Good question. In Monologue Writing 101 I’ve broken it down for you into 10 Elements of a Great Audition Monologue. In truth, there are so many different things that make any piece of writing unique, effective, gripping, funny, moving, engaging, etc. that one could write volumes on the subject. However, I'm guessing for many of you, you have a class assignment or an audition coming up soon. Plus, as one slightly well-known playwright once said: "brevity is the soul of wit."
The 10 Elements were created as a way to boil down lessons in playwriting learned over the course of several years -- and several volumes of books on the subject -- into a short essential list. I taught these 10 Elements to students as part of the nationally recognized Joanne Woodward Apprentice Program at the Westport Country Playhouse. The material they wrote using these Elements was consistently surprising, entertaining, and enjoyable. I owe a great deal to my mentors playwright Milan Stitt and director/novelist Kathleen George in helping to shape my thinking on these elements. I am pleased to pass these on to you and I hope you, in turn, will pass them on.
Element #1: Your character must have a strong want. Think about the times you have become the most aggressive, upset, or combative. Most likely, if you felt this strongly, it was related to something you wanted or cared about very much. A character in a play or a monologue needs to want something badly. Without a strong want there is no drama – or comedy for that matter. Often the character needs to get something from the person they’re delivering the monologue to. They may need to unburden themselves by revealing a secret. Or they may need to get themselves charged up to do something difficult. They might speak a monologue to build courage, strength, or bravery for a task ahead. Or they may want to speak in order to change the way someone feels about them. Or if the monologue has an internal struggle – they may be speaking in order to change the way they feel about themselves. Whatever it is your character wants, we need to hear that want clearly behind the words they’re speaking.
Element #2: The monologue must have high stakes. Meaning, there is something important or significant at stake for your character. If the character doesn’t get what they want, what will be the consequence? Perhaps they’ll lose social standing, lose a friend, lose their self respect. Maybe they’ll lose their faith, or lose their once chance to prove their love to someone? Stakes give the monologue dramatic tension. Without stakes, a monologue is a walk in the park, its unimportant. There has to be something at stake for the character, so that if they fail to achieve their goal in the monologue, there will be significant negative consequences for them—either in a tangible or emotional form. A tangible stake might be, if the character fails to get what he or she wants they’ll lose the relationship with the person they’re delivering the monologue to. This clearly has emotional stakes as well—they’ll feel terrible, lonely, etc. A purely emotional stake might be that if the character fails to get what he or she is pursuing, they’ll lose their self respect, lose their nerve, lose their faith, etc. So you see, high stakes are important. When working on developing your monologue, ask yourself: what is at stake for this character?
Element #3: Variety of Tactics/Persuasive Moves. A great monologue has a character use a variety of tactics to achieve their want. A character might try to flatter the person they’re talking to as a tactic in order to make them more receptive to hearing them out. If flattery doesn’t work, or isn’t working by itself, they might switch gears and try the tactic of intimidating the person. Intimidation isn’t working; or it hasn’t clinched the deal? Perhaps they try enticing whomever is listening to them with something they know the other person wants. An enticement can be promising or even giving the person hearing the monologue something tangible, but more often emotional, that is of significant value to them. For instance, a father trying to get his daughter to change her behavior may show her affection as a tactic. This might be a particularly effective tactic if the father knows his daughter values his affection highly because it’s a rare commodity coming from him. In the end, a monologue is about persuasion. It’s about making the right “persuasive moves,” which are designed to work with the person who is hearing the monologue. And it’s about having the character use a variety of persuasive techniques to achieve that. Think of tactics like a dance—a dance is boring if it repeats a few steps over and over—it becomes interesting with variety. The more inventive you are in giving your character persuasive moves to make, the more interested in that character the audience will be. And the tactics you employ don’t only have to be geared outwardly toward the person whom the character is speaking to. If the monologue has an internal struggle going on, where the character is trying to convince themselves of something, then ask yourself: What must the character do to persuade themselves to take an action they know they need to, or to face something difficult, or to change something about themselves? The possibilities – and tactics – are limitless.
Element #4: Hook Opening. A good journalist, novelist, magazine writer always needs a hook—a killer first line that pulls the reader in and makes them want to read the next line, and then the next, and the next. Similarly, a monologue with a strong hook should peak the audience’s attention (of course the rest of the monologue has to pay-off the excitement and expectations it sets up). There are a number of different kind of hooks. A hook can be a headline, which encapsulates the story the monologist is about to launch into—it lets us know what happened, but now we want to know how it happened and the monologue that ensues answers that question for us. Another hook is the “Thesis” or “Argument” hook. The first line sets up an argument—something the character believes, wants their listener to believe, or wants themselves to believe—and the rest of the monologue serves to prove that this opening statement is in fact true. Yet another hook is the Relationship Dynamics hook. This is a first line or opening statement that quickly sets up a dramatically charged relationship between the monologist and whomever they’re addressing.
Element # 5. Button Closing. When your monologue ends, you don’t want the audience to wonder, is he/she done? Is this a dramatic pause? You want your ending to be clear. Like a gymnast nailing their landing, a “button” is a line that gives an actor a clear end-point to work with. A “button” can bring the thoughts expressed in the monologue to a conclusion. Often it is the moment when a character finally accepts something, finally overcomes an obstacle, finally figures something out, or comes to a decision point. What is a decision point? The moment when a character is ready to take – or is taking before our eyes – a decisive action. Think of a monologue like a mini-play. The arc of the monologue should build to this final line. If the monologue’s hook opening brings a question into the audiences mind, the button close should answer it.
This article was provided by Gabriel Davis, Playwriting MFA - Carnegie Mellon University. More articles like this can be viewed at his site: www.monologuegenie.com.