Literary stream of consciousness is a device used to render a character's mental process into text.
Originally coined by William James in 1890 as a principle of psychology, yet easily transferable to the literary domain, the mode often reads as incoherent and fragmented.
This is because, more often than not, thoughts and emotions flow illogically in our minds.
Consciousness ... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. ...It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described." – William James
Interestingly, an article in the New York Times challenged James' theory, arguing that we don't sample the world in a continuous stream of thought but in 'rhythmic pulses' or chunks.
Nevertheless, stream of consciousness remains an important literary device. Where else, how else, can you get direct access to the thoughts of characters, the inner workings of the human mind?
Thoughts are important in written fiction because it is the only place you can find them." – Harvey Chapman
Designed to reveal a character's personality through the unique presentation of their thinking process, stream of consciousness encompasses two main techniques: Direct Interior Monologue and Indirect Interior Monologue.
Direct Interior Monologue
Direct interior monologue (also known as quoted interior monologue) is employed within a first-person viewpoint. As the name suggests, it attempts to directly imitate a character's mental flow.
The following is an excerpt from Stephen Dedalus' lengthy direct interior monologue in Ulysses. James Joyce shows us the way his character is thinking by using short, disjointed phrases.
Turning, he scanned the shore south, his feet sinking again slowly in new sockets. The cold domed room of the tower waits. Through the barbicans the shafts of light are moving ever, slowly ever as my feet are sinking, creeping duskward over the dial floor. Blue dusk, nightfall, deep blue night. In the darkness of the dome they wait, their pushedback chairs, my obelisk valise, around a board of abandoned platters. Who to clear it? He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes.” – James Joyce, Ulysses
In the thriller novel Dark Places, Gillian Flynn inserts a short passage of direct interior monologue into a conversation between protagonist Libby Day and her banker, Jim Jeffreys.
The monologue shows readers what is happening inside Libby's head, highlighting her state of mind and disinterest in the conversation. This disinterest would not be so apparent without the monologue's inclusion.
“What about we try to set you up in some sort of office job, filing and whatnot?”
“No.” I folded in on myself, ignoring the meal, projecting glumness. That was another of my mom’s words: glum. It meant having the blues in a way that annoyed other people. Having the blues aggressively.
“Well, why don’t you take a week and do some thinking on it?" – Gillian Flynn, Dark Places
Indirect Interior Monologue
Indirect interior monologue (also known as narrative monologue) is a commentary of the character's thoughts by a third-person narrator.
Virginia Woolf, whose use of stream of consciousness is particularly refined and effective, demonstrates indirect interior monologue in the classic Mrs Dalloway.
An omniscient third-person narrator delivers the tale, but taps into the consciousness of multiple characters throughout the course of the narrative.
The opening paragraphs of Mrs Dalloway immediately establish its stream of consciousness style:
...And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen..." – Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
Note that, through use of a 'thought' tag, it is first made clear that Clarissa Dalloway is the character whose consciousness we are soon to enter.
How to indicate characters' thoughts
There are a number of different ways to show that a certain passage is actually the thoughts of a character.
Don't use quote marks, as this will require an adjustment from the reader – oh, this person was thinking, not talking. Choose between a mixture of italics, thought tags, or nothing at all.
As you try various methods, you'll discover which one works for you. And whatever mode you decide, make sure it is consistent throughout your text. Jumping back and forth between two or even three different modes can make your reader uncomfortable.
Using italics to show thoughts is a popular technique but one that should be used carefully, in short bursts, particularly when your thoughts differ to the surrounding text in tense or point of view (learn about that literary technique here).
Avoid long passages of italicised text; it can be difficult to read and you will lose the emphasis that italics creates.
Use this emphasis to your advantage and get those thoughts leaping off the page, especially if you are relying on your interior monologue to capture your reader's attention.
Just like indicating dialogue with tags, you can use them to show thinking. This can be both direct and indirect.
In Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo, Tim Winton inserts a thought tag when Lockie's thoughts are presented in a different viewpoint.
Lockie froze. He hadn't said anything of the sort – not a flamin' whisper... You bitch, he thought. I couldn't ski for all the poo at Bondi." – Tim Winton, Lockie Leonard, Human Torpedo
Thoughts can also be described indirectly by the narrator. In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the author writes 'I thought' and 'I wondered' to show readers the mind of Mrs de Winter.
I thought of that green sea, foam-flecked, that ran down the channel beyond the headland. Did the wind come suddenly, I wondered, in a funnel from the beacon on the hill, and did the little boat heel to it, shivering, the white sail flat against a breaking sea? – Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
In John Green's Looking for Alaska, direct thoughts are consistently italicised and tagged. (Note that in the following example, italicised sections are shown in bold due to formatting constraints.)
He stood five feet and nothing, but was well-built, like a scale model of Adonis, and with him arrived the stink of stale cigarette smoke. Great, I thought. I'm meeting my roommate naked." – John Green, Looking for Alaska
This is the most difficult technique to master, as there is no obvious signal to the reader that a character has started to think. But if you can make it clear without italics or a tag, don't worry about them.
Here, using another example from Ulysses, we learn from the narrator that Stephen is walking before a smooth transition is made into his mind, presenting more interior monologue to the reader.
If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate; if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.
Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space.” – James Joyce, Ulysses
For a more detailed discussion of the mechanics of interior monologue, check out the Complete Guide to Interior Monologue.
How to write stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness is a tough literary device to master, so we've compiled the following helpful tips to get you started.
1. Think about your thinking
When life gets busy, we often tell our friends, ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind.’ But have you ever considered how your mind processes all those thoughts?
They seem to flash from one part of the brain to another, many stored in short-term memory for bare seconds before racing off in another direction. Perfect. Your own mind is a treasure trove of inspiration.
Use your own thoughts to practice writing stream of consciousness. Pretend that you are the protagonist. Think about how you're thinking and get those thoughts down in writing. Remember, proper punctuation and syntax no longer apply.
With practice, you’ll see how scattered thoughts can be rendered onto paper or screen. Your stream of consciousness will seem more realistic because it has come from your head, not the head of a fictional character.
2. Alter the pace with interior monologue
Stream of consciousness is an effective tool for controlling the pacing of your story.
Like climbing a mountain and descending into a valley, your story will ebb and flow with moments of action counterbalanced by scenes of reflection.
When you want to increase the pace, short, punchy interior monologue is best and works well interconnected with effective dialogue.
The following passage, taken from the climax of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, intersperses action, dialogue and Harry's own thoughts:
And when the creature spoke, it used Harry's mouth, so that in his agony, he felt his jaw move...
'Kill me now, Dumbledore...'
Blinded and dying, every part of him screaming for release, Harry felt the creature use him again...
'If death is nothing, Dumbledore, kill the boy...'
Let the pain stop, thought Harry... Let him kill us... End it, Dumbledore... Death is nothing compared to this...
And I'll see Sirius again...
And as Harry's heart filled with emotion, the creature's coils loosened, the pain was gone." – J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
It's best to save longer passages of interior monologue for moments when your character is alone. After a thrilling fast-paced scene, your characters and your readers need time to slow down.
If your character isn't alone but you still want them to do some serious thinking, make sure they don't talk with the other characters while they're streaming consciousness.
If they think for too long they'll forget what the other character said, and so will the reader.
It will also become boring if your characters spend too much time mulling over things. You've got to find a balance between action and reflection.
3. Read widely
As with any other device, improving your own skill in writing stream of consciousness passages requires wide reading. Look at lots of different examples and practise by trying to emulate an author's style.
Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are well-known for showcasing pure literary stream of consciousness, but be aware that the style of the classics is unlikely to be as popular in modern literature.
We recommend mixing your own voice and style with direct and indirect interior monologue.
Since book characters are always going to think at some point in every story, you can find stream of consciousness at its most basic level in every text. However, some classic novels in which stream of consciousness is used to particularly great effect include:
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- Malone Dies and The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
- How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan
You may also like to check out this list of the 10 writers who employ stream of consciousness better than anybody else.
Stream of consciousness-style writing may not be for everyone, but mastering the technique is a great way to practice your craft and add another literary tool to your arsenal.
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