by John Finnegan |
We've all seen great examples of montages in cinema and television. Whether it's the famous training sequence in the many Rocky movies or the blossoming love between two characters in a romance. I'm even reminded as I write this of the montage in Team America: World Police, complete with montage themed music. We all know a montage when we see it, but what seems to throw a lot of screenwriters, starting out at least, is how to write a montage in their scripts.
The reason behind why this question comes up so much is that there are so many different examples of montage presentation out there in industry scripts.
So, let's jump right in and see what the industry veterans do and analyse their process:
Examples of a montage in a script
Figure 1: Her (Jonze, 2013)
The above sample from Spike Jonze's Her (2013) shows a montage of protagonist Theodore and his partner Samantha's life together (to quote the montage directly). Jonze uses bullet points to show the sequence of events playing out, like a scene rundown. Jonze even specifically closes the montage with a further description.
Every one of these points of the sequence is in fact a scene in its own right. Jonze might not give the scene much weight due to the extreme brevity of his writing but these are scenes nonetheless. We have a walk to work, a balcony, an art installation (specifically described, including the time of day) and so on.
Clearly Spike Jonze didn't worry about this when he was writing, after all, he was the director as well. He probably used this as a guide to be further fleshed out on the day.
Figure 2: Her (Jonze, 2013)
Looking at figure 2, we can see an even shorter montage, seen through the imagination of protagonist Theodore. While the first example at least gave a sense of structure, this one seems even sparser in terms of information.
What strikes me about Jonze's approach to writing montage is that, if he wasn't directing this and was just acting as a screenwriter, the actual director would probably have to do a rewrite of this in order to properly flesh it out and unpack the logistical nature of shooting it. If we think about a screenplay in terms of its functionality (a document used by filmmakers to make a movie), this isn't a very useful way of writing.
Onto the final example:
Figure 3: The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)
I chose this example from The Great Gatsby (2013) because, rather than presenting a character-based montage (where a character is moving through time and demonstrating growth), it's showing a series of newspaper headlines.
Luhrmann writes this in the same style as Jonze (at least in the first example), but this is a far more practical use of the bullet-point sequence. In this instance, these brief one-line entries in the montage sequence fully serve the filmmaker. There is no ambiguity as to what we will ultimately see. Each line represents a newspaper headline, nothing more, nothing less. There is no character action to figure out later during the shoot.
This is a far more acceptable usage of this style of writing because it isn't shortchanging the reader about what is happening in the story.
How you should write a montage
As you can see from the above examples, there is more than one way to present a montage in a script. And, as I've mentioned already, there are far more informative ways of communicating the information in your scene. You can certainly write your sequence in short bursts of action or description, or, like Her, use a brief paragraph to explain the entirety of the 60-120 second long montage. The problem with this is that you seriously run the risk of selling the sequence short in terms of the information you are communicating.
A montage might be light in terms of time but it's packed full of valuable character-building information. It's why the montage is so effective as a filmmaking technique. However, that effectiveness rarely translates into scriptwriting as writers take shortcuts to get the information down on paper. But just because it's short on screen doesn't mean you don't have to still do your part as a storyteller to flesh out those moments on the page. And this is especially important for a montage which is (unlike the 'Gatsby' example) commonly used to show a journey of growth or discovery.
Instead of watering down the potency of the sequence with extreme brevity, you should also consider whether the sequence would be better fleshed out as individual scenes on the page (complete with scene headers). Remember, each of these mini-scenes in the montage sequence are, in their own right, scenes and are equally deserving of the same treatment you would give any other scene in the script. These scenes will naturally be short and any director of worth will easily identify that this is a 'montage', whether you've chosen to explicitly identify it as such.
After all, so many sequences which were never written as montages, are sometimes turned into such in the post-production process for the purposes of time and pacing.
To be clear; by no means am I saying that you cannot write a script in the style of what we see in the above examples.
However, I'm a believer that you shouldn't dictate to a director or editor how to do their job. In the case of writing montages, it's rarely the case that such a sequence will demand this kind of classification in the script. Doing so can make the script rigid and inflexible later in the production or post-production process.
If you absolutely feel you need to say 'montage' in your sequence, go ahead. However, if it's not a hill you're prepared to die on, consider fleshing out those bullet-points as standalone scenes, brief as they may be, so as to communicate the full power of that sequence and better represent that sequence in terms of pacing and timing.
John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Follow John here.
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