Monologues. Hmmm. What we need here is a big ‘Danger’ sign with flashing red lights. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever use them, though I want to say ‘Never use monologues, avoid monologues like the plague.’ Some of the greatest moments in stories are monologues. Take that Shakespeare fellow of whom you might have heard tell. I hear he used them quite well.
Of course, a play is different than a movie. Often in plays monologues are delivered to the audience, a theatrical device that works onstage. Unless you start your film with the device of a monologue to camera, such as the brilliant Annie Hall, monologues are much trickier in movies because they can derail a movie in the same manner as Sending the audience to school.
3 comments, then, for monologues:
1). No page long monologues in Act 3. Do the work before.
As noted, this is similar to # 8. Many a long monologue is inserted into Act 3 as a send the audience to school device, having one character explain everything that hasn’t yet been explained in the movie. But even if your monologue is not a send the audience to school moment but something else entirely, Act 3 is a dangerous time to have a long monologue, because once Act 3 begins, story should completely take over and the movie should roll steadily to the finish.
Even the best writers and filmmakers are guilty of Act Three monologues that kill a movie.Tell No One, a brilliant and wildly enjoyable French thriller, has a long ending monologue to explain everything. Yes, a summation monologue part of that genre but it still stops the movie. Ordinary People, one of my favorite films of all time, has one at the end that could have been done better.
Often monologues are used as a stalling tactic: how many superhero movies or action movies have the villains doing monologues? Honestly, after The Incredibles made such brilliant mockery of ‘monologuing’ I’m surprised that writers even consider them anymore. Yet we seem them time and time again, often in Act 3.
Yes, there are times for a monologue. But avoid them in Act 3!
2). If you are going to have a page long monologue, have something else going on.
If for whatever reason you want to have a monologue, make sure other things are going on in the scene to keep the monologue from boring the audience to death. Blake Synder, is his excellent book Save The Cat, calls it the ‘pope in the pool’. But whatever you call it, have something else going on to keep the scene interesting.
Here is an example of a long monologue in a movie that works because so much else is going on in the scene. This is from Anthony Mingella’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. If you have not seen the movie, this is later in the movie (but not in Act 3!!) after Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) has killed two people, including Dickie (Jude Law). Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dickie’s girlfriend, discovers something that makes her think Tom might be guilty:
There is so much going on in this scene that even though the monologue is well written, the monologue almost becomes superfluous. Why does it work? Many reasons:
- Tension, certainly. Tom has killed two people so we know he won’t hesitate to kill Marge if given the chance. The scene in part, then, is driven less by the monologue itself but by the question ‘Can Marge get out of the apartment before Tom kills her with the razor?’
- The scene is beautifully shot, keeping us in Tom’s perspective in the set up, so we know he has a razor and wants to kill Marge, then switching to Marge’s perspective on the long slow crawl to the door, so that we feel her fear and see what she sees, the blood in the pocket. This perspective shift mid-scene is not easy to make work but Mingella pulls it off perfectly.
- There is the subtext in the monologue, as Tom is often describing and confessing himself, rather than talking about Dickie.
- Gabriel Yared’s music is terrific.
- Finally, Marge gives the audience a nice bolt of energy by standing up to Tom and calling him out, even when she is terrified for her life. (We’ll address this great character trait in an upcoming rule.)
In lesser hands, this could be a rather boring monologue that stops the movie. Here, as the movie approaches the end of Act 2, it’s an extremely tense and thrilling scene, aided also by the fact that two big stars have been killed off already so we have no way of knowing if Marge/Paltrow will actually make it out the door. Terrific.
3.) Just try to avoid them, ok??
I know, I know, you have a great monologue, not in Act 3!! and want to use it, for good reason. Sigh. Ok. You better know what you are doing and make good use of every other gift at your fingertips.
But try to avoid them!
One of the biggest box office successes of all time came out last year and had a rather controversial monologue in the middle: Skyfall, which became the #1 James Bond film of all time and is #7 on the worldwide all time hit list. I loved the movie, saw it 4 times in IMAX and thought Javier Bardem’s monologue right in the middle was daring and wonderful. It’s shot in a single take, with him starting far away from the camera, so we are kept leaning forward trying to see him as he approaches. There’s been so much dread-inducing talk of the character in the movie previously that we are excited, yet nervous, to meet him. Bardem kills the monologue, of course. The entire scene is tense, creepy, thrilling. Yet even here, very well done, a lot of people complained about the monologue, saying for them it stopped the momentum of the movie.
Even when well done, then, a monologue is tricky business. It certainly will cause script readers eyes to gloss over when they turn the page and see a long monologue staring them in the face. That’s the last thing in the world you want to have happen, which we will also cover in a later rule.
So at least think about avoiding monologues, ok?? If you use one, however, never have a page long monologue in Act 3 and have something else going on!