You May Need a Montage, But What’s the Montage Need From You?

There’s a long road to be traveled, a whole city to search for a missing objective, training to be run through, a magical ritual to be setup—in short, a long and arduous task that nobody really wants to detail out. This is a job for a montage—but how do we make the montage interesting?

The first thing to remember about a montage is that it’s a shortening of a journey from Point A to Point B. It doesn’t matter if the Points in question are physical, metaphysical, developmental, or something else entirely, it’s still a beginning, a path, and an end. So you’re going to need to begin and the beginning and end at the end, and at least half of the middle needs to show the progress that’s being made one way or the other.

The second is that a montage is specifically a sequence of events worth describing. Why they’re worth describing can vary, of course—a journey montage might show particularly spectacular places, a training montage a combination of processes and milestones, a task montage phases of construction and a steadily more complete product, all of them are likely to include complications—but unless there are scenes being inserted specifically to make fun of some aspect of the montage, they’re all going to be in some way relevant.

The third is that montages are almost invariably thematically united. If a montage is about showing travel, it might have a mix of complications, vistas, and character details, but you’re not likely to see the same backdrop twice. If it’s about training, don’t expect to see a scene without at least one of the characters involved unless the whole point of the scene is the character’s absence and how that’s part of the drill. Some stylistic thread binds all of them.

Since the scenes in a montage are so short, they need to be pictures that can indeed paint a thousand words. It should be possible to intuit most of the context and the impact thereof from the scenes shown—if someone can’t answer “What’s going on and why does it matter?” just by looking at the picture, you should probably rethink including it in the montage.

Last, remember that a montage is usually used to show progress. That means that optimally, each scene should in some way show that it’s farther along than whatever came before. We’ve all seen the film travel montage that intercuts the scenes with a map to show the progress, or takes advantage of having already established the terrain between Point A and Point B. In a training montage, the trainee is steadily improving. One of the more interesting examples I’ve seen of this is the latest installment of Order of the Stick, where the point of the montage isn’t so much progress in searching as time spent on it—the important aspect here isn’t whether the scenes directly contribute to the task (though only three panels don’t involve actual searching, and both of them involve both characterization and things that could be seen as complications), but the passage of time, as gotten across by the alternation of night panels and day panels.

Keeping those points in mind will help the montage flow as smoothly as the rest of the narrative. Have fun with your compressed time!

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