him writing letters, receiving books, and the library gradually taking shape. It’s concise, direct, and powerfully conveys Andy’s persistence.
3. Vary the Pace
Not every moment in your montage needs to move at the same speed.
Play with pacing to highlight certain emotions or events.
Fast cuts can indicate intensity, while longer moments can add weight to particular scenes.
Example: Remember the makeover montage in Pretty Woman? The rapid shots of shopping bags and changing outfits are interspersed with longer scenes of Vivian’s reactions, allowing for both excitement and emotional depth.
4. Use Music Strategically
Music is a potent tool in many montages.
It sets the tone, enhances emotions, and ties different clips together. When choosing a track, consider the mood, tempo, and lyrics (if any) to ensure it aligns with your montage’s purpose.
Example: Think about the “Circle of Life” sequence in The Lion King. The music is majestic, perfectly capturing the grandeur and awe of the animal kingdom while introducing Simba’s world.
5. Don’t Overuse Montages
While montages can be effective, it’s essential to use them judiciously.
Overusing them can make your story feel disjointed and rob individual scenes of their potency.
Example: In the television series Breaking Bad, montages are used sparingly. When we do see one, like the meth-cooking sequences, it feels significant and impactful.
6. Maintain Chronological Clarity
If your montage spans a significant length of time, ensure that the progression is clear to your audience.
This might mean using visual cues like changing seasons, aging characters, or evolving technology.
Example: In Forrest Gump, when Forrest decides to start running, we witness the changing landscapes, seasons, and even his growing group of followers, clearly indicating the passage of time.
7. Incorporate Dialogue Sparingly
While montages often rely heavily on visuals and music, sometimes a well-placed piece of dialogue can add depth.
However, use it sparingly so it doesn’t disrupt the flow.
Example: In Up, the poignant montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together is mostly silent, but the few moments of dialogue are impactful, driving home the emotional beats.
8. Focus on Show, Don’t Tell
Montages are visual tools, and the most effective ones show the audience what’s happening rather than tell.
Lean into the visual medium, showcasing actions, reactions, and environments.
Example: In the opening of Wall-E, without any dialogue, we see a montage of advertisements for the Buy-N-Large corporation, followed by shots of a deserted, trash-filled Earth. It effectively sets up the story and world without a word.
9. Transition Smoothly
Smooth transitions between shots in your montage are essential to maintain fluidity.
These transitions can be as simple as a fade or dissolve, or more intricate depending on the tone and mood you want to convey.
Example: In The Godfather, the baptism montage intercuts scenes of a church ceremony with brutal assassinations. The editing seamlessly switches between the two, heightening the contrast and tension.
10. Evoke Emotion
The most memorable montages are usually those that evoke strong emotions.
Whether it’s happiness, sorrow, anticipation, or any other sentiment, aim to make your audience feel something.
Example: The sequence in Pixar’s Up showcasing Carl and Ellie’s life together is a masterclass in evoking emotions. In just a few minutes, it takes the audience through a rollercoaster of joy, sadness, hope, and loss.
11. Use Symbols and Motifs
Incorporate recurring symbols or motifs in your montage to add depth and layers of meaning.
It can be a repeated action, object, or even a color that carries symbolic significance.
Example: In Birdman, the recurring motif of the protagonist flying or floating adds layers of meaning to the montages, reflecting his inner desires and conflicts.
12. Think Beyond Chronology
While many montages follow a chronological format, sometimes breaking this mold can be impactful.
By playing with the order of events, you can create suspense, surprise, or reflection.
Example: Memento, a film centered on a protagonist with short-term memory loss, often presents montages in a non-linear manner, echoing the character’s fragmented perception of time.
13. Choose the Right Length
A montage shouldn’t drag on too long, but it shouldn’t be too rushed either.
Its length should align with its purpose, content, and the overall pacing of your story.
Example: In A Beautiful Mind, the montage scenes of John Nash’s growing obsession with numbers are just long enough to convey his descent into schizophrenia without feeling tedious.
14. Use Montages to Show Growth
One of the best uses of montages is to depict growth or evolution, be it of a character, relationship, or situation.
Once you start looking for these types of montages, you’ll see them everywhere.
Example: In the Harry Potter series, montages of the trio studying, laughing, and facing challenges over the years poignantly showcase their growth and the deepening of their bond.
15. Play with Contrast
Juxtaposing contrasting images can be a powerful technique in montages, highlighting differences, developments, or conflicts.
Think of opposites:
- Big -> Little
- Young -> Old
- Ugly -> Attractive
- Good -> Evil
Example: The famous montage in The Godfather contrasts the serene setting of a baptism with violent acts of retribution, emphasizing the dual nature of Michael Corleone’s world.
16. Avoid Common Clichés
While certain montage techniques are popular, be wary of overused clichés.
Always strive for originality and authenticity.
Ask yourself, “How can I do this differently?”
Example: Training montages, popularized by films like Rocky, can sometimes feel clichéd. If opting for this route, I always try to bring a fresh perspective or unique spin to avoid redundancy.
17. Incorporate Various Camera Techniques
Utilize different camera techniques like close-ups, wide shots, pans, or tracking shots to add visual variety and keep the audience engaged.
You can also do this with stories.
Consider showing different POVs – first person, third person, and omniscience.
Example: The beach run montage in Chariots of Fire uses a mix of slow-motion, close-ups, and wide shots, making it both dramatic and visually captivating.
18. Know When to End
Just as important as starting a montage is knowing when to end it.
Conclude on a powerful note that encapsulates the essence of what you’ve shown.
Example: In Dead Poets Society, the montage of the students standing on their desks in defiance ends with Neil’s salute, a poignant moment capturing their solidarity and newfound empowerment.
19. Mix in Sound Effects
While music is often the primary auditory component of a montage, don’t underestimate the power of sound effects.
They can ground scenes in reality, emphasize actions, or enhance the mood.
Even in writing, you can add sound in the form of words like “pop,” “whistled,” and “snap.”
Example: In the D-Day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan, the montage is interspersed with jarring sound effects of bullets, explosions, and shouting, immersing the viewer in the chaos of battle.
20. Reflect the Style and Tone of Your Story
Ensure your montage matches the overall style and tone of your story.
A whimsical story should have a lighthearted montage, while a dark tale might have a more somber or intense montage.
Example: In Guardians of the Galaxy, the jailbreak montage is playful, humorous, and perfectly in line with the film’s irreverent tone.
21. Review and Refine
Like all aspects of storytelling, creating the perfect montage often requires revisiting and refining.
Watch it multiple times, gather feedback, and don’t be afraid to make changes until it feels just right.
Example: As a writer, I frequently revisit my montage scenes, trimming excess, rearranging clips, and tweaking transitions until everything flows seamlessly and conveys the desired impact.
Here is a good video about how to write montage scenes:
How to Write a Montage Scene With Dialogue?
Incorporating dialogue into a montage can be a challenging but rewarding endeavor.
When done right, it can add depth, introduce humor or tension, and offer clarity to a sequence of events.
Here’s how to effectively intertwine dialogue into your montage scenes:
- Prioritize Key Exchanges — Not every moment in a montage needs dialogue. Prioritize moments where an exchange of words will add value. The dialogue should either provide information, propel the narrative forward, or convey significant emotions.
- Keep It Short and Snappy — Within the fast-paced context of a montage, dialogue needs to be concise. Avoid long-winded conversations. Instead, opt for punchy lines or short exchanges that quickly convey the intended message.
- Blend Dialogue with Visuals: — The spoken words should mesh well with the visuals of the montage. For instance, a conversation could be juxtaposed with a series of images that either support or ironically contrast with the words being spoken.
- Maintain Consistency — While your montage might span different settings or time frames, the tone and style of the dialogue should remain consistent, reflecting the overarching mood of the montage.
- Ensure Clarity — With the rapid transitions typical of montages, it’s essential to make sure that the audience can quickly understand who is speaking and in what context. This might mean pairing each piece of dialogue closely with a clear visual of the character speaking.
- Use Dialogue to Highlight Peaks — Dialogue can be used to emphasize key moments or turning points within the montage. A significant line or exclamation can underscore a moment of realization, climax, or transition.
Here is an example:
Visual: A writer, seated at various locations – a park, a café, a library, her home office – typing away at her laptop.
- At the park: “This is the perfect setting!”
- At the café, frustrated: “Why won’t these words flow?”
- In the library, whispering: “The missing piece of the puzzle!”
- At home, triumphant: “Finally, the last chapter done!”
This montage showcases the journey of the writer with dialogue that complements each setting and her emotional state.
How to Format Montage Scenes (In a Novel and Screenplay)
Properly formatting montage scenes is essential, whether you’re working on a novel or screenplay.
The layout and structure of your montage can significantly influence its readability and impact.
Here’s a guide to get you started:
Novel Montage Formatting
- Use line breaks between cuts to new events/locations.
- Use descriptive headings in italics, ALL CAPS, or bold to label each new montage segment.
- Quickly establish only essential details – time, place, characters, key actions.
- Use short, punchy sentences that swiftly transition between details.
- Employ present tense, active voice for an immediate, in-the-moment feel.
Screenplay Montage Formatting
- Slug each new location at the start of the montage sequence.
- Write MONTAGE in all caps above the sequence.
- Use a series of short descriptive paragraphs for each scene.
- List key actions, characters, and essential visual details.
- Keep descriptions concise, aiming for around 2-5 lines per scene.
- Use DISSOLVE TO, CUT TO, or FAST CUT TO to transition between scenes.
- Conclude the sequence with END MONTAGE.
How to Write a Montage Scene (Full Example)
Here’s a hands-on example from a fictional screenplay to showcase the principles of effective montage writing:
INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – DAY
John moves through various rooms, packing clothes, valuables, and supplies into boxes and suitcases.
The house gradually empties and looks increasingly unkempt.
Outside, John loads boxes into his car.
He pauses, looking somberly at the “For Sale” sign on his lawn.
EXT. HIGHWAY – DAY
John heads west in his car, the sun’s glare prominent on his windshield. Billboards and exit signs flash by.
EXT. GAS STATION – DUSK
John halts to refuel his worn-out vehicle and picks up some snacks from the station.
EXT. MOTEL – NIGHT
John steers into a motel’s parking area. A neon sign flickers, signaling “Vacancy.”
Biggest Mistakes When Writing Montage Scenes
Montage scenes can be a potent storytelling device, adept at encapsulating extended periods or complex sequences into digestible and engaging visuals.
They allow writers and filmmakers to convey a progression of time, emotion, or action in a condensed format.
However, when misapplied, montages can disorient the audience, break the narrative flow, or come across as clichéd.
Below are common pitfalls to avoid when crafting montage scenes.
1. Lack of Clear Narrative Purpose
Montages should serve a definitive role within the broader narrative context.
Avoid incorporating a montage solely for its aesthetic or stylistic appeal.
Each segment should contribute to character development, plot progression, or thematic exploration.
Evaluate whether the montage effectively illuminates character arcs, advances the plot, or enriches thematic content.
2. Rapid Transition Between Events
Montages are inherently about condensing content.
However, a hasty transition between sequences can be disconcerting for the audience.
Ensure each segment is accorded adequate screen or page time to allow the audience to assimilate the visual and emotional content before transitioning to the subsequent segment.
3. Loss of Narrative Coherence
A montage, though comprised of fragmented sequences, should embody narrative coherence.
Avoid a disjointed assembly of scenes.
Each should be integral to the montage’s overall narrative and thematic intent.
Evaluate the coherence and thematic consistency of each segment to ensure a unified, seamless narrative experience.
4. Disruption of Story Flow
Montages should be adeptly woven into the narrative fabric of the film or literary piece.
Avoid stark, jarring transitions into and out of montages to ensure a seamless narrative experience.
Evaluate the placement and transition of montages to affirm their congruity with the broader narrative structure.
5. Clichéd Content
With the prevalence of montages in cinema and literature, certain tropes and visuals have become clichéd.
Avoid overused visuals and themes to ensure originality and freshness.
Strive for innovative, evocative visuals and themes that captivate the audience’s imagination and emotion.
6. Absence of Transitional Devices
Transitions within montages should be smooth and visually coherent to guide the audience through the sequence.
Avoid abrupt, jarring transitions that can disconcert and disengage the audience. Incorporate visual, auditory, or thematic transitions to ensure a fluid, engaging montage experience.
Final Thoughts: How to Write Montage Scenes
Crafting an impactful montage is a blend of artistry, narrative intent, and visual storytelling.
For more insights into all things writing, check out some of the other articles on my website and unlock the secrets to compelling storytelling.