I've had an absolute plethora of clients through recently wanting to know my thoughts on montage - in particular, layout - so thought it might be an idea to dig this article up out of the archive on the old blog. I'd be particularly interested to hear from people who lay out montages any other way than those I outline below. The last way I deem "correct" in the article I learned from a director/producer -"they" taught me differently at uni, but it always came back in coverage as "incorrect", whereas now everyone is SILENT about my montages... Hopefully that means they're correct now and not dull! What do you think about montage?
Many thanks to David over at Vicious Imagery for letting me indulge my John August fantasy once again with this question:
How do you feel about montages? Are they good, bad or ugly? Overused and amateurish, or a useful device to communicate a story without dialogue? Also, what's the best way to present a montage in a screenplay?
A great question...s. Well, there's quite a few there actually. So, here we go!
First off, I love a good montage. They're economic and can be extremely useful. Like flashbacks and non-linearity and just about every other screenwriting device however, they receive a bad press. This is not, I think, because montages are good, bad, ugly, amatuer or overused, but because lots of new writers use them without knowing a) exactly what they are and b) how to lay them out properly.
So, what is a montage? Well, as David says, it's a device to communicate a story without dialogue. Generally. Now and again, you'll find directors or writers who'll mix in a bit of (usually) non-diegetic dialogue to add to the mood. We can see an example of this in THE CROW when Eric Draven remembers a series of shots about him and his girlfriend when they were still alive. It goes beyond a flashback in that it tells a complete tale: them cooking together, their engagement, them making love, even running through a cornfied together (ick! and who actually does that, by the way?). But anyway, this story then feeds into his resentment at their deaths and the vengeance Draven wreaks on their murderers. Nice one.
So a montage is a series of shots that tells a story or (this is the one that is used more regularly) gives the viewers a notion of time passing. These latter montages are the ones that give them all a bad name I think: often writers want to show a story has moved from say, Christmas to Summer and think "Great! Stick in a montage." Don't do this, unless it adds directly to the story and pushes it forward. Remember: you want to get your action in as short a time frame as possible. Eking it out over months via montage is not a good idea. Equally, don't stick in a montage 'cos you can't think of anything else to do in that space. Everything in a film must add to the narrative. Fancy images with a cool soundtrack doesn't do that, it just makes readers write on their reports: "Is this neccessary?" (Besides, what music is chosen is a production decision and not the writer's generally anyway.)
So, the "rule" I always bang on about is this: always have a good reason for a montage and make sure it advances your story and/or reveals character.
But what way to set out a montage? There are many incorrect ways. The one I most often see is this:
SERIES OF SHOTS
A - Lucy types at the keyboard
B - Lucy stops, takes a swig of coffee
C - Lucy resumes typing
D - Lucy stops, picks up the baby
E - Lucy falls down exhausted
You'll notice the "series of shots". Big no-no as far as a straw poll of producers and agents I've emailed this morning are concerned. They say it references production - something to be avoided in spec scripts. The letters are sometimes numbers and aren't incorrect, but I hate seeing both. Why? I'm a finnicky cow probably, but there are a lot of us out there. Is it worth it when you can take them out?
What I dislike most about this montage though is the fact it could be one scene. Also, nothing really happens in it. Montages should have things in that need to be "summed up" quickly - big events, story exposition, motivations, that kind of thing. That's why montage gets a bad name - it's too often used with no drama behind it. Think again of Eric Draven's reminsicing about his girlfriend. It is a little drama all of its own. It makes the viewer, in the context of Eric's thirst for vengeance, say "They were so happy together! Damn them! Get the bastards!" Or words to that effect, at least.
The second most common layout error I see is this one:
INT/EXT. LOCATIONS - VARIOUS. DAY/NIGHT.
We see a montage of THE COUPLE, happy together - cooking, eating out, with their children, etc.
Oi, writers, no! ; )
It's the writer's job to PAINT A PICTURE, not remind the reader THIS IS A SCRIPT that will ultimately BE A MOVIE (well, hopefully). You want to keep the reader in the world of the script, not give them a rude awakening. If the montage calls for the Happy Couple showing how happy they are, you have to signify it and render it as images, not an IOU - as in, "IOU one montage to come later, courtesy of the director and the cameramen, etc." Tsk!
The good news is, the slugline's fine. So here's the layout as I've learned it:
INT/EXT. LOCATIONS - VARIOUS. DAY/NIGHT
Here you put your actions
One after the other, avoiding letters or whatever in front of each one
Don't take more than one or two lines for each
Make them dramatic and ensure they tell a story
And generally try to avoid more than about five or six lines
And don't use more than two in a 90-pager, one in less
(END OF MONTAGE)