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. Continue reading “Montages and Leveling Up”