Dec 7, 2021
Once again, Halloween has come and gone. And just as the calendar will always turn from October to November, horror culture will quickly be replaced by holiday movies and cheer.
However, before all our Halloween candy was replaced with gingerbread cookies, I dove deep into horror films and shows. I spent a solid month this year revisiting some old classics as well as exploring some new favorites.
One of the most popular horror revelations in 2021 was the Netflix series Midnight Mass, a longtime passion project from filmmaker Mike Flanagan, known best to most as writer and director of films like Absentia, Doctor Sleep, and the The Haunting series on Netflix.
The series follows an isolated island community that begins to experience supernatural events after the arrival of a mysterious new priest. Midnight Mass perfectly blends elements of horror and suspense while exploring themes of religion, addiction and vampyrism.
However, while I won’t give away any spoilers, it is fair to say that the series has been quite well received. But there’s one criticism you can find consistently across all the series’ reviews and Reddit forums: its monologues.
So, while Midnight Mass is not the first or last project to over-rely on monologues (mostly in its later episodes), we’re going to use it as an example to explore how you can be sure to use — or more specifically not use — monologues in your film projects and video productions.
The first rule for handling monologues in your film and video projects is actually the first rule in screenwriting in general: Write how people actually speak. Unless you want your characters to sound like they’re in a telenovela, you really should strive to make dialogue sound as natural and “lived-in” as possible.
A good exercise for this is (with permission, of course) to simply record yourself and your friends in conversation. As you’ll discover, people don’t often talk in perfectly complete sentences, and we don’t wait patiently for others to finish their points before jumping in with our own thoughts.
As such, monologues are — by their nature — quite unnatural. People rarely let each other wax poetic for one minute, let alone five minutes or more.
So, if you do find yourself with a script that has one character going on about their thoughts regarding the afterlife or describing their origin story, consider messing it up a bit and allowing it to flow naturally in a back-and-forth conversation.
Think back to those recordings of you and your friends talking and use them as your dialogue templates.
Another frequent mistake that many novice screenwriters and filmmakers make early on in their careers is to try to force moments onto their audiences. Even worse, a lot of people do this without building up the trust and narrative force to earn it.
This “earn it” philosophy is a staple of many screenwriting discussions and roundtables. It’s a shorthand way to talk about how scripts and scenes are built to deliver their biggest and most impactful moments and lines.
You can look back throughout film history to find great examples of this. Chances are that some of your favorite movie lines aren’t really about the quotes themselves, but about the context they’re presented in and the moments that lead up to them.
“Luke, I am your father,” or “Come with me if you want to live,” don’t scream off the page because of the words alone, but because of how they’ve “earned” their delivery at a critical moment in the scene or the story overall.
It’s hard to knock Midnight Mass for a few of its slight screenwriting issues. Maybe you thought it was perfectly written and executed, so you might not need to fault it at all.
However, it is indeed a weird time for film and television, because this new streaming culture has created the need for content which is formatted for lengths that most audiences (or even filmmakers) are not quite used to.
Midnight Mass had been a passion project of filmmaker Mike Flanagan for a long time — he even snuck in nods to its eventual completion via little easter eggs in his earlier projects. So it’s not a stretch to imagine that the script for Midnight Mass underwent many different changes and versions before the show was finally released on Netflix.
Totaling only seven episodes (each with a runtime of around 60–70 minutes), the project is certainly not your prototypical 90-minute horror movie. It’s also not quite an episodic style “scare-of-the-week” television program.
Even with rewrites though, a project formatted for an online viewer sitting at home on their couch (and probably with their distracting phone in their hands) is a challenge in itself. And long monologues are going to be extremely hard to pull off without losing at least some of your audience’s collective attention.
While this is certainly not a new phenomenon by any means, filmmakers (and playwrights before them) have long used monologues as a way to preach to an audience and speak almost directly from their own thoughts and viewpoints.
Shakespeare did it, and you could argue Arthur Miller did it as well. But in today’s environment, it feels a bit odd to hear it from your favorite Netflix characters’ mouths when you can just as quickly read it on the showrunner’s Twitter feed.
There’s nothing wrong with pulling from your own opinions and life experiences for your characters' dialogue and actions. However if you want a platform to convey your views to your audience, just remember that you have plenty of options available to you that Shakespeare never did.
Finally, the best advice for any screenwriter looking to write monologues, dialogue, or just scripts in general is to always be moving the story along.
Even with long-form content stretching dozens of hours across multiple streaming seasons of content, every shot, line of dialogue, and action point really should serve at the benefit of the story.
Overall, Midnight Mass is actually a great example of this. Flanagan does have an uncanny ability to make every glance and scare from his characters feel meaningful and significant to the mysterious story that he’s weaving.
But if you do find yourself relying on longer monologues to convey characterization instead of letting actions or plot drive your story, you might want to at least rethink some of your scripting choices. Your goal should be to give audiences something they can follow, engage with, and support without giving them a reason to check their social media feeds.