How do you write a killer audition monologue? 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 #6. Include detail that engages the senses! What should a monologue make us do? Empathize! If the audience isn’t feeling what the character is feeling, if they aren’t going through something with the character, the monologue has not achieved its purpose. One of the most effective ways to engage your audience is to engage their senses. We all share a common five senses, and using them to describe something that happened to us brings our audience right into the experience with us. For instance, using sensory details can communicate to an audience how a character is feeling without the writer having to label the emotion. If someone tells us that when so-and-so approached them, their heart began to race, for instance, we know they’re excited or scared (depending on the context) without them having to spell-out for us what emotion they were feeling. Can you write an effective monologue that engages empathy without sight, sound, touch, taste, smell? Sure, but it would be a lot more difficult. Talking about ideas, situations and feelings without linking them to sensory experience may work when connecting with people in real life, but it generally tends to be less effective for stage and screen. Writing that taps into our senses holds incredible power to move us.
Element #7. Character overcomes internal obstacle(s). Some of the most interesting monologues feature internal struggles. Shakespeare is filled with soliloquies that do this; the cannon of modern drama contains a number of examples we can draw on as well. Watching a character conquer their own self-doubts in the course of a speech or soliloquy will hold an audience’s attention. For an actor, internal-struggle pieces provide a terrific one-person showcase. The actor playing this material is given an opportunity to show themselves in a state of weakness and turmoil from which they are able to emerge stronger, even changed, as they overcome the internal obstacles/doubts/fears that stand in their way. Good writing is complex and layered—a monologue can have a character grappling with both internal and external forces simultaneously.
Element #8. Balance Past and Present Action. So many monologues get stuck in the past, recounting stories that don't connect with the here and now. A great monologue connects with the present even when it discusses the past. We can feel the current relationship between the monologist and the person hearing it. Often we can see the monologist adjusting what they say based on how their listener is reacting. And we can feel that the character wants something, is seeking to gain something (be it tangible or emotional) from whomever or whatever they're addressing. Keep in mind, while the monologist is often addressing another person, they can also be addressing a part of themselves, an idea, a force, etc. So, as you write a monologue that has your character recount a story, think of how they are using it as a tactic to accomplish something with whomever or whatever they’re speaking to now. Your character might recall a story to prove a point to their listener. To hurt their listener, your character might bring up a memory they know is painful for them. To make peace and reconnect with someone, a character might talk about a time when they were friends. Here are a few examples of how a character can use past events to deal with their own internal obstacles: A character may recount a painful memory—something that is holding them back—in order to heal. To fight sadness in the moment, a character may recall a happier time. To fight weakness in the moment, a character may recall a story that illustrates their strength. Walk the tightrope between past and present action well and you'll be on your way to a strong monologue.
Element #9. Discovery! We don’t want to see a character do something they’ve done a million times in the same way they’ve always done it. For example, a door-to-door salesman calling on someone and giving their rehearsed speech is boring. But, take that same door-to-door salesman and have them realize during their rehearsed speech that what they really want is to leave sales and sing opera. That's another matter entirely. A monologue is dramatic when the monologist doesn't know exactly what they’re going to say until they say it. We are seeing them figure things out, right now, in the moment, as they speak. We are seeing them make decisions about how they are going to proceed with every sentence. Often we are seeing a character come to a realization, a personal discovery, or a new or more complete understanding of something for the first time. We do not want to know where the monologue is going to end when it starts. The element of surprise, of discovery, of unexpected directions, twists and turns makes for an entertaining journey.
Element #10. Exercise restraint to build dramatic/comedic tension. A character trying hard not to cry is much more interesting than one all-out-bawling for two minutes straight. Most of us try to avoid displaying strong, overwhelming emotion. A good monologue shows that struggle to keep strong emotions under-wraps. That’s not to say you can’t have a character have intense emotional outbursts, only reserve those expressions for key moments—perhaps the climax of your monologue. Have your character work, just as a real person would, to keep powerful emotions bubbling up just under the surface under control. Watching a person about to explode, about to be overwhelmed with emotion, but exercising will power and holding back is interesting. It builds expectation—are they going to lose it? Are they going to maintain their cool exterior? What a character doesn’t say, or doesn’t do—what they might be on the verge of doing—tells a story that contains inherent dramatic tension.
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.