Writing 101: What Is Stream of Consciousness Writing? Learn About Stream of Consciousness in Literature With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 31, 2019 • 3 min read

Some novels are dry and factual. Little is said beyond what is required. Such a technique can be quite effective, as evidenced by the works of Ernest Hemingway and Richard Ford. However, many writers choose to delve into the minds of their narrators and characters, providing a running monologue of what transpires in their heads. This is known as stream of consciousness writing.


What Is Stream of Consciousness Writing?

Stream of consciousness writing refers to a narrative technique where the thoughts and emotions of a narrator or character are written out such that a reader can track the fluid mental state of these characters.

The term “stream of consciousness” traces back to The Principles of Psychology, published in 1890 by William James. It was first applied to literary criticism by May Sinclair in 1918, via analysis of novels by Dorothy Richardson. However, the technique existed long before it was named—stream of consciousness writing can be found in the nineteenth-century works by Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, and Ambrose Bierce, among many others.

It became especially popular among writers of the Modernist era—roughly contemporaneous with Sinclair’s 1918 essay. Famous Modernist practitioners of the stream of consciousness technique include Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. It has remained fashionable in the ensuing years, appearing in the mid-century works of William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Flannery O’Connor to those of contemporary writers like Stephen King, Salman Rushdie, and Nathaniel Rich.

What Is the Purpose of Stream of Consciousness Writing?

Stream of consciousness writing allows authors to provide a more intimate portrayal of their subjects. It prevents them from being confined to physical descriptions or accounts of spoken dialogue, which was a standard issue literary technique prior to the rise of the stream of consciousness approach. Via stream of consciousness writing, readers are able to track characters’ thoughts in real time, thus enabling them to understand not only what a character does but why they do it.

6 Examples of Stream Of Consciousness Writing

From the modernist era forward, stream of consciousness writing has been consistently popular. Here are some of its most notable applications.

  1. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922). This novel tracks a single day in the life of Irishman Leopold Bloom. It contains long lengthy passages of stream of consciousness, truly mimicking a brain’s free-associative abilities. Joyce pushed this technique even further in later works, culminating in the arguably narrative-free Finnegan’s Wake.
  2. Samuel Beckett, Molloy (1951). Beckett used many of the same narrative techniques as his Irish contemporary Joyce. Most famous as a dramatist, Beckett placed stream of consciousness style monologues in the mouths of many of his characters and later applied the method to his novels.
  3. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Woolf used stream of consciousness writing to articulate her characters’ inner monologues, both in this novel and others like To The Lighthouse.
  4. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930). Faulkner had already worked with stream of consciousness in earlier novels like The Sound and the Fury, but As I Lay Dying stood out in its method of narrating the novel through the perspective of 15 different characters, each of whom narrated in a stream of consciousness style.
  5. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957). Kerouac’s novel stood out for using stream of consciousness as actual narration. Via the largely autobiographical narrator Sal Paradise, Kerouac presents the story as a largely uninterrupted flow of ideas. Driving home the point was the fact that Kerouac typed the entire novel in epic bursts on a continuous roll of typewriter paper.
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864). Decades before “stream of consciousness” became a literary term, authors were using it to create intimate portraits of their narrators. The technique was popular in Russian literary culture, with strong examples written by the likes of Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky.

Become a better writer with the MasterClass All-Access Pass, which gives you access to video classes taught by literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, and more.