Monday, March 30, 2009

A Montage Menagerie

Found a post on a board where they point us to this breakdown from of three different ways to write montages: (1) series of shots (2) list of scene headings and short descriptions (3) one scene heading and a list of descriptions. This script tip doesn't debate the merits of using montages or discuss how to effectively use them. It basically just gives three ways to write montages IF you choose to use them.

So, when do you choose to use them?

  1. To elevate an emotion. Montages are often used to show the depth of love, loss, grief, joy, or confusion.
  2. Recollection. Montages can be used to show a character's memory of events.
  3. Speed up the story. Montages acknowledge a part of the story that merits mentioning -- but not the time it takes to show it in a full blown story.
  4. To tie seemingly random events together.
  5. To tell a mini-story.
  6. To show background events.
  7. When the director wants it. A lot of montages aren't even written. They're added by a director because that's what he wants.
  8. The writer is taking an unnecessary shortcut to storytelling.

Ouch. Number eight is going to sting a few people. But I've seen it over and over. Writers get lazy and throw a montage in to avoid sorting out a messy area of the story. You can tell when a montage is an integral part of the story telling process and when it was used as a Band-aid for an open wound in the screenplay.

A montage CAN be used to do all those things on this list but it's not the ONLY way or necessary the BEST way. It's not a deus ex machina and it's not a convenient pair of scissors for a screenplay that's twenty pages too long.

I knew a girl in high school who wore an elastic belt with everything. She even wore one with her wrap around dresses and skirts. Why would you wear a belt with a wrap around? To look stylish? Those things tie! One Friday night while we were gathering on the sidelines, she grabbed her waist and said "oh my gosh, I forgot my belt". Um, yeah. I reminded her that our little blue skirts and vests didn't have belts. She told me that she always wore one under her uniform because it made her waist look skinnier. In her defence, the 80's were another era. Weight discrimination was rampant. At 118 pounds, I was terrified every week at weigh-in that I'd go over the 120 pound limit. But I was smart enough to know that a belt would ADD ounces on the scale, even if it made my waist appear thinner.

To some degree, a montage can tighten a story but there are times when using a montage is a lot like wearing an elastic belt with a wrap-around skirt. Maybe it looks stylish, but it's not necessary.

Neither should a montage be a collection of scenes that all say and do the same thing. If every scene demonstrates the same thing, why not use a single scene?

A montage should move. I like montages that have a beginning, middle and end. Scenes can progress or regress but the montage should be fluid. For example, a jilted lover could remember the beginning, middle and deterioration of a relationship. A mini-story montage should probably have three mini-acts. If the purpose of the montage is to elevate emotion, let's see a progression or regression of that emotion - good, better, best or bad, worse, worst.

Using montages is not just about knowing how to use them. It is first knowing why we use them. That's the difference between wearing a belt that holds your pants up or wearing one that is actually weighing you down.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Time for Every Purpose

My older brother performed this past weekend as part of SXSW in Austin at Hickory Street Bar & Grill. By the time he sang Hey Jude (his only cover) in honor of his son, Jude, who was named for the Beatles song, the guy was exhausted and his voice was going. Nobody cared. The audience had already heard his brilliant set of self written songs and they loved him. Just a man and his guitar.

A year and a half earlier at the Austin Film Festival, thirty something of us screenwriters (who frequent Wordplay) sat on that same deck chewing over each other's screenwriting journeys more than we did our food. My table, my very chair, was right where my brother is standing. He, however, was in the hospital recovering from a puzzling brush with death. Was it pneumonia? Sars? Bird flu? The doctors only knew that it was serious and met me with grave and sympathetic faces as I darted in and out, trying to make as much of AFF as I could without being away from my brother too long.

As poignantly ironic as it was to see one brother using a voice almost silenced, so was being seated beside another brother whom I once thought was lost to me forever.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven
A time to build up,a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Written into a Corner

Much to my chagrin, I doubt I'll be ready to submit anything to the Nicholl this year. (cue the waaaahmbulance) My online business (going well, by the way), family stuff (mother moved here from Michigan, needed help house hunting, needed me to put a wedding together for her), and misc bizarre things (father's house burning down, locating my long lost brother) seem to keep getting taking priority over the career I refuse to accept will never be.

Is my minimal writing time some form of kismet? Naw. Just poor time management and a laptop that's suffering a slow and painful death.

Writing today. By hand. Laptop taking a sick day and screenwriting software not on my desktop. Phone off. Not answering the door. Not running errands (hope the water bill is paid cuz my boys flush a LOT of toilets) and not braving the Walmart crowd to put food in the house (there's peanut butter, boys, you are NOT starving). I can't go to the store. CAN'T, I tell you. I'd run into a dozen people I know, it would take an hour and forty five minutes to buy bread and those Girl Scouts are stalking me with their doe eyes and overpriced cookies!

Not going.

You can't make me.

How do you spell "famelicose"? No, I didn't mean "fallaciloquence".

They are TOO real words! Look them up. I dare ya.