How to use Stream of Consciousness technique when writing fiction

by Michelle St. Claire

Years ago, I had a dream. It was vivid. It was sharp. It was frighteningly real. I remembered calling my mother the morning after and relaying my dream to her. We talked about it. We deciphered it. We sang the song that I taught her which I heard in my dream. Since then, she was the only person I had told my dream to.

That dream stuck with me. I wrote a poem about it (my usual go-to when recording profound thoughts). The poem wasn’t enough. So I wrote a short story about it. That was insufficient, too.

Then I decided to turn it into a novel, or rather, a novelette since it ended at just over 40,000 words. It’s called PEAK. It’s dreamy. It’s weird. It’s a patchwork of poetry and fantasy fiction smooshed together. You can read a free excerpt at https://may3rdbooks.com/free-excerpt-...

My little story was a triumph for me as a budding writer and professional editor. I was overjoyed when it passed through independent professional editing as actually coherent and understandable. That was a success for me because I had struggled over how to write my dream into a fictional format. I conducted a lot of research until I came across one of my favorite writers, Virginia Woolf. That’s when I realized that the Stream of Consciousness technique was perfect for writing my dream.

Here is what I learned about the Stream of Consciousness technique. This is honestly all my research. May it help you in your current writing project. Read on….

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS TECHNIQUE & DEVICES
Below are my actual notes (not paraphrases nor quotes) from studying a book entitled stream of consciousness in the modern novel: A Study of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, and others by Robert Humphrey (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962).

Stream of Consciousness generally refers to the internal stream of thoughts that flow through a person’s mind at any given moment. We all do it. Those thoughts have levels. I think of it like looking at a stage from the audience’s perspective where the closer the actor is to the audience, the more clear and coherent the actor’s thoughts.

Internal Speech: These are internal thoughts that are cleaned up, presentable, and ready to be spoken out loud. They are right below the surface of the mind, right on the tip of the tongue. Those thoughts exist at the front of the stage – from the audience’s perspective - where the actor is walking around before an audience. So the actor’s thoughts are fairly clear, logical, and easy for the audience to understand. *For the average writer, a character’s Internal Speech thoughts are fairly easy to reveal. You probably don’t need to use a fancy technique to do it.

Internal Pre-Speech: But then we have thoughts that swim in our mind that, if spoken, would be a bit confusing because the thoughts would come out rambling, out of order, out of sequence, jumping from subject to subject, and triggered by our sensory experiences. They are characteristically incoherent. Those thoughts linger both in the middle of the stage and back of the stage (again, from the audience’s perspective), where actors are either waiting for the spotlight to return or trying to figure things out for the next performance, where it’s busy, where things are less organized, where things are a little more confusing, where stage staff are buzzing around behind black curtains and props are strewn about everywhere. Since the actor is farther away from the audience, the audience hears the actor’s thoughts as muffled, confusing, incoherent, and rambling. *More than likely, it’s your character’s Internal Pre-Speech thoughts that you need to somehow reveal to the reader.

How to write your character’s thoughts:
You have a character who lives in his head (like the character in my dream). Or maybe you have a story where the internal development of the character is the entire message of the story. So you may want to reveal what’s going on in the character’s head as they move through experiences.

Use these 4 main techniques to do it. There are others, but these are the ones I pulled into my notes from research. You can mix and match. You can use all, or some, or just one. But if you’re sticking to the Stream of Consciousness technique, you have to use at least one.

Again, I think of the character’s thoughts as an actor on a stage.

1. Direct Interior Monologue¬ (Actor’s thoughts - from the audience’s perspective – are behind the black curtain at the back of the stage, farthest from the audience. So when the audience hears it, the thoughts make no sense.)
• This is the hardest and riskiest one to use and thus, is used sparingly by the even the bravest of writers.
• Character’s thoughts are presented directly to the reader.
• There is no filter.
• As the author, you must completely disappear from the page.
• There is no narration.
• Do not use “he thought,” or “she thought.”
• The character is not speaking to anyone, not even the reader. It’s like they are muttering words to themselves.
• Character’s thoughts are candid.
• Character’s thoughts are incoherent and rambling.
• Character’s thoughts are fluid with little to no punctuation.
• As the author, you provide no commentaries nor any guide for the reader as to what the heck is going on.
• Character’s thoughts appear as they arrive in their mind.
EXAMPLE: ….quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarm clock next door at cock shout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so as I can get up early…(Thoughts of character, Molly Bloom, trying to fall asleep. Ulysess by James Joyce, 1922.)

2. Indirect Interior Monologue (Actor’s thoughts – from the audience’s perspective – is in the middle of the stage, a bit closer to the audience. So when the audience hears it, the thoughts are still rambling, but they make a little more sense.)
• This is a common technique because it is less risky and a bit easier for the reader to understand.
• Consciousness is filtered through gentle narration by the author.
• Author uses “he thought,” or “she thought,” etc. to guide the reader.
• As the author, you are continuously present to guide the reader around the character’s mind.
• Character’s thoughts are fluid but with a bit more punctuation within a stronger grammatical structure.
• Character’s thoughts are real and generally understandable.
• Character’s thoughts have some disunity and some wandering from subject to subject.
• Character’s thoughts are usually described in the 3rd person pov, but you can use 1st person pov.
• Character’s thoughts have some incoherence, but the reader can hang on.
EXAMPLE: …For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. 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 has 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 solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?” – was that it? – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it…? (Thoughts of character, Mrs. Dalloway, walking around in London in the morning. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, 1925).

3. Omniscient Description (Doesn’t matter where the actor is on the stage, the actor’s thoughts are clearly understood to the audience.)
• This is the most common technique because it has practically no risk and most readers have been trained to expect it.
• The author uses omniscient voice to fully narrate the character’s thoughts.
• It allows the reader to remain in the character’s mind without getting confused or losing interest.
• Pretty much, most popular fiction where the omniscient author reveals the character’s thoughts uses this technique.
EXAMPLE: …Nine years Turin dwelt in the halls of Menegroth. His heart and thought turned ever to his own kin, and at times he had tidings of them for his own comfort….Now Turin grew heavy-hearted, not knowing what new evil was afoot, and fearing that an ill fate had befallen Morwen and Nienor; and for many days he sat silent, brooding on the downfall of the House of Hador and the Men of the North….(Thoughts of character, Turin, thinking about the state of affairs in Menegroth. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1910, 1973).

4. Soliloquy (Actor is at the front of the stage – from the audience’s perspective – and is not walking around but looking straight at the audience, eye to eye and face to face while communicating his/her thoughts to the audience.)
• This is also a common technique that is used by writers in either portions of the story or the whole thing.
• The character’s thoughts speak directly to the reader, like in a diary or through a letter.
• Think portions of Twilight where the protag is reflecting her 1st person pov thoughts through a letter to another character or portions of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris turns to face the camera and speaks in 1st person pov to reveal his thoughts to the audience.
• The author usually uses 1st person pov.
• The character’s thoughts are formal.
• The character’s thoughts are coherent.
• The character’s thoughts are perfectly punctuated and extremely easy for the reader to follow.
• It’s possible the character’s spiffed-up thoughts may hint to the reader that the character is lying to themselves, or avoiding something, or maybe trying to convince themselves of something.
EXAMPLE: …The signboard comes in sight. It is looking out at the road now, because it can wait. New Hope 3 mi. it will say. New Hope. 3 mi. New Hope 3 mi. And then the road will begin, curving away into the trees, empty with waiting, saying New Hope three miles. I have heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had. It is because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon….(Thoughts of character, Dewey Dell, thinking about his mother. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, 1930.)

When to write your character’s thoughts and what devices to use:
Free Association
This was a psychological theory that started gaining ground somewhere in Western Europe during the early to mid-19th centuries. Coincidentally, it was around the same time Stream of Consciousness techniques started popping up in fiction.

Generally, it is based on the principal that the human psyche cannot remain concentrated on one process for a long time. Even when we are focused on one thing, after a trigger, our thoughts will immediately move to something else.

So write your character’s thoughts after a trigger.

Free Association triggers
There are 3 triggers in Free Association. Use the devices below to help make your character’s thoughts feel like a common, human experience that the reader can relate to:

1. Thoughts triggered by Memory
• It can be deep, where the character repeats something in their minds based on what someone said to the character years ago in childhood.
• Or it can be surface, where the character is trying to think through something they experienced more recently.
• Or the character simply remembers something which triggers a profound thought.

2. Thoughts triggered by Senses
• The character touches something and has a thought.
• The character sees something and has a thought.
• The character smells something and has a thought.
• The character hears something and has a thought.
• The character tastes something and has a thought.

3. Thoughts triggered by Imagination
• The character’s own imagination triggers a profound thought.
• The character’s thoughts may be over-exaggerated and become surreal with talking trees and walking cars.
• Or the character’s thoughts may be under-exaggerated where the character appears not to be affected by the imagined thing at all (even though they are).

4. Some tips about Free Association triggers in fiction
a. You will end up using all 3 at some given point.
b. The character might smell something that triggers a thought which triggers a memory which triggers an imagination that, if strong enough, triggers another sensory experience which triggers another memory, and so on and so on.
c. Use the triggers to incorporate flash backs.
d. Use the triggers to develop the character. Maybe the character is scared, vulnerable, jumpy, or guilty of something.

Some elements you should have when writing your character’s thoughts:
• Unless the thought is communicated as a Soliloquy or written via Omniscient voice, there must be some degree of incoherence.
• Unless the thought is communicated as a Soliloquy or written via Omniscient voice, there must be some degree of rambling.
• Your character’s thoughts should show up after a trigger.
• Unless the thought is communicated as a Soliloquy or written via Omniscient voice, there must be some degree of disunity, wandering around, moving from subject to subject.
• Try to make the thoughts flow out like a stream.
• Resist the temptation to overly edit your character’s thoughts.
• Force the reader to sit up and try to hang on to whatever your character is thinking.

More of my research in Stream of Consciousness techniques in fiction:
If you’re serious about using it in your current project or a future one, you might want to get these books:

1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
In my opinion, this is the holy grail for stream of consciousness in fiction, particularly the Indirect Interior Monologue. The author guides you as she jumps in and out of characters’ heads but you really have to sit up and pay attention in order to hang on. She’s got all the triggers: memory, senses, imagination. The characters’ thoughts flow out in streams. They’re somewhat incoherent. They’re somewhat rambling. They’re somewhat jumping from subject to subject. But the author remains as the narrator so you’re not completely lost. Mrs. Dalloway

2. Painted Roofs: Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson.
In my opinion, though ground-breaking in the literary world at the time, Mrs. Dalloway is a much better master class for the Stream of Consciousness technique. Nevertheless, you should still get Painted Roofs. It’s so old that the U.S. copyright has expired. You can download the entire thing at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3019.

3. Stream of consciousness in the modern novel: A Study of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, and others by Robert Humphrey.
Get it. It’s the reference. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel

4. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
Master class on the Soliloquy. Hands down. Whenever I read this book, I always think of stage play and imagine the characters on the stage. This is a great book to study how to make the author disappear and let the characters’ thoughts take over. As I Lay Dying

5. Ulysses by James Joyce.
Master class on using the characters’ psyche as the subject matter of the entire story. I view it as on par with Mrs. Dalloway but just expresses the use of Stream of Consciousness by a different author in a different style. Ulysses

6. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Master class on the modern use of mixing Soliloquy and Indirect Interior Monologue in fiction. She’s brilliant. But Morrison’s use is more artistic. She doesn’t use Stream of Consciousness throughout the story. She just inserts it here and there to draw you deeper into the fictional world. If your project may use Stream of Consciousness in a similar way, get the book. Read it. Study it. Beloved

That’s it. Hope my notes help.

Next week, I’ll share my notes on How to Develop Character Names in Fantasy and Science-Fiction. Stay tuned.

Write a comment. How have you used Stream of Consciousness techniques in your work? Which authors have used it best? In what books? Would Stream of Consciousness work in your current fiction project? What are the pros and cons of using it? What other devices are out there to express a character’s thoughts?
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Published on October 28, 2020 12:48 Tags: flash-backs, stream-of-consciousness, writing-character-thoughts
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Michelle St. Claire
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