Some thoughts on monologues…
I like monologues, I’ve written a whole play of the things – but theatres don’t seem to produce them very much – apart from sometimes when a virtuoso actor wants to show what they’re made of.
Monologues go in and out of fashion. It seems like every year there will be one new monologue play at Edinburgh that will transfer briefly to London, then the play (and sometimes the playwright) will disappear. Such is the ephemeral nature of playwriting. Unless you are Alan Bennett or Samuel Beckett your monologue play probably won’t run and run, or even get revived, but does that mean you shouldn’t write it?
In the short play format – especially as required by She Writes – a monologue can sometimes be seen as the easy option, you only have one character to develop and follow on their journey. Sometimes this can work brilliantly in the shorter format – some of my favourite She Writes showcased plays have been monologues. I have been moved by, and with, the characters, and transported away from a cafe in Whitstable to somewhere entirely different.
But it’s not really the easy option – sparkling dialogue is not enough. So often we receive something that is essentially just the evocation of a mood or a feeling with a good bit of dialogue – and it won’t be selected. It has to have a story.
There is a lot of freedom in the monologue format; it can travel in time and place; the characters can morph into someone (or something) else. A monologue gives an actor a chance to act, and to really put their own interpretation on a piece. It’s also the sort of writing that you can do if you haven’t written a play before – and easier for you to produce with one actor mate above a pub in Camden.
Playwright Gill Kirk suggests: ‘lose yourself in the character or a place that might inspire a character and then block out special, uninterrupted time for the monologue to get written. Don’t censor, don’t plan, just let it come. You need to be fascinated by this person, let them speak.
‘With Black Barn, I was in Suffolk with High Tide and we had to do a site-specific piece of writing. I found a weird, abandoned space near the train station. Gave myself the heebie-jeebies, and out came the creepy character.’
A monologue can be a very pure piece of theatre. Think of it as stand-up. A monologue should be a place to experiment. Think of it as lyrical poetry. Think of it as the story of a lone bard wandering from place to place. Think of it as your calling card. Think of it as your potential number one.
Follow the rules of story-telling. Tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Make sure your protagonist changes and develops throughout the story. Confound and confuse. Have something to say and say it dramatically. David Mamet says in Three uses of the knife, (which I recommend highly,) to use the Three Act Structure.
Write it… then… cut, cut, cut. Stephen King says in On Writing (which I also highly recommend,) to cut about 10%. I’d say maybe even more. Cut as much as you need to cut, yet still keep the essence of the story.
Then finally – break all the rules. (Except these below.)
Technical info: Formatting and length
If you are writing a monologue specifically for a competition or submission and they’ve asked for a specific length – keep to it! (See my earlier advice on formatting.)
Monologues take longer to read. A short script of 6 pages with two characters might work out at around 6 minutes but a monologue with no breaks and wider page widths won’t. Do be aware of this. The best way to work out how long your piece will take is to read it through slowly – slower than you would usually talk – and time it. You might be surprised how long 3 pages of tightly spaced monologue will take… On this one it might be good to consider your word count. As a rough guide 1,000 words takes about 10 minutes to read. That’s too long if we’ve asked for a 6-minute play.
She Writes director Sarah Davies said it’s even more important with monologues to make sure that you set the spacing to 1.5. It makes it easier for your actors to follow the script. And leave out as many stage directions as you can – the director and actors will want to put these into the monologue. Look at Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her life or Rainald Goetz’s Jeff Koons to see how free your script becomes if you get rid of all the stage directions.
Show us something that isn’t already obvious
Here’s your chance to reveal the true inner feelings of the character, rather than just comment on what the audience have already seen.
Playwright Alison Farina (who has an acting background) also offers this advice: ‘Monologues should always reveal something that isn’t shown anywhere else in the piece… For an actor, they should always have a clear thought process and through-line, rather than a random smattering of thoughts. They should be easily broken up into ‘beats’ or units of action to help actors find the through line/super objective easier. If this isn’t in the text, it makes it much harder for an actor to reach the intention of the piece and portray it effectively.
You need to know exactly why this information is being stated in this way. Ask yourself, why should it come out in a speech rather than in the dialogue?’
And I agree whole-heartedly with Alison’s final comment; ‘They have to be interesting and dynamic. Otherwise, people will tune out.’