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life, writing

Montages and Leveling Up

I’ve come to dislike the montage, despite its clear utility in modern storytelling, especially in visual forms like television and movies. I mean, I get it. As a viewer it’s not exciting to watch the mind-numbing repetition of martial arts training or the boring minutiae of repairing the space ship while adrift in alien space or documenting the research that goes into finding the likeliest place to start looking for the lost city where the artifact that will save (or destroy) the world has lain hidden for millennia, only to be discovered now by the worst possible antagonist. It’s a great big derailment, putting the story on hold while a character or team get ready for a mission or a boss fight or final arguments before the jury. Skip the boring parts is Storytelling 101, right? Get on with the plot.

The problem with the focus on plot is that it distracts you from the narrative, which Chip Delany taught me is a different beast altogether, and far more significant for a storyteller (and, I would add, a person; more on that below). The plot is a sequence of connected events, and indeed affects the narrative. But the narrative is what drives the plot, the why that produces the what. As heroines and heroes of our own personal stories (I really do believe human consciousness is best understood in narrative terms), what connects us to stories emotionally is the narrative. If we don’t care about characters or what’s at stake then what can a story really tell us? It’s why so many modern science fiction movies fail to stick. So much more thought and effort goes into the eye candy aspect than goes into creating multidimensional characters or situations that you can guess each character’s fate from their first onscreen appearance nine times out of ten.

From a plot perspective, the hero’s confrontation with the big bad is the culmination of the movie. But the story, properly understood, is not the fight scene and who wins, but what the hero undergoes in becoming the hero, how she develops and changes and reconciles inner conflicts in order to risk all for some greater good. In any good story, she experiences setbacks, and must level up in some significant way (usually leveling up as a person as a byproduct of the requisite dedication). Without this period of meditation, preparation, hard work, and evolution, the hero doesn’t qualify for the final showdown.

Without character development, basically, it’s not much of a story.

Now, I personally think the same thing about life, and the parallels between storytelling and lived existence are important to me, and, I think, to lots of people, whether they think about it that way or not.

And that’s where my gripe with the montage comes in. It glosses over all the work that goes into the kind of accomplishment worth telling stories about. With sufficient repetition it creates an unconscious expectation that all that work can be fast-forwarded through, that you can storm the wizard’s castle without having to walk all the way there or Macgyver up a tank from things you found lying around a junkyard in time to confront the drug gang whose turf you’re messing with to help the sympathetic old lady who owns the corner drug store.

But life doesn’t work that way. It takes hard work to make something you can be proud of. As someone who writes stories and builds things for a living, I can personally attest to that. And it’s in doing the work, living the montage in realtime, that your own character develops and, ideally, levels up from time to time.

I spent a good deal of my youth avoiding my avocation as writer, mostly because I didn’t want to do the work. Then when I finally started, I hated how much work the work I’d done needed, how much was left to do. It wasn’t, to be honest, until I started building furniture a couple of years ago that I developed any real patience at all. Maybe it was because I was figuring it out as I went along, so everything took a long time. Maybe it was the quiet contentment I found in the precision and exactitude required to make something come out the way I wanted it to. Whatever it was, it helped me start to cure myself of my impatience and expectations, to take my psyche’s sustenance from the doing of the work as much as the finished product (I still consider any accolades to be gravy). Looked at in this light, all the writing and work I’ve done to get to this point, however lacking in material accomplishment, has yet comprised a narrative arc. Plot points are nebulous, sea-changes obvious only in retrospect, but whether or not I achieve any recognition or success it is still a story, my story, and it has meaning, at least to me. Being mostly montage, I don’t imagine it would make much of a movie, and I guess that’s the point.

I do get montages as useful storytelling tools, especially in visual media, and I can appreciate them as such and on their own merits. This post is neither cri de couer nor fatwa. If there’s a point I guess it’s that I think stories are how most people understand life, and that that understanding is shaped by the culture of storytelling surrounding them. In turn it’s important, I think, to understand how that culture, and those stories, are shaped. Montages, while useful, give short shrift to those parts of our lived narratives where our characters develop. It’s important to recognize the distinction.

In real life, accomplishing anything worth doing takes hours and weeks, sometimes years of dedicated work with no guarantee of success. The willingness to take that risk is the basic qualification for being the protagonist of a story worth telling, in fiction and in life. And in life, as in fiction, being the protagonist of a story worth telling takes a lot of leveling up.

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About Dallas Taylor

Dallas Taylor is the grandson of a rum-runner, a valedictorian, a handyman and a good Catholic girl. He lives and writes in Seattle, and builds things for a living in his spare time. In 2010, he attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.

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