Vocab Lessons: the Montage


Vocab Lessons explains a common screenwriting or filmmaking technique so that screenwriters can better utilize them in their writing. This post will discuss the

Montages have been used throughout film history to illustrate the passage of time without boring the audience with unnecessary scenes. There are many ideas about the best way to use montage. One of these is Soviet Montage Theory, developed through the use of montage in the films of Soviet directors in the 1920s. This theory stated that montage could have several purposes and meanings, including montages that contain images with emotional meaning rather than plot (called tonal montages) and montages that combine shots to create an intellectual meaning or symbolism (called intellectual montages).

Though montages in American cinema often fall into the above categories, montage is most frequently used in today’s cinema to show time passing, usually dialogue-less and set to music. The most popular montage is probably the training montage, used in every sports movie from Rocky to Cool Runnings. We’ve all seen it before: the team starts out as a ragtag group and develops skills and teamwork over the course of one repetition of “Eye of the Tiger.” It works well for any situation where learning is taking place: a kid learns to play the drums in Mr. Holland’s Opus, Kevin Bacon teaches that kid to dance in Footloose. It’s also a great way to experiment with visual humor. Sight gags and short bits that would otherwise hit the cutting room floor are perfect for the brief punches in a montage.

The critical thing for screenwriters to remember about the montage, if they’re writing it into a commercial screenplay, is that it must advance the plot. The montage works in the aforementioned films because it keeps the plot moving along. If you are writing a montage where you’re not learning about the characters or hitting a plot point, you need to reexamine the montage and decide if it’s actually necessary. Following this rule will lead the screenwriter to creating effective, memorable montages.

Here's a clip of the training montage in Cool Runnings which advances the plot (the team gets better and they get a time that qualifies them) while being funny.