One story telling technique to describe the passing of time is to use a montage. A montage lets us see the hero experiencing a variety of events compressed in a short amount of time. Just be careful about using a montage as a crutch instead of a tool.
The advantage of a montage is that it lets audiences see the hero change quickly. The disadvantage of a montage is that it involves watching and not feeling. For example, a typical karate action movie might show the hero going through difference training experiences until he or she gradually evolves from a clumsy beginner to an experienced fighter. Yet this lacks any emotional depth and feeling.
“The Karate Kid” avoids a montage by focusing on a single event. The hero’s mentor (the apartment handyman) assigns the hero to perform seemingly meaningless tasks. Only when the hero rebels and threatens to quit does the mentor confront the hero and force him to see that all those seemingly meaningless tasks actually taught him a useful skill. That sudden insight provides a jolt of recognition and admiration from both the hero and the audience in a way that a simple montage could never have done.
Once we see that the mentor’s seemingly meaningless tasks actually taught the hero karate skills, we accept that the hero now knows how to fight. This single moment hits us emotionally in a way that a montage could never have done.
Watch the classic Disney cartoons “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” to see how emotionally engaging they are from start to finish. Notice they don’t rely on a montage. Now watch the much weaker Disney cartoons “Mulan” and “Hercules.” “Mulan” uses a montage to show her gradually growing skilled in fighting while “Hercules” uses a montage to show him defeating various enemies.
Yet both montages don’t let the audience experience any emotion. We only get to see Mulan change, but we don’t get to experience her gradual change like “The Karate Kid” scene. We only get to see Hercules defeating multiple enemies, but we never feel the emotional struggle of defeating any particular villain.
Before using a montage, try focusing on a single event that can summarize the growth of the hero in the same way as a montage, but with stronger emotional impact. In many cases, you may find that a montage is a weaker way to tell a story. To see the humor in pointless montages, just watch the video below from “Team America: World Police.”