How to Write a Monologue | Writing for Performance

How to Write a Monologue

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

Monologues are strange and curious things. Whether they stand alone, or come from a larger text, they offer unparalleled insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters who speak them. They can be grand or intimate, welcoming or defensive; whatever their flavour, there is no such thing as a ‘casual’ or ‘insignificant’ monologue: they are perfect dramatic points of no return. If you’ve ever felt yourself drawn to learn how to write a monologue, this is the article for you.

As an actor, there are a number of reasons you might set yourself the task of trying to write a monologue. You might want to craft the perfect vehicle for yourself, or toy with an idea that may one day become a larger piece of writing! You may just wish to understand how monologues work from a writer’s perspective: gain some insider knowledge on their form and function.

Whatever your motives, this article should help you navigate the writing process from your first idea to your final draft. Given how powerful they can be, monologues often seem like intimidating things to create—especially for a first time writer. But even after the required feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty that plague any writing process, the rewards of such an undertaking are always worth it. So challenge yourself. Dive in!

Updated 8th Feb, 2024.

The Idea

When you write a monologue, start with the main thrust of the piece. What’s it about? What themes are you hoping to explore? And what do you want an audience to take away from it? The initial spark that drives you to write can be the most elusive part of the process. So if you’re stuck for material, consider the following departure points:

  • A character. Think up a compelling character and ask yourself what they’d say. What do they care about? What are they trying to convince us of? Think about the person (or people) they’re speaking to. Maybe your monologue is a reaction to another character’s action or views?
  • A topic. Pick something you’re passionate about and have your character argue the case! Topics can be helpful and feel like worthy material; just be careful that you don’t get too caught up. A piece about one person’s experience with climate change is going to play a lot better than a speech full of statistics.
  • A situation. Tell your audience a story. Relay a time when something extraordinary happened, or at the very least something changed the character’s life forever. Situation-based monologues can be very engaging for audiences, because even if the monologue is being delivered to another character, we feel as though we’re along for the ride.
  • A personal experience. Take some inspiration from your own life! Think about ‘characters’ you’ve met, something you yourself are passionate about. Tell a story from your past through the lens of your character.

      No matter the idea, it needs to be interesting, engaging and genuine. Don’t be distracted by the desire to make something epic, or dramatic, or even ‘beautifully written’. Grab your audience: keep them listening and make it all feel real.

      Interior vs Exterior

      Another early decision that is going to help you write a monologue is whether or not you’d consider it an “interior” or “exterior” piece.  “Interior” monologues are thought of as delivered internally, or to one’s self (or the audience)—think Hamlet asking himself “To be or not to be”.

      By contrast, an exterior monologue is delivered to somebody else: to another character, or a group, or at the very least out loud in the world of the play. While this distinction can be helpful, it’s always important to remember that no monologue is entirely interior or exterior. In fact, some of the very best blur that distinction to grant us a greater sense of connection or closeness with the character. Consider how Linda’s famous speech at the end of “Death of a Salesman” is spoken out loud, and to her husband’s grave. Yes, it is an “exterior” monologue … and yet the person she’s really speaking to is herself.

      Feel free to challenge the binaries of “interior” and “exterior”: a character directing their “interior” feelings outward to somebody else often make for the very best dramatic moments. In fact, Linda’s son Biff does exactly this, earlier in the play, when he admits to his father (and himself) he is nothing more than an ordinary man.

      Who’s Talking? Who’s Listening?

      As you start to write a monologue, bear in mind the character who is speaking. Think about their experiences, their personality. Consider the way they speak: level of education, vocabulary, how they structure their sentences and arguments. Ask yourself what you can do to ensure that no other person could be mistaken for saying these things: what makes theirs, and theirs only? Think, as well, about the person this character is speaking to.

      Your main character’s objective is tied up with this person, so it’s important you know everything about them. Are they friend or foe? Trying to speak during the monologue or staying silent? Are they even listening? If you are writing an “interior” monologue, think about what the relationship is between these characters, as your speaker has deemed them important enough to hear their inner-most thoughts and desires. And how does the monologue affect them: do they remain stony-faced, can you see them breaking down or rising up in anger?

      Finally, if your character really is speaking to nobody but themselves: how does it feel for them to admit these things to themselves out loud for the first time? Is it painful? Cathartic? Empowering?  

      A Short Note on Structure

      Structure is an undeniably important part of the writing process. Just don’t let it bog you down and prevent you from putting words on the page. A strong beginning/middle/end, rising tension, a satisfying payoff … all such things come with time as you improve your skills and read over work you’ve already done.

      When writing your monologue, think less about structure and more about shape: does the piece have one? Does it start in one place and end somewhere else? Is there enough variety in what is being said so that it doesn’t feel static? If you’re worried about the structure of your monologue, bear in mind that it can always be honed and fixed in later drafts. Your highest priority starting out is to get that wonderful, terrible first draft onto the page.

      Find the Context

      At first, the world of your monologue will be small: one or two people speaking to each other or themselves in a black space. As you write, start to think about the larger context of the piece and build on your understanding of its world. Where and when is this scene taking place? What has come before it? What prompted this character to speak on their own for so long (the ever-helpful ‘moment before’ question)?

      If this is a piece you are intending to perform yourself, try the given circumstances questions of WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY: what do you learn about this scene, and how might you make these discoveries clearer in the text? The greater your contextual understanding of the world of your monologue, the more truth you can lend to the piece. This will aid you in making the monologue feel more genuine, and hold an audience’s attention with greater ease and effectiveness.

      Performance

      As soon as you have a draft, stand up and perform it. You can perform to a mirror, to an empty room, you can even film yourself if you’re feeling brave! Get a sense of how it plays, how it sounds out loud and which parts need more work. You’ll likely write at least two drafts on your own–doing all the basic fixes and correcting silly mistakes that happen when your focus is intent on reaching the end of the piece.

      Taking the time to perform what you’re writing will help you discover a lot of problems early on, and give you an idea of what to do next. Once you’re feeling confident with where your current draft is at, it’s time to call on your creative community. Have an actor friend perform the piece for you; get a small audience of writers and actors to hear the monologue and give you feedback.

      While a monologue may be no less complex than a play or a film with multiple characters, it is, thankfully, a lot easier to showcase as it requires only a single person. Use this to your advantage: arrange to hear the piece out loud and strengthen it from there.

      Example Monologue: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”

      Hello! Alexander Lee-Rekers, here. I’m StageMilk’s resident writer, and as an exercise I wrote the below monologue (now featured on our Practice Monologues for Actors page) using each of the above points as a guide. I’ll print the monologue below, and speak to each of this article’s topics 

      “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Alexander Lee-Rekers – Gayle – F – 60s

      GAYLE speaks to her younger friend DIANA about the time she met her late husband DON.

      GAYLE: Well … I was still in school. I’d taken a self-defence class with the other girls about how to stay safe, how to walk home at night, that sort of thing… And the woman who ran it—stern woman, cropped hair and whistle on a lanyard—she said if you ever think you’re being followed, ladies: do something strange or unexpected. Throws the attacker off, she says! (Pause.) Of course, this was nineteen-seventy-something, so I can’t be sure if that’s any good advice at all…

      And so one night I was walking home after choir practice, and I noticed this figure over my shoulder. Not big, but … present. I sped up, he seemed to speed up. I slowed down, he seemed to slow down. I start getting nervous, my heart starts racing. I can hear that self-defence woman in my head and she’s saying “Throw the attacker off! Strange or unexpected!”

      So I started to sing: “You’re just too good to be true… Can’t take my eyes off you…”  Do you know Frankie Valli? I started out soft, because that’s how the song begins, but before long I’m singing along with the brass part and heading right for the chorus. I’d almost forgotten the figure behind me at this point—caught up in the moment as the music reaches its peak. And then, from behind me, a beautiful voice: “I LOVE YOU BABY, AND IF IT’S QUITE ALL RIGHT I NEED YOU BABY…” I turned and the figure was down on one knee, arms outstretched, not a right note among the ones he sang. It was my Don. First time we met. We married two years later.

      The Idea

      Simple as this: my mother taught me this when I was growing up in a rough-ish neighbourhood. (I should state again that this is not intended as concrete self-defence advice!) It’s an absurd idea, and I thought would work well as a ‘hook’ for a little scene or monologue, so I’ve kept it in my back pocket for years. The other half of this idea was the character of Gayle, who is based on an older actor I know and love. Wherever possible, I like to try and write interesting parts for older female actors—we have some incredible performers who fit that bill in our industry, and are criminally underused!

      Main point is this: I got very lucky with this idea coming together. It’s often the hardest part of the process, to find that first exciting spark. My advice is to be open to ideas when they come to you, and be open to inspiration from your life. It might not seem ‘perfect’, but you, the writer, are what brings it to life in the end.

      Interior vs Exterior

      This monologue is ‘exterior’: Gayle is speaking to somebody named Diana. However, I’d point out that there’s still a lot of scope for an actor to internalise these thoughts and ideas. I imagine the scene playing out casually, conversationally, but how does it feel for Gayle to say these things out loud? Maybe it’s been a while since she’s spoken about Don, or years since she’s thought of this particular memory?

      Who’s Talking? Who’s Listening?

      I created the character of Diana as a sounding board for Gayle. You might notice that there isn’t much information on who Gayle is: that’s a deliberate choice by me to give the actor some room as to who this person might be. The dynamic shared between these characters, their relationship and their objectives for each other in the scene are all for the actor to determine. Often, an actor comes up with a better idea than I have: who am I to stand in the way of talent and hard work?

      A Short Note on Structure

      Never an easy thing to learn; structure is going to take some time to sort. In this piece, I wanted to create rising tension in Gayle’s story so that the end of the piece felt unexpected and relieving. I did this by paying close attention to the pacing of the piece—hitting the actor playing Gayle with long sentences towards the end so they couldn’t slow down or lose momentum. Finally, I added page breaks in: each paragraph represents a new thought, a new beat that the actor might flavour with different actions or feelings.

      Find the Context

      Much like the character of Diana, I left this world open-ended, so that actors can play with the given circumstances of the scene. In my head, however, I pictured the Gayle and Diana sitting together late at night somewhere cozy. They each have a drink in their hands (alcoholic or otherwise), and I imagine this is the first time they’ve really spoken about Don—a clear absence in Gayle’s life that often goes unsaid. 

      All of this is there to be found—or ignored—by the actor. As the writer, I find it helpful to keep these things in mind for myself so the tone of the writing is consistent. It also helps me place the scene in terms of tone: if they’re in a comfortable and safe place, the story of “young woman followed at night” doesn’t play as the immediate horror story it might in a different context.

      Performance

      I’m not an actor. Not since my starring role in the sixth-grade play. But that doesn’t stop me from performing this as I pace around my office—my cat staring over at me like I’ve finally lost it. Dialogue needs to be spoken out loud so you can hear the rhythm, the emotion. So I can’t recommend performing your work to yourself nearly enough. Sometimes, the written word is as beautiful on the page as it sounds ridiculous out loud.

      This is also the best way to move forward with multiple drafts. As I read Gayle’s story, I made note of the things that worked, the things that didn’t, and changed them accordingly. Eventually. I ran out of changes. Print!

      Conclusion

      You’ll reach your final draft … as soon as you’re ready. So don’t feel pressure on this point. It’s your call to decide when the piece is finished, when it can no longer be tweaked or improved, or more work will only start to overcook the thing. If you are intending to perform the monologue yourself: take that as another opportunity to examine your writing from an actor’s perspective.

      What makes your job easier? At all times during and after this process, remind yourself that writing is a skill. Any skill can be learned and improved with time and effort. And so our final piece of advice is the same for any article on writing: keep at it. Start on the next one! The next one’s always easier. And it never loses its thrill.

      About the Author

      Alexander Lee-Rekers

      Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

      seventeen − 15 =