Prose versus Story: The Great Divide

By Bone2pick · Mar 9, 2023 ·
  1. In my first blog post I explained that, when reading literature, I value story over prose. I then compared my appraisal of those two facets of fiction with how I would prioritize a school’s campus against its student body and faculty — with the campus representing prose, and the students and faculty representing story.

    Using that analogy, I stated that while I care about campus quality, and believe I’m fully capable of appreciating beautifully and brilliantly constructed schoolhouses, the compentancy and character of the faculty and students will always weigh heavier on me. It’s the people that are the real treasure of any school in my judgement; they’re the biggest variable in the quality of education received. Further, students and faculty can greatly impress me despite operating out of modest environments. To pivot back to literature: I can appreciate an excellent story written in mediocre prose.

    I’ve revisited that analogy to help pave the way for this blog post, which is to explain where and why I draw the line between prose and story. So without further ado…

    What do I mean by prose? I’m going to plunder heavily from this article — like a common thief swiping bills from an open cash register — and posit that there are two primary elements of prose: style and voice.

    Style: relates to words and the way the author puts them together. SPAG, formatting, word choice, point of view integrity, etcetera.

    Voice: the way the author looks at the world, a unique sensibility that pertains to that particular author. An author’s voice comes from deep within their heart, mind, and soul.

    I’m going to hedge this conceptualization and say style and voice aren’t the only elements of prose, but they’re the most dominant. They cover the most bases. And they are clearly distinct from ‘story‘ as they can come through (in full effect) in writing such as essays, book forewords, letters to friends, and even bit-sized social media posts.

    Now: What do I mean by story? Broadly speaking, the creation and portrayal of characters, settings, plots, and themes, as well as stuff like pacing and scene selection.

    So if we take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example: House Atreides, the planet Arrakis, sandworms, spice, the Bene Gesserits, and all of the book’s political intrigue fall under the umbrella of ‘story,’ as well as Dune’s environmental, social, and religious themes.

    Here’s where the divide begins to get complicated: I’m fairly certain that some aspects of writing draw heavily from both story and prose. Tone and mood, for instance. A book’s setting (story) often influences its tone, yet the author’s voice (prose) usually does too. And I believe the same is true for mood; only with mood, style would also play a role.

    Does mood and tone drawing from both creative talents (prose & story) suggest they shouldn’t be analyzed separately? I don’t think so. Does the existence of brackish water prevent us from drawing a meaningful distinction between saltwater and freshwater? Nay. The answer is quite clearly nay.

    Despite my earlier school analogy, I don‘t believe valuing story over prose is a superior orientation. It’s just how I’m hardwired. Readers and writers should favor whichever talent speaks strongest to them. Some will undoubtedly value both story and prose equally. Others might decide that analyzing them separately is incoherent or unhelpful. That’s fine.

    I obviously prefer holding on to the distinction. And I frequently peer through the lens of the prose/story divide to better understand the books I’m reading, as well as my own humble attempts at writing.
    Thundair likes this.


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