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How to Write a Montage in a Script: A Quick and Dirty Guide.

Learn how to format a montage in a script and write one that showcases character or plot development, not just random moments.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Scene
August 25, 2020 12 comments
how to write a montage in a script

How to write a montage in a script: a quick and dirty guide. 

We’ve seen them in countless movies and TV shows, but knowing how to write a montage in a script is another matter altogether.

Just what is a montage exactly?

How should you format a montage in a screenplay?

How is it shaped?

When can/should you use a montage?

Writing a montage in a script can be a bit of a head-scratcher for both the beginning and experienced writers alike.

But worry not. There are answers…

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What is a montage?

You’ve no doubt seen these collections of scenes and shots many times before:

A character walks the streets, eats at home alone, walks the streets again (but this time in the rain) having just lost a beloved soulmate.

A soldier, who has reached a point of no return, preparing himself and his equipment for battle.

A boxer with one shot at the title, in the gym training—every drop of sweat and grunt and ab crunch perfectly timed to tense music.

Yes, the screenwriting montage… An often used and often necessary component in the telling of a character’s journey.

In technical terms, a montage is a time-lapsed sequence of back-to-back shots or scenes.

In basic story terms, it is a fast forward button, quickly moving through the progress of a character by skipping the superfluous bits.

How to write a montage in a screenplay: the two methods.

There are two main styles of montage you need to know…

Series of shots montage.

Series of scenes montage.

Let’s take a look at both in more detail.

Montage style #1: the series of shots montage.

This version is simply a time-lapse series of images meant to speed up time, usually done in a single location or limited locations.

Take this example:

Before becoming Iron Man, Tony Stark is held captive in a desert cave, and, well, he needs to get out. At some point, we see only a series of single shots:

Tony gathers scraps of equipment.

He fashions a helmet with a hammer.

He cools the helmet off in some water.

Wires for the suit are soldered together.

Tony dons the suit.

A look in Tony’s eyes: Game time!

Montage style #2: the series of scenes montage.

This is the classic screenwriting montage, usually comprised of multiple scenes and locations.

This style of montage could be a dance sequence or a car chase done purely for entertainment value.

But most often is used to convey an emotional journey a character must go through for growth and evolution in an accelerated way.

A good example of this might be a love story…

A bereaved husband has to deal with the sudden loss of his wife, and a passage of time is important to show how he is affected by it, how he is trying to cope, and ultimately how he is able (or unable) to move past it.

You might see him walking the streets crying.

Then, at his work staring off.

Then, at the kitchen table where there are two place settings, and he cannot eat.

Then, him out shopping with his sister as she tries to tell him that it’s okay for him to move on.

Then, him at home in bed alone.

Then, one day, the man runs into an old high school crush at the supermarket, and the two get to chatting, and there’s a different look in his eye.
how to write a montage in a script

Writing a montage in a script = character and/or plot development.

The key to learning how to write a montage in a screenplay is learning how to tell a quick mini-story that advances the story or shows character growth of some kind.

The above series of shots and series of scenes montages both compress time, sure, but they’re fraught with tension and tell a mini-story.

This is a factor that’s missing in many spec script montages: character or plot development of some kind.

Here’s a typical “character getting dressed” example found in many specs:

A woman wakes.

She eats breakfast.

She brushes her teeth.

She grabs a dress.

She leaves the house with her purse in hand.

Note how there’s no real mini-story here. No character struggle or plot development—just a compression of time.

In this scenario, a reader might ask themselves, Why did I even have to read this?

Examples of how to write a montage in a screenplay the right way.

Re-read the Iron Man series of shots. Note how they’re not just meaningless shots as in the above “getting dressed” example.

Tony Stark is solving a problem here, which signals plot development: gathering what he needs, fashioning the helmet and suit that will become his trademark.

And in the bereaved husband series of scenes montage, it’s used to show his journey—from being depressed to seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Now take a look at this new variation on the “character getting dressed” example:

A woman is at home on the morning of a life-changing business meeting.

She wakes. Checks her alarm clock. Oh no, she’s overslept!

She rushes to brush her teeth, quickly puts on makeup, thumbs through her closet, can’t find the right dress.

She grabs one, throws it on, heads for the door but stops. She hates the dress.

She runs back into her room but stops to calm herself down in the mirror. She tells herself, “You’ve got this.”

And it’s at this time, via the reflection in the mirror, she sees the perfect dress.

The next shot we see her shaking hands with the boss, she got the job.

On the surface, it would seem like the woman’s journey is merely depicted in quick cuts of a routine to get her to the job interview.

But unlike the previous “character getting dressed” version, this one has a reason to be in the script because it tells a story and shows plot development.

How to write a montage in a screenplay using three acts.

A screenwriting montage is most effective when it tells its own little three-act mini-story with a beginning, middle and conclusion. And, of course, conflict.

Remember: at the core of a montage—from the way it’s formatted and written—is a very calculated, very intentional structure meant to maximize a character’s development and/or evolution.

And the best way to do that is in three acts. Here’s the “character getting dressed” montage one more time:

Act 1: She wakes late. Scrambles to get ready. She hates the dress. She doubts herself. She “chooses” to go back to her room to change.

Act 2: She tells herself that she is worthy of being hired, then sees the perfect outfit (a culmination of her new confidence).

Act 3: She gets the job.

Done well and properly placed, a montage can be a powerful tool to add tension in a script using all the classic structural techniques you already know.

Or tell a quick mini-story within the bigger story. Or even convey a deep, emotional struggle a character is undergoing.

how to write a montage in a script

When should you implement a montage?

The simple answer is when it is important for a writer to move a character physically, emotionally, or thematically from point A to point B in the quickest amount of time.

A rule of thumb among some writers is to only include a montage when absolutely necessary. The same rule implies, whenever possible, explore a more creative way to make those scene transitions.

But we say, tell your story the way it is speaking to you since it was ultimately born in you.

Just try to avoid overusing them, especially in the same script. Spec scripts usually contain too many montages.

Take a classic training montage, as found in a movie like Rocky.

It is impossible to show months of training as he preps for a fight. The same can be said for an actual bout. It’s impossible to show the entirety of a boxing match.

So the best solution in these cases is to cut the fat and move the story from where it is to where it needs to be with as much drama and fun you can cram in.

Note: This is not to be confused with the writer who condenses pages’ worth of scenes into a montage to save on the page count because the script is running long and has gotten out of hand.

This happens. But it shouldn’t. Trying to “buy” or “knock back” pages of your screenplay is not a good use of when you should use a montage.

In this scenario, the writer should figure out where his/her material went off the rails and go back and fix it.

A brief word on the mini-montage.

Now, not all montages, of course, have to be structured in this way or even show much character or plot development.

Sometimes you might want to briefly show a passage of time in which we see a character going through the motions of something relatively mundane.

An example can be found near the end of the movie, Manchester by the Sea.

On the whole, however, when writing a montage in a script, it’s best to keep character and/or plot development at the forefront of your mind.

How to format a montage in a screenplay.

There are a number of schools of thought on this. And if you read enough scripts, you’re bound to come across a myriad of contradictory and confusing styles.

Some based on personal taste, and some based on lack of knowledge. If you ask a room of writers, you’ll probably get a dozen different “right” and “wrong” ways on how to format a montage in a script.

The most important thing to remember is that every single line on the page is a critical space for character development and story progression.

And given that every page in a script is more or less equal to a minute of screen time, it’s important that a montage beat-out as close to that as possible.

Another best practice is that every montage should be clearly introduced with the words BEGIN MONTAGE, or simply MONTAGE.

And, for clarification, it’s probably best to conclude with END MONTAGE too.

Let’s take a look at how to format a montage in a screenplay using both a series of shots and a series of scenes.

The series of shots montage.

In a series of shots montage, the em dash “–“ is your best friend. It’s painless and to the point (and can be used for a series of scenes montage as well).

You can also write SERIES OF SHOTS here instead of MONTAGE if you wish.

This example is taken from the great coming-of-age film, The Edge of Seventeen:

how to write a montage in a script

One thing to remember about the series of shots montage is that the action is usually limited to a single location.

If the character moves throughout his/her own house or different rooms of a large building, then the following montage example should be used.

The series of scenes montage.



Here’s an example of what this one looks like from There’s Something About Mary:

how to write a montage in a script

The series of scenes montage with dialogue.

Although a lot of montages are done without dialogue (film is, after all, a visual medium), it can often be a good idea to pepper a line of dialogue or two throughout to break it up and keep the reader interested.

A more elaborate example with dialogue would like this one from John Wick:

how to write a montage in a script

Don’t sweat the small stuff… consistency is key.

Once you’ve established either a basic series of shots or series of scenes montage, try not to get too hung up on the finer details.

Different writers have different ways of putting them together and so there’s no “definitive 100 percent correct way” to this.

It’s unlikely a studio reader is going to have a heart attack if, for example, instead of using em dashes for each action line, you use single dashes. Or letters. Or numbers.

Or if, instead of writing BEGIN MONTAGE, you write MONTAGE.

Or, if instead of either, you write EVA SEARCHES FOR SMOKEY — MONTAGE.

Or if you underline these words. Or add a colon at the end or not.

The only thing that’s important is that you find a clear format that you’re happy with and stick to it throughout the screenplay.

You can even eschew the em dashes and individual action lines altogether and clump everything in a single paragraph, like this example from American Beauty:

how to write a montage in a script

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How to write a montage in a script: conclusion.

A screenwriting montage can be an effective tool if used correctly within a story, but if it doesn’t hit the right notes it can lead to your reader glancing up at the wall clock.

So it’s important that your montages be memorable and succinct because the key to a good one is compressing time to tell a mini-story in a fun and interesting way.

Ultimately, learning how to write a montage in a script means never straying from character and story.

Should your creative voice be so compelled to write a montage into your story, be sure it looks on point, and you’ll be good to go.

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Have we answered all your queries on how to format a montage in a script? If not, let us know in the comments section below and also share your thoughts on montages in general.

how to write a montage in a script

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[© Photo credits: FlickrUnsplash]

12 Comments
  1. Patrick Adhaka says:

    Great, as always.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Cheers, Patrick!

  2. IVAN says:

    Thanks a lot! This is really Informative for me and at the right time.
    Ivan

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great, glad it helped, Ivan!

  3. Julie says:

    Thanks for sharing, certainly got me thinking

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good to hear, thanks, Julie 🙂

  4. Mesoma says:

    Very helpful. Thanks for this great content.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Mesoma 🙂

    2. Yuciff Martin says:

      Thanks a lot, this is really helpful. I have one question, before you write BEGIN MONTAGE, should you first tell whether it’s INT or EXT, location and time?

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Thanks, Yuciff! It depends what style you want to use. Some writers just write BEGIN MONTAGE and then bullet points underneath. Others prefer to spell out the full slugline in each location. The latter is more common if you’re jumping around different locations.

  5. Junaid Yousaf says:

    Very helpful believe me it seems to be very simple while understanding but broadly Explains the important scenarios Devolopment Thank you for this

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it useful, Junaid!

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