Posted by: Jodi | June 30, 2010

To Monologue or Not to Monologue. . .

Last night I finished watching a movie adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s  “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”  The writing is brilliant and witty and covers some major philosophical ground.  At one point Rosencrantz (performed by Gary Oldman) is lying atop a tomb and wondering aloud to Guildenstern (Tim Roth) about being buried in a box.   His monologue is a perfect example of how a good monologue can add to a scene. Here it is:

Rosencrantz: Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with the lid on it? Nor do I really. Silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that one is dead. Which should make all the difference. Shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box would you? It would be just like you were asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead for a start and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead. It isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really. Ask yourself: if I asked you straight off I’m going to stuff you in this box now – would you rather to be alive or dead?
Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking, well, at least I’m not dead. In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (knocks) “Hey you! What’s your name? Come out of there!”

Ah, the monologue – a place where a character can speak his mind to the audience and fellow characters.  It might be a formal speech or perhaps a series of thoughts.  Regardless of which, when done well it is a useful way of getting insight into the mind of a character.  Done poorly, it can be downright painful.

Fact – There is a difference between a monologue and a soliloquy – a monologue is done when the speaker knows someone else is listening (other than the audience), a soliloquy is done alone.

For a monologue or a soliloquy to be most effective it must:

  1. Be relevant to some aspect of the story – in the example Polonius had just been killed.
  2. Give a unique perspective into a character.
  3. Not be used to advance the plot artificially.  That’s cheating, it will feel out-of-place and make the reader angry (maybe that’s just me…)
  4. Not be used for blatant exposition.

I shy away from using monologue.  It seems unnatural to make my characters present their thoughts in this way.  Maybe it’s due to the personalities they have assigned themselves; the lead duo tend to be careful with what they say.  Most likely it stems from me not feeling qualified to write a witty and insightful monologue.  I’ll try writing one sooner or later, as a challenge.   Perhaps it will turn out, perhaps not.

What are your thoughts on using monologue?

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Responses

  1. Absolutely love that play! Your comments made me giggle, though! That monologue reminds me of the way I write…stream of consciousness – and it seems totally normal to me! LOL! Judging from your thoughts on monologue versus sililoquy, however, I’m getting the feeling that people would rather I sililoquized. Then they wouldn’t have to be there to listen! (Or read?)

    Needless to say, I am a huge fan of monology, and Tom Stoppard – to name only one – is an excellent practitioner! Thanks for my morning laugh. Oh! And BTW…if you were ever in a box, and knew you were going to be there for a long while – like if you were dead, and knew you were, would you really care what the box was made of? I mean, people spend lots of money on brass and gold or special exotic wood for the outside of the coffin, and how would you ever know, and why would you care? Then they go and put that cheesy little baby pillow under your head! Does that make sense? How could you spend eternity comfortably with that little scrap of nothing under your skull? Also – there is absolutely no blanket to speak of in those boxes, and what there is is really more an undertaker’s version of a “short sheet!” I mean, really….

    • Love it! When I was reading through the example I was actually wondering what you would think about this. Seemed like something you would really enjoy. I don’t know about you but I’m asking for my fluffy pillow and fuzzy blanket in my box – and perhaps my iPod…

      • I decided to edit myself, because believe me, I could have gone on and on! Check out my photos on my post today…hardly anything to read this time! Yay! 😀

  2. I too, am a big fan of this. While I have never seen the play, I’ve just about worn the soundtrack off my copy of the movie. It is delightful.

    Your points about monoloque are well stated. Excellent post!

    • It was because of you that I ended up watching this. I always wanted to see it because I had heard so many great things about it. The only thing more that I could have wanted is the subtitles on the DVD. I didn’t want to miss a word.

  3. my thoughts are that now I could do without seeingthat work- until the day i wake up an old jew

  4. I enjoyed seeing and reading the play (I’ve not seen the film), even if it is a stylistic rip-off of Sam Beckett. But I think your blog post needs to draw the distinction between monologue and Monologue – the latter being a complete-in-itself perforance piece for a single reader which, I think, can be a fullfulling (if self-ossifying) dramatic medium. Liz Clarke has written some of my favs.

    Monologue is also a very performance orientated idea (and not in the structuralist way that “all speech acts are performative”). In theatre, I don’t think a writer needs to worry about breaking realism with a soliloquay or monologue – not in these days of post-Brechtian performance.

    In novels (which I think is what you’re suggesting), monologue is a trickier issue – often too coherent and self-aware to be “realistic” (that is, if such an artificial construtcion of language as a novel can be said to be ‘realistic’) – monologues can break the momentum is not conceived cleverly. Though some of the most accommplished novel-monologues (in my humble opinion) are: The opening chapter of ‘The other Hand’ by Chris Cleave (an incredible monlogue!), The final pages of ‘Lolita’ and Pyle’s political self-analysis in ‘The Quiet American’. Interestingly, all these novels are composed in the first-person singular.

    Sorry…I’m waffling on now. Good post though! As you can tell…food for thought!

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head, I was referring to novel monologues and not the Monologue. I should have made that a touch clearer. It seems we agree that having a character go off monologuing can be awkward if not handled correctly.

  5. It would certainly help having Gary Oldman deliver your monologue. He’s one of the best actors working today, though he seldom gets credit for that. Maybe it’s because he is so good at disappearing into a character, viewers don’t know it’s the same guy they saw in 20 other movies.

    I can’t think of anything harder in writing than allowing your character to stop the story to give a monolgue in a credible way. It’s so unnatural and is a huge risk for the writer. You can destroy all the good will you’ve built up with the reader within two paragraphs. Bravo to those who can pull it off.

    Going back to your discussion of “Voice,” if the writer is determined to get that monologue in there, I think it’s important to set the tone from the beginning that “this is a world where monologues happen and it’s OK.” Perhaps if the voice is one that evokes heightened drama set in another time or, on the other hand, stays away from plot altogether and focuses on intimate character detail, it could work.

    • I agree, Gary Oldman is truly a master performer. It’s sad he doesn’t get as much recognition as the Hollywood heavy hitters.

      I love that you brought up voice, I hadn’t made the connection that the voice has to permit monologues. But now I think about it, it’s so obvious! Certain genres lend themselves to monologues better than others.

  6. One of my characters is very deep and troubled, and he often takes walks pondering things to himself but they’re just thoughts, which I suppose it’s not the same thing, but I don’t think I could do a proper monologue, it would seem “fake” to me somehow unless I really felt the scene calls for it.

  7. Having a character think to himself would be more of a soliloquy. In the soliloquy the structure is far more free flowing, the character doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I think everyone here agrees that a formal monologue in writing interrupts the flow of the story.

    • Yeah, I think a monologue is one big STOP sign 🙂


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