Monday, May 08, 2006


What's the best way to format a sequence where you show the same character in the same location but with quick snippets of dialogue from different conversations?

My character works in a call centre and I want to show her at work before getting into a conversation with one particular caller. I've tried writing it as a series of shots like you'd do for an action sequence, e.g. -

SERIES OF SHOTS of Julie at her workstation:

Blah blah blah.

Blah blah.

- but it looks weird. Does anyone have a better way of doing it, or can anyone suggest a film where something similar happens so I can check out the script?

I think what you’re describing here is a brief montage of your character at work before you get to the phone call that really matters. Montage sequences are usually used to visualise a certain passage of time that represents something dramatic and/or transitional for the relevant characters. The most common examples of this are ‘characters going out on a date’, ‘writing the book’ or ‘stuck in a coma’.

In ‘characters on a date’, you’d typically have a series of shots of the guy picking her up, then the couple sitting in the restaurant, the date going reasonably well, then a walk along the river, the girl linking his arm, the music swelling and a kiss goodnight at the doorstep, good work fella.

‘Writing the book’, lots of cross-fades and Murder She Wrote piano music of writer breaking through her block to get the chapters down and the book done. Etc etc.

I think there is no ‘set’ way to write montages in scripts. I’ve seen them written in a variety of styles and fashions, some more effective than others. What’s most important is that the reader completely understands that the montage/transition sequence is taking place, otherwise he may end up feeling dissatisfied after reading a quick series of shots that disconnected him from the narrative.

The most basic way of ensuring this is to head your sequence with ‘MONTAGE’ and list the separate shots. Then, once it’s finished, type ‘END OF MONTAGE’. This is basic and effective, if a bit cold and direct. However, there can be no doubt that the reader has visualised exactly what you wanted them to see, and in what style.

Alternative and more creative ways of writing a montage require a higher appreciation of craft from both writer and reader. Occasionally, a script will generate a smooth pace and structure for its story, and make a natural transition into a montage sequence so that the reader doesn’t feel a thing but is still seeing the images in the way the writer intended. These montages usually occur around act-breaks or significant plot points to help ease the transition from one part of the story to the next.

With regards to the specific example at the beginning of the post; it achieves what it sets out to do. It tells us there are a series of shots of Julie at her workstation and then charts them in an alphabetical list. The use of the alphabetical list is probably not necessary, too instructional manual, but sometimes a dash ( - ) is good as it indicates the shot is part of the montage and not an element of the usual narrative.

- Danny takes a swig of water.

- adjusts his seat.

What is ideal in montage sequences though is that the series of images not only convey the key visual shots that are occurring on screen but also contain the dramatic tone and sense of entertainment that the story is trying to generate.

For example, if Julie at the call call centre is a thriller, it’s always best to try to spice up the action or increase the tension while the montage is taking place: Julie nervous, the computer system crashing on her as she tries to deal with the calls. Accepting the ‘call receive’ button with trepidation each time. Snippets of phone conversation to calm Julie down, it’s all going okay. Then, just as she’s getting into it, the phone call that she’s been dreading: “I’m coming to get you.”

Other stylistic devices useful for a montage include ‘split screen’, ‘cross fades’, ‘wipe cuts’ and ‘diagonal cuts’, although it’s probably best to leave the latter for the editor rather than put it in your script.

In this country, the formatting Nazis aren’t coming to get you. The bored and frustrated script readers are. So, ultimately it doesn’t matter HOW you write it (Courier pt 12 and decent margins a given), just make sure that it’s VISUALLY CLEAR and ENGAGING and no-one should have any complaints.


James Moran said...

"Show lots of things all happening at once, remind everyone what's going on - with every shot, you show a little improvement, to show it all would take too loooong, that's called a montaaaage..."

Good stuff. I normally use something like "We see various shots: James crying, touching himself; the police arriving at his flat; the bodies being dug up in the garden;" etc. That way I can pretend that it's not anything so crass as a montage, even though it is.

The script for Adaptation has a few montages, the first one on page 41 or 42, which has lots of "We see..." sentences together, prefaced by "MONTAGE". Also, not a montage, but page 100 onwards of the Goodfellas script is superb reading for a series of tight, fast scenes showing Henry's descent into paranoia and madness, ending with the cops arriving.

Oh, and don't forget - "always fade out, in a montage... if you fade out it seems like more time has passed, in a montage..."

Anonymous said...

Where I'm really struggling is the fact that visually each shot in the sequence is of the same thing - woman at workstation in call centre. So I've not got a lot of scope for pieces of description/action in each shot. What's changing is her bits of dialogue, switching between different conversations, and the only way I can think of to make that clear in the script is to label them like a list. It's a short film (about 6 or 7 minutes) and I want to give a quick impression that the character is good at her job - calm, professional - until one particular customer calls in.

Danny Stack said...

It's still a montage for me and its purpose is to show Julie good at her job before she gets flummoxed by the next caller. So you could still describe it as a montage as you'll be varying what she says to highlight her efficient nature. Alternatively, you could use 'intercut' instead of a list of shots. Bottom line is though is whatever you think is most appropriate and works for the telling of the script.

Anonymous said...

"Where I'm really struggling is the fact that visually each shot in the sequence is of the same thing - woman at workstation in call centre."

I definitely think it would make for a better read if you broke up the snippets of dialogue with bits of action. Even if it's mundane action.

I'm thinking of things like:

A co-worker enters with cups of coffee on a tray; points at it and looks at woman questioningly; woman (in mid-conversation) indicates "yes"; gets coffee; nurses coffee.

Co-worker is leaving; woman silently mouths "See you tonight!".

Woman has some small personal effects around in her workstation; she rearranges this stuff while talking with someone.

Woman grabs a lock of hair and examines her split ends while having an earnest conversation with a caller.

She doodles. She knits. She paints her toenails (ok, that might be going too far).

The general idea being that the woman is so good at her job (and it's such a routine job) that she doesn't have to pour all her attention into it. Until this one person calls.


Danny Stack said...

Of course, I should say, apart from the basic context in which you've given, I don't know how it plays or how you want it to play in the film.

Because it's a short, it could be a series of jump cuts at the start of the story, introducing us to Julie at work, or whatever.

But it's not a bad idea to vary the 'static image' of someone on the phone to different poses/exchanges but the essence of the phone calls more or less being the same.

Hope some of this helps anyway.

James Moran said...

Okay, then if I were doing that, I'd have the basic description at the start, and indicate that lots of separate shots are edited together, like:
We see Julie at her desk taking calls effortlessly. We jump between the various calls at different times, as her desk remains the same but her position and clothing vary:

That's right, only 50% / No, as much as 50% / Barely half / Less than two thirds / Over a third of a discount / Yes / No / There's no need for that sort of language / etc
That's just if I were doing it, anyway. As it's a short, that would get across the idea but as quickly as possible (you don't want to do pages of stuff that will play in about 20 seconds).

Anonymous said...

I went on a script factory course that said montage totally sucked and should be never used as readers hate it, which I thought was strange as I am a reader and don't hate it and no readers I know hate it either.

At university we were taught to separate montage sequences like this, with letters:

A - Lucy types at the keyboard

B - Lucy goes out into the garden and jumps up and down forty times

C - Lucy's waters finally break

DON'T use the letters, leave them out! I've had more negative feedback on the letters than just about anything I've ever written which is pretty weird, not to mention pedantic, but sadly true.

I've also found using montage at the beginning of a screenplay seems to piss people off for some reason. This can be easily remedied by putting INTERCUT instead, unless you're submitting to Americans who tell you it's a montage and call it that instead.

It's a jungle out there, isn't it?!

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of using letters in montage sequences. But I suppose the idea is that the sequence, as a whole, has a scene number, say 63, and the different locations/shots within it are labelled with the letters of the alphabet: 63A, 63B, 63C etc. -- when the film goes into production, that is.

Personally I like the American practice better:

Lucy types at the keyboard.

Lucy jumps up and down forty times.

Lucy's waters break.

If the film goes into production the slugs are changed into scene headings so every shot/location gets a scene number, 63, 64, 65 etc.

The call centre short could start out with some sort of montage (as the Americans call it). It depends on what the writer wants to do and I'm not sure what she wants to do.


Lucy V said...

The race track!!!

That's where I'm going wrong!!! I'm off to find one right now.

I'll make the baby's middle name Anna, yeah? *fingers crossed behind back* ; )

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the advice. I'll play with the script and see what works best. The sequence comes about halfway through, so we've already met the character in a different environment before the twist that she works in a call centre. The final twist is the significance of the person she ends up talking to.

It's easy to get mildly hysterical about all the supposed do's and don't's in the formatting guides, but when you look at screenplays for well-known films it quickly shows that there's no single 'correct' way to do it.

I read 'Adaptation' and the montage of the history of mankind. It's one long paragraph, nearly a third of a page long, and it ends by stating that the entire sequence takes two minutes - like Kaufman sat there timing his imagination. I can't remember if it lasts that long in the film.

Lucy V said...

What do you mean, MILDLY hysterical?? I've been known to trawl through my screenplays before submission with a magnifying glass and a big box of valium before I can put it in an envelope, let alone a post box! (the script, not the valium...tho actually, that gives me an idea!!)

As for Adaptation...When you're Charlie Kaufman, you can get away with anything. Damn him.

Anonymous said...

Actually (Lucy) you are behind the wheel of a race car in my fantasy screenplay.

The waters break and there's a truly suspenseful moment when you swerve off the track (barely missing the other race cars) and crash through a wooden fence. Two innocent ravens, passing by, are killed by pieces of flying wood. Scores of people run screaming for cover.

What ensues (of course) is an action sequence where you race for the nearest hospital (150 miles away). A race that involving drawbridges, one way streets, exploding vegetable stands, police cars and whatnot.

The good news is that once in the hospital you're delivered of a beautiful baby girl in about two minutes flat (due to all the adrenaline). Meanwhile, several cops pace the corridors, each and every one with a speed ticket in hand.


Lucy V said...

Ah, thanks Anna! That sounds fab (except for the ravens' untimely demise!). Unfortunately I'm one of the few people left in the universe over the age of 21 who can't drive!!