Stream of Consciousness might sound more like a reference to psychology, and it is, but it’s also a narrative device or writing style that tries to authentically capture the human experience.
It is primarily used in fiction writing and attempts to depict how people think by mimicking the non-linear way our brains work jumping from one thing to the next. This often takes the form of a loose interior monologue, so the reader can enter the world of the character more deeply.
However, it’s a little different from how internal thought processes are usually shown in writing and may use unusual or limited syntax, incomplete or run-on ideas, repetition, leaps in thought and various sensory impressions that are more akin to the way our thought processes normally flow.
Curious to find out more about this highly effective narrative style? Read on.
What is stream of consciousness?
The term “stream of consciousness” is generally credited to William James’ 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, where he analogized the mind as a river that ebbed and flowed with ideas, with emotions also rising and falling in relation to various forces. Stream, river and flow have therefore become the metaphors by which it is described, hence the notion of a stream of consciousness.
In writing, the stream of consciousness is the subject matter, and the interior monologue or actions are the way of presenting it. It can seem quite unconventional and it’s true that readers may have to work a little harder to fully understand the ideas presented, but that’s also what makes it such a rich literary form.
What is the purpose?
Stream of consciousness writing is a way of providing emotional and psychological truth through the uninterrupted thoughts and feelings of characters. It can be really effective as it allows you not only to enter what is going on for that character, but why it is happening.
In this way, the reader gets to listen in on thoughts by using language to capture the way they move through the mind, thus mimicking the streaming nature of conscious thoughts.
For example, it could show you a character’s sanity or fevered state during an event like a murder or their recollection of it later. It might indicate a character’s feelings of isolation in their living situation, or their assessment of their psychic reality, which may differ from their external surroundings.
The modernist novelists of the early 1900s are often credited with this style of writing, but examples of it are found very broadly from writers such as Edgar Allan Poe to Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Mrs Dalloway (1925, Virginia Woolf).
Authors that write in the stream of consciousness style are often seeking for realistic, stream-like, associative thought processes. Virginia Woolf is considered a master of this, showing how Clarissa’s thoughts jump or drift from one idea to the next, often by using semicolons, with observations peppered into her account of what is happening around her.
For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.
Beloved (1987, Toni Morrison)
Toni Morrison does not observe the usual rules of syntax, capitals, or grammar in Beloved. Neither does she divide up her ideas, so sentences can appear to run-on in a way that might display Beloved’s frantic feelings. She also uses repetition like “I am not dead” so the reader has a sense of listening in to her thoughts and what’s important to the character.
I am alone | I want to be the two of us | I want the join | I come out of blue water after the bottoms of my feet swim away from me | I come up | I need to find a place to be | the air is heavy | I am not dead | I am not | there is a house | there is what she whispered to me | I am where she told me | I am not dead | I sit | the sun closes my eyes | when I open them I see the face I lost | Sethe’s is the face that left me | Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile | her smiling face is the place for me | it is the face I lost she is my face smiling at me
The Old Man and the Sea (1952, Ernest Hemingway)
In this novel, the character Santiago talks to himself while he is at sea, showing us how he feels at that moment.
But in the dark now and no glow showing and no lights and only the wind and the steady pull of the sail he felt that perhaps he was already dead. He put his two hands together and felt the palms. They were not dead and he could bring the pain of life by simply opening and closing them. He leaned his back against the stem and knew he was not dead. His shoulders told him. I have all those prayers I promised if I caught the fish, he thought. But I am too tired to say them now. I better get the sack and put it over my shoulders.
He lay in the stem and steered and watched for the glow to come in the sky. I have half of him, he thought. Maybe I’ll have the luck to bring the forward half in. I should have some luck. No, he said. You violated your luck when you went too far outside.
“Don’t be silly,” he said aloud. “And keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.”
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Why and how to use it?
You can use the stream of consciousness to get your reader to enter the mind of your characters more fully. This makes it a far richer reading experience, and one that’s worth mastering. There are four ways you could experiment with this kind of narrative style.
Syntax and grammar: In this kind of writing (see the Toni Morrison example above), you do not need to follow ordinary grammar and syntax rules. You might want to run on with thoughts, avoid punctuation or capital letters, and write ideas that are interrupted by another thought, just as your own natural thoughts progress.
Association: In associative writing, writers transition between ideas using loose connections. It might seem random, but it’s usually the way our thoughts progress with some event leading us to think of another. This might be a connection between sights, smells, feeling, tastes, sounds, and so on. In the Hemingway example, the old man’s thoughts of death lead to the idea of prayers and then luck.
Repetition: A character may return to the same phrase, word or idea, giving the reader the idea they are fixating on a particular thought. This can point readers towards important themes in the plot. In both the Morrison and Hemingway examples there are a repetition of phrases about not being dead. This is very important to the old man fishing and lost at sea.
Plot: The stream of consciousness narrative style can also be applied to the plot structure, utilising a non-linear structure in terms of chronology or even point of view. You can shift rapidly between character’s thoughts, emotions, or impressions, just making it clear who is contributing at each point in time.