Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.
The monologue is a staple of theater dating back to the ancient Greeks, but has been taboo in cinema almost from the start. Sure, we can all point to the exceptions… There are many, many great monologues in movie history, and in fact, here’s a fantastic list of 50 of them. I’d add Nick Cage in Moonstruck to the list: “I lost my hand, I lost my bride….” It’s a hilarious, poignant, operatic performance that delivers exposition with comedy and makes great use of an in-scene audience to heighten tension and believability.
Screenwriters try to avoid monologues for a number of reasons. They tend to be melodramatic, they take up a lot of page space, they are often static and difficult to visualize, they are hard to write without being on the nose, they are perceived as exposition bombs or crutches for bad character development, and readers gloss over them like they do those five-line paragraphs of scene description you shouldn’t be writing.
That said, a monologue is a very useful development or rewrite tool. When my students struggle with a character’s voice, or a character feels shallow and two-dimensional, I often ask them to write a lengthy monologue in a separate document. Don’t worry about slug lines and scene descriptions, just type the character name and let fly. If it helps, give yourself a prompt: “How does she feel about Jello?” Your character’s take on any number of ultra-specific topics or issues could lead to a great line, scene, or simply a better grasp of her voice and history.
Another approach is to write the monologue you wish you could write, or try to discover what she’s really thinking between two critical scenes. Pretend you’re writing a novel or a play. Get inside her head. Let her talk to the audience. Monologues, especially those no one else will see, give you the space and freedom to let a character tell her own story, and the insight you gain, whether you use a word of it or not, will show up between the lines on the page, and help you lock into her voice.
A variation on this exercise, for use in a screenwriting class or a writer’s group, is to randomly assign writers to write monologues for other writers’ characters. My students have a blast with this one. It’s always provocative, insightful and fun. Plus, it’s incredibly helpful to discover how someone else hears or interprets your character on the page. Invariably, my students borrow exact lines, scenes, or points of view from this exercise, and it always improves their character development.
We often think screenwriting is just cranking out scenes and piling on the pages – breaking story. But sometimes, we need to break convention. Sometimes, you need to play and have fun in a productive way. Writing a monologue is indulgent, but unlike eating a half-gallon of cookie dough ice cream, it will make you feel better. Your characters become more rounded, and you’ll develop a better grasp of their voices and psychology. Just don’t leave those lengthy speeches in the script unless you’re in the same boat with Quint reliving the U.S.S. Indianapolis, or Alec Baldwin admonishing Jack Lemmon that “Coffee is for closers!”
For more help with dialogue, check out our On Demand webinar,
How to Write Sparkling Dialogue: Advanced Techniques to Make Your Script Shine