Montages in movies are a lot of fun. They spend a tiny amount of time showing us the most interesting parts of training, scientific discovery, and any other thing that needs to happen but would take a lot of time to live through. Rocky goes from inept to competent in a matter of minutes. Hiccup discovers the quirks of the man-killing beasts he’s feared all his life over the course of weeks, possibly months— condensed into a handful of quick scenes. Iron Man builds a suit in his basement through trial and error, without destroying the pacing of an otherwise quick and fun movie.
Can books do this?
It’s a question I’ve had for a while. Movies are easy to consume because they take little time compared to books, but books and prose are what I want to write. The techniques that work in movies— the character arcs, the plot twists, the magic systems— usually work in books as well. But those are story elements, for the most part. The presentation of those elements, such as slow pans, jump cuts, close-ups, and the like? Those are restricted to movies. They have parallels in the book world, of course, but the book world has its own tricks movies can’t match.
So how can we take the idea of a montage and apply it to prose?
Let’s start by figuring out what a montage is. In my opinion, it’s a collection of short scenes featuring the main character and few others, squished together into one cohesive sequence. It serves to compress a specific section of the story’s timeline, but doesn’t hop from one time to another. It’s a progression of escalating events, moving the character from one state of being to another, without substantial character arcing or important information shared. It often serves to tell some jokes or make some promises, but these are usually small and quickly delivered or fulfilled. Furthermore, it does all this in an interesting way, without infodumping.
It’s possible the easiest answer is to apply the montage directly to prose— to have a paragraph or even a sentence act as a scene within the montage, and overcoming the percussive leaps from situation to situation by couching the segment in some overarching time-compression exposition. (“We spent the next two weeks looking for the gamma magnet, or gagnet, as Fred had begun to call it. Day two, the gamma-exuding substance we had been using as a dowsing rod had decayed completely. Day six, I had found a life-sized replica of what I can only describe as a dragon kangaroo. Day twelve, Fred fell into a hole and died. It rivals the best two weeks of my life.” I’m not saying this is the best example montage ever, but it’s something.) Before we seize on a half-decent prose montage, however, let’s figure out what the montage actually does. Not just what it is— what purpose it serves, and whether we still want that purpose served.
As we said, it compresses time. It takes the timeline of the story— maybe a day, maybe a thousand years— and condenses a section of that into a manageable increment of time. In movies, this is crucial. It takes the thousand-year story I just suggested and squeezes it into a couple minutes (such as the prologue to Lord of the Rings). Rather than taking most of the movie to set things up or prepare the character for the interesting parts, we get all that stuff in less than 5% of the movie.
In books… do we need that? We have more time, generally speaking. We aren’t bound by the bladders of our audience. (In fact, if your book is being read on the toilet, a smaller bladder helps. The reader keeps coming back to your book. No? Never mind.) We cannot, however, dismiss this benefit so quickly. Some things in stories, especially when it comes to setup and learning basic things, are boring. They take a long time. Even in books, you don’t want to destroy the pacing or lengthen a book unduly by describing every day a person spends at school. We might have the luxury of time to work with, but we do want to keep things interesting. A montage, or its equivalent, will have to boil things down into those most interesting of events, yet still give the impression of time passing.
A montage is not for developing character, furthering plot (except making it plausible for the character to be awesome later), or expand the setting. Those are Big Boy Scene Jobs™. Montages are ways to imply that an elephant is sitting on a sturdy air mattress with a slow leak— or that a plate of chicken marsala is in a functioning microwave. The character is where they need to be, learning what they need to learn, and all we need to know is that time is passing. By the end of the montage, the air mattress will be deflated and the chicken marsala will be hot. The character may have started with enthusiasm, but now they’re tired and depressed. They started with partying the night away, but now they’re ignoring all their friends. They started by being lazy, but now they’ve begun to enjoy the work. (Because those attitudes aren’t a result of big things happening, but a culmination of tiny things over a long period of time. We understand enough about life to understand this.)
So what in books gives us this same effect? What can boil something down to the interesting parts, leaving the sense of time passing, and keep from throwing readers out of the story?
Exposition. Narration. Telling, not showing. That’s the easy answer.
I touched on it in my brief example of a possible prose montage. We can’t write dialogue that occurs at different times very well, because it gets confusing very quickly. We can’t explain everything the character does for the two weeks she takes to learn Swahili— that would take too long. Instead, we split the difference. We tell the interesting things that happen. We weave it together in a history-book-style narrative, lacking dialogue and micro actions, but viewing the events as a progression from one time to another. We do our best to ground it in time, because although exposition naturally feels like it takes longer than dialogue does, we still have that ability to make a second last ten pages and a thousand years a sentence.
While we are telling rather than showing in this case, we still need to show as much as we can. The exposition has to be as vivid as possible to remain able to plant crucial information and make promises if it must. But if something isn’t interesting, it needs to be glossed over, and we do that by telling.
This sounds like a close cousin to infodumping. It can easily go that route, I think. But with the right balance of showing and telling through this description, it’s possible to create the effect of a montage without acquiring the jumpiness that books can’t get away with.
The other option is to actually expand the montage. While we generally can’t justify jumping from situation to situation within a scene or chapter more than a couple times, we can certainly do it if the situations are involved enough to become their own scenes. This lengthens the montage and gives more of a sense of time passing, and also allows you to show rather than tell. The trade-off? The characters spend time learning and training off-screen. (Of course, this happens anyway in a montage, but we take it for granted in movies.) So if you choose to write a scene in full where the main character learns to climb a rope, you might have to reference the time that has passed between this scene and the last one, and possibly the training they’ve undergone between the two. (This might be the best way to simulate a montage. You can easily insert character development within these scenes, even after skipping days or years of time between them, and they give a better sense of the progression of time and the character’s perception of that time.)
And the final option? Combine the two. Start with a glossing-over, which leads into a more vivid scene, and melts back into a glossing-over, which can lead back to a vivid scene again, and on and on as many times as you like. Think of it as your own memory. You might not remember every day of your life a year ago, but you remember a couple days out of the time between then and now, and you can piece the rest together.
The more I consider this, the more it seems very similar to the juxtaposition of action beats and poetic glossing-over in fight scenes. Movies tend to go blow-by-blow, because they can, but books? It quickly becomes more like a list than a fight. So we make it interesting by describing in detail the turning points of the fight— the beginning, the first wound, the moment when the fight abruptly turns, the end— but draw back to generalization, or “telling”, when the fight proceeds as fights usually do. There’s a rhythm to a fight that we can assume without being told, and the same rhythm exists in day-to-day life. As long as you give a sense of what’s happening, we should be engaged.
I wish I had resources to quote on this topic. I believe The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater, does this, making a training montage for Puck and Sean preparing for the races— but I don’t have the book with me. I’m fairly certain Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray, does this as well, describing the growth of the two main characters from children to adults extremely well (again, very much like a fight scene, showing the beginning of the relationship, the highs, the lows, the abrupt turns and betrayals)— and I don’t have that book either. I’m almost certain The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, does this with Kaladin and his bridge team, but I’m not sure on that either, and I don’t have the book to quote. So I’ll be an unverified source for now. Please do your own research and see if this is actually a thing and not something I’m just making up.
I actually know War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, does this at least once— I flipped open the book about a month ago and read a short section about one of my favorite characters packing a suitcase, which I’m fairly sure was a vivid description embedded within the glossed-over tale of moving house. But while I do have that book staring me in the face as I write, it’s too large to go searching through it for the exact example. Maybe I’m just lazy.
This became longer than I wished it to be, but I learned something new. There are many other stylistic ways to accomplish montages in books, and possibly ways that are closer to the actual effect of a movie montage— but these seem to be the most used and most logical methods. One uses telling to shorten time enormously without leaving gaps in it, and the other skips from one time to another, in sequence, showing and adding character development all the way. Both have their places in prose. I hope you got something out of this, and if you have examples or better ideas, send them my way.