On writing monologues

I was asked recently for some advice on writing monologues. This, with some additions and redaction, is what I wrote:

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If you have taken part in any kind of writing course or workshop then chances are you have written monologue. Like the nursery slopes of playwriting, monologue warms you up, builds up your writing muscle and gets you ready for the ‘real work’ of dialogue writing.

However, once you have moved on from writing a page or two, you discover writing a whole show as a monologue is much, much harder than it looks. How to keep interest when it is just one person talking for 45 minutes? When other people come into the story, how much dialogue to report? How much description is too much?

It is definitely worth getting to grips with monologue form especially as the way things are going financially nobody is going to be able to afford more than one actor anymore. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my last show Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni and my next, Conscientious By Adam Z Robinson, are both one person shows.

First, get a feel for what kind of monologue you are writing. There are a number of (overlapping) types including:
1. Telling a single story from one person’s point of view
2. Exploring one character or theme through multiple stories
3. Multiple characters played by single actor, linked together by story or theme.
4. The autobiographical monologue where you explore topics or stories about yourself.
No one version is better than others and many writers will go between different forms for different projects. Also one version is not necessarily more ‘traditional’ or more ‘experimental’ than another. George Brant’s Grounded just launching a UK tour is a single story told by one person, as is Tim Crouch’s ‘My Arm’. Though both essentially one person telling their story to an audience in retrospect, they were different in approach: ‘Grounded’ being performed by the supurb Lucy Ellinson from within a gauze box, Tim performing the monologue himself (and apparently ‘about’ himself) with aids of toys and live video. However, they are neither easily characterised in the binary of new/old, traditional/modern. They combine possibly the oldest theatrical technique, one performer telling a story to a group of people, with design and staging which is non-naturalistic and suited to the subject, performer and places it will be performed. Also see if you can Amsterdam by Chanje Kunda touring this Autumn – for different example of monologue coming from performance poetry. (Disclaimer produced by my husband!)
For example of a monologue that contains elements of all versions you should definitely read but if possible see Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities. Chris is hugely talented, multifaceted writer-director-performer and his one person shows are some of my favourite things I have ever watched. (Which is not to say his multi-character and productions of extant work aren’t brilliant as well – in fact we don’t get enough of those. See aforementioned problem of one person plays being cheaper and therefore easier to produce). You should also definitely get hold of a copy of Wound Man and Shirley which I think you will love.
I would also recommend you see if you can Chris Brett Bailey This is How We Die – although possibly not till you’ve finished your monologue as by all accounts it is pretty mind blowing. And having ones mind blown is not always what you want when working on a new piece.
You should also by way of contrast have a read of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Bennett gets bit of a bad press in certain quarters and yes his rather odd ‘caught somewhere in the 1960s’ world can be bizarre. But in his own form of monologue writing he is unsurpassed – telling a story from single character’s point of view so that we are also let into the whole story, including things our protagonists can’t/won’t see. Have a look at some of the better known ones like Chip in the Sugar. But also seek out, if you can, some of the lesser known ones such as The Outside Dog and Playing Sandwiches for more disturbing side to Bennett (though tbh I find most of Bennett pretty disturbing).
When writing a monologue the same questions apply as to multiple character work. What does your central character want? What do they need? What stops them getting it? What do they have to overcome internally and externally? What is their state at the beginning and what is it at the end – how have they changed?
In addition with monologue/storytelling there is what is the tense of the performance. It sounds like you have the character telling past tense stories (what has happened to them) and also a present tense – travelling while telling (the audience) the story. How much is in the past and how much in the present? What is actually happening in the present? Does the telling of the stories to the audience have an effect on the storyteller? It is always important to have something happening with the character in both the present and past strands of a piece.
 Or you could just decide to have the story happening entirely in the past tense. It can be one continuous story told in one piece. Or your storyteller can shift time through it. An example would be your storyteller telling what has happened up to the first turning point, then post the second turning point, then at the end  – looking back from three different vantage points.
Pacing in monologue form is harder to judge than dialogue. It really is worth reading aloud to yourself as you go. You will begin to get a sense of how passages that zip by on the page slow right down when spoken. That doesn’t mean all description is bad – but the description or story telling has to keep taking us somewhere narratively, emotionally or intellectually – what impact is it having? If it feels ‘stuck’ or detail for the sake of detail then move on.
This is multiple interlocking monologues but Chris Thorpe’s There has possibly been an incident is beautiful example of dramatic storytelling and use of detail.
And finally – as with any other form of writing there are no real rules apart from the ones you make for yourself. Keep writing, and re-writing, and find the form that suits you best.
Good luck!
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