Coherence vs incoherence – Differences in Style #4

So I will admit, I wanted to skip last week’s discussion on viewpoints and go straight to this. Because even though it makes sense to cover viewpoints before going deeper into modes of narration (although ooh err you’ll probably notice I’m not covering every mode eg time, place etc 😉 ) this is by far a more interesting topic to me. Now I’m gonna be honest straight off the bat, I have a passionate dislike for stream of consciousness books, but I can’t deny that it’s an interesting phenomenon, which is why I’m excited to discuss it!

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Stream of consciousness defined

There are lots of ways to tell a story and the how can be one of the most interesting ways to enhance the voice (including unreliable narration). Stream of consciousness is a technique developed in the 20th century to show the flow of thoughts going on in a character’s mind. The term was coined by William James and is also known as “interior monologue”. It’s kinda the opposite of a dramatic monologue/soliloquy where the speaker addresses an audience (think Shakespeare). Ways you can identify stream of consciousness are by leaps in thought or lack of punctuation. Some of the most famous examples are Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez.



Stream of consciousness philosophy

The aim of stream of consciousness is largely to show the flow of thoughts and feelings, reflecting the actual impression of being inside someone’s mind. Unlike where an author simply tells the reader what a character is thinking, stream of consciousness reflects the inner workings of a character’s thoughts in a way that authentically represents the fragmentary reality of thinking eg by jumping from one event to another and not necessarily following on in a logical manner.

Pros and Cons of Stream of Consciousness

Pros: Well, this certainly creates interesting and realistic psychological portraits of a character. And if you can get into it, it’s an intense experience. Especially as it can be used to really demonstrate individuality by making subtle changes from one character to another and showing the idiosyncrasies of one person’s thoughts close up.

Cons: However, it’s easy to get lost in a stream of consciousness narrative and, in my experience, is very hard to follow. As most people’s minds are a complete mess, you can imagine that being in someone’s head for an extended period of time can be quite the headache. It can also lack coherence and affect the structure, which, yeesh, like I said, not a fan.

Exposition defined

Now as per usual, I like to set these pieces up in a dichotomous relationship, showing two opposing styles. I did have to give this one some thought, as I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. But since I decided to talk about coherence and incoherence in this piece, I thought I might go with another mode of storytelling: exposition (the other four being: dialogue, thoughts, action and description). Edit: the basic definition is that it’s the author giving information to the reader (and can include authorial intrusion, info-dumping or just be integrated into the text).

Exposition philosophy

As a form of contrast, exposition above all offers clarity. And while there isn’t a philosophy per se, exposition has been used since the dawn of time, or literature, to present information. I personally notice it in more Victorian novels and in ancient epics, where the reader is simply given information. Sometimes this can also be used as a flashback or flash-forward.

Exposition Pros and Cons

Pros: not only does this offer clarity, but it can also be a powerful and directive voice in a narrative. It can be used to show a great deal of control or to foreshadow later events.

Cons: oh boy, I don’t want to get into the show vs tell debate too much at this stage, but that’s certainly a factor to consider (not to spoil potential future posts too much, but I think there’s a time for both 😉 ) And one of the main issues here is that it stops readers from drawing their own conclusions.

Accounting for different tastes

What’s important to note is that neither of these techniques have to be employed for a whole book. It’s possible, for instance, to include some stream of consciousness without going the whole nine yards. And while I begrudgingly admit there’s a plus side to stream of consciousness novels, no matter how much I personally dislike them, I am happy to say that I like both of these styles in moderation. But if you’d like a whole book of either technique (though exposition tends to be paired with other styles) then whatever floats your boat is fine!

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

So do you like/dislike either of these styles? Or do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!

72 thoughts on “Coherence vs incoherence – Differences in Style #4

  1. Apparently, I’ve never really known what stream of consciousness was… In school I could never seem to grasp it. I would think that I was writing in stream of consciousness and I’m not. Lol! Even reading books that contain it, I still don’t think that I grasp the concept… Even after all these years!

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  2. I’ve lived in England too long – ‘everything in moderation’ is honestly my thing! 😊

    They both work for me as long it’s not too much of either style present in a book.

    I get distracted easily by inner dialogue and usually find myself thinking about something completely random whilst staring at a page for a long time.

    I do enjoy that thought process if it creates drama and tension. But an entire book of that can give me a bit of a headache as well..

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    1. hehe I relate to that being English 😉

      Yes I completely understand what you mean. And I definitely find that I get distracted if it lasts for a sustained period of time. But you’re right it can add something (just as long as it’s not for a whole book 😉 )

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  3. I just finished reading a book with a steam of consciences, and it was a real rollercoaster. It’s called Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s full of unreliable and ambiguous narration (you can’t be completely sure of what happens bc who only get to see the reaction to events, not the events themselves), run on and incomplete sentences, and real and raw emotion. It was hard to read, but worth it. You should check it out.

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  4. Mmmh I think you are right. I like them in small doses. It can add an edge to the book, make it more realistic and break the pace, set another rhythme. A whole book though no! Or maybe if you are following a vey odd character…

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  5. To me most (not all) extended stream of consciousness writing feels lazy and/or pretentious (“I’m so deep that I can write however I please, and if you don’t like/understand it that just shows your lack of class”)…maybe I’m just a Philistine 🙂

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    1. Yeah I completely get that- I’m really not comfortable with it. For me it’s the opposite way round- I might enjoy it initially and connect with the character, but I’ll fall out of love with them as the story goes on and I get increasingly lost.

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  6. Like other replies have said, I think both are okay if done in moderation. I have a love for Woolf, and love the way she uses it to communicate character. And I like it in books where it’s used to break up chapters and to build suspense (especially when you don’t know who’s consciousness you’re in until the end).
    Exposition on the other hand, to me, is a trickier balance – not enough and I get frustrated because I’m not getting a satisfyingly complete story, too much and I’ll stop reading because I’m bored and want the action to continue.


  7. I am trying to recall recent reads that utilized stream of consciousness narratives. I think this is something I also tend to enjoy more in moderation, selectively throughout a story. It can help add an incredible perspective, but agreeably become a bit muddled as the main form. Great post!

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  8. I find reading stream of consciousness to be challenge, definitely. I usually have to read them in one sitting because if I pause for too long then I get out of the groove.

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  9. I’m generally not a fan of stream of consciousness, but I think it definitely has its place and can be useful. In the Chaos Walking trilogy, it’s used in a lot of the action/fight scenes, which I find creates tension and makes it interesting. But a lot of the times, I find it’s just distracting and provides too many extra details.

    I think the show vs. tell thing is an important distinction too. I feel like the ultimate conclusion is better if it’s a bit of telling rather than showing (mainly cause I’m dumb and don’t always get the conclusion) but all the details leading up to it should be more showing rather than telling. It reads very fanfiction-y when the author is like “this is important!!!!”

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    1. Ah I do understand what you mean there- it can work at times.

      And yes for sure. And yeah I agree with you- I like to be told, especially when it comes to the conclusion. But like you said, it can come across as flawed if there is too much telling elsewhere. hahaha!

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  10. I can handle stream of consciousness in small doses. But, I find I don’t tend to be a huge fan of books that utilize this style of writing. Maybe it’s the lack of punctuation? (I love punctuation!)

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  11. I enjoy both! I need variety and find so much interest in things that are different, so I switch up genres, writing styles, etc. to keep having fun! I am learning so much from these posts. And you reminded me- One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books. I need to re-read it!

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  12. I think you need to teach my Lit class, LOL. These are such great posts and so fantastically explained. I like both but it depends on how it is done. I enjoy Woolf but am not a fan of Faulkner. I just read the Tin Man by Sarah Winman, which was written in a form of stream of consciousness and had heard fantastic things about it, but it was just blah for me. It was gorgeous in places but I just couldn’t love it…the lack of quotation marks drove me insane, LOL. I think that’s what did it, hahaha..I wanted my red marking pen!! Great post as usual!

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    1. Aww you’re too sweet ❤ I can understand that. I kind of like Woolf quotes taken out of context, but struggle too much with the style- maybe I'll actually get round to finishing something of hers in the future 😉 Faulkner is on the blacklist though 😉 Ah fair enough- that would drive me crazy too lol!! Thank you!!

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  13. I can’t tolerate long streams of consciousness but if they are done right they add to the narration. I am however negatively predisposed and the book has to be totally great to make up for that. On the other hand exposition and the resulting clarity is one of the styles I like.

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  14. This post was quite interesting. Got to know more about this stream Apart from small piece of knowledge about this stream that I have. Will you please make similar kind post regarding Dystopian one too. Thanks in advance!


  15. Your definition of Exposition was kind of just that it was opposite of Stream of Consciousness? I am not sure what that means? I read “As I lay dying” in High School but don’t really remember any of it, so I can’t really say if I like one more than the other. Tho if I had to guess I would like both in moderation! Great post!

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    1. Fair point- that was a mistake- I added that in (and marked it as an edit) it’s basically when an author gives you information- it can include authorial intrusion, infodumping or just be embedded into the text. Sorry for leaving that out! Fair enough! Thank you!

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  16. neither of these techniques have to be employed for a whole book…. That’s the right mark, right there.
    I’ve mentioned several times how I suffered through One hundred Years… but there were parts that worked really well. I think I would enjoy Stream in moderate doses. Can’t handle a whole book of it.

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  17. Seriously, I’d like to read a book that’s done stream of consciousness well. If it’s done in bits and pieces I’d be fine with it, but what’s the POINT of it otherwise?! Uugh, it’s just so pretentious, and frankly, a bit of a copout. Like, can’t stream of consciousness be written by pretty much anyone? Where’s the craft? Where’s the technique? *goes off on a rant else*

    ANYWAY….awesome post! Personally, I love exposition when it’s done every couple pages. I like to see characters doing their thing, talking, and reflecting on their lives, then have the exposition kick in to give it some structure and momentum. 😉

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  18. Again when discussing one style versus another I am the one who could like either choice or I may completely dislike either depending upon how things are used so again it all comes down to the story and the book. I love variety, as much as I read I really need and crave things that are unique and that includes all styles of writing as much as genres.

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      1. Yes, as much as I read I would be very bored following the same cookie cutter style in one genre. For me I need things to change in style as much as switching the genres all the time to keep my interest. 🙂


  19. I like both! Though I will say… exposition is easier to write than stream of consciousness. (Which sounds backwards.) But I’ve found that writing stream of consciousness *and keeping the story actually moving* is really hard. It’s so easy to ramble, but then you’re not writing a book, you’re rambling. (And yes, some published authors ramble instead of telling a good SOC story.) I do love reading a *GOOD* stream of consciousness story. Several of the books I remember enjoying best in my school coursework were stream of consciousness writing. (Faulkner, Catch 22, etc) However, there’s no guarantee. (I didn’t like James Joyce’s Dubliners much at ALL.)

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  20. I have some mixed feelings about stream of consciousness writing, I live Fever Dream but some others I found myself lost. So I don’t know how I fell about it really. Great discussion post 🙂

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  21. Good explanations of two difficult concepts. My two cents:
    I prefer that the narrator not be too intrusive in the story, dropping facts out of the blue that have no current relevance, for example. Exposition is fine, as long as it is not self-conscious. And no sexposition, please! I dont think the author should perversely penalize those delicate sould who prefer to skip over the naughty parts.

    Stream of consciousness works especially well for thinking passages (preferably not too long) where there’s no other way to explain whats in a persons head. Italics can help separate these tangents from the straight line of the narrative. Its best limited to one perspective though, i think. SOC is especially good in times of distress or chaotic thinking for its emotional power ( for example if someone is hearing voices in their head. )

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