Glossary of Literary Terms: Prose

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 0:51 Basic Prose Structure
  • 5:57 Going Deeper
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

The study of literature is a broad, diverse field. However, there's some general knowledge you should have before you dive in. Check out these terms to get a handle on the basics of prose study.


The question of how to study books is one that is asked a lot, and people have written tons of books on it that then you have to study, so it becomes a bit of a circular problem. But we can lay down some ground rules in a video (which means you don't have to read anything) about how to encounter texts and make the most of them, particularly when you're looking at prose, which is what we're going to talk about today.

The simplest question is probably 'What is prose?' Prose is basically anything written in language that is not poetry. It's kind of a catch-all bucket term; it's defined by what it isn't. In terms of sports, if you're not playing ball with the poets, you're in the prose...

Basic Prose Structure

We're going to talk a little bit about prose structure first of all. If you're looking at a work of prose literature, you've got a story on your hands. Even if it's non-fiction or even if it's super weird and seems like nothing's happening, there's a story in there somewhere. It can be about anything, but at the center it's going to have some sort of conflict. You wouldn't be moved to write if there weren't something that you needed to solve or something wrong - a clash of anything (could be characters, ideas, whatever). But there's got to be some sort of thing that is wrong. The tale of this conflict is the story's narrative, which includes rising and falling action; again, even in the weirdest things, there's some semblance of narrative or rising and falling action.

The totality of the narrative's actions, when viewed together (all of this stuff we've talked about), is known as the plot. Plot is just 'what happens in the story' - that is pretty simple. It drives along towards the end of the story until we get to the resolution. The way that everything ties up at the end is called the denouement. If there's any kind of strong emotional release at the end of all of this, we call that catharsis - that's not with everything (there's sort of bits and pieces here we can mix and match), but in general that's how narrative tends to go.

Stories feature characters, which are textual representations usually of people, although they can also be places, ideas and other stuff (the ancient Greeks were really good at making characters out of ideas). Also, again, we can consider weirdly experimental people like Joyce - he has characters in Finnegan's Wake that are actually sets of initials that are people, places and all kinds of weird stuff. The central character in your story (whether he be a castle or a man) - the one who drives the action - is known as the protagonist, or you can also call him the hero or the heroine if you really felt moved. The word 'hero' does not mean to imply that the actions are always going to be heroic (there's also the term anti-hero to describe people who are a little less savory but also we do root for). The place or places where our characters hang out is the setting. That's from stage terms as well - the setting of the play.

The story's hero or protagonist (whatever you want to call it) is going to meet his or her chief antagonist, who's a character, idea or whatever that is in conflict with our protagonist. Just as protagonists aren't always 'good guys,' antagonists aren't always 'bad guys' - it's not always the guy in the black cloak stroking his mustache or like Dr. Evil. As long as they get in the way of our protagonist, they're an antagonist. They might even be in your mind - in the protagonist's head - if it's a neat psychological drama.

Prose works also have a narrator, the one who is telling us the story. Stories are in this narrator's point-of-view, which can be first-person (that's an 'I' or a 'we'), second-person (this is pretty rare when it's in the 'you' form - Choose Your Own Adventure novels tend to be like that) or third-person ('he,' 'she' and 'they'). The narrator might be the story's biased protagonist, so it might be someone who's in the story who's telling us what's going on, or it might be another character inside of the story or it can be an omniscient godlike being. Sometimes it can be kind of ambiguous who the narrator is and that can be really interesting and a way to get at a novel's cool issues.

Prose works can be written in a bunch of different styles, or ways of telling a story. Related is the idea of genre, which is the type of story being told (you can see this with movies really easily, like sci-fi movies, action movies - same thing with books). We've got noir, romance, adventure novels - things like that. All these genres tend to have various conventions or tropes, things that come back again and again that signal that it is this genre. So a trope of the sci-fi genre might be the intelligent computer onboard the spaceship, like HAL or like a bunch of other things.

Styles, genres and conventions are closely tied in with motifs, or elements of a text that come back again and again. If you look at Macbeth, the Shakespeare play, blood is super important and comes back again and again - that's the motif. Once you've identified the style and genre that you're looking at, you'll have an easier time figuring out what the atmosphere, mood and tone are. These are other ways to describe how the book feels - that's a good way to think about that. What's the author trying to make us experience as we read this book?

Going Deeper

We're going to go a little deeper and look at what the 'point' of a prose work might be and how you look at that. A fancy way of saying 'the point' is the theme or themes - there can be more than one. Usually when you're looking at literature, you're trying to elucidate themes and things about the text that aren't immediately apparent. You're going to have to take a look at something called subtext, which just means 'underneath the text' or under the surface of the work. Academic people love to discuss subtext - that's what critics love to fight about... what does it all really mean?

To understand a subtext, you have to have a command of terms people use when they do literary analyses. Literary analysis is basically trying to get at the subtext. We're going to go over a few of those to give you the tools to look at what's going on beneath the immediate surface of plot, characters and all of that stuff.

First we've got imagery, which, as you might be able to tell from the term, is generally used to describe figurative language, or language that creates pictures in your head. It's important because what a mind-picture can do is reinforce, undermine or add additional meaning to what the words explicitly say. Hemingway likes to use stark, unforgiving war imagery - that's a big trait of his.

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