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August 19, 2021

How To Write a Compelling Screenplay Montage

Is your script too long? Do you have a lengthy backstory that is taking up too much screen time? Do you need to establish a character very early on? A montage can be a great tool to speed things along in just a few frames. Here’s everything you need to know about how to write a compelling screenplay montage and when you should use one.

What Is A Screenplay Montage?

A screenplay montage is a short sequence of carefully selected frames, stylistically edited, with little to no dialogue, and often set to a soundtrack. They help move time on, establish key relationships, and can convey a lot of information in a short space of time.

So how to write a montage in a script? Let’s start by considering the opening to Pixar’s Up, one of the most famous (and heart-breaking) montages of recent years. In this sequence, we watch the entire relationship of Carl and his wife Ellie play out in just 4 minutes from the moment they get married to the moment she dies and Carl is left alone.

Director Pete Docter told the L.A Times that the montage was a way of creating sympathy for Carl. It also conveys exposition in a unique and interesting way.

"If you just started the film with [Carl] flying his house to South America, you’d be left scratching your head and asking, 'Why is he doing this? Why doesn’t he take a train or something?' So we really needed to land him quickly and make clear his drive for the rest of the film," explained Docter.

Screenplay montages, if used correctly, can be a great way of avoiding exposition dump. Imagine how boring Carl’s backstory would have been if his relationship with Ellie had been conveyed to us via a conversation he’d had with a friend or in short snippets through the film?

The opposite of a montage is continuity editing. Continuity editing is all about a seamless transition from one scene to the next. With continuity editing, we can forget that we are watching a film or a TV show because we are so immersed in the story. A montage, however, is naturally more jarring and can remind us that we are participating in a filmic experience. It’s for this reason that montages should be used sparingly.

How Long Should A Screenplay Montage Last?

The short answer is there is no set length. The length of the montage depends on the kind of film or TV show you are hoping to make. Longer montage scenes are more suited to experimental art-house films that play around with conventions.

The screenplay montage itself was popularized in the early 1920s Soviet film industry, most notably by Sergi Eisenstein. At the time the form was considered extremely experimental. Montages were used to suggest meaning in several shots rather than simply telling the audience what to think through the narrative arc of the story. Longer montages pay homage to this style.

Mainstream cinema and television montages generally last around a few minutes. Any longer than this and you may find your viewers struggling to pay attention or unnecessarily thrown out of the story.

Rather than thinking in terms of how long a montage should last, it’s better to consider the purpose of each shot in the montage.

Do the frames in the montage tell part of the story more effectively and efficiently than a continuous edit? If not, then they should be cut.

Common Uses of Montages

Screenplay montages must have a narrative purpose. They must drive the story along in some way. Some good examples of how a montage can be used effectively:

  • To establish a relationship between two characters, as we saw in Up.
  • To help us speed through a narrative event quickly.
  • To show the passing of time.
  • To compare and contrast two characters.

Speeding Through an Event

Consider the ‘Setting the Traps’ montage in Home Alone, set to John Williams’ Star of Bethlehem. This is a great example of a montage that successfully speeds up an event.

This montage shows us the key moments of Kevin preparing the house for the arrival of the burglars. We don’t need to see every detail of Kevin’s traps or how they work because we are about to see the burglars fall into all of them.

But, we need to get a brief overview of Kevin preparing the house in order for the later comedic scenes with the burglars to make sense.

The Passing of Time

In The Devil Wears Prada, we see Miranda throw her coat and bag to Andy to hang up 14 times in quick succession. This successfully moves us on several weeks into Andy’s work-life at Runway. Viewers who watch carefully will notice the bag and coat are different in every frame.

Despite time moving on, nothing changes. We appreciate the monotony of Andy’s job and her relationship with Miranda. The relationships and the job are no longer new, but we as viewers, like Andy, have remained stagnant.

Consider how dull this scene would have been with a simple ‘Two Weeks Later’ title card.

Comparing And Contrasting Two Characters

In Pixar’s Monsters University, a montage successfully highlights the differing experiences between Sully and Mike Wazowski at college.

While Mike has to study hard, Sully is seen playing ping-pong and hanging out at the frat house. This sets up the idea that Sully is popular and Mike is not, the main conflict of the film.

If we had seen Mike studying or Sully at the frat house in isolation, we may have taken these at face value. However, put together, the frames suggest that Sully is lazy and more popular than Mike who has to work harder for academic success.

Montages And Flashbacks

One of the most common ways that montages are used is as flashbacks.

Sometimes we need to delve into a character’s backstory to understand their actions in the present timeline. You could use continuity editing and dialogue for a backstory to reposition your characters in the past. But this can end up feeling like you are on a rollercoaster from which you can’t escape.

A montage is a good way of neatly summarizing a character’s past without taking us too far out of the story’s main timeline.

A great example is Snape’s backstory in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Harry enters the Pensieve, armed with Snape’s memories.

The Pensieve is the perfect device to smooth the transition from the continuous edit to a montage and to allow us to continue suspending our disbelief. This is because the Pensieve shows us memories told exclusively from one perspective. They are also incomplete and are often jumbled.

During this montage sequence, we see the key elements of Snape’s life flash before us, revealing his unrequited love for Harry’s mother, Lilly.

The early childhood relationship between Lily and Snape is summed up with a simple frame of Snape smiling awkwardly at Lily.

Similarly, the montage establishes the love triangle between Snape, James, and Lily as they arrive at school in a single shot of Snape looking forlornly across the house tables as Lily goes to sit with James and the Gryffindors.

How To Format A Compelling Screenplay Montage

So, how should we go about formatting a montage screenplay?

Begin with a scene heading to indicate the montage has begun.

There’s no need for INT. or EXT. You can replace it with the word MONTAGE in all-caps. You can also add some additional details about the montage, particularly if there will be more than one montage in your script e.g. MONTAGE OF EDWARD’S FIRST DAY AT WORK.

You should then have brief slug lines every time a change of time or place occurs on a new line, in all caps.

These should then be followed by a brief description detailing what is happening, usually frame-by-frame. We don’t need to go into too much detail here. But it is best to think of each frame as a scene in itself and to consider whether we would add this information to a normal scene heading?

The brief description should still be firmly grounded in action: it isn’t a lengthy description of how the scene should look but what is actually happening here.

Remember montages are usually accompanied by a soundtrack so dialogue in a montage should be minimal, if at all.

To format a montage on Arc Studio Pro you can use the scene heading [command+1] and action [command+ 2] tools.

You can end a montage by simply beginning a new scene heading.

When Is A Montage Not A Montage?

A screenplay montage doesn’t have to be explicitly labeled in the script even if this is what you’re aiming for.

The first episode of Peter Morgan’s The Crown (Netflix) features a montage formatted without the use of the word montage to move the timeline on by several years from 1947 - 1951/2.

King George gives Elizabeth a video camera which she uses to capture snippets from her life. This camera acts as a device to bring us into the montage. It feels as if we are watching a homemade movie of Elizabeth and Phillip’s early married life.

Morgan, uses FLICKERING SUPER 8 FOOTAGE for the headings rather than just ‘MONTAGE’.

Think about how you can incorporate a device like a camera to help bridge the gap between your continuous edit and your screenplay montage.

Writing Your Compelling Screenplay Montage

Including a montage in your script can help move your story along and spice things up a little bit when you’re struggling for ideas. However, make sure your montage has a clear purpose and every frame counts. Know that you understand how to write a compelling screenplay montage, we hope these tips have given you food for thought when you’re writing your screenplay on Arc Studio Pro.

Copyright to Disney, Pixar for header image.


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How To Write a Compelling Screenplay Montage
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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