In this blog, we’ll explore the origins and definitions of the Dramatic Monologue—where it came from and how it came to be—with a few tips and ideas to start you writing your own.
The ‘Dramatic Monologue’ has existed for a good few centuries now. It was in the early 19th century that the form, as we know it today, came to be, and ever since poems in this form have been taught in stuffy English classrooms across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Cast your minds back to your high school days (horrific I know!): Remember an old bloke called Robert Browning, and his poem My Last Duchess? Or can you recall Ozymandias by Percy Shelley? Well, both of those are perfect—and popular—examples of what a Dramatic Monologue should look like:
Although the term dramatic monologue was invented in the late 1800s, the form itself was popular before then. Robert Browning, and to a lesser extent Percy Shelley, belonged to a group of Victorian writers that both pioneered and popularised the form, sitting alongside the likes of Tennyson and Dante Rossetti in the annals of dramatic monologue greatness.
While there’s no rules that outlaw people writing dramatic monologues nowadays, its popularity as an explicit form (you’ll see what I mean by this later) has waned since the end of the Victorian Age. Many are quick to label the dramatic monologue as a product of its time, but this is simply not the case. Like any poetic forms, any D.M will remain timeless for the rest of its existence providing there’s a dab hand to write it—and to do so well.
So, without further ado, I’ll jump straight in and pull a definition out of my books for the dramatic monologue.
A dramatic monologue consists of a narrator or speaker (who is NOT the poet themselves—that’s important), who engages with an ‘auditor’—another character whom the narrator can spew dialogue to—in a particular situation or setting. The auditor’s presence must be implied or directly referred to, while the reader takes the role of a silent listener, watching the narrator talk and making up their own judgements about who’s who and what’s the truth in the monologue.
Unlike most other forms, a poem must stick to all of the rules of a dramatic monologue to be considered as such. You can’t simply choose to have no auditor, because it’ll be the narrator simply speaking to themselves, and you can’t have the narrator speak either—otherwise there’d be no poem!
This might seem like a hinderance at first, but the conversational tone of the form allows you to do so some pretty radical things in terms of how the character’s talk and what they discuss. Having at least two characters in the poem, at the bare minimum, is rich with all kinds of opportunities to create emotive and captivating interactions.
Firstly, consider what point or situation the narrator and auditor(s) are at within the dramatic monologue. Are they at the beginning or the end of some shared journey? Were, or are, they lovers or friends, perhaps? Could they be setting off on some Tolkien-esque quest? As long as the poem is set in a specific situation, like a critical moment where a decision must be made, then anything goes!
It was common for Victorian dramatic monologues to occur within a particular historical context. For example, The Last Duchess is set within a period of British history where lords and ladies were still powerful figures in national politics. Perhaps you’d like to explore a similar historical period in your dramatic monologue, or maybe you’d like to be set in the present of even a potential future?
Consider how the setting will affect the voice and character of the speaker and auditor. If it’s set In Feudal Japan, could the narrator be a warlord who commands considerable authority through the tone of his voice? Does he, or she, or it, dictate to the auditor? Or is the narrator friendlier, more warming to the auditor, revealing some secret feeling or experience that might affect their friendship? Another thing you might want to try is having the speaker behave in a duplicitous manner, leaving details out or just talking in a duplicitous manner, in an effort to manipulate the auditor and perhaps the reader too.
The reader assumes the role of silent listener, perceiving the gap between what the speaker says and what they actually reveal. This forces the reader to make a judgement about the speaker’s comments, allowing them to make up their own conclusions about the speaker. This component of dramatic monologues can be taken advantage of when creating new and captivating poems. You might want to try having two narrators discussing the same event or place separately—A ‘two sides to every story’ kinda approach. Both will have polarised views on the same subject, and they might recount their perspective in separate sections of the dramatic monologue. What will this do to the fabric of your poem?
This so-called gap, between what the speaker says and what they reveal, can be used to insert an ethical or moral question that the reader must answer in order to grasp the deeper meaning of the dramatic monologue. Such an opportunity allows this form to stay relevant in the present age, capable of engaging with modern discourses about a whole range of issues— from racism to ableism and everything else in-between. Is there a topic that you want your dramatic monologue to focus on? The sky’s the limit!
Sadly, that’s every little tip and idea that I can give you when it comes to writing Dramatic Monologues. If anyone’s got any advice or experience writing in this form, tell me in the comment below. I’d love to hear about them!
© Thomas Gallimore Barker