How I Teach This Subject to Acting Students:
I don’t offer a rubric for writing a good monologue, or a good dialogue. I don’t give you examples to copy. In my experience, students do their best work when they write organically, with their own (fictional) «voice(s)».
I will give you specific feedback based on the first draft – and I will never rewrite your work in my own words. I will make suggestions for changes – but I will not dictate specific words, sentences or images. I am here to help you develop your own writing, not to have you mimic mine or anyone else’s.
You shouldn’t think of this as writing a section of a novel, or a poem, or an essay – or any other «form» you’ve written (and been graded on) in other subjects in school.
Focus on the spoken word, the vernacular; use a living language. Good students often forget this, and end up writing something that sounds over-written and too «correct» for the stage.
Remember that – as a rule (there are always exceptions) – theater is about action. Actors are doing things, they are living in the moment – this means they very seldom spout poetry (presenting pre-digested emotions described beautifully). They struggle with making sense of their experiences in front of us – in real time. This is true even of Shakespeare’s characters (yes – there are always exceptions). Sonnets are not soliloquies.
As an acting students, you can use many of the techniques you are already familiar with techniques for creating individual characters for realism, or stylized «types» .
Both kinds of characters will have specific goals and desires, and inevitable obstacles.
The language the characters use should have appropriate vocabularies, rhythms, and tempos.
Suggestions for Beginning
Don’t think of writing monologues, dialogues or even whole plays as «writing assignments».
The playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote a set of rules for playwrights. One of them is: Never begin with a theme!
He says begin with a character and a story – and push that story as far as it can go. (Other writers talk about creating a character, and then putting that character through Hell.)
Dürrenmatt’s poem “Dramaturgic Advice» offers very good advice:
Don’t give us any profound talk
Don’t add to the mystery
It’s not the word
Create a shape
Three men at a table
What they say is not important
They want to do right
But the dice are cast
Who boards the wrong train
May run back in it
But arrives where he didn’t
want to go
There are many ways into a story. You might get a mental image (or be inspired by a photo, or a song). Here are two suggestions for a workflow:
Scenario first: Someone finds themselves locked in a basement bathroom stall in a restaurant – just as the restaurant is closing.
- What kind of genre do you want to work with? (Horror, drama, comedy etc.)
- Now get in touch with your inner sadist: What type of character (or what kind of background would a specific realistic character have so that they) would be the most frightened in this situation?
- Get under your character’s skin: Write a GOTEsheet, put yourself in a hot seat. Write a diary entry, make a vlog recording, snapchat, instagram story etc. for the day before, and the day after the event.When you know what your character wants out of life, you will be able to write a monologue that is more than about getting out of a bathroom stall. Maybe you won’t get to the job interview you have in the morning and without the job you won’t be able to pay your rent… Push them with a sequence of events (or thoughts) until they are forced to change their inner circumstances.Or If your character is a stereotype like a «germaphobe», you will discover possibilities for a sequence of events that change their external circumstances and make the situation increasingly difficult. For example, not being able to bang on the wall to get attention because there are germs there; they can’t scream because they have a fisherman’s friend in their mouth.; they spit it out into their palm, then realize how unsanitary that is, and have to throw it away, but that means having to lift the toilet lid…
- «Play» your scene. Again and again. Keep all your drafts and pull from the best bits.
- Get under your character’s skin. Get into their closet and their shoes (literally). Use your acting techniques to flesh out your character. Write a GOTEsheet and put yourself in the hot seat, etc. Write a diary entry…
- Now. Step out of character and get in touch with your inner sadist. Based on what your character holds dearest, or in what they place their trust, self-esteem or safety: where would this character be the most uncomfortable? (Or the happiest?) In what scenario would they be willing to risk the most? Be forced to grow?
- Decide on your genre. Create your character’s obstacles accordingly. Change the inner circumstances, the outer circumstances – or both.
- «Play» your scene. Again and again. Keep all your drafts and pull from the best bits.
Remember Aristotelian dramaturgy. You do not have to stick to with it, but you do need to be conscious of how you are interacting with the audience’s expectations.
Often our first drafts have shape that resembles a steep uphill climb. There’s an increasing tension, with no place to rest or regroup. Sometimes this works, but often it is more fun to put your character – and your audience – on a roller coaster.
- Not writing a first, second, and maybe even third draft – and /or not accepting feedback and guidance
Your first draft will rarely be the best you can do – but there will be gems to pull out, shape and polish in second and third drafts. You might overlook the good stuff, and get hung up on what we call «darlings» that aren’t doing the work any good. (Don’t «kill your darlings» as they like to say – save them for another project).
- Not reading your monologue out loud while you are in the process of writing and rewriting
Often what looks good on the page and sounds good in your head, can wind up being difficult to enunciate or phrase as your character would.
- Writing a character sketch or poem instead of a theatrical monologue/dialogue
Think like an actor: a dramatic monologue presents a character who goes through some kind of change. An angry rant might be entertaining on one level, but shouting or crying does not constitute a «drama» onstage. A demonstration of a single emotion is far less interesting than a metamorphosis. Let the actor(s) show off more than a few shades of one emotion. Let the character(s) learn something «life-changing», or let them have a victory or suffer a loss that fundamentally changes how they view themselves. These can be small events, with powerful emotional consequences. Incidentally finding a lost earring between the sofa cushions might turn someone’s day around. Finding a strange earring between the sofa cushions might turn someone’s life up-side down. Both can make great monologues.
(This point still holds true with a character that is largely and intentionally one-dimensional. In which case, the monologue will be plot driven rather than character driven. There will still be a «dramatic» event that the character will respond to. By this, I mean a conflict and a resolution.)
- Narrating what you did that day to an unspecified listener.
Boring. Remember that all the same rules that apply to an actor creating «motivation» apply to the writer writing the scene. Something needs to be at stake! The character wants something other than to complain/entertain… just because. Be specific in all your choices:
Stanislavski said, «Generality is the enemy of all art.»
Peter Brook said, «Through the concrete we recognize the abstract.»
- Writing subtext instead of dialogue: The actress Emma Thompson said in an interview that she believes actors often do a poor job of writing their own dialogue because they write the subtext – and leave themselves nothing to play with. In Creative Writing programs we call this «writing on the nose». For example: «I hate you.» Don’t do it. Remember how much fun it is as an actor to make «Here, have some more broccoli!», mean «I hate you!»? Give your actor(s) room to play.
This is full of wonderful information!
However, just a little warning – it begins with an offensive joke.
NB: You can begin at 1.25 minutes.
A partial checklist for late drafts:
- Does your character have a spine? (See the video above)
- Does the tempo of the language match the emotional tempo of the character speaking? (You cannot write stage directions telling the actor what to feel. Think of Shakespeare’s use of metered language to express emotion.)
- Are there unintentional clichés or generalisations that you need to make specific?
- Does the language each character uses match their age, education, region?
- Does/do the character(s) have a conscious/unconscious use of gendered language?
- Does the language indicate a particular subculture or time period?
- Are you writing true to your genre? (Stereotype, «type», or realistic character?)
- Do you care about your character(s) and what they have to say?