Prose is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech rather than rhythmic structure; in which regard, along with its measurement in sentences rather than lines, it differs from poetry. Compared to poetry, prose sounds more like natural, every day speech.
While prose can certainly include some figurative language and connotative meanings, the messages are usually more direct. Prose often includes the voice of a primary narrator who either is (first person) or is not (third person) involved directly with the characters and plot of the work and who often explains context, action, and character descriptions to the reader.
Examples of prose include (but are not limited to) novels, short stories, essays, letters, speeches, diary entries, research articles, webpages, textbooks, newspaper stories, etc. What you are reading right now is considered a form of prose. Additionally, works such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, an article on the Cincinnati Bengals football team in ESPN magazine, the letter you may have written to Santa as a kid, and my creative non-fiction essay on apartment life that I wrote in college are also all examples of prose.
Writing Style and Language
You can use the prose author’s writing style to help you analyze and understand the work as well as to help you make delivery decisions. Writing style reflects the author’s attitudes toward the subject matter, and it should influence your performance. Your goal as an oral interp performer is to match the style of performance with the style of writing. The style of prose is determined by things like diction, imagery, figurative language, and syntax. Below are clues to identifying the style of a piece that can help you make decisions on how to convey meaning through your voice and body when you perform prose.
Connotative vs. Denotative Words
Some words contain richer meaning than what one may glean from simply a dictionary definition. For example, a general word such as "home" is more likely to have connotative value conjuring more feeling than specific language such as "house," which describes a type of building. These feelings will also vary among different people depending upon one’s culture, past experiences, etc.
Genre of Discourse
Prose performers must decide how words are used that indicate the kind of style the writer is trying to convey. For example, "commit homicide," "blow away," and "murder" all mean to kill someone. They come from legal discourse, vocal slang, and everyday usage. However, "blow away" and "murder" each carry a distinct connotative and emotive value. Also, "happen," "occur," "manifest," and "go down" are similar in meaning but come from distinct genres of discourse: everyday usage (happen), formal usage (occur), philosophical discourse (manifest), and slang (go down). "Happen" and "go down" could be used in everyday speech; "occur" and "manifest," being more formal, would not ordinarily be used in speech.
Allusions, Similes, and Metaphors
A writer’s use of these is an important aspect of literary style. All three can be used to convey connotative meaning.
- Allusions refer to shared experiences many would understand. Example: “I hope tonight won’t be another Thanksgiving dinner.”
- Similes describe things using a comparison that employs the words “like” or “as.” Example: “I feel like a million dollars now!”
- Metaphors draw a comparison by equating two or more things that are generally unrelated as the same. For example, “He has a heart of stone” or “She’s a real piece of work.”
This includes punctuation and how words are grouped together demonstrating their relationship and importance. Your discoveries here will dictate your use of vocal elements such as pauses, rate, emphasis, volume, and inflection.
Short, simple sentences indicate a direct approach and suggest immediacy of experience. Long, complicated sentences suggest a more sophisticated and evaluative approach. Examples of punctuation may include:
- Semicolon – marks a turn of thought or definite separation between two aspects of the same thought; and usually requires a slight pause.
- Parentheses and double dash – mark off distinct speech phrases.
- Single dash or colon – often marks the pause that occurs just before a summary and implies a reference to some previous portion.
All of this being said, use punctuation as a guide but not a rule. It is more for the eye than for the ear. A comma in a text does not always demand a pause. Keep in mind that how you perform punctuation might change as you begin practicing a piece for presentation.
Poetic language, generally connotative, would stand out in casual conversation, so an author’s choice to include it in a prose piece would be very intentional. Unusual connotations also carry with them double meanings. For instance, the word "terrific" can be used for its connotation of terrifying;" the word "taxation" for its connotation of "taxing" or stress-inducing. Consider words such as “escape” vs. “flee,” “girl” vs. “maiden,” and “invisible” vs. “unseen.” In each of these pairings, the first usage is essentially descriptive; the latter more poetic or emotive.
The sounds of words an author has chosen are especially important for the interpreter. The sounds of the words carry meaning as well as the word itself. Pace and vocal quality are influenced by the connotative meaning of words.
Performance of Prose
Since prose is written in a style most like our natural speech, it is often the first genre you may tackle in your adventure through the world of oral interpretation.
Sometimes, a work of prose is more expository in nature rather than narrative (telling a story), focused on providing information or developing an argument as opposed to developing a plot. A narrative prose piece, on the other hand, tells a story from a first- or third-person narrator’s point of view. A performer of prose should understand the author’s intention behind the style of the work. The performer should thoroughly analyze the narrator or primary voice of the work to choose a performance approach that honors that voice’s point of view, personality, biases, feelings, etc.
Particularly in narrative prose, you will sometimes see more than one persona represented in the work. These may exist in the form of character dialogue throughout the piece. As a prose performer, you must examine these characters and determine how to perform them in a way that makes them distinct from the primary voice (narrator). You can do this using the various vocal and body language elements discussed in chapters 3 and 4. All characters should have some sort of body and/or vocal change that works with the interpretation given to that character. It can be your stance, how you hold your shoulders/head/posture, specific gestures to that character, or an accent or higher vocal tone. Do not go overboard, this should be subtle. Most importantly, be consistent with these choices, doing them each time the character speaks so as not to confuse your audience. Consider the following to add depth to your characterizations:
- Feel free to commit to an emotion that the character experiences.
- Consider adding reaction moments even when characters do not have anything to say. Characters can react whether they speak or not.
- Control your body. Avoid nervous rocking back and forth or nervous twitches such as wiggling your foot or playing with your pant leg.
- Use facial expressions. Your face should be “alive” at all times. Every narrator’s/character's facial expressions should be appropriate for that character. Practicing in front of a mirror can help.
- Use appropriate focal points (see chapter 4 in Body Language). If you determine through analysis that the narrator or primary voice is speaking to a group of people, engage the audience with eye contact using an audience focal point. Use the layout of classroom to your advantage, scanning and picking individuals to look at for an extended time during specified intense moments add to the performance. Though, if you determine whether the primary voice is speaking to no one in particular, perhaps rather to his or herself, you may need to use the inner-expressed focal point, looking into space as one may do while talking on the phone. When interpreting character dialogue, use different off-stage focal points to indicate characters looking at one another while speaking.
- Use appropriate vocal characteristics for the various personae. Play with tone, rhythm, volume, and all forms of dynamics. The secret with vocals is variation, and this can help make your various personae in a piece more distinct.
- Get to know the personae of the piece beyond the words in the literature. For deeper characterization, consider the possible history, backstories, and the relationships that exist between the characters and voices of the prose. Most of the time, these conclusions will be drawn simply from your own understanding and assumptions. That is fine. You can use those to help you make performance and delivery decisions for characterization.
Often, a prose piece may be too long for you to perform it in its entirety, and you will have to make a “cutting.” This involves selecting a chunk(s) from the entire work that still fit within the theme or message the performer is aiming to convey to the audience to include within a performance. Later, this chapter addresses cutting literature for performance, but in short, it works best to select large chunks for performance rather than piecing small lines and segments together to preserve as much of the rhythm and flow of an author’s words as possible. One key exception to this might be in the cutting of “tag lines,” or the short bits of narration after a line of dialogue. These are phrases such as “he said,” “she shouted angrily,” or “they paused.” Since performers are using character vocalizations to bring literature to life for audiences, they will likely be DOING the actions indicated in these tag lines (e.g. shouting angrily or pausing). Including them when performing often seems unnecessary, and many interpers choose to omit them in performance.
Any fiction or non-fiction novel, essay, journal, or short story can be selected to be cut for a prose performance. The use of diction, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, intonation, pace and other elements of delivery will offer a rewarding experience for both interpreter and audience. Every delivery choice made for prose should benefit the piece, help tell the story or convey the information, and aid interpretation. Performing prose effectively, particularly a narrative piece with several characters, takes lots of practice, devotion, and creativity. The more work you have done analyzing the work and understanding it, the better you can bring the piece to light for your audience. Strive to convey the crisp mental imagery you had when you read it when you perform for your audience.