Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing 101: The Monologue

Some of the greatest fiction characters ever written have wonderful monologues where they reveal some inner truth or meaningful plot point. Fancier folks might call the long-winded, solo speech known as the monologue a soliloquy instead, but it amounts to the same thing. One of the most famous monologues ever written begins with the phrase "to be, or not to be." Lots of authors want to write a great one, and use them to create dramatic scenes. But writing the monologue is an art form, and it's not something you should be doing at all lightly.

Talking with Myself 

The monologue is just a one-sided speech. A single character takes center stage, so to speak, to reveal something important. A monologue can be an actual speech that's being delivered to one or more characters, but some writers have their characters speak aloud to themselves. In the same vein, monologues can be internal speech -- the character "talking" to themselves inside their own thoughts. 

What's the point? Monologues are used to tell the reader information they've got to have. Often, the monologue reveals the character's inner thoughts and provides explanation for past or future actions. There are many great dramatic scenes that feature a central character delivering a powerful monologue. Many actors memorize monologues from plays and movies for auditions; they use them to demonstrate their ability to bring drama or humor to their stage of choice. You'll find monologues in books like Dracula, The Princess Bride and The Crucible.

Writing Monologues

They're great. A good monologue can echo in the mind for ever. But like every other literary device, they can be over-done. If you're going to write a monologue, take care to do so in discerning, not distracting, way.
  • People don't speak in monologues
It's hard to incorporate a monologue into a book for one simple reason: people don't talk that way. When was the last time you honestly stood up in front of anyone else and pontificated on a subject, revealing some inner thoughts to bare your soul? ...Without getting interrupted? We live in a very verbal society, and if you can rattle off four sentences of though-provoking subject matter without getting stopped by a stray comment from someone else you're either a politician or a gifted orator...or talking to very young children. 

When was the last time you stood in an empty room and eloquently discussed the inner workings of your mind with the walls? Exactly. People don't speak in monologues, and in books long speeches just don't make for good dialogue.
  • Speaking of speaking...
That's another problem with monologues: formatting. Big chunks of text aren't pretty and they aren't easy to read, so you aren't doing your book any favors if you've got a lot of them. In books, speech is properly formatted when it begins and ends in quotation marks.
However, you have to start a new paragraph when you're pursuing a new subject -- even if you have to do it in the middle of a monologue. When a character is speaking, and continues speaking through a new paragraph, you do not close the previous paragraph with a quotation mark...but you do open the new paragraph with one. Example: 

"Henceforth, I shall be known to one and all as Jelly Bean, for I am now the czar of that particular candy and I'll accept nothing less.
"If I am incorrectly addressed by anyone from now on, I shall simply have their heads removed from their shoulders, lest they be tempted to make the mistake a second time." 

See what I mean? When the paragraphs are quite long (and the speech is quite long-winded), the eye begins to wander. Readers aren't going to stick with a long speech unless it's incredibly juicy. If it's really good and juicy, this only increases the likelihood that another character will interrupt the monologue. Always write to reality, don't write to be writing.
  • Don't patronize me.
Monologues can become a little patronizing, depending on how much explaining you're actually doing. Writing a monologue for monologuing's sake can cause this mistake. Make sure you're giving the reader information that they have not already received. Otherwise, you're just wasting everyone's time and your own book space. You usually won't have to explain things twice to your readers, and if you've written your character well enough chances are good that they're going to understand the character's thoughts and motives already. 

When they're necessary and dramatic, monologues can be wonderful. Just remember that it's a short slide from literary genius to bad writing; the line is very fine indeed. When you're writing monologues, keep this in mind: if you're bored while writing it, there's no chance that I'm going to be excited when I read it.

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