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cue Team America song

Okay, now that you know I like to have fun with my writing...

I'd like to write a montage in prose fiction. It would be a sort of a wizard training sequence, or something to that effect (pretty close).

Obviously montages are easier to do in movies, as they're a very movie-focused technique, which are basically film-editing at work on sequences shot on film.

Novels could conceivably do the same thing, as it's story-telling, but there's obviously different strengths and weaknesses to the two different mediums (media?).

The context: four years ago (in-story) a bunch of rifts opened up above all the major cities of the world (Earth). These brought through monsters, and gave people super powers, wherein they are able to either do things with super powers naturally, such as wield an element (fire, lightning, ice, whatever) or some other set of related powers. Ninja types could use shadow powers or even actual invisibility, for instance. It's generally tied in conceptually. If a character's power-concept is storms, you can usually fling lightning from your hands, be immune to electrocution, and even fly, as storms are often windy. That's one example.

The character I'm writing this story about is that character's girlfriend. She is able to manipulate Rift energy, where it exists. She doesn't have inherent elemental powers like her boyfriend. He's limited to storm-based powers. His best friend has rock powers - the ability to manipulate the ground in various ways, and even to create rock-skin for a short duration. He can only control dirt, rock, earth stuff (not really trees, that's a different power, just literal rock. (No surprise, he loves rock-n-roll. It's kinda his thing.) Another female member of the group has a few psychic powers, such as mind-reading and invisibility. They're not as destructive, so she can use them for longer - they have a lower mana cost.

This girl learns how to weave effects with Rift energy. She has the whole range of powers to work with, but a more limited amount of willpower and energy/mana/whatever to work with. She has an affinity for healing powers, and is usually called up for patching them up (it takes longer the nastier the wound, it's not an instant process). The title I want to go for is Cliche Healer Girl, which tested interestingly somewhere else. I was talking about a JRPG stereotype, which is the shy, meek, kinda not-very-interesting, but "pure" character type in soooooooo many JRPGs. Girls who are 100% pure are the default in a lot of fantasy, it sometimes seems, not so much in the west, but in the east, at least in games, you get the stereotype. I titled a post Cliche Healer Girl, to see if the forum had experienced this a lot.

And someone thought "Oh man, I thought this was going to be a story!" I think they loved the title, too.

Years later, I've just come up with my story. This character, who starts of kinda shy and plain and pure, but also a bit Ivory Tower syndrome (think Rapunzel or the stereotype of the fair princess) goes through magical training that opens her mind and strengthens her as a character. Not sure exactly what she'll go through, but at some point, I think it might be useful to have a learning montage. It'll be a short story, after all, though it could probably spin out into a novella naturally. I don't know for sure, I'll see where it goes.

Anyway, the question is, how to do a montage in prose form? I think the word is a french one from literary theory circles, so does that mean it originally came from written narrative? If it did, I think I'd know about it.

In film and TV, you can do a montage much easier than in a book, I think. You get training montages the most, as well as lock-and-load and power ups in more fantastic stories (ie Power Rangers and Sailor Moon). Even Rocky had a montage! (I'll stop now, promise)

I think readers coming across a montage might find it hilarious, as you normally get it on screen. Team America sings a song explaining how to do a training montage in film. Can't say I've seen too many montages in games, but I'm sure there's one at the end of Mass Effect 3 when the Alliance finally descend on Earth for the showdown. Been a while since I played it though. Could be off, but I swear I remember that happening!

I haven't been able to find a whole heap of advice on this particular way of doing montages. The general advice is "context needed", so I've said everything I've worked out SO FAR.

The setting is very apocalyptic, with ruined cities, and there are references to nerd culture (that does of course irk some while delighting many others, from what I understand. But with the type of humour it displays, a montage wouldn't be out of place. I just don't really know how to do one in prose, as it's not, to my knowledge, a prose device but a visual device, even if the word and definition first would have appeared in books. (I have a book on critical and literary terms, which I'll be referring to for more info.)

I think that's everything I've currently got. I hope that's a good explanation (I seem to be doing well here! :).

  • You could try reading some Shakespeare. – Xandar The Zenon Apr 18 '16 at 3:54
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    I'd suggest cutting this post down. You mention a wizard training montage, then proceed to try and tell us a lot of context that's not necessary to the question. – TriskalJM Apr 20 '16 at 13:27
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    Yeah, simply posit the question "how to port a montage to the written page" we don't need to know the story or the characters to come up with ideas, of which I'd use a script format; yet be overly clear to the reader what I'm about to accomplish in the prose. Play with different formats and decide which reads the clearest & best. – Tapper7 May 18 '16 at 22:55
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    Check out Isaac Asimovs "End of Eternity" - he has a montage like section where his main character goes through important things that happened in his life during a couple of weeks/months. – Erk Jul 3 '16 at 1:03
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    I've seen montages in prose a couple times, but they were never graceful or compelling. I like replacing these with sequences of journal entries, press headlines, ship log, or the likes. – SF. Mar 9 '17 at 9:34
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You can't do a montage in prose, anymore than you can paint a symphony or score a sunset. It is simply a technique of a different media. Each media has its own storytelling devices and you should not try to mimic the devices of one media while working in another.

It is worth asking, in this regard, whether you are actually trying to write a covert movie. It seems that many writers today are doing this. They are writing a novel, but in their heads they are really seeing a movie. I suspect the reason so many are writing like this is that while it is extraordinarily difficult to get a movie script produced, anyone can write a novel and self publish on Amazon. Still, the novel is a fundamentally different form, and you simply cannot achieve the effect of a movie in the novel format. You would do much better to accept the format you have chosen to write in and use its devices and conventions to achieve your end.

And here's the thing about montages: they are a rather lame attempt by movies to do something that novels can do very well, but which movies really have no good way of doing, and that is narration. A novel can use narration to bridge between one dramatized scene and another. In the hands of a good writer, the narrative passages can be just as fine, just as compelling, and just as important to the story arc as the dramatized parts. Indeed, they are some of the finest passages in literature. Prose is the perfect medium for narrative.

Doing narrative in the movies, however, is next to impossible. You can do scrolling captions, like the beginning of Star Wars, you can do narrative voice over, you can do various forms of one character filling in another, and you can do montages. All of these have to be used with the greatest restraint because they all make for lousy film. "Show don't tell" is imperative in the movies because movies cannot tell well. Thus movies have a really hard time doing the narrative bridge. This restricts the kinds of stories you can tell well in that format.

So, you are writing in a medium that excels at the narrative bridge, that can make the narrative bridge a piece of fine and memorable art as powerful as any dramatized portion of the text, and you are asking for a way to imitate the way a media that can't do this well attempts to make up for its deficiency, and one that is in any case impossible to execute in prose. So don't. Write narrative. It's the right choice for the media, and, if done well, a powerful choice.

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  • I recently rewrote a story of mine. It was originally written as a screen play and had two scenes which were montages depicting two different stages of a young couple's budding relationship. When I rewrote the story as prose, I scrapped the montages entirely and simply fleshed out one event from each montage. – EvilSnack Jun 10 '17 at 4:22
  • I'd say no, you actually can create music that sounds like a sunset, and (especially with synethesiacs) art can look like a symphony. It just depends on how you look at things and who you're displaying things to. – Tasch Feb 27 at 17:39
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Montage is a visual gimmick, invented to imitate what writers have been able to do all along, which is simply to vary the pace of their storytelling. In prose, all you're looking for is a little brevity...

Billy McHero trained with the finest clan warriors, awkwardly at first, stabbing himself in the toe, and falling into bogs and dungheaps, but growing in condfidence, successfully wrestling hogs and rhododendrons, until finally, he was ready to prove himself in the Trial of the Horseradish.

That's a very short 'training montage'. If you want a longer one just put in more detail. If necessary you can write a string of anecdotes, "On her first day...A week later...Eventually..."

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So there are three types of montages that we could do and I'm going to give three classifications based on montages in works that were widely seen. In each case, the montage relies on basic principles. First, the teacher sucessfully accopmplishes the task of the training, and steps the student through the the task. Then the student performs the first iteration of the montage, in which the student fails (in a funny way). Each iteration after will show only the point of failure and the reaction to the task. The Montage goes on until the student finds the way of success.

  1. The Bargain of Doctor Strange : In which I break the rule as this isn't a training montage so no master shows the successful task first, though the set up is pretty simple. In the film "Dr. Strange" the titular Doc goes to offer the extradiminsion entity Dormomu a bargin. Strange will lift the time loop he placed both of them in, if Dormomu promises not to destroy Earth. Dormomu laughs at Doctor Strange for his arrogance and kills him in a rather painful way... only for Doctor Strange to come in and make the exact same demand, confusing Dormomu who kills Strange in a different way. The cycle repeats, and each iteration cuts the sequence of extra material until it's just the first line Strange says when he enters ("Dormomu I've come to Bargin") and another egregious death (the deaths are always different, and are increasingly painful and complex each time, and there becomes a point where the audience is laughing from just "Dormomu I've Come to Bargin dies"). Here, the "student" is going to train with only one task and it's implied that we aren't going to see all iterations but the few we are shown were especially good failures. Time need not apply, but it's generally accepted that large parts of the training were skipped. It can be easy to port as the narrator needs to only set the goal and the first failure and then describe the student's myriad of failure results.

  2. The Ridiculous Bogart : This is similar to the "Bargin" montage, but instead of one student, there are many masters. The scene lending the name is from Book 2 in Harry Potter where the Defense against the Dark Arts class takes turns practicing how to fight against a Bogart, which will take the shape of the thing it's attacker most fears... and the counter is a magic spell that will make things look silly because the way to defeat fear is laughing at it. Here, there can be multiple sucesses or failures, and the interesting thing to montage and thus reduce each sequence too, is based on individual characters, not bizzare failure results. Again, the first interation will show the student being talked through what's happening, the spell being cast, and the silly results. The remaining scenes will show the student, the fear, and the results. Often this will stop when the hero takes his/her turn and not have a flashy or personalized way of dealing with the problem.

3 Be A Man Like the Bogart in that there are more than one students, unlike the Bogart and Bargin, it's going to show different tasks as well. Each task will fail as a result of one of the students after being demonstrated. Usually, each iteration features a unique student failing a unique task, and the tasks need little set up by the master after the first few show he is demonstrating correctly. The student's success is usually over the next iteration, which plays out in ways that show off unique ways to complete the objective. The name comes from the "Be A Man" sequence in Mulan, where Mulan and her friends are all shown being terrible at their tasks (with some being incapable, while others are a result of mean spirt-ness). It contains a bogart and bargin in set ups, as the "Retireve the Arrow" at the start is failed uniquely by each student, and then repeated by one student failing multiple times until success). Again, here time can pass and usually is assumed to pass longer, as each task is assumed to be failed by everyone, and multiple times too. (I debated calling this "Dead Bunny" after Judy's training montage in Zootopia.).

In all cases, montoages rely on repeated cues for set ups followed by unique failures or successes in each attempt. Occasionally, you can have a similar task with a new added item to help overcome, but this isn't necessary. Depending on the task, in written word, the idea is to descrive things going on and various different things that happen. Start with the most common failures (nothing happened), then move on to uncommon failures, then to extremely notable, and finally, a failure that even the master concedes he honestly can't tell what the hell caused it.

If you want to take it to meta levels, you can even have the master set it to flashy montage music (usually 80s... and usually fast, upbeat, and very much something you can dance too). Think "Eye of the Tiger" or "Holding out for a Hero". In real life, First Aid classes will often deliberately set their CPR lessons to "Stayin' Alive" or "I will Survive" as not only are both very fitting mindsets that reflect CPR, but the song's rhythm is identical to the parts that contain the title lyrics.

And of course, if you want to deliberately call to the mind you're doing a cliche montage, perhaps have the student, on first failure openly state it's "80s Montage time* and request that the master play some 80s music... at which point the master chooses songs that are not good for Montage... after all, 80s music includes "Acky Breaky Heart" and "Uptown Girl" which are well known songs of the era... but aren't something you would train too. Alternatively, have the master start with a proper montage song, and as you describe the continued training, acknowledge the student can't get the song out of her head and how annoying it is hearing it for the umpteenth time... only for the end of the montage to reveal the entire training from failure to mastery took place over a single play through of the song.

Either way, in books you want to set up with a very descriptive sequence for sucess and first failure, and pick out strong cues that will be repeated and be creative in the results of each iteration. If you want something like Rocky Training, you might want to do chapters for each task, or describe the typical work out routine and the monotony of training and when milestones occur.

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