So, when do you choose to use them?
- To elevate an emotion. Montages are often used to show the depth of love, loss, grief, joy, or confusion.
- Recollection. Montages can be used to show a character's memory of events.
- 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.
- To tie seemingly random events together.
- To tell a mini-story.
- To show background events.
- 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.
- 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.