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Technique

Breaking Down the Monologue

David Wappel analyzes the different kinds of monologues and gives some tips to write your own.

Some of cinema’s most memorable moments are just one character talking. Known as the monologue, it’s a tool in the writer’s kit that’s as old as drama itself. Understanding when it is useful in a narrative, and how to employ it well, can add dynamics to your script and break up the usual pace of dialogue. So, what is a monologue and how to write one?

Understanding the Monologue

Monologues can be traps, because as much fun as they often are, they have the potential to be devoid of real drama. The audience is just waiting for this character to wrap it up so they can get on to the next thing. So before you dive right in to writing that character’s big speech, let’s examine some of the things you want to consider when debating if this is the right time for a character to speak for a long, long time.

Drama has conflict, and that conflict is played out by one or more characters encountering obstacles, most often each other. This usually creates a back and forth. One character speaks what they want, then the other. But if a monologue doesn’t have that back and forth, where’s the drama? Where’s the action/reaction?

One of the ways to answer these questions are to rephrase them as this: Who is this monologue for?

And here are the three basic answers:

  • The audience
  • The character being spoken to
  • The character speaking

The Monologue for the Audience

Let’s examine some classic monologues, starting with one of the seminal monologues of recent memory: the “Always be closing!” monologue from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, performed in the film by Alec Baldwin.

This monologue comes early in the film, and it’s mostly for the audience. It sets up the world, the stakes, and delivers exposition. I say mostly, because of course he’s talking to the other characters, and they need to know this information. But in reality it’s a large dump of exposition.

An indicator of who the monologue is for can be looking at where the conflict lies. What do these people have that Alec Baldwin’s character wants? Not much of anything. In fact he makes a point that he doesn’t need anything from them and is just doing this as a favor. This all points to the fact that this monologue is for our benefit. (But without dramatic conflict, shouldn’t this be boring? Yes, it should be, and we’ll examine why it’s not later on.)

Another classic example of a “for the audience” monologue is at the end of every Agatha Christie adaptation or Sherlock Holmes film. The detective’s summation of every little clue in the case is another example of a monologue for the audience.

The Monologue for The Character Being Spoken To

Here’s another monologue, from Good Will Hunting.

Here, Matt Damon’s character Will is employing a monologue as a tactic, in this conflict with the guy at the bar. The monologue is for the character being spoken to. Remember to ask: Where is the conflict? It’s between these two characters. Will uses this little speech as a tactic, and it doesn’t work, and he has to resort to the offer of a fight.

The Monologue for The Character Speaking

Now compare it to Peter Parker’s admission of guilt to Aunt May in Spider-man 2.

The drama here isn’t necessarily for the audience, because this is all information we already know, assuming you didn’t watch Spider-man 2 before Spider-man. And while you may be inclined to think this monologue is for Aunt May (the character being spoken to), I’d argue that it’s actually for Peter (the character speaking). Peter needs to be open and honest with those he is close to, and his inability to do that is the obstacle. He’s not really in conflict with Aunt May, but with himself. (A clue when watching monologues in films and shows is to see who the camera lingers on the most. A good filmmaker and editor will often leave the camera where the drama is.)

These types of monologues are often the most difficult to do, because the conflict often happens from a character’s lack of awareness. How unaware can they be if they’re the ones speaking? For a master of this, look no further than Shakespeare, who used soliloquies to bring characters to self-awareness through interrogation with their own mind. (A soliloquy is a monologue that is essentially the inner thoughts of a character, done in direct address to the audience). King Lear in the storm and Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” are wonderful examples of this.

More about character development: 8 Character Development Lessons Every Screenwriter Can Take from Fleabag

Understanding who a monologue is for will help you find the drama within it, because it will indicate where the conflict lies.

How about this famous monologue from A Few Good Men?

Who’s this monologue for?

How to Write a Monologue

So you’ve got a spot in your script where you want to employ a monologue. How might you go about that? A few things to keep in mind:

Don’t overuse it.

While they’re often entertaining, they start to become noise if used too often. So use it sparingly. Take your favorite monologue, and then look at the script that contains it. You’ll likely see it’s only one two or three. Sometimes it’s the only one!

Break It Up

Though you won’t see it as much in a stageplay, in a feature or tv script, breaking up the monologue with reactions from other characters, small bits of action, will not only help it read better on the page, but also indicate to the audience of where lines should be landing and who they should be affecting.

JIM

I used to really look up to you Ted. I thought you were the greatest salesman we had. But you know what I’ve come to realize? You’re all talk. You sit there behind your desk and you jabber. All day. It’s a wonder your jaw doesn’t fall off. Now if you want me to get on the phone and just talk talk talk all day, I can do it. But talking doesn’t get things done. It just looks like it does. The boss might come by and say to me, “Hey Jim, why don’t you be more like Ted?” and you smile and grin back at me, but you know what? At the end of month, when all is tallied, I’m going to be the one with more sales, and you’re going to be the one with a tiny cardboard box packing up those pictures of your kids that are probably asking why Santa didn’t bring them anything for Christmas that year. And you’ll have to look them in the eye and say--

Ok, we could go on and on with this monologue, but now take a look at how this looks on the page.

JIM

I used to really look up to you Ted. I thought you were the greatest salesman we had. But you know what I’ve come to realize?

Ted stares blankly.

JIM

You’re all talk. You sit there behind your desk and you jabber. All day. It’s a wonder your jaw doesn’t fall off. Now if you want me to get on the phone and just talk talk talk all day, I can do it. But talking doesn’t get things done. It just looks like it does.

Jim leans in close.

JIM

The boss might come by and say to me, “Hey Jim, why don’t you be more like Ted?” and you smile and grin back at me, but you know what?

Ted’s smile is nowhere to be found.

JIM

At the end of month, when all is tallied, I’m going to be the one with more sales, and you’re going to be the one with a tiny cardboard box packing up those pictures of your kids that are probably asking why Santa didn’t bring them anything for Christmas that year.

Breaking it up gives the reader these short breathers. It reminds them that even though this is one character speaking, it’s a scene between two characters.

Make It Interesting

This is particularly important when the monologue is mostly for the audience. Writers will often use audience surrogates (such as John Watson to Sherlock Holmes) but even with that type of character, these can sometimes be tedious. So how do you make a long speech interesting when there isn’t any dramatic conflict within it?

Character Voice

This is why the Glengarry Glen Ross monologue works so well. The information is deployed through the filter of the character’s voice, and that voice is so distinctive and unique that you can’t help but watch it. The intensity with which he speaks, the way in which he puts down the other characters goes above and beyond the information he’s expressing. A unique voice can help a writer get away with a lot!

Intriguing Content

This is how Poirot and Holmes get away with their monologues. The summation at the end of Murder on the Orient Express is eight pages long. Eight whole pages of only one character speaking! But the fine details of how every little thing fits has the effect of a thousand piece puzzle coming together before your eyes. We’re so dazzled by the intricacies of the plot, that we forget that it’s just a long dump of exposition at the end of a story.

Check out our Interview: John Warren On The Process Of Story

Juxtaposing Action

A monologue that takes place within the context of action that juxtaposes what is being said can be a fascinating way to keep it interesting. A character that waxes on about how they hate violence while overseeing an execution, or a character that talks about how laid back they are while obsessively cleaning the kitchen.

Sometimes, just a fascinating action itself can do the trick, even if it isn’t juxtaposing. Think of Duvall’s “Napalm in the morning” monologue from Apocalypse Now. Explosions are going off and it wouldn’t normally be the time for a monologue, but off he goes on the smell and the memory.

Learn more about action lines: Action lines – what can they accomplish?

Conclusion

Monologues aren’t the most common tool when expressing drama, but the good ones stick with us. Use it right, and it’ll often be one of the most memorable scenes in your script. If you want more practice understanding the monologue, here’s an article from Screenrant listing their Top 20 Monologues from films. Can you break them down?

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David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.