Writing the Monologue

Posted on 07 May 2012

It pays to keep an eye on the community festivals. Some communities include a wealth of creative people, and attending their festivals can be a way to gain easy access to some topnotch talent.

I have been both guest and attendee of the Williamstown Literary Festival for a number of years. Every year I have attended Shaun Micallef has been wandering around and having his say in various sessions. I have also had chats with Denise Scott, and this year Kim Gyngell was strutting his comedy stuff.

Rebecca Lister may not be a name with which you are familiar, but she is an award-winning playwriter and a presenter on 3RRR’s book review show Aural Text. She offered a workshop on the monologue at this year’s Willy Lit Fest. Since most comedy shows are basically monologues, I thought it would be worth listening to her perspective on how to write an effective one.

Here is what I learned from the marvelous Ms Lister.

All speech within a play is a representation of how people speak, not actually the sorts of things we hear said. It needs to be compact and it needs to forward the story, while remaining completely in character.

Monologues come in two types: the interior/internal and the exterior/external.

The interior monologue is about a character revealing their inner thoughts. They may be speaking aloud, but they are speaking to no one but themselves. Frequently these monologues are confessional, they will always be revealing of thoughts and feelings. This sort of monologue is also known as the soliloquy.

The exterior monologue will be directed to an other. That other could be a single character, a group of characters, or the audience. The monologue and the actor must make it clear to the audience who is being addressed. In this case thoughts and feelings are also being shared, but usually concerning relationships between characters. A greater sense of appeal can be present.

After providing this ground work, Lister presented her “Top Ten Tips for Monologues”.

The Hook

Capture people’s attention in the first two to three sentences of your speech. You don’t need to spell the complete situation out in those sentences, but you will need to suggest the scenario and give people a good emotional reason for caring.

The Grab

This also needs to be simple and quick. Here’s where you start answering people’s questions about who, what, where, and when. We must also know why this character needs to express these thoughts now. We must begin to understand the heart of their story, which will be expressive of larger themes within the play.

A way to get at this thematic heart is to write out a one page summary of the story. When you have that page, find a way to reduce it to one paragraph, then one sentence, then one to three words. Let’s say your story is about how a married couple have drifted apart and a journey to another country helps them to renew their relationship. This could be reduced to “Love rediscovered”.

Tell the Story

Tell it deliciously, excitingly, humorously, passionately, sorrowfully, yearningly, angrily, surprisingly, wistfully.

Build the Character

We must be shown by their speech who they are, what they want, why they want it, and suggest what they need, even if they don’t recognise that need themselves.

Build the World

Layer in specific details that provide physical and emotional context to the character’s situation. These details give the piece colour and a sense of tone. In a drama you might start by describing the day as grey. In a comedy you might start by saying, “I knew it was a mistake moving into a town with no donut shop.”

Rhythm and Pacing

Be aware of the musicality of your own writing. Vary the pitch of how and what is said, pacing yourself with series of pulses and beats that lead to a crescendo. Understand too that every character will have their own rhythm based on their general emotional outlook.

Read It Aloud

How does it sound? Does it flow? Does it suit the character? It’s highly worthwhile getting acting friends to read out your monologue, so you can more easily see where others may be having difficulty with the wording.


The soul of writing: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Don’t be prissy, slash out anything that doesn’t work. But keep drafts, since some edited items can prove useful seeds to future works.

Make Every Word Count

People’s patience is even shorter for performed works than for written works.

Bring it Home

The monologue is an emotional journey. It must tell us things we could not know in any other way. As such it will have at least one moment of real surprise and one moment of “AH-HA” where the pieces fall together and you finally understand something crucial about the character.

If you want to know more about Rebecca Lister, she has a Web site you can visit here:

Peace and kindness,


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