There are few moments onstage more powerful than a good monologue. Done right it’s an act of virtuosity, a brief moment of stillness where everything else falls away save one startling single voice. Done badly it’s a twenty-minute drum solo – at best self-indulgent, at worst an interruption the audience endures waiting patiently for the show to resume.
A great monologue might work for many reasons, but a dud usually falls over when it stumbles on one of the following. When writing your own monologue here are ten things to consider:
1. Speech, Soliloquy and Story
First off, who is your character talking to? If they are talking to another character (played by another actor onstage or by nobody or even by the audience) then it’s a speech. Now we need to know a few things. Who is this other character? What is their relationship? This changes both the story and how it is told. You speak differently to your mother than you do to a stranger than you do to a child. Knowing who this other person is in your monologist’s life will decide how much your character opens up to them, how familiar they already are and what kind of language they use.
If your character is talking to him or herself it’s a soliloquy. Is this an internal monologue the audience is privy to or are they rehearsing a speech for later? There’s a difference.
Lastly your character may talk to the audience directly, as is the case for a narrator or Greek chorus. In this case they are often (though not always) telling us the story of someone else. Often (though not always) your narrator knows all. Often (though not always) they tell the story in third person. (ie “then Jack climbed the beanstalk etc”) Here the storyteller’s own identity is not the point. They are simply a tale teller and the means by which the story is told.
2. Who is this guy?
Who is doing the talking?
What does this person looks like. How are they dressed? How do they move? How do they speak? When people open their mouths they tell us so much more than simply what they’re saying. Just by listening we can tell things like their gender, their nationality and their age. Do they speak plainly or with a silver tongue? Do they present clearly or repeat themselves often? Do they speak bluntly or seek reassurance with a lots of questions? What vernacular they speak in might hint at their background; what jargon they use might give away their occupation.
*Shakespeare’s Othello was a naval commander and speaks often using maritime analogies.
In Drama as in life, characters only open their mouths if they want something. Speech without an intention is just bad exposition. What does your character want? Forgiveness? Help? Directions? Why are they telling us their dog died now? Are they trying to warn us about something? Are they consoling us by sharing their own private grief? Or are they buttering us up before they ask to borrow another hundred dollars? Each of these motives is different and each will affect the way the story is told.
4. Learn how to write silence
5. Stage Directions
Less is more. If you enjoy writing detailed stage directions write a novel. Directors ignore them anyway. Rather, choose your battles. Decide which stage directions are vital and remove all the others. Those that remain will be considered more carefully. Concentrate on your job and let the actors do theirs. Give your cast space to explore. Never tell an actor how to deliver a line.
6. Don’t Spell it Out
David Mamet said, “The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next, not to explain to them what just happened.”
Good writing raises questions and then rewards us with a partial answer. This in turn raises another question which will only be rewarded by continuing to watch. It keeps the audience intrigued and absorbed. Bad writing over-explains with an info dump. The writer doesn’t trust his audience to figure the story out so he telegraphs the plot in skywriting overhead. Your audience isn’t dumb. Trust them.
7. Suspense is your friend
Suspense is created by rousing the audience’s curiosity, by posing questions and delaying answers, by creating bigger and bigger complications and delaying resolutions.
Think about Ridley Scott’s Alien or Spielberg’s Jaws. For most of both films we never see the threat directly, instead we get glimpses and shadows, piquing our curiosity, tantalising us more and more then finally rewarding us.
8 Poetry versus prose
Both are powerful. Know their place. Poetry is seductive but beware of overusing it. Next to the verbal dexterity and rich imagery of poetry, prose can feel like it’s simple plainer cousin. It may not be as pretty as poetry but prose is the language of action and nothing is direct. When somebody’s trapped in a burning building they don’t scream, “Look how these flickering flames dance like gaily coloured gypsies all around me!”, they scream, “Help!”.
What is not said is often far more interesting than what is spoken out loud. Think Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. These people find it almost impossible to say what they want to say, instead they circle around topics endlessly talking about everything BUT whatever needs to be said. Subtext is the elephant in the room.
10. Truth and Perspective
Lastly how much does your narrator know and how much do they think they know? Do they know the whole story or only a part of it? What don’t they know? What have they guessed? What have they got wrong? What might they have made up? What are they keeping back? What do they have to gain by telling us the truth? What do they have to gain by lying to us? And finally how do we know we can trust their word?
This list is by no means comprehensive but it’s a good start. The monologue is a simple and effective device and one that every writer worth their salt should have a grip on.