Types of Prose in Fiction
I was recently thinking about what various authors are comparatively good at, and I realized most types of English prose in fiction can probably fit into a small number of categories. Here’s the broad categorization I came up with, with a running example.
Dialogue occurs whenever two characters are communicating, typically by talking. In English prose, that’s usually set off syntactically with quotation marks, though not always, as in Helen deWitt’s The Last Samurai. Statements are often also set off with “so-and-so said” or another verb phrase, which can color how the statement is read.
Typically, dialogue looks something like:
“Are you really sure about this?” asked Tim.
“Of course I’m sure,” said Tina. “Time machines are perfectly safe.”
In the extreme case, essentially the entire story can be communicated via dialogue, in which case you have a (screen)play or an epistolary novel.
This is the least syntactically interesting category of monologue. Sometimes one character in a dialogue talks so much they end up dominating the dialogue, often transitioning to another kind of prose in the middle of the soliloquy. Otherwise, this looks a lot like dialogue.
Writers can also set off individual thoughts, as if a character is talking to themself in a one-way dialogue. In English prose, this is most often achieved by italicizing the phrase, sometimes set off with “so-and-so thought”. Plays sometimes achieve the same effect by having characters “think out loud” to themselves or to the audience.
Thought phrases look like:
That time traveller I met last week sure didn’t think time machines were safe, thought Tim.
Finally, there is the long internal monologue, in which a character’s interiority is explored without reference to specific thought phrases. Usually, this isn’t set off syntactically at all, although sometimes it will be flagged by statements like “so-and-so felt that” or “so-and-so noticed that”.
Internal monologue feels characteristically novelistic. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to display a character’s internal emotions in visual media, whether the stage, the screen, or a comics page, but it’s relatively easy to describe how a character is feeling in words, at least in blunt terms.
Interestingly, though, most prose fiction is not very interested in interiority prior to the rise of the modern novel in the mid-1600s1 — you’ll find little internal monologue in The Iliad. Most famously, many of the Modernists wrote novels, like To the Lighthouse or In Search of Lost Time, that were mostly or entirely internal monologue.
Internal monologue looks like:
Tina noticed that Tim was unsure about the time machine. That bothered her — it reminded her of when she was a child, when her father told her to stop messing around with electronics. But it had all paid off, hadn’t it?
Description involves describing something or someone — to paint a picture in the viewer’s mind, assuming they’re not aphantasic. Anything involving description can fit in this category, but the vast majority of descriptions fall into the following subcategories.
Scene description involves describing locations or objects, usually physically. Often, these descriptions will lean heavily into the five senses.
Scene descriptions look like:
The time machine looked like a globe on legs. It was a polished shiny chrome, and looked reassuringly solid, like it would fall over if you pushed it. There was an acrid smell in the air and a slight hiss coming from the machine. There was a figure sitting in the plush leather chair at the center.
Character description is similar to scene description, but in addition to physical description, it often involves describing the character’s non-physical attributes, like their moral standing.
Character description looks like:
The man in the chair was tall and wore a shiny black visor. Underneath the visor, a sneer could be seen.
Action is description that describes a series of actions performed by a character or an object. The paradigmatic example of action is a fight scene, but even something as simple as a rock rolling down a hill is action as well.
Action looks like:
Tina frowned. The man in the time machine laughed and jumped in front of them, as Tim began to scream. Tina grabbed a wrench and flung it at the interloper.
Exposition is the statement of facts, usually from a narrator’s perspective, but sometimes from a character’s perspective as well, where it will often be blended into the other types of prose above and may or may not be factually accurate from an “objective” perspective.
Exposition looks like:
That was the beginning of the Great Time War, which would rage for another three decades or a few centuries, depending on how you count.
This category is cheating somewhat, but there’s a broad set of techniques that play on readers’ expectations of prose. For instance, House of Leaves uses irregular typesetting and a plethora of rambling footnotes to disorient the reader.
In our running example, this would look like a footnote citing a non-existing scholarly account of the Great Time War.2
Prose types can compose. A lengthy internal monologue may fade into a descriptive memory of the character’s past. Two characters in dialogue may state facts as exposition or describe actions that others have taken. Exposition may use descriptive as metaphors. Prose can even compose multiple times, as a novel framed as a monologue can delve into action that uses descriptive flourishes, as in Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf. As a result, only very straightforward prose is exclusively in one category.
This is just my categorization; though I think it’s fairly exhaustive, I’d be interested to hear if there’s any major categories missing.
More importantly, I find it interesting that different types of prose were “invented” — or at least popularized — at different times. The most obvious is the spread of internal monologue with the modern novel, but it’s also fair to say that metafictional techniques became vastly more popular starting in the 20th century. It also strikes me reading pre-modern texts that description is far less popular.
Are there types of prose that haven’t been invented yet? Is there a whole new kind of prose waiting to be discovered?
The other use of this categorization is to compare different writers, which is where I started with this project. For instance, I was recently reading The Bloody Chamber and noticed that Angela Carter loves description, both character and scene, lavishing paragraph after paragraph on the various monsters and castles that make up her stories. On the other hand, a comedian like Douglas Adams shies away from too much description, instead focusing on verbal comedy via witty dialogue and amusing exposition.
This relates to Andy Matuschak’s concept of deliberate and implicit practice. Just like pianists practice sight reading new pieces regularly as a form of deliberate practice, should fiction writers be deliberately practicing different kinds of prose? Perhaps writers should assemble a series of “piano scales” for different prose types.
I’ve always found it interesting that the modern novel arose across the world more-or-less independently around the same time — Don Quixote was published in Europe between 1605 and 1615, while Jin Ping Mei was first printed in China in 1610. An interesting topic for a different essay, perhaps. ↩
For more examples of metafiction, c.f. James, William, A Brief History of the Great Time War (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2070). ↩