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What is Prose?

You probably write it every day, but... do you know what prose really is?
by Shanee Edwards on July 31, 2023

Sometimes to understand what something is, we have to first look at what it isn’t. Though the stanza below describes writing prose, the lines have been structured in rhymed couplets, better known as a poem. A bad poem, I agree, it’s flowery and verbose (tedious even?), but it is the opposite of prose. This poem is also an example of why poetry isn’t the best vehicle for learning. 

To explore writing, prose is the most popular, it's true

For readers, it’s accessible and easy to view

In its flowing lines, stories unfold

No mental rigors, its tale is told

With ease, the meaning of prose is understood

A canvas for ideas, as it should

So, what is prose? Let's dig into this type of writing and find out how you can harness it to write better stories.

So, What is Prose?

Prose simply means ordinary language without a formal structure or metrical pattern. No stanzas, no rhymed couplets. Certainly, nothing resembling Shakespeare’s sonnets with their metered, rhythmic verses. Prose is what you might read in your favorite novels, short stories, essays, news articles, blog posts, and many other forms of narrative writing – especially for storytelling.

Prose is the most common way to tell a story because it uses the same plain language most of us use every day. Prose allows for a more natural and fluid expression of ideas and it follows the conventional rules of grammar, using clear and coherent sentences. 

Read More: How to Write a Short Story

What is Prose_pen

Why Write in Prose?

Prose allows a writer to say exactly what they are thinking without relying on fancy wordplay, artifice, rhythm, or rhyme. Communication is clear and easy to understand especially since there are no restrictions or limits on the number of words, sentences, or paragraphs a writer can use. Prose is like having a green light for whatever you want to write.

Read More: How to Write a Novel that Hollywood Wants to Get Its Hands On

Prose Allows a Writer To Create and Express Tone

Whether you’re writing a nostalgic, wistful memoir, a news article about a political underdog or an epic novel about the Crimean War, good writing establishes tone from the opening paragraph. Let’s look at the opening of one of Charles Dickens’ most famous stories - A Christmas Carol – and how it clearly establishes tone

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

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The opening sentence mentions that someone has died. Dickens goes on to mention a “clergyman,” “undertaker” and “chief mourner.” The inclusion of death and the people associated with death help to signal to the reader that this will be a story of death, its consequences and the serious nature of such events preparing the reader for those subjects. Though he doesn’t mention ghosts up front, any story about death holds the possibility of a haunting. Dickens uses prose to ensure the reader is clear about the death of “Old Marley.” If that isn’t clearly stated up front, the rest of the story won’t make a lot of sense. By calling Marley “Old” we also accept that it was his time to pass and we don’t need to feel terribly sad about his passing. 

Is Screenwriting Prose? 

No, screenwriting is not considered prose. The main reason is that screenplays are typically written in a specific format that adheres to film industry standards. These standards help to facilitate production and collaboration among filmmakers, actors, and designers. It also allows one written page to roughly equal one minute of screen time.

Screenplay Dialogue is Stylized

Another reason screenwriting is not considered prose is because dialogue has to be - at least minimally - stylized. It might seem strange that movie dialogue is stylized considering it’s supposed to sound like real people talking, but dialogue has several functions beyond just a character expressing their thoughts.

What is Prose_book

Screenplay dialogue has to move the plot along with as few words as possible and often it must reveal exposition. Dialogue can do these same things in a novel, but there is no time or space restraint like there is in a screenplay. While screenwriting shares similarities with prose, it’s a distinct style of writing that is meant to be filmed and the dialogue spoken by actors for dramatic or comedic effect.

Comedy Has Its Own Style

Comedic dialogue often includes wisecracks, punchlines, wordplay, innuendo, and double-entendres. In prose, many characters often say funny things, too, but the funniest scenes in movies have their own rhythm and timing. We all remember the great Abbott and Costello bit, “Who’s On First?” It’s a prime example of witty, stylized dialogue that relies heavily on timing for comedic effect. 

Screenplay Dialogue Should Be Restrained

Okay, so if you’re Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino, you’re not too worried about containing or limiting your dialogue, but for most writers, it’s best for the dialogue to be streamlined. The characters need to say only what’s important and then you have to get out of the scene as soon as possible. 

Read More: The Best Pro Tactics for Writing Dialogue

Bottom Line: There is Freedom in Prose

Prose can vary widely in style, tone, and purpose. It can be descriptive, narrative, persuasive, or analytical. Overall, prose is the main form of written expression, enabling writers to communicate, inform, entertain, and express themselves in clear and meaningful ways.

Read More: How to Write a Screenplay: A 10-Step Guide


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