How to Use Stream of Consciousness

How to Use Stream of Consciousness

This week’s video answers a viewer’s question about the uses and practicality of stream of consciousness.

Video Transcript:

One of you asked that I do a video on the technique of stream of consciousness and its best applications. “Stream of consciousness” is the term applied to a form of narrative that’s found in deep POVs. In fact, it allows authors to delve deeper into their narrators’ minds than just about any other technique.

Stream of consciousness indicates a progression of internal narrative that tries to mimic real-life thought patterns: rapid-fire delivery, jumps in association and logic, that sort of thing. It’s often portrayed on the page with very little punctuation or even capitalization. In other words, you’re pretty much just letting your character’s thoughts flood onto the page without imposing any structure on them.

Stream of consciousness had a brief stint of popularity in the first half of the 20th century. Classic authors such as James Joyce and William Faulkner are known for their use of the technique. But is it something that’s useful to modern writers? The answer to that is, yes and no.

The advantage of stream of consciousness is three-fold:

1. It pulls readers deep into the narrator’s mind.

2. It can be used to lend a breathless, poetic rhythm to your story.

3. It can create an interesting verisimilitude by mimicking real-life thought patterns.

But stream of consciousness also comes packed with lots of disadvantages. The biggest one is simply that it can end up being pretty darn near incomprehensible to readers. Joyce and Faulkner might have been able to overcome a small stumbling block like that, but most of us can’t, particularly in popular genre fiction. Stream of consciousness is pretty much relegated to literary fiction these days. However, you can use it to good effect in small doses to convey harried, detached, or delirious mindsets in your character.

Don’t be afraid to play with it, but always be aware of the ramifications of the effect you’re trying to create.

Tell me your opinion: Have you tried to use stream of consciousness in your stories?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I use a close POV in almost all cases, whether in 1st or 3rd person, but I’ve never attempted–or even thought of–using stream of consciousness. I don’t read any authors where it would be common to begin with, so I’m not even really that familiar with the technique.

  2. Personally, stream of consciousness is way down on the bottom of my list of favorite writing techniques. I don’t enjoy reading it and don’t ever plan to use it my own work.

  3. It was studying about stream of consciousness that lead me to experiment with point of view in the early 1990s and I think deep 3rd POV borrows from it. I think I use it in small doses – in dream sequences or at times of confusion as below – as in the first couple of sentences in this excerpt:

    The harried voices swirled around in Dinnis’ head. He was in hot lava, burning away. No, that that wasn’t right. But he was burning. His tongue was stuck the roof of his mouth. He swallowed and opened his eyes. The walls wavered in outlandish patterns of orange red, stark white grey and black. A soft curl of smoke drifted in front of his eyes. Moonlight shone through the high glazed window cut into the thick, stone wall, making sharp shadows of the torch brackets and sparse furniture. That’s right. He was in a small forgotten guest room in Castle of the Makarn of the Northern Reaches in Narki. He had been moved with Trasin soon as they had been considered well enough to travel. His leg throbbed unbearably. He slowed his breathing and tried to banish the pain.

  4. I think the stream of consciousness technique is worth having at the writer’s elbow for all the reasons you give in your post, especially for giving a story a vivid, almost photographic narrative flow.
    I agree with you that the technique is kind of arcane because it’s associated in people’s minds with literary heavyweights like Joyce, Faulkner, Proust and Virginia Woolf. I found the most ‘accessible’ stream of consciousness writer to be Dorothy Richardson, who practically invented the form but who lost out in the recognition stakes to the big name authors mentioned above.
    I got a lot out of reading her novel ‘Pointed Roofs’, the first volume in her Proustian-length ‘Pilgrimage’ series. Another bonus: ‘Pointed Roofs’ is available for free ($0.00!) in the Kindle Edition.

  5. @Jenny: What you’ve written here (and it’s great, BTW!) isn’t stream of consciousness. We’re deep inside the narrator’s head, but his thoughts are still organized according to modern structure – rather than the random, rapid-fire imitation of real-life thought patterns.

    @Trevor: Haven’t read Richardson, but now I’ll have to check her out. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the “it’s great BTW” 🙂

    So is the difference that Stream of Consciousness is more disjointed, tangential and fragmentary? (Along the lines of the joke “If I had a dollar every time I got distracted, I wish I had a puppy.”?

    Just saw this example:

    “Such fools we all are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” http://narrative.georgetown.edu/wiki/index.php/Stream_of_consciousness

    -Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

    Though – I don’t know, but I think my internal monologue isn’t quite so inchoate as this.

  7. Right, you’ve got it exactly. Actually, that joke is an awesome way to explain stream of consciousness. And the Woolf passage is a good example. What you wrote definitely wasn’t that chaotic and as a result, in my opinion, much better and more appealing to readers.

  8. “What you wrote definitely wasn’t that chaotic and as a result, in my opinion, much better and more appealing to readers.”

    Awesome 🙂 The Woolfe passage is certainly a lot of work – and takes a dedicated reader to persist with it.

    I can see why stream of consciousness is at the bottom of your list of favorite writing techniques 🙂 to be used for some literary fiction or for a very specific purpose.

    I am finding deep 3rd person very rewarding to write.

  9. If you ever want a challenge, give William Faulkner’s Pulitzer-winning A Fable a read. I don’t recommend mimicking his technique, however much the Pulitzer crew may have liked it. 😉

  10. Thanks for the post, KAtie!
    I agree with the last statement, the stream is useful to illustrate character´s state of mind

  11. Ultimately, any tool that can accomplish that much is worth paying attention to, even if, like stream of consciousness, it isn’t going to be something you want to use on every page.

  12. Oh, no, that´s true!

  13. I am reading short story collections by the French short story writer, Annie Saumont (see I’m no truck, English translation of Je suis pas un camion.) This author liberally uses a ‘flux de conscience’ style.

    from a reader just passing through …

  14. I’ll have to check out her books. Thanks!

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