Music strikes! Upbeats and a cheerful, get-it-done melody fills the air, while a flash of scenes—many of them action oriented, some funny—flicker by on the scene. We all know this technique, because we see it all the time. The montage scene is a staple of film making for a reason: it moves a story along in just a smidgeon of time. Rocky Balboa trains himself up to fighting strength, and boom, done. Two or three minutes flat.
What about establishing the same effect in books, though? How do those of us who write genre fiction get the same effect without the use of a visual medium, let alone sound? It doesn’t seem possible. The film montage lacks the complexities of dialogue, a throwback to the old days of silent movies where music, expression and body language spoke for the characters a vast majority of the time. So how on earth do you do that with words on a page?
It’s not a common question. Barring long-winded fantasy epics or family dynasty dramas, the best stories often take place in a short time span. Of course amateur writers often want their story to draw out over a long period of time, but these tales are often linear narratives—where one thing happens after another—rather than the classic plot structures of Western culture. Narratives aren’t the way most people like their stories these days, in part because the format doesn’t often generate a satisfying ending. So if we’re talking about a tight-knit plot, why even worry about montages at all?
I certainly didn’t until I wrote Edge of a Knife, my latest book in the Flame Cycle. The last act—by necessity—takes place twenty-four years after the first part of the book. The reasoning for the jump is squarely embedded in plot and story, and therefore a necessity.
It didn’t even occur to me to write a montage at first; I didn’t know you could do such a thing in print. My first go-to was a jump cut. “Twenty-four years later” is easy to stick in italics below a chapter heading… but it bothered me. It felt I was cheating readers, jarring them unnecessarily.
My fabulous editor, Lon Sarver, pointed out the flaws, too. “We need a better transition,” he wrote, and he was right. How many readers would make the leap at such an abrupt edge? Who would want to get to know the new, unknown characters? Let alone the unsatisfactory jolt of of letting a major character die off screen. Final conclusion: try something else.
Thus I improvised my way into a technique that filmgoers have enjoyed for years. I decided the key was to flow in and out of little snippets of images and emotion, vivid and brief. Because I wanted to play with time, I kept the place consistent: the house that is central to the story’s plot and storyline.
In case you’re curious, here’s how it played out: a pregnancy becomes a little girl, playing in the house’s snow-filled garden. Less than a page later the girl is a young woman being asked for her hand in marriage. Same garden, different time and season. The mother faces death in a fearful, anxiety-ridden state, holding back the truth from her daughter. And… done!
Four things are thereby accomplished. The third act is set up, the reader is soothed through the transition, and new characters are introduced while others are faded out with a proper goodbye. Illusion accomplished, and onto the final climax.