Good Writing: More Than Thinking Outside The Box



‘Thinking outside the box’ is a fondly overused cliche piece of advice for the burgeoning writer; however, thankfully we can look towards greats such as Woolf, Joyce, and Eliot to prove otherwise. Although their pieces were technically out of the ordinary and rebelling against traditional notions of literature (like much of their counterparts) during the Modernist movement, what sets apart and connects these writers is their constant use of stream of consciousness and internal monologue to create meaningful characters and stories. This paper will analyze two distinct types of internal monologue — the direct and indirect — and how the integration of this technique can powerfully impact the reader; thus, by extension, arguing that by creating moments that seem to emerge from the character’s minds themselves the author’s don’t lose control, but instead gain a more captive audience to their work.


It is important to first define the terminology being employed within this analysis. Stream of consciousness is a literary device in which the passing thoughts and ideas through the mind of the protagonist are shown. Under this umbrella falls internal or interior monologue, which specifically tries to represent the characters thoughts and ideas in the exact course and rhythm of consciousness as it occurs precisely in the mind. The more radical examples of this technique try to claim an exact representation of process of consciousness; however, because this is a literary technique we know that this cannot be possible as the author must translate the character's 'actual' stream of consciousness into a verbal/written equivalent. There will always be an aspect of translation or mediacy of the author. Nonetheless, this literary technique, when not deconstructed, creates an effect of direct connection with the character and the reader without the author's involvement. 

Further down the terminology taxonomy chain, internal monologue breaks off into two main branches; the direct, and indirect. Each of these branches will be defined and exemplified with passages from Virgina Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927), T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).

The first branch of internal monologue is the direct and it occurs when the author seems not to exist and the interior self of the character is given directly, as though the reader were overhearing an articulation of the stream of thought and feeling flowing through the character's mind. Often this includes even the lack of indicating terms such as "he thought" or "she thought" or explanatory comments (Sang 173). The character is not speaking to an audience their inner thoughts (that would be a soliloquy), but is merely thinking candidly.

Joyce’s Ulysses provides great moments of direct interior monologue, and in this particular passage of Molly Bloom trying to get to sleep, direct first-person expression apparently devoid of any author selection or control provides a radical example of this technique as part of the conclusion of the novel;

a 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 alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 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 that I can get up early (Joyce 930)

The lack of any proper grammar contributes to the ‘natural’ flow of how the reader interprets this passage as a continuous thought, void of any author interpretation, or narrative. Joyce doesn’t always resort to this anarchistic writing style to convey a direct monologue. In this following passage he incorporates more grammatical elements; however, lacks formality and integrates verbless syntagms:

Hynes jotting down something in his notebook. Ah, the names. But he knows them all. No: coming to me.
-- I am just taking the names, Hynes said below his breath. What is your christian name? I'm not sure. (Joyce 141)

Although this does not take the exact same form as the previous passage, each represents the mental leaps and associations of Bloom. Using this type of presentation and content in literature allows the reader to feel that connection to the character and text, and even works across different genres. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is full of direct interior monologue. Although each of these passages follow a similar grammatical manifestation of the technique, they are able to convey different thematically types of direct internal monologue. 

In this first passage, Prufrock undergoes a dramatic inner conflict through his monologue:

And indeed there will be a time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair - 
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin  -
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
(Eliot 38-48)

In this particular part of the poem, the reader barely notices the mediacy of the author, and feels directly connected with Alfred Prufrock’s thought process. This is aided by the use of first person articles (I & my), and the distinction of ‘they’ who indicates the superfluous ‘others’ Prufrock seems to be concerned so heavily about. There is a very raw experience created for the reader when this type of direct monologue is used. Lines like Prufrock’s dreadfully honest and self-depecrating thought that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (Eliot 76-77) pierce the reader as very closely held desires of the character; thus, making us feel more connected to them, and to the poem as a whole. This dramatic inner conflict type of monologue enflames a type of identification and dedication response within the reader; whereas the second thematic manifestation of direct monologue Eliot uses is self-analysis. This second passage embodies this archetype:

For I have known them all already, known them all -
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
I know the voices dying out with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
(Eliot 51-56)

These lines instead seem to render a wandering trail of thoughts, ending suitably with a rhetorical question, which creates a sense of insecurity (a standard trait of Alfred), but also of deep pondering. The reader feels comfortable with this technique to explore the content and questions raised just as the character is, or is written to be. This makes whatever content or questions wanting to be raised by the author much more appealing; hence, the narrator is removed, yet the author is still able to spoon feed us their ideas. However, in this mode of delivery the reader doesn’t envision himself as being spoon fed, rather, he feels as an agent, exploring and coming to those ideas ‘on his own’ with the character. 

Again readers can feel privileged into the character’s minds through the third thematic manifestation of direct interior monologue. This is the ‘imagined dialogue’ of the character J. Alfred Prufrock. Near the beginning of the poem he imagines saying to someone “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (Eliot 11), and later he asks, “Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of / windows?…” (Eliot 72-75). By engaging in hypothetical conversations in his head, we see even more of Alfred’s character than we would in actual dialogue; moreover, we have the potential of seeing who Alfred sees himself being, or who he wants to see himself as. These simple lines actually add quite a complexity of layers to the poem. This is a gift of interior monologue. It adds depth, layers, and metaphysical elements to writing the escalate its interest and skills quickly.

To this point, Virgina Woolf’s writing has not been actively employed, and this is because Woolf operates on an even more elusive level of stream of consciousness than the other two authors do. A large portion of Woolf’s interior monologue in her book To The Lighthouse (1927) is indirect. Although Joyce employs indirect monologue within his novel Ulysses (1922); such as, "He [Stephen] lifted his feet up from the suck [of the sand] and turned back by the mole of boulders. Take all, keep all. My soul walks with me, form of forms. [. . .] The flood is following me. I can watch it flow past from here.” (Joyce 37), Woolf is the master of it in her novel.

Interior monologue is defined by the in the case in which the author serves as selector, presenter, guide, and commentator on the character's inner thoughts. This technique makes the reader more aware of the author's presence in the text, and usually creates subtle differences in the form; for example, the use of second or third person, increased incorporation of expository or descriptive language, and sometimes a more apparent unity to the rest of the text (Sang 173). Woolf uses mostly indirect interior monologue throughout the novel interspersed amongst narrative and descriptive detail to create an overall effect that the novel is constantly presented through the lens of her main character's minds. Virginia Woolf asserts her strategy in her essay, Modern Fiction. She states, "Let us record the atom as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearances, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness" (Woolf 104).

This pattern of use is evident by page one of her novel:

Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing as now, lean as a knife, narrow as a blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way that he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement. What he said was true. It was always true. (Woolf, p.1, emphasis added)

This description of Mr. Ramsay is not conducted by the narrator, but by James, as signified by the use of the brackets. The lines of indirect interior monologue versus omniscient-narrator commentary can often be blurred. The line 'what he said was true...' is quick interruption in James' commentary, although you don't necessarily feel the abrupt change as a reader. This is an aside by the narrator. In another example Woolf integrates the insidious use of semicolons to aid with her indirect internal monologue:

…For how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? She would ask; and to have no letters and newspapers, and to see nobody; if you were married, not to see your wife, not to know how your your children were, —if they were ill, if they had fallen down and broken their legs or arms; to see the same dreary waves breaking week after week, and then a dreadful storm coming, and the windows covered with spray, and birds dashed against the lamp, and the whole place rocking, and not be able to put your nose out of the doors for fear of being swept into the sea? How would you like that? She asked, …(Woolf 2)

Although this passage of text is written as a narration by the author, Woolf masterfully orchestrates an interior monologue by using specific technical skills. Woolf indicates the beginning of the monologue by using the word “for;” thus, achieving a seamless transition from description to the Mrs. Ramsay’s consciousness. She also employs semicolons to indicate a continuation of the line of consciousness, which is a characteristic technique of Woolf (Sang 173). This use of semicolons to differentiate between narration and interior monologue proves to be a useful tool in a later passage on the same page:

Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and to make James still more disappointed; but at the same time she would not let them laugh at hime; ‘the little atheist’, Rose mocked him; Prue mocked him; Andrew, Jasper, Roger mocked him; even old Badger without a tooth in his head had bit him, … (Woolf 2)

Lastly, Woolf employs the technique of free association as a more radical manifestation of her manipulations of internal monologue. Free association is the specific technique used to control the movement of stream-of-consciousness in fiction and has important aesthetic significance. It allows the writer to express character’s subjective experiences within a smaller time-space scope, and it breaks traditional narrative structure. The character’s thoughts can jump from past, present, or future, and from a myriad of options such as a memory, a sensation, etc. It also could have the potential of acting as a satirical mode, because the writer can contrast instances happening at different times and places. There are multiple examples of free association used throughout Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay tells James the story of the Fisherman’s Wife, which acts as the thread that holds the continuity of chapters seven through ten of the first part of the novel (Sang 173). In addition, in the last part of chapter twelve Lily Briscoe watches the sea and feels her mind ebb and flow with it, acting as an exemplary moment where Woolf integrates this technique within her writing.

None of these authors thought in the box, or outside of the box. They went somewhere much more important — to the character, and by extension — to the reader. By using direct, and indirect interior monologue with a myriad of different grammatical variations of doing so, these passages represent and connect us with the mental leaps of our main characters. Where dramatic inner conflicts, self-analysis, rhetorical questions, day dreams, and snide comebacks reside, lives something much more powerful - the power to deeply engage your audience in a committed love affair with your characters (whether it stems from affection or disdain). Woolf, Joyce, and Eliot don’t think outside the box, they think inside the mind.

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Collected Poems 1909 - 1962. 1917. Harcourt Inc.

Joyce, James. Ulysses, 1922; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Sang, Yanxia. "An Analysis of Stream-of-Consciousness Technique in To the Lighthouse." Asian Social Science 6.9 (2010): p173.

Woolf. Virginia. “Modern Fiction” Collected Essays. London: Chatto and Windus. (1966). p104.

Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse, 1927. Harcourt Inc.



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Maira Gall