Among other things, this blog/rant includes spoilers for REMNANTS OF TRUST. You’ve been warned.
One of the writer tags I follow on Twitter (#WIPTruthorDare; it’s a good one) asked this question today: Have you ever had your villain monologue?
This, as it turns out, isn’t as straightforward a question as it seems (although the answer is yes, and I’ll get to that later). The definition is a little shifty–is it monologuing every time the villain is explicit about their motivations, or must they also be foolishly ignoring the hero’s move to thwart them?–but in general, it plays into the “show vs. tell” problem.
“Show, don’t tell” is another one of those Inviolable Writing Rules™ that is violated in pretty much every work of writing ever produced by anyone in the world. A story is a telling by its nature. What Show-Don’t-Tell is trying to get at is the tendency of some writers (often, but not always, less experienced ones) to explain what’s going on instead of painting a scene and letting the reader interpolate.
The truth, of course, is that you need a balance. Sometimes, Show-Don’t-Tell is easy: if someone has died, and a character tears up, you can probably assume that character is sad. But the vast majority of times, a scene needs some telling sprinkled in here and there. Often it’s the balance between showing and telling that gives a scene tension and suspense.
Which brings us back to monologuing. The most common usage is during the Big Confrontation With The Hero, in which the hero finally learns why the villain is motivated to do what they’ve been doing.
I’ve done this. In the last scene of REMNANTS OF TRUST, Dee confronts Jimmy and asks why Jimmy did what he did. Jimmy tells him.
In a sense, it’s traditional monologuing: Jimmy confesses cheerfully, without any sense that Dee is there to kill him, thus conforming to the missing-the-hero’s-counterattack aspect of the trope.
But at the same time, Jimmy’s explanation isn’t really about Jimmy. His excuse is inhuman, psychopathic. He resents his circumstances so much that other people’s deaths don’t matter to him at all. (There’s a marvelous line from MINDHUNTER that I’ve quoted before: “[Psychopaths] have emotions. They just don’t believe other people have them.”) Jimmy’s a classic psychopath, and no details of a deprived childhood are necessary.
But for Dee, it’s no explanation at all. Jimmy is so far away from the person Dee thought he was, from a person Dee can even understand, that for him the monologue is pointless. It’s offered to the reader as a character resolution–people who are greedy enough to let others die en masse are hardly a rarity in the world–but primarily it functions as the final juncture in Dee’s journey. If Jimmy had said anything at all, on any level, that Dee could have empathized with, Dee might have been able to talk himself out of what he did.
(Dee, I think, is the most tragic character I’ve ever written: he wants so badly to do what’s right, and he tries, but he can never quite sustain it.)
In television and film, monologuing is often necessary to keep the story moving. BLACK PANTHER lets Erik monologue a bit about his childhood–not much, but enough for us to fill in a vivid mental picture of his life. The only substitute for that short cut would have been long sequences showing us how he grew up, and when you’ve got two hours and change to tell a complex story, that’s not where you’re going to use your time. But the film gets the balance right, and guides the audience seamlessly from “oh, wow, I totally get why you’re like this” to “yeah but you’ve gone way off the deep end, you know that?” We sympathize and recoil in the same moment. (The character work in that film is superlative, IMO, and credit goes to both the script and the actors.)
But books are different, and judged by different standards. A picture is worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t mean you should be writing a thousand words to paint a picture. When you write, you’re dictating an entire film into the head of a reader about whom you know nothing. Show-don’t-tell is great in theory, but how much a reader “sees” when you’re showing is going to be variable.
And you, as a writer, are going to have to decide how much you’re going to accommodate that.
Some months ago, I posted the first chapter of my standalone book to my writing group for critique. There’s one aspect to the story that’s integral, but never stated explicitly, because it’s so ingrained with the MC’s common experience of the world that there’s no good way to highlight it without violating point of view.
Some of the readers understood instantly what was going on; others didn’t get it at all. A number suspected, and were gleeful enough when I confirmed what they were thinking that I tend to think I struck the right balance.
But I missed some people. Perfectly observant, close, careful readers didn’t get it.
And that’s okay. As a writer, you’re never going to hook everyone. You probably shouldn’t try. (I’ve rewritten that chapter for storyline reasons, but that implicit secret is still there.)
Monologuing is an efficiency that’s often abused. It’s a deus ex machina when the hero needs Just! Two! More! Minutes! to set the explosives or get everyone off the boat. On the other hand, it’s a tried-and-true method in a crisis: distract the bad guy. Get them thinking about something else. Delay, delay, delay. It’s not unrealistic. Monologuing only crosses into problematic territory when you have a character become abruptly less intelligent than they’ve been so far, just so you don’t have to use your imagination.
Show-don’t-tell is another version of “real painters never use blue”–it’s presented as an absolute, when it should be a warning against overuse. Telling can be a lazy shortcut; it can also make a flat scene vivid, resonant, and memorable.
Monologue to your heart’s content, New Writers. Sometimes it’s exactly the right thing to do.