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Exploring Points of View: Stream of Consciousness

Updated on March 23, 2017

What is stream of consciousness?

A term initially coined by psychologist William James, stream of consciousness is a point of view in literature that depicts how the mind sounds to itself when speaking. It is a depiction of a characters flow of thought without influence from outside forces or narration.

This style is based around bodily sensations, anxieties, and/or memories, and tends to experiment with traditional forms of punctuation.

How is it used?

This point of view is most typically used when a character is alone, is coping with an event, or is harboring a secret. Often, it is not the dominant point of view in a story, but is used as a contributing factor that enriches the reality of a character or situation:

“What a lark! What a plunge! For so it always seemed to me when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which I can hear now, I burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as I then was) solemn, feeling as I did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …" - Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Wolf

As shown above, Virginia Wolf's Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful example of stream of consciousness for writers interested in exploring this point of view. (Other works of hers in similar style include To the Lighthouse and The Waves). Her incorporation of the stream of consciousness point of view creates a sense of emotion while the detail of the open window and premonition of "something awful" provides a grounding effect that ties the point of view with the plot.

James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, is also a fine example of this point of view. It is well known for its experimental style and approach to various points of view, with the final chapter (technically, period) a fine example of stream of consciousness. It is best known as Molly Bloom's Soliloquy, and uses lack of punctuation and capitalization to create the erratic pattern of thought found in pure stream of consciousness prose.

How do I incorporate this point of view into my writing?

Most people who have taken a creative writing class have experienced this assignment:

"Free write for the first ten minutes in class. Don't stop to think and just write whatever pops in your head."

That, in essential, is writing in stream of consciousness. And, silly as the "free writing" assignment may seem, it actually is a useful tool when applying a stream of consciousness point of view to a specific character.

By sitting down and placing a familiar character in a comfortable scenario, a writer can allow themselves to explore the incongruity of that character's thoughts and discover ways to tie that into plot, characterization, and story development.

But, isn't there ia lot of poorly executed stream of consciousness prose in the world?

Of course! The reason being that most attempts at writing stream of consciousness creates inane babble that doesn't contribute to characterization or plot, and comes across as filler-fluff in the story.

Despite being the mascot point of view for free-form thought, stream of consciousness still needs to have a proper direction when written. It has to serve a purpose. Even Joyce's Ulysses, long bemoaned as being confusing and too experimental, had Molly Bloom's Soliloquy serve a plot purpose in its inclusion.

Stream of consciousness as a point of view doesn't need to be vague or confusing. As long as it serves a purpose in your writing, it can be a powerful tool for you to use when creating strong characters and plot.

Are you a fan of this point of view or have any questions? Feel free to leave thoughts in the comments section below!

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