In Defense of Prose

There’s a little rumor going around that prose does not matter, not nearly as much as story. And writers should, accordingly, not worry about prose. At. All.

For the sake argument, let’s picture a hapless youngster reading said advice. If prose is not as important as story, she says to herself, I should be able to write a story without making use of prose.

Hapless Youngster makes the attempt:

Hapless Youngster is mightily confused. She decides to look up exactly what prose is, just to make sure she (and everyone else) is understanding it. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells her that prose is written or spoken language, not to be confused with poetry. In fact, M-W goes out of its way to remind Hapless Youngster that plainness is in fact a general characteristic of prose.

But how should Hapless Youngster use prose? So many people are busy throwing prose out the window that she is clueless how to proceed. She is so clueless that she gives up for now and goes on to read a lot of books all making use of a very wide range of prose. There’s Hemingway, who emphasizes its plainness; and there’s Cormac McCarthy, who uses words she’s never heard before. There’s breezy, just-having-a-little-chat prose, and there’s winding stream of consciousness prose. There’s matter of fact and metaphorical, warmly lush and coldly brusque: Prose can do and be all of these things and more.

Hapless Youngster has an epiphany.

Prose creates setting: “…Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marches, fog on the Kentish heights…” – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Prose creates character: “Well, we lay there in the remains of the hay cave, that we had collapsed around us with our energetics. We looked both of us like an unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses. I laughed and laughed with the relief of it, and she laughed at me and my laughter.” – Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Prose sets the tone: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of Number 4 Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Prose structures the themes: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby

Prose is so versatile that it can find tension in hardened bacon fat. Prose can mix itself up, blending SAT words with profanity (as in, “Jack Torrence thought: Officious little prick,” the first line of Stephen King’s The Shining). Prose can twirl on and on in long rambling sentences of mixed-up punctuation, can push the pace ahead and forward while the reader grips the pages harder and starts to sweat, can give a little a pause to catch your breath but leap forward again. Prose can revel in the excesses of its own loquaciousness, parodying itself on pompous verbosity and leaping to new hyperbolic heights of multi-syllabled, gaudily self-indulgent diction. Or it can keep things easy. Simple. Maybe even a little terse.

What a marvelous and useful tool prose is! Hapless Youngster decides to take that anti-prose advice and toss it out the window defenestrate it.

Hapless YoungsterYoung Writer knows: Prose is not a side effect of writing. Prose is the writing. Prose is the setting, the tone, the characters, the events, the tensions and resolutions. Prose is where the story lives.

Why not give your story the best home you can build?


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