Stream of Consciousness: How Writers Use This Narrative Technique to Reveal Characters
Stream of Consciousness: How Writers Use This Narrative Technique to Reveal Characters Image

Ever wish you could get inside a character’s thoughts and really understand what makes them tick?

Well, some authors will let you do just that when they use stream of consciousness in their narration.

What Is Stream of Consciousness?

Originally a term used in psychology, “stream of consciousness” refers to our thoughts and conscious reactions, expressed as a continuous, uninterrupted flow.

The term was first coined by psychologist William James, who explained that consciousness is “not chopped up in bits… it is nothing joined; it flows.”

It wasn’t long after that the term was applied to literature to describe an author’s writing style.

In writing, “stream of consciousness” defines a narrative style that reflects the natural flow of thoughts in the characters’ minds, offering readers a unique point of view.

Dorothy Richardson’s 1915 novel Pointed Roofs was the first complete novel to use stream of consciousness narration. The style would later become the trademark of authors such as Virginia Woolf.

Stream of Consciousness in Writing

In literature, this literary device is also referred to as “interior monologue.” Unlike a soliloquy, in which the narrator directly addresses the audience to share his or her thoughts, narrators who tell their story using stream of consciousness address only themselves.

In short, it’s like getting a peak at the character’s mind to hear their thoughts, unfiltered, exactly as they come out.

Thus, stream of consciousness is defined by a few general characteristics that distinguish it from other narrative styles:

  • Lack of punctuation
  • Non-linear
  • No clear beginning or end
  • Fragmentary
  • Sensory
  • Generally informal language

Why Do Writers Use Stream of Consciousness?

By reflecting the natural flow of thoughts through a character’s mind, stream of consciousness aims to give readers the feeling of being inside the character’s head.

Putting the character’s thought process into words helps to advance the plot and shed light on the character’s motivation.

Examples of Stream of Consciousness in Literature

The following are examples of stream of consciousness in literature. Note the effects of this narrative technique on the reading experience.

Stream of Consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway

“Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down). He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death.”

As you can see in this excerpt from Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf uses both short and run-on sentences to reflect Septimus’s flowing thoughts and offer readers a look into his mind.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

Hopefully you took a deep breath before reading that one! Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is often noted for its use of stream of consciousness. While this narration style isn’t for everyone, you might note here how it creates a slightly more dramatic impact.

Ulysses by James Joyce

“Pineapple rock, lemon platt, butter scotch. A sugar-sticky girl shoveling scoopful of creams for a Christian brother. Some school treat. Bad for their tummies.”

Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness in Ulysses reflects the natural procession of Leopold Bloom’s thoughts as he wanders through Dublin.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

“I had gone… to the smoke of the cafes and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again knowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring.”

Hemingway’s use of stream of consciousness in this passage from A Farewell to Arms reflects the disoriented mood described by the narrator.

Stream of Consciousness Narration

Writing in a stream of consciousness offers readers a peek into the characters’ minds, revealing their inner motivations and often making them more relatable.

This unique narrative style tends to divide readers and critics, but when used skillfully, interior monologues can enrich the reading experience.

What are your thoughts on stream of consciousness in writing? Do you love it or hate it?


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Stream of Consciousness: How Writers Use This Narrative Technique to Reveal Characters
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