Quick—Research Montage!

While writing my thesis in grad school, I repeatedly wished that research was a lot more like it seems in movies and books about scientists and engineers. That way, it would just be a short compilation of scenes where people ask intelligent questions, poke around in the library, remove glasses and rub their eyes wearily, and scratch out calculations while shaking their head, all before finally presenting their findings to a wildly enthusiastic lecture hall.

I don’t think I have to tell you that’s not how my thesis research or presentation went down. But watching or reading about a grown woman cry in the shower between coffee- and pizza-fueled 8-hour JSTOR visits probably wouldn’t make for a compelling montage sequence.

I’d chalk the research montage (and the montage in general) up to another unrealistic standard set by Hollywood if it weren’t so often a useful narrative device, especially when you have a lot of relatively uninteresting explaining to do. Anyone who has the time to intimately describe the process it takes for their protagonist to get out of, or into, whatever trouble technology has led them into in their speculative fiction story is a much better writer than me. The research montage is a way of showing the reader that the payoff for the resolution of a story is earned: the protagonist didn’t just conveniently have a PhD in particle physics—she had to spend six years trapped in an intergalactic prison, reading in all of her spare time and befriending the former quantum mechanic in the next cell block over before she could even start to sketch out her plans for the time-traveling, empire-destroying starship.

Though it depends on the length of the whole story, I’d argue that a research montage (or whatever you would call the literary equivalent) never needs to be more than a few pages, if that much. That said, I’ve read well-paced researching scenes that are considerably shorter, and some that are a lot longer, though I’ve mentioned before that my enthusiasm for infodumps is maybe greater than other people’s. I’d say that about 75% of Andy Weir’s The Martian is a research montage, as the main character attempting to figure out how exactly to engineer the biological conditions that perpetuate his existence and logging his attempts in the journal comprises most of the novel.

And though the research montage is just the justification for the resolution of the story, or perhaps the response to some unforeseen complication, I really, really enjoy them when they’re done well. I just watched the surprisingly excellent movie Palm Springs, and was delighted by a silly but narratively effective research montage near the end of the film, every moment of which was ridiculous, entertaining, and necessary for the story.