Using a Montage to Handle Time in Fiction

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/

Image Credit: Zoli Plosz/

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my mini-series on handling time in our fiction. Today I want to talk about what I call the montage.

If you watch movies, you’ve likely seen a montage. It’s a quick collection of images used to compress time or information. In other words, it’s a pacing tool.

And a montage can help us handle the passage of time in our fiction. What I mean by that will make more sense when I show you how they’re used, so let’s dive in.

Montages for Compression of Time

As an editor, I often have a discussion with writers over “empty” scenes—scenes without enough happening in them to justify their existence or where the character’s goal isn’t exciting in and of itself. They make the story feel slow, but the writer will argue that the scenes are important because they need to show time passing. What they often need instead of all those extraneous scenes is a time-compression montage.

In movies, time compression montages are used when it’s important to know that something is happening—for example, a character is learning a new skill—but it’s not important enough or interesting enough to spend a long time showing it happening.

In other words, the fact that this time passed or that this skill was gained is more important than the details of what happened during that passed time or skill acquisition.

I’ll give you a quick example of how a time-compression montage might look on the page.

Let’s say we have a woman in the 1800s awaiting a letter from her husband, who has gone ahead of her across the continent to set up a home for them and was supposed to send for her once he arrived.

Each day I walked to the post office to check our box. Each day the clerk came back empty-handed. At first it was, “Is there something special coming, dear?” and then “Are you sure he has the right address?” and finally “Letters get lost all the time. I wouldn’t worry.” By the time winter set in, she didn’t say anything at all. When I asked if I had any mail, she simply shook her head. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

In the movie Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s character is walking through the market and the seasons change around him, that’s a time-compression montage. A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger) used multiple montages in this way. The novel version of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding uses at least one montage. If you watch for them from now on, you’ll see how frequently time-compression montages show up in fiction, on both screen and page, across all genres.

Montages for Backstory

I could write a whole series about backstory (and I might eventually). The biggest danger of backstory is that we insert it in such a way that it stops the present-day action dead. (A close second is adding unnecessary backstory, even in small bites.)

I could name on one hand the number of times I’ve come across a flashback (a piece of backstory turned into its own scene) that was essential enough to justify its existence and worked well. Very rarely is a scene-length flashback the best way to handle backstory. That’s not to say that the backstory itself isn’t essential—sometimes it can be—but we need to handle it properly.

There are many ways to do that. One particularly effective method for emotionally charged bits of backstory is to use a backstory montage.

The best way I can explain how this works is to point you to the movie K-Pax. Near the end, the psychiatrist, Mark Powell, has gone back to the home of Robert Porter, the man he believes is Prot (a patient who claims he’s an alien). As the sheriff tells the story of the rape and murder of Porter’s wife and daughter by an ex-con, we see these flashes of images of what happened.

We can use the same method in our stories when we want to share backstory or have our character relive a particularly traumatic event in the past, but we also want to keep the present day story moving.

Share a present day event, then a flash of images or sounds or smells. A present day event, and then a flash of the memories it triggers. It works like a chain of links as the character struggles to face the past without losing touch on what’s happening in the present. The montage flashes should work in sequential order to tell their own mini-story alternating with the present-day story of the character.

Montages for Altered States of Mind

Sometimes we run into a spot where our character is very sick, drugged, having a mental break, or is in an otherwise altered state of mind. For example, when Katniss has been stung by the tracker jackets in The Hunger Games and she’s hallucinating, stumbling through the forest.

These are moments when we need to cover what could be a large area of time in a fast, interesting way. We also need to be able to do it in an authentic way that feels like we’re still inside the viewpoint character.

Let me show you how this might look.

Angie struggled to stay awake—some part of her brain screamed at her that she should after a head injury—but her whole body felt strange. Achy and heavy and hot. Black dots swam in her vision and the world was upside down. No, the world was right side up. The car was upside down. Windshield smashed and glass all over the floor-ceiling.

Her eyes slid shut. Flew open.

Sirens. Red and blue and white flashes of light. A voice saying “on three.”

Daggers of pain plunged into her whole body and blackness swallowed her again.

White walls in a moving room. Someone taking her pulse. An IV line dangling from her arm.

Beeping machines. A mask over her face. The stench of skunk.

She fought her way back to consciousness. The room smelled of antiseptic and sweat, and she brushed her fingers over a thin, rough blanket. This wasn’t her house and it wasn’t her bed. The crash. Someone had t-boned her on the way home from work, right? She couldn’t quite pull all the pieces from her memory, but how else would she have gotten here.

The curtain around her bed pulled back, and a woman in smiley face scrubs leaned over her. “Nice to see you awake again. On a scale of 1-10, how would you say the pain is today?”

Angie has been drifting in and out of awareness for nearly a week by the time she finally comes fully awake.

While we have the option of skipping over times like this, a montage can show the passage of time in a natural and interesting way.

Have you ever tried to write a montage? Or would you like to share an example of a montage from a book or movie that you felt worked particularly well?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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