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. As an actor, there are a number of reasons you might set yourself the task of trying to write one. 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!
The first thing to think about is the idea that drives your monologue. 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. For this reason, we’ve listed a few things here that might be worth considering if you’re stuck for material:
- 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? It’s also worth thinking about the person (or people) they’re speaking to in the monologue. 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 sweeping or general. 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. Simply put: 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. This can relate to all the above topics as well: 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 you settle on, it needs to be three things: interesting, engaging and genuine. Don’t be distracted by the desire to make something seem epic, or dramatic, or even ‘beautifully written’. Grab your audience’s attention, keep them listening and make it all feel real.
Interior vs Exterior
Another early decision that is going to help you bring shape to your 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, 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? Are they 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.
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.
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.