When people think of internal monologue they tend to think of a first person narration or a Dickensian third person which is the authorial voice relaying the character’s voice. A third type is the stream of consciousness, in which thoughts are relayed as they are ‘thought’. It can be choppy and disconnected or a direct flow hoping smoothly from one thought to another. While we might assume this would need to be a first person narrative because it sounds like it should be directly in the character’s head it can be third person too.

The stream of consciousness was developed by the modernists and is often associated with The Bloomsbury Set, particularly Virginia Woolf. The idea behind it was to shake off traditional narrative forms and make the flow of narrative more akin to that of actual thought. Personally I’ve always been slightly dubious of this myself, not because I think it’s bad but because fiction is inherently artificial. We can make it appear natural and realistic but nothing happens unless we, the writers, make it up. There also seems to be something contradictory about writing the character’s stream of consciousness from an inherently detached perspective, unlike first-person which seems more directly connected to the character’s thoughts. For this reason it can be a tricky way to narrate, at best it flows nicely and at worst it is disjointed and confusing.

In theory what we should do is follow one thought with another and you’re probably thinking, ‘But, Jesse, isn’t that what narrative does anyway?’ Yes and no, a traditional internal monologue has a logical progression, we have an event that is happening and monologue revolves around that, we don’t tend to stray too far from what is happening. In a stream of consciousness the story might not be a series of events but rather the narrative is the story. We may have a framework of events but unlike most novels we might not have say Jen goes to a party then the next day she goes to breakfast as we might in most narratives. Instead we follow the characters thoughts from one to the next with the events happening in the background as second to the character’s internal lives.

So, Jen might be at a party but rather than describe the party in depth we’d describe Jen’s thoughts while she’s at the party in depth. For instance we may have a long section of thought on a particular person at the party then move on to Jen’s thoughts relating to something from that section of thought. Perhaps she draws a comparision between the pattern on the other character’s clothes and some curtains which reminds her she needs to clean her curtains which leads to a brief trail of thought about a memoriable time she cleaned the curtains and so on.

Another reason this can be a tricky thing to pull off is that a story can get a little dull without a traditional narrative structure and, as we all live in our own heads, we know that sometimes people’s thoughts just aren’t that interesting. It would be difficult to make an interesting story out of having a jingle stuck in your head for three days. This might explain why most of Woolfe’s stories are relatively short to avoid long periods of nothing much happening.

If you decide you want to try a stream of consciousness I would suggest reading a lot of books that use the style and see what different methods they use to keep the story going and what types of story they usually tell. This doesn’t mean you only have to tell those kinds of stories it simply helps to have a sense of what has been done.

For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on characters see Finding The Characters or for more on narrative try Finding Your Voice.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.


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