Prose Essay Terms

I. What is a Prose?

Prose is just non-verse writing. Pretty much anything other than poetry counts as prose: this article, that textbook in your backpack, the U.S. Constitution, Harry Potter – it’s all prose. The basic defining feature of prose is its lack of line breaks:

In verse, the line ends

when the writer wants it to, but in prose

you just write until you run out of room and then start a new line.

Unlike most other literary devices, prose has a negative definition: in other words, it’s defined by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. (It isn’t verse.) As a result, we have to look pretty closely at verse in order to understand what prose is.

 

II. Types of Prose

Prose usually appears in one of these three forms.

a. Essays

You’re probably familiar with essays. An essay makes some kind of argument about a specific question or topic. Essays are written in prose because it’s what modern readers are accustomed to.

b. Novels/short stories

When you set out to tell a story in prose, it’s called a novel or short story (depending on length). Stories can also be told through verse, but it’s less common nowadays. Books like Harry Potter and the Fault in Our Stars are written in prose.

c. Nonfiction books

If it’s true, it’s nonfiction. Essays are a kind of nonfiction, but not the only kind. Sometimes, a nonfiction book is just written for entertainment (e.g. David Sedaris’s nonfiction comedy books), or to inform (e.g. a textbook), but not to argue. Again, there’s plenty of nonfiction verse, too, but most nonfiction is written in prose.

 

III. Examples of Prose

Example 1

The Bible is usually printed in prose form, unlike the Islamic Qur’an, which is printed in verse. This difference suggests one of the differences between the two ancient cultures that produced these texts: the classical Arabs who first wrote down the Qur’an were a community of poets, and their literature was much more focused on verse than on stories. The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, were more a community of storytellers than poets, so their holy book was written in a more narrative prose form.

Example 2

Although poetry is almost always written in verse, there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” Prose poetry lacks line breaks, but still has the rhythms of verse poetry and focuses on the sound of the words as well as their meaning. It’s the same as other kinds of poetry except for its lack of line breaks.

 

IV. The Importance of Prose

Prose is ever-present in our lives, and we pretty much always take it for granted. It seems like the most obvious, natural way to write. But if you stop and think, it’s not totally obvious. After all, people often speak in short phrases with pauses in between – more like lines of poetry than the long, unbroken lines of prose. It’s also easier to read verse, since it’s easier for the eye to follow a short line than a long, unbroken one.

For all of these reasons, it might seem like verse is actually a more natural way of writing! And indeed, we know from archaeological digs that early cultures usually wrote in verse rather than prose. The dominance of prose is a relatively modern trend.

So why do we moderns prefer prose? The answer is probably just that it’s more efficient! Without line breaks, you can fill the entire page with words, meaning it takes less paper to write the same number of words. Before the industrial revolution, paper was very expensive, and early writers may have given up on poetry because it was cheaper to write prose.

 

V. Examples of Prose in Literature

Example 1

Although Shakespeare was a poet, his plays are primarily written in prose. He loved to play around with the difference between prose and verse, and if you look closely you can see the purpose behind it: the “regular people” in his plays usually speak in prose – their words are “prosaic” and therefore don’t need to be elevated. Heroic and noble characters, by contrast, speak in verse to highlight the beauty and importance of what they have to say.

Example 2

Flip open Moby-Dick to a random page, and you’ll probably find a lot of prose. But there are a few exceptions: short sections written in verse. There are many theories as to why Herman Melville chose to write his book this way, but it probably was due in large part to Shakespeare. Melville was very interested in Shakespeare and other classic authors who used verse more extensively, and he may have decided to imitate them by including a few verse sections in his prose novel.

 

VI. Examples of Prose in Pop Culture

Example 1

Philosophy has been written in prose since the time of Plato and Aristotle. If you look at a standard philosophy book, you’ll find that it has a regular paragraph structure, but no creative line breaks like you’d see in poetry. No one is exactly sure why this should be true – after all, couldn’t you write a philosophical argument with line breaks in it? Some philosophers, like Nietzsche, have actually experimented with this. But it hasn’t really caught on, and the vast majority of philosophy is still written in prose form.

Example 2

In the Internet age, we’re very familiar with prose – nearly all blogs and emails are written in prose form. In fact, it would look pretty strange if this were not the case!

Imagine if you had a professor

who wrote class emails

in verse form, with odd

            line breaks in the middle

of the email.

 

VII. Related Terms

Verse

Verse is the opposite of prose: it’s the style of writing

that has line breaks.

Most commonly used in poetry, it tends to have rhythm and rhyme but doesn’t necessarily have these features. Anything with artistic line breaks counts as verse.

Prosaic

18th-century authors saw poetry as a more elevated form of writing – it was a way of reaching for the mysterious and the heavenly. In contrast, prose was for writing about ordinary, everyday topics. As a result, the adjective “prosaic” (meaning prose-like) came to mean “ordinary, unremarkable.”

Prosody

Prosody is the pleasing sound of words when they come together. Verse and prose can both benefit from having better prosody, since this makes the writing more enjoyable to a reader.

Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature

Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written.  To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance. 

Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective.  Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.  You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.

Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.

  • William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
  • District 9- South African Apartheid
  • X Men- the evils of prejudice
  • Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”

Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character - A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.  

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.

  • confidence/ arrogance
  • mouse/ rat
  • cautious/ scared
  • curious/ nosey
  • frugal/ cheap

Denotation - dictionary definition of a word

Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition  

Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves

  • Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as  
    • You are the sunshine of my life.
  • Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as  
    • What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
  • Hyperbole - exaggeration
    • I have a million things to do today.
  • Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
    • America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.

Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem

  • Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
    • Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
      • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
  • Spondee - stressed stressed
    • Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
      • Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
  • Trochee - stressed unstressed
    • Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
      • While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
  • Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
    • Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
      • Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
  • Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
    • Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
      • Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
        With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.

Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.

Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem

Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.

Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.

  • Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)

Setting - the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.

Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems  are not necessarily formless.

Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.

  • Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
  • Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
  • Owl - wisdom or knowledge
  • Yellow - implies cowardice or rot

Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.

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