Making Your Monologues Matter
To be or not to be—that could be the question. It could also be to commit or to breakup, to hate or to forgive, to make waves or to go with the flow. The core of a monologue is a character’s struggle with any of life’s seemingly infinite deliberations. When done well, these speeches can offer audiences much more than a will-they or won’t-they complication to a script’s plotline—they can reveal an uninterrupted view into the heart of the character. What writers must remember is that a monologue illuminates what’s at stake for their protagonist’s pending decision, effectively setting the stage for the consequences that will follow.
Considering the mechanics of a script, a monologue covers a lot of ground relatively quickly. These soliloquies are comprised of a combination of the background knowledge needed for a story, known as exposition, and the matter being contemplated, which is the plot. The exposition explains the details that comprise the facts of the play, such as the relationship amongst the characters, the scene, and the setting. The plot examines the choice the character must make, including the possible repercussions for making the wrong decision.
At the center of every monologue is the debate over one’s options. Playwrights may be tempted to hint which selection is the better of the two, but the audience must believe that the character is truly struggling to reach a conclusion. In many scripts, this contemplation shows one vacillating between what is expected of them and what they desire. A character is therefore centerstage, wondering aloud if conforming is preferrable to bucking expectations. Both rational and irrational thoughts can be present in the speech, but the key is that both options appear to be on equal footing.
There are two basic categories for storylines—plot-driven and character-driven. The former refers to actions outside of the character’s control, such as a natural disaster striking, while the latter arises from the character’s actions, which could mean they take a leap of faith. Although some of the most successful scripts meld plot and character-driven scenes together, choosing to write a monologue invests your audience in your character’s internal thoughts. Once your audience is attuned to your protagonist’s dilemma, they will want to know how the character resolves their thinking and will not be satisfied by a plot-driven solution. Simply put, the resolution to the matter contemplated within the monologue must come from the person who spoke it.
Yet, writers must be cautious about simply delivering a plot based upon expectations. Audiences love to be surprised by the twists and turns of a good story, and a monologue offers complications that can enrich even the most expected plotlines. While a monologue must set both the subject matter and the stakes for a character’s actions as they presently see them, a scriptwriter who obfuscates the details the character knows can ensure some surprises will be waiting in the wings. A favorite trick is to have a character explain exactly how they see a decision play out action-by-action, only to later write a scene that exposes what was assumed to be is delightfully incorrect.
To maximize the impact of a story, all script writing must consider the actor who will deliver the lines. Actors use their own life experiences to inform their portrayal of the imaginary circumstances of a script. Writers should give their performers lines that help to guide their performance, effectively initiating the collaboration between the written idea and the spoken word. If your character is boastful, buttress their monologue with bravado. If they are uncertain, give them short, timid sentences. If they are analytical, fill the pages with rhetorical questions. What is crucial is that the form must match the function, offering your actors a rich world to immerse themselves within.
The secret to making your monologues matter is to recognize the value they lend to a script. From revealing a character’s introspection, to immersing your audience in the stakes of your story, to setting the stage for what’s about to unfold, these lines can place a spotlight on whatever is most important at that moment. As Shakespeare himself might have noted—a monologue is the thing, whereas to catch the contemplations is a scene.
Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.