The word ‘prose’ is often used very loosely to refer to any form of fiction writing. The syntax and semantics of an author’s work might be conflated with the style of their prose.
But in order to fully master the concept in your own writing, you will need to fully understand what prose is, how it differs from other forms of writing, and the benefits of using it.
What is prose?
One dictionary definition of prose is ‘the ordinary language people use in speaking or writing’. This means that prose in literature better imitates everyday speech, unlike poetry.
Because it reflects natural ways of speaking and thinking, prose does not follow a metrical pattern or a rhyming structure. Instead it obeys grammatical rules and composes phrases that are separated into sentences, paragraphs, and, in some cases, chapters.
Where is prose used?
In literature, short stories, novellas, and novels all use prose. However, prose is also found in many other places in modern life.
Due to how it reflects the flow of everyday speech, prose is commonly used because of its familiarity and efficiency at communicating ideas. This means that it’s used in almost every form of writing.
Outside of literature, this includes many non-fiction examples from magazines and newspapers to blogs and online product descriptions.
Prose vs poetry
Often, the best way to understand prose is to be aware of how it differs from the other main style of writing – verse. Most commonly used in poetry, verse tends to be metrical. This means there is a rhythm to each line, giving a reader a defined pattern of beats to follow.
Prose tends not to have this same focused structure in terms of how each line should be read, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t always unrhythmic. You can read our guide on the differences between prose and verse for more comparisons.
Types of prose
The most usual form of writing that most people think about when it comes to prose is fiction. Nearly every novel you can pick up in a bookshop will use prose (though is such a thing as verse novels). Likewise, short stories and novellas too, from bestselling collections to online pieces of fanfiction, almost all of these will be prose.
While prose is often considered in terms of its use in fiction and literature, it is most commonly found in nonfiction. You don’t have to be an avid reader to encounter prose.
Websites, magazines, and newspapers all use prose. Even social media posts, comments on Youtube videos, and discussions on forum sites such as Reddit will almost always be examples of prose. As it imitates everyday speech, these more informal online sites rely on it.
You’d be hard pressed to find a heated debate in a Youtube comments section that’s in the form of a poem.
Stories passed down through generations and over hundreds of years can follow an oral or written tradition that is sometimes referred to as heroic prose. These can be legends, fables, fairytales, myths, or even parables. They are forms of storytelling that are meant to be recited in order to be preserved over time.
One example is the 13th-century Icelandic sagas, which took the form of prose narratives and told the history of Icelanders from as early as the 9th century.
While most poetry is in verse, with regular rhythmic patterns being a distinct common feature of the written art form, there can also be prose poetry. This is like a hybrid of prose and poetry. It uses the figurative language and style of poetry, while being presented as sentences and paragraphs like with prose.
One of the most famous examples of prose poetry is the 1916 poem “Spring Day” by American poet Amy Lowell. Here’s an excerpt of one of the sections:
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
Functions of prose for writing literature
Prose has many characteristics, some more obvious than others, that explain why it’s become the most common form of writing.
If you’re starting a new writing project and don’t know whether to use prose or verse, you should be clear on what the strengths of prose are when used in literature.
More familiar with readers
For most readers of fiction, they expect to see prose when they open a new book. Unless they have purposefully sought out poetry, then it can be quite alienating to see lines of verse.
So if you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, you should stick with prose. Only in the rarest occasions, if you think your story will benefit from it and your skills are good enough, should you even consider writing an entire novel in verse.
There are some occasions when verse can be worked into a traditional story, such as songs being sung by your characters that you can fit in between sections of prose.
Define your narrator’s voice
The voice of your narrator is an underrated aspect of your writing. It colours the tone of your story, how events are presented, and establishes your readers’ connection with it. Voice is particularly important to focus on with a first person narrator, but even a third person narrator should have a clear voice.
By using prose, you can ensure that your narrator’s voice feels conversational. It could feel as if they’re talking directly to the reader, or it might be a more stream-of-consciousness insight into their train of thought, but either way prose is the best way to achieve this. After all, people don’t naturally talk or think with the metrical structure of verse.
While poetry is known for being more metaphorical or, as some people might say, “flowery”, prose instead provides a much more direct approach to communication ideas.
Prose can therefore provide a more straightforward way to relay information to a reader, which is why it’s so common in nearly all forms of both fiction and non-fiction storytelling.
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