The montage technique: writing better summaries (tip 46) Reply

In film-making, montage refers to the technique in which a series of clips are edited into a sequence in order to convey succinctly what happens over a longer time or a wider space. It’s a form of summary in which, rather than providing a general overview, the director gives an impression of everything that happens through a few examples. Strangely, nobody ever discusses how prose writers use this technique, even though novelists have been writing montages for hundreds of years. Here’s how!


Video transcript follows below:
The montage technique. Developed by Sergei Eisenstein, made famous by Rocky. Today, there’s even an Online Writing Tips montage.

The plot of Rocky demands that the protagonist transforms from a chain smoking debt collector to a heavyweight champion. That takes months of training, but the film only lasts 90 minutes. So what do you do? Do they put up a title card that says ‘Rocky trained very hard for several months and then…’? Of course not: they show us examples of him training – some specific moments that give us the idea of the ongoing effort. They show us a montage. Here he’s punching bags; here he’s doing push ups; here he’s running up the steps.

Writers should do the same thing. Suppose it’s important for the plot that Dave has had a rubbish day at work. You’re not going to write the whole eight hours he spends at work as a scene, because that would be intolerably boring. But you don’t want to describe just one thing that went wrong, because it’s the whole day that has been awful. So how do you summarise it? Do you write:

It had been a rubbish day at work. Pretty much everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. In fact, Dave realised, the whole day had been one disaster after another. He was fed up.

No! That’s vague and boring. Instead, you use the montage technique!

By five o’clock he was ready for a pint. The 380 from Bangor had broken down five miles from Rhyl; by eleven, the M62 had been shut both directions at junction twelve; Steve, the security guard, had got into a fist fight with a family of Hassidic Jews; Julie’s second cousin had OD’d in the gents; and, worst of all, Dave had had to spend his lunch break with the smelly guy who drives the 312 and talks incessantly about Medieval re-enactments.

Similarly, if Hermione has had months of dating misery, how do you summarise it? Do you write:

Since breaking up with Franklin, Hermione had been on a series of rubbish dates and had entered into one or two disastrous relationships. Her recent experience with men had been so awful that she was close to giving up.

No! That’s vague and boring. Instead, you use the montage technique!

Since breaking up with Franklin, Hermione had been set up with a trucker who openly discussed his balloon fetish; she had been on a dinner date with a fruitarian who would eat nothing that hadn’t fallen to ground of its own accord; and her brief affair with Steve had ended after he started a fist fight with a family of Hassidic Jews. Did she want to go for a drink with her brother-in-law’s favourite waiter? On reflection, probably not.

Those are examples of how you can condense time with a montage, but you can also condense things that happen over a big space. For instance, if your story involves a big crowd of people, you can’t describe what each of them is doing. So how do you summarise the crowd?

Harry looked into the crowd and saw all sorts of people milling about, shuffling here and there, trying to find a good vantage point from which to watch the parade.

No! That’s vague and boring. Instead, you use the montage technique!

‘Scanning the human melt for the glint of a familiar face, Harry sees instead a beer can being brazenly passed back and forth, the flash of a myopic child’s earnest spectacles, a silver hoop earring in the lobe of an Hispanic-looking girl.’ (John Updike)

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by WhiteSusie. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitesusie/

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