So You Wanna Write a Monologue by Laura Axelrod
This article originally appeared in the November 2003 edition of Quietpoly Magazine. Do not reuse in any form without express permission of the author. Email me if you'd like to use it for educational purposes or for any other reason.
I love writing monologues, though from what I understand, not everyone does. Some playwrights think they are incredibly difficult to create. I’m not sure why. Anything can be a monologue: a short story, flash fiction, or even a poem. If you structure the piece correctly, a monologue will engage the audience and allow the actor to shine in his or her role.
Monologues arrive at a point in the play when a character needs to share his or her perspective or provide some sort of explanation for action that occurs offstage. Not every play has a show-stopping monologue, but a good monologue can make the play memorable. After all, where would Hamlet be without asking “to be or not to be?”
If you have problems writing monologues, the first thing you should do is take a deep breath and relax. In theater action occurs in the present, so put aside past experiences. There’s no need to relive previous frustrations.
To get past any nervousness, or even to just stretch your writing skills, my best advice would be to practice writing monologues. When I was in college, a friend told me that he had a difficult time writing them, so he forced himself to write as many as he could. I wrote 18 monologues last summer and while not all of them were my best work, the act of writing them gave me confidence and provided me with some great material for future projects.
So what exactly is the structure of a monologue?
The initial contact. Is there an idea you would like to convey? Is the character’s voice speaking to you? Where is the character? Allow the environment to inform your work. If she is on the subway, what is her experience? Who is around her? Where is she going?
The hook. Why is your character speaking? Inevitably, this question will provide you with “the hook.” Occurring within the first few moments of the piece, this thought will draw the audience’s attention to the character. Sometimes, the hook can be a question. Other times, it will be a compelling statement. However you choose to write it, the hook automatically creates tension in the story.
It sets the major dramatic question into motion. What is the character looking to discover or explain?
Now that the journey has begun, it is time to let the character talk. He or she may elaborate on issues around the theme or story. Allow the character to have a variety of feelings or thoughts. Actors refer to each thought or feeling segment as a “beat”. Consider each beat as a step forward in the story. The tension should be building towards the climax.
The climax. If the story is like a wave, then the climax is where the water crests before it crashes into the sand. Without a climax, there would be no payoff for the audience, the actor or the character. The climax encompasses the core thought of the story. What is the character really trying to say?
The ending. It is very important to have an ending to your monologue. The ending provides resolution and closure. It doesn’t have to be long. With only a sentence or two, you can answer the dramatic question, let the audience know where the character ended up, or simply complete a thought.
While there are no hard and fast rules for writing them, the above components are absolutely essential to creating a compelling monologue. The hook, beats, climax and ending create tension, and that tension is the fuel that will propel your monologue forward.
Writing successful monologues will earn you the audience’s attention, actors’ devotion, and playwrights’ envy. So don’t be afraid and be sure to practice, practice, practice!