Is Your Story Suffering From the Montage Effect?

This week’s video warns against summarizing your story’s best scenes.

Video Transcript:

There’s a section I’d say, oh, about halfway through the remake of Red Dawn, in which the surviving young people put on their game faces and start figuring out how to take the battle back to the enemy. Under the direction of their Marine leader, they start learning about weapons and tactics, how to work together as a group, and, in short, how to become the kind of lean, mean fighting machine that’s going to make the enemy’s big bad North Korean army sit up and take notice. This entire segment is exhibited as a montage, a rapid series of shots, all meshing together to show what’s happening over a period of time.

As soon as this section started up, I looked over at my viewing partner and said, “I think they think they just montaged the best part of the movie,” to which he nodded in agreement. I saw this same thing again recently in a romantic comedy that montaged the entire segment of the couple falling in love. As a viewer, I’m now going, “What have you done?” If a story is montaging its most important scenes—those in which the characters are undergoing deep and important personal changes—then you know something’s wrong. And this problem definitely isn’t exclusive to the movies.

Sometimes authors lose sight of the scenes that really matter in their stories. This can happen for a number of reasons, including oversight, laziness, or even a fearful resistance to having to write these scenes. But readers aren’t going to accept any of these excuses. If you find yourself summarizing important or potentially juicy scenes, stop and reevaluate what you’re doing. Whatever your reason, it’s not good enough. Readers are reading your book because of these scenes. They want to experience them. They want to see your characters growing and reacting. This is a prime example of why, in most instances, it’s so important to show rather than tell.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever had a beta reader tell you to flesh out a scene?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Yep, in my current, near-ready novel Kellen’s Hope. I wasn’t fleshing out the emotional parts enough. Once it’s proofed and I have a book cover, I think it’ll hook my readers. By the way, I’m going with e-publishing…

    Good Post K.M. Weiland
    Blessings,
    Danie

  2. Emotional scenes can be tough. Not only are emotions often difficult to quantify in words (much less *show* rather than tell), but we’re often so involved in the characters’ emotions that we fail to realize they’re not obvious.

  3. What about vignetting? I have a section where the MC is going through severe psychological trauma in a haze, with only key coherent moments which are remembered.

    I also have another section with diary excerpts across a span of a few months.

    Both techniques have something in common with montage, but I’m not sure they’re the same thing. What do you think?

  4. Yes, in my first book I summarized the passage of years, including gaining new friends, getting a new tutor etc. Instead of a couple of summary paragraphs, I wrote four extra chapters and it was an improvement.

  5. I have absolutely been guilty of this, but now I have a name for this disease. And the first step to getting better is admitting the problem, isn’t it? 🙂 Thanks!

  6. @Grace: First of all, I think there *is* a time and a place for the montage. In fact, I love well-done montages in movies. It’s only when the montage is glossing over material that would be better explored in more depth that we have a problem. And, ultimately, that decision of gloss or depth is always going to be up to the writer. The “vignette” and the diary approaches can both be wonderfully effective in the right time and place.

    @Jenny: Something we *will* be better off summarizing long passages of time, if nothing too critical happens in them. But, chances are, a little more breathing space will bring those moments to life.

    @Angtelica: Yep, getting past denial is a huge step. :p

  7. It is necessary that the Author to envisage himself/ herself in the place of the Reader and superimpose his/her thoughts of expectations ! All the graphic details of the scenes , dialogues , narrations are to be rendered in proper perspectives !

  8. I’ve definitely seen this too, and it’s frustrating when you feel like the writer is glossing over something important. It’s like they’re holding back.

    Writing those scenes can be tricky, but if it’s what the story is about, that’s the whole point! It gets me thinking about show/tell, and which scenes in my story are which. Some need just a few sentences to guide the reader or get a quick point across, while others need to dive in deep and explore.

  9. We should always try to write the kind of book we would love reading. Our ideal reader will usually be someone just like us.

  10. @Jeff: The key in figuring out which scenes can be summarized is to hunt down the shakers and movers. Which scenes are moving the plot forward? Which scenes are moving the character progression forward? Those should never be summarized.

  11. Absolutely! I sometimes forget when I’m writing that people can’t see what’s going on in my head, so I have to walk them through all the details of the scene or scenes step by step.

  12. Objectivity is tough from just about every angle for a writer. Yet another reason why we can’t live without good beta readers.

  13. Oh, so true, montage is very dissapointing! How do you think you can suspect you´re doing it?

  14. In novels, the equivalent of the montage will be lengthy paragraphs (or even pages) of summary. Instead of fleshing out events, you’ll just be summing them up. (Which isn’t to say that summary sometimes *isn’t* the right choice.)

  15. I know doing a summary is sometimes okay, but I naturally tend to avoi doing so!

  16. I think it’s happened to me once or twice. Usually, I don’t sum up scenes, not unless I’ve got my protag interviewing multiple witnesses in sequence, and many of the questions/responses are similar.

  17. @Liberty: Scenes like that are almost always appropriate for summarizing.

  18. I’ve been trying to pay attention to this in my own story writing. Some scenes I’ll simply breeze over if I don’t think they hold significance to the plot or aren’t particularly interesting. However, if the scene seems –difficult–, because I don’t know how to portray it or its emotionally heightened, I try to pinpoint why. I once heard someone say that the difficult to write scenes can be some of the ones you most want to read– though they’re harder to write.

    I have scene montages in movies I didn’t mind, because they took a span of time where we already kind of saw how the events were playing out, but showing everything would have been too long to fit the grand scheme of things.

  19. The advice about showering extra love on the difficult scenes is gold. I’m working through one of those scene right now. It’s an important action scene that is tough to choreograph and work through – but I know it’s one readers will particularly enjoy if I do it right.

  20. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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