Several weeks ago, a friend of mine asked for advice on how to write a montage and I, having no tips off the top of my head but being aware that I’d really admired the montage in 100 Days of Sunlight by Abbie Emmons, decided to study said montage for some pointers to pass on. So this post is thanks to Maple for the question and thanks to Abbie Emmons for writing a montage well-worth studying. ;)
1. Envision it as a movie first
Montages are a pretty visual storytelling element, so try playing out your ideal montage in your head as if it were a movie before you start. See what the key elements are that you want to show off; see where the key “beats” are, so to speak. If there’s a training montage, for instance, figure out where the character’s main points of growth are so you can focus on them. If there’s a relationship montage, think about where the characters would naturally connect most or have the most meaningful interactions. Think about what scenes you’d see if you were watching your book as a movie and use that as a tool to help your written montage flow naturally.
2. Think about the transition
In movies, there’s often a moment where we’re zoomed in on the character, their expression changes, and you know something’s about to change. There’s an “I’ve got this” smirk, or a determined expression… Or, alternately, it could be the character about to tell a story and the movie shifts into showing the events directly instead of using the character’s spoken story. Whatever the case, this is what cues the transition into a montage. What is your transition moment? What is the moment that your character realizes he can, or wants to, overcome his weakness, for example? Or when you cut from the characters starting their plot to their preparations? Or from the moment a character realizes they’re attracted to someone to a montage of their relationship developing? Or whatever it is you’re showing in your montage. What cues your transition? Is it one of those expressions? Is it when a character begins telling a story? Is it a character’s thought that they’re falling in love?
In 100 Days of Sunlight, the montage starts after the MC’s brother gives him an idea, and it begins with him taping pieces of a comic book on his wall as a sort of vision board.
3. Consider the obstacles within the montage
Generally, a montage is a series of scenes leading up to a goal being accomplished—whether that goal is a point of character growth, a skill acquired, or a relationship strengthened to a certain point—and any well-constructed goal will have obstacles in the way. What do the characters have to acquire to accomplish their goal? Are there skeptics mocking them or saying something’s impossible? Does one character flub up and communicate something wrong to another? Show these moments in your montage, as well as how they’re resolved.
4. Narrow your focus
Make sure you’re emphasizing the points you want to emphasize, and then emphasize them for all they’re worth. Really make them pop. Sensory details are super important to this point. If the character is going through a physical struggle, make the reader feel that alongside them. If you’re building up a sweet relationship, focus on the character’s warm fuzzies and all the details they notice to heighten those feelings. If you’re doing something like a heist planning montage (which are some of my personal favorites), where some details can be omitted for intrigue purposes rather than solely to conserve time and space, be careful to show and emphasize only what you want the reader to know prior to the big event and then reveal the rest once the event actually takes place.
5. Make it a staircase
Every scene in your montage should serve a specific purpose and contribute to its conclusion (much like your story’s overall structure). Show the growth steps of whatever your montage focuses on (a character’s training, a relationship, a mission, whatever). Show it coming together. Choose the scenes that are going to most effectively act like a staircase from one level of goal completion to the next. Make each scene a notable step toward the final goal, and then conclude when that goal is near completion and transition back into the primary story as you’re ready to show the goal’s accomplishment.
Have you ever included a montage in a story? What are some of your favorite montages (either from books or film)?