Some Prose Vocabulary to make you sound smart; the language of Lee
- absurdism: (the absurd) Humans live in a meaningless isolation in an
alien universe; existentialism--where beings move from a nothingness they
came with to a nothingness they will end with (life is hard then you die);
illogic, inconsistency, nightmarish fantasy; theater of the absurd presents
people as bewildered creatures in an incomprehensible universe (Samuel
Becket's Waiting for Godot)
- affective reader response (S. Fish): when we read line by line
overtly thinking about what we expect to come next, and why, and how that is
or isn't fulfilled by what comes next (and if that is or isn't interesting for
us); a good way to workshop a story
- black and white hats (G. Lish): like in an old western where
the good guys and bad guys were easily designated via their clothing;
something to avoid in prose writing because complexity is usually much more
interesting to most literary readers (who don't want you to beat them over
- characters: the "people" who inhabit the narrative; often in
conflict (avoid politeness, as A. Bernays says; thorny characters are more
interesting, Rosellen Brown says); in terms of Realism, someone often changes or realizes something (epiphany) in some way
before the end of the story
- closure: (see freytag's triangle) how does the narrative bring things together at the end? Closure
can come in the form of an answer to a question (though the answer is seldom
easy or absolute), and/or open the reader onto a sudden, larger view of
things. If there is a neat resolution of all conflict, you are most
likely reading commercial prose. If closure loops or asks you to
reexamine much of the story, or characters, you are probably reading
literary prose. Sometimes closure is merely a rhythmic pinching off in
the last line, and nothing gets resolved (also more literary; some would say
lazy; some would say postmodern).
- commercial writing: the stuff that sells, often following
the codes of realism or the codes of genre writing; sometimes Oprah's book
club selections (The Secret Life of Bees). The genres--mystery;
true crime; science fiction, gothic romance, fantasy etc. More a text of pleasure (a la R.
Barthes), in other words, commercial writing tries to fulfill reader
expectations rather than disrupt.
- concrete/conceptual writing: postmodernism to the extreme; a school of
"poetry" that often focuses on the visual aspect of writing
(concrete); the visual shape
of letters and their placement on the page is often foregrounded over the content or
meaning of language; some concrete writers/poets do collages
of language and drawings, colors, photos etc. Some play with the sound
of words rather than their meaning (conceptual). When does this stop
being poetry and start being prose?
- conflict: often tension, or difficulty within or between
characters or within characters; there
may also be tension in language, in style, in voice and POV, in the Text of
Bliss thwarting of reader expectations (postmodernism).
- creative non-fiction: narrative form often considered more truthful or
factual, this often involves memoir (which can often be confessional and
personal about a person's entire life, but more likely smaller significant
moments from their life). Some writers write about nature (like Barry
Lopez), some do more social commentary or critique or parody (like Andrei
Codrescu), and others combine all these things (like Annie Dillard or Terry
Temptest Williams). What do the small things say about human beings?
- description: imagery--any kind of concrete (sensory) image whether literal or
figurative (metaphors and similes and symbolically dense language) are very
much a part of prose writing.
- dialogue: a conversation between two characters; a monologue is one
character talking to either a silent Other, or to the reader directly.
Usually dialogue tries for mimesis by using contractions, being fragmentary,
and not giving setting, character, or narrative information.
- dramatize: a dramatized scene is one with characters in
action and dialogue. A moment in time You might be asked to
dramatize a scene in a story rather than use exposition or narration.
Dramatized scenes are very concrete, but usually demand a quick pace (thus
the scene might not be slowed or stopped to describe or narrate). Some
writers flesh scenes almost like playwrights. Others use only small,
short scenes to show character.
- exposition: often more abstract explanations or philosophical
or emotional ruminations or overt thematic statements (some contemporary fiction authors
avoid exposition, like Carver, who is a minimalist; often memoirists, like Dillard, embrace
- (the) fantastic (T. Todorov): the uncanny vs the marvelous;
the uncanny is when supernatural things happen in a story that
can then be explained by "natural" law (R. Bass); the marvelous
is when supernatural things happen in a story without explanations, yet they
give off the feel of being "normal" (G. Garcia Marquez).
- fiction: narrative form that is often considered more made up than
creative non-fiction, but the boundaries can blur...
- flash fiction: a short story 1-3 pages, double-spaced; will
it have a narrative arc? Will it start and end in media res?
- Freytag's Triangle: rising action, crisis or climax, perhaps a realization
(epiphany), then a falling off or dénouement, and closure
(resolution? revisioning?); the classic
structure of traditional narrative; most traditional readers expect this
sort of arc in a piece of fiction.
- genre writing: follows the codes of a specialized genre of
writing, like Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, Romance, Gothic Romance.
- ideal author: the persona that the author adopts to write
their piece (not the actual author, but a persona made of words). The
voice of the person who wrote the book but is
no longer with the book; the larger controlling voice or brain
that travels within the language of the book; ideal author and narrator are
not always the same even in 3rd Omniscient POV. R. Barthes says the
Real Author is dead. See uber narrator.
- ideal reader: the reader who is most well read, especially
in terms of the type of writing you are doing (they know the genre codes
well; they know the things that have been overused and abused also).
- in media res: a story that starts in the middle of the
action (vs. a story that starts, like Adaptation, at the beginning of
- internal logic: the rules the story sets up for itself; the
codes it establishes and follows; the pressure of inevitability based on
what things are set up in the story (inevitability vs. predictability--Janos
- irony: reality differs from
appearance; tone will be one thing, details another; the more subtle
- -isms--Lee's timeline of literary writing: these movements
come about because of people's quest to be fresh; romanticism-->
realism--> naturalism--> modernism--> postmodernism-->
minimalism--> re-realism--> neo-postmodernism--> re-re-realism
- literary writing: may be realism, but may also be any of the
stranger texts of bliss
(a la R. Barthes); art writing; or more a disruptive text than commercial, or genre,
writing; tries to thwart reader expectations at varying levels (especially
when less mimetic and more postmodern or magical). Poetically dense
prose writers are usually not commercial, but literary.
- magical realism (I. Allende): "combines reality and
surreality onto the same plane"; in other words, magical things happen,
and they are only explained via magic or mystery (like Todorov's "marvelous,"
perhaps); Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude--Remedios the
Beauty is too beautiful for this world, so she blows away in a wind storm
with her step mother's sheets.
- (the) marvelous: Todorov--see (the) fantastic; also see
- maximalism: probably a word that came about in reaction to the
minimalist movement; prose that is more poetic, more expository, more
overtly stylistic (like Annie Dillard, or Lorrie Moore); the opposite of minimalism.
- metafiction: fiction that calls attention to the act of
story telling; you might see characters in a story refer directly to
telling stories (R. Bass), or you might see an intrusive narrator making
comments on the very story we are reading (John Barth)
- mimesis: art mirroring reality, or taking on the
trappings of "the real"--in other words, when signifiers fool
us into thinking there are real people and places on the page; mimetic
- minimalism: a focus on simple, concrete images using almost
no metaphor and almost no exposition (like Raymond Carver). Vs.
- modernism: a movement away from traditional mimesis, or
realism, and the clear
expression of characters in conflict; like Virginia Woolf experimenting with
the effect of sentences on time and perspective (and even identity).
- narration: story, plot, the details of action (or lack of action).
- narrator: often a first or second person POV controlling the narrative and
descriptions; sometimes may seem like the ideal author. You can have
intrusive narrators (they insert themselves in an inconsistent way; they
show bias). You can have an unreliable narrator (they show bias, and
they lie! they can't see their own weaknesses of observation, or if
they are meta, they often point out their own weaknesses as narrators).
These are seen differently by Realism vs. Postmodernism.
- naturalism: realism with a grittier edge; humans are more
animalistic (end of the 1800's, though R. Bass does some of this, but
- neo-postmodernism: (my word) a mixture of realism and postmodern technique;
postmodernism with a soul, as I like to say, where realism is often the main
result, but there are pomo strategies being used.
- new criticism: a literary reading theory that looks at the
parts of a piece of writing (usually a poem) to see how they all fit
marvelously together to create a beautiful, organic whole with cohesive
symbolic moves. Obviously this is not a good way to read postmodern
pieces, but we do use some of the techniques of this theory to look at
- novel: a more common form of writing, usually 160 or more pages,
- novella: a less frequently seen form, 50-90 pages, double-spaced.
- O'Henry snap (or the classic O'Henry ending): when a
story ends with a surprise! Less used with texts of bliss, or literary
- onesy-twosy writing: workshop comment from Gordon Lish;
narration that clunkily moves a character from position to another,
describing everything that character must do in between (I reached my hand
up to the door knob. I turned it. I opened it slowly. I
walked through the doorway. I looked around the room. I began to
walk toward the kitchen). Faster, the reader says.
- pacing: the speed of the work, slow or fast; the weaving of the narration, description,
scenes (dialogue) and exposition. Slower paced work is more common in
novels. Short stories are often focused on beginning (and ending) in media
res (or the middle of things). Dramatized scenes are often the
slowest part of a narrative (unless you like whales like in Moby Dick).
- parody: imitating, ridiculing another kind of writing
or voice, often a famous voice with the purpose of being funny
- pastiche: when whole sections of other texts are
lifted into a collage that is often trying to parody, and pay homage to, the
originals. The Simpsons on TV is a good example of pastiche, but you
have to have read and seen millions of other texts to "get" all
the pastiche-ing. Some people consider pastiches to be plagiaristic
- picaresque: a type of narrative plot where a "hero" goes on a
journey and has adventures and mishaps; modern picaresques, like David
Sedaris; but also like the two 1960's movies Barry Lyndon, and
especially the 1964 Oscar winning, Tom
- point of view (POV): what angle of vision is the narrative being told
from? 1st? 2nd? 3rd omniscient? 3rd limited?
- postmodernism: a more extreme, more avant-garde extension of modernism (often comprised of anything
written after 1945 when the BOMB was
dropped); may focus on metafiction (self-aware act of writing),
collage, pastiche, sexuality,
humor, magical realism; often a mixing of genres; often a thwarting of
traditional plot concerns or linearity or cause and effect (a
short-circuiting of expectation); or a focus on form
dominating or erasing content; the difficulty of being a coherent subject (of constructing a
realistic self) in a world that could end at any
moment can be explored (see Donald
Barthelme; see my Pomo
lecture list or the Pomo
laundry list of strategies). Also see neo-postmodernism.
- predictability (vs. inevitability): Janos Starker, a famous
Hungarian cellist said in an NPR interview, "Any musical performance
has to be not predictable, but inevitable. If it's predictable, then
it becomes cheap. If it's inevitable, then it's convincing."
- prose poem: if it has a narrative or sentence-like structure, it has
something to do with prose.
- ideal author: this can also be a third person POV uber
narrator; the actual author is dead as Roland Barthes says, and no longer
controls the text, but the ideal author is always present with the text; a
controlling persona that can stand out or be under erasure.
- realism: mimesis, or a mirroring of reality; introduced in
American Fiction in the mid to late 1800's;
- recuperated back into realism: when an author is using more
postmodern techniques, but these can still be explained within the realism
of the story. Not hard core postmodernism.
- romanticism: a focus on individualism and nature; humans are the center of
life (Herman Melville? He was odd in that whales were rather central,
and language was rather central);
may be colored by optimism in humanity (Jane Austin?)
- sarcasm: heightened,
- satire: Saturday Night Live, the Colbert Report
- scene: when a specific place and time are slowly described,
or dramatized, often
chronologically; usually involves
dialogue and setting details; often characters interacting; the pace is
usually much slower during a scene
- setting: often a location described to enhance the
characters, the story; sometimes the setting is like a character (a haunted
house; the magical, frozen lake)
- signified: the supposed "real", or conceptual
meaning, that the words point toward
- signifier: the black marks/words/sounds on the page (see
- short short fiction: a short story 3-7 pages, double-spaced.
- subjective reader response: in it's simplest/bastard form,
when we read a piece and judge it, or talk about it, in terms of how we
relate to it, or how we know someone just like that (but then if we don't
relate, the piece is bad/dismissible); this is not a great way to
comment on stories in this class.
- surrealism: (the surreal) the expression of the imagination via dreams
and without conscious control (Andre Breton); an outgrowth of Dada,
influenced by Freudian theory (in visual arts, see S. Dali and Joan Miro);
juxtaposes incompatible tokens of potentially symbolic concrete objects; in
literature, see Robert Lowell, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, John Ashbery
- text of Bliss: Roland Barthes "indie" or
literary/art definition of writing;
death of language (or the death of language as easy representation, as
something that easily connects signifier and signified); the thwarting of culture;
blind; chaotic; the thwarting of reader expectations. Also
- text of Pleasure: Roland Barthes "commercial";
canonical, obedient; plagiaristic; canonical; comfortable; about
supporting culture; the fulfilling of reader expectations...
- tone: seen in sentence styles and diction; the attitude of the voice
controlling the story (which may be a 3rd POV Omniscient voice, or a 1st POV
voice, or an Uber Narrator/Ideal Author; some tones may be more
over-the-top, more personal, more complex; parody, satire, irony, sarcasm.
- topical references: when the text refers to some name brand
item (a pop culture reference), or some
famous person or rock group; often this will date the writing (which can be good
or bad; if you want to describe the terrible fashion choices of the 80's as
a way of developing a story set in the 80's, that might help give it
authenticity, or it may make the characters who dress that way seem
- "transparent" language: there is no such
thing--all language is infused with ideology, with spin, according to
post-structuralism; language can never be objective, in other words, merely
in service of the Real. However, Lee uses this phrase to describe
cleanly written prose, prose that is not burdened with dead metaphors; also
prose that doesn't have poetic, voicy, or stylistic flourishes that make the
language stand out over the realism of the characters or plot or setting.
- trust the reader: workshop comment, usually means you are
explaining too much when we will certainly get it from descriptions,
dialogue, or narration that has come before; like beating the reader over
- vignette: a short and often incomplete scene or moment
(incomplete, at least, in terms of realism and freytag's triangle).
- voice: the persona of the narrator or any character (often needs to have
consistency); often the stylistic choices that lead to a coherent persona
controlling the story; usually more of an ideal author attitude.
- uber narrator: an authorial voice; an external voice; ideal
author; the author's writerly persona that may or may not stand out (or may
at times intrude in a strange way). Also see Ideal Author
- (the) uncanny: Todorov--see (the) fantastic