By Ken Miyamoto, repped and working screenwriter, formerly signed with Lions Gate deal, Working screenwriter, former studio reader/story analyst, former studio liaison, President of the WSF (www.wiscreenwritersforum.org), miniseries with name cast just wrapped production. Originally published as an answer on Quora, reproduced here by kind permission of the author.@WIScreenwriters on Twitter, kenmiyamoto.quora.com.
I’m speaking primarily from a screenwriter’s perspective here, but I believe it applies to any form of creative writing as well.
The first thoughts that need to go into each and every monologue is necessity. Is there a necessity for this moment in your story to be communicated through anything more than action/description, a couple lines of dialogue, etc? Does this moment call for a monologue? Do you need to stop your audience for a length of time at this point in your story? Could you make more of an impact with one or two strong lines of dialogue that capture whatever moment you’re trying to articulate and create? Is a monologue needed?
Purpose. What is the purpose of your monologue? How does it serve your character and story? If it exists to just relay some necessary exposition, perhaps that’s not a strong enough purpose for it to be there. The best monologues have purpose beyond exposition. They should be an unveiling of sorts for the character arc or the story arc. Almost an epiphany.
Placement. Where should such a monologue be placed within your story? Placement is everything. Just as important as necessity and purpose. If you showcase a monologue at the wrong moment in your story, the pacing goes all out of whack. If you have our hearts racing and then suddenly we’re forced to come to an extreme halt with a poorly placed monologue, then we as your audience will be disoriented and won’t be able to ingest all of the monologue.
Language. HOW does the monologue read? Is it fluid and real, or is it wooden and bland? Does it pop off of the page, or is it something we are forced to skim. Is it just enough, or is it overly redundant? The best monologues are a compilation of great lines, thus your monologue has to be your best writing times ten in order to make it memorable and worthy. That’s a lot of pressure so always be sure to choose wisely when and where you place such monologues and pay specific attention to the language you use. And write it how real people speak. We aren’t clear with everything we say. We go on tangents. We pause. We speak in fragements. All of that and more. Keep it real.
Reveal. They have to reveal something. They have to reveal some more of the character. They have to reveal some more of the story. If you’re just using fluid language that reads great, clever, and intelligent, but reveals next to nothing, the purpose of the monologue and the effect that it could have on your audience is gone. You have to reveal something.
Emotion. The best monologues have emotion. Whether it be anger, rage, sadness, despair, glee, happiness, fear, etc. They have to have pure emotion.
Below are some of my favorite monologues that I believe accomplish all of this and more, and if you transcribed these moments, or read the scripts in print, you’d find that they accomplish just the same, no different than a novel would.
Good Will Hunting – We learn. We feel. There’s a purpose to what he is saying. There’s an epiphany moment for Will’s character. We learn about Sean. Etc.
Jaws – Great language here. It’s real. It has emotion. Fear. Anger. Rage. And it truly states what the character Quint has been through and why he’s hunting the shark. And it truly states what is to come. What the danger is.
Glengarry Glen Ross – Power. It’s delivered in a wonderful fashion. It’s uses the language of that world and it reveals that world and the hardships that go with it. It challenges each of the characters. It scares them. It fuels their anger. It puts them in their place.
Network – Raw, utter emotion. It has a message. It sums up the character and what he is going through. It connects with multiple characters. It engages the audience as well.
Scent of a Woman – Colorful. Impacting. It tackles the themes of the film. It reveals character. This is a man who at the beginning of the film rejected everyone around him. This is a man who was saved by Charlie. And he’s about to pay back the favor.
True Romance – Colorful language again. It tells a story with three meanings. We’re engaged by the actual “factoids” (I use that term very loosely and respectfully, given the subject). He’s telling this story to give this gangster one big “F*** you”. And lastly, he knows he’s dead no matter what, and he’s going out with a bang.
A Few Good Men – We learn so much about this character and his viewpoint on the world. We learn about his world too. And damned if we don’t understand at least part of his point. Beyond that, we find out that this is exactly what Tom Cruise’s character wants Nicholson’s to do. Earlier in the film, Cruise says, “I think he wants to tell us!” He was right.
Lastly, I’ll say this. If you want to truly write a good monologue, you have to become this character. You have to know their viewpoints, know their purposes, know the emotions, etc.
So don’t just write it… say it. Perform it. I’m not saying you should workshop it with fellow writers, act it out in front of them, and all of that scholastic BS. No. I’m talking about that moment when it’s you, the keyboard, and that blinking cursor waiting for you to write some magic. BE that character. Say each and every line. Get a feel for the language, the purpose, the emotion, the necessity of each and every line, etc. Put yourself in that character’s shoes.
That’s how you write a good monologue.
[Editor’s note: YouTube has many examples of movie monologues to review. Just go to http://www.youtube.com/ and key “movie monologues” into the search field for more results.]