Modes of Prose

When you tell a story, it’s easy to slip into a mode of communication I call overview. This is when you say what happened, but without most of the story element. Jack liked going to bars to meet women, and sometimes they’d talk to him, but mostly he would go home empty handed. That is overview. I think it’s tempting to write that way because the movies have a form of this called montage, where the passing of time is sped up, someone ages, or a pattern of behavior is revealed, and then time gets back to normal and here we are in the future. But in the movies, you actually see the character doing stuff.

For prose, the best way to reveal¬†important elements of your story is through dialogue, where characters talk to each other. But dialogue also includes revealing blocking. The two or three characters can’t just sit there. They have to do something while they talk. There are subtle ways to reveal their emotions or motivations, like tapping, or pacing, or building or destroying something.

In action scenes, where someone is doing something that moves the plot forward, you typically need dialogue to help explain or support the actions.

And in inner dialogue, the reader gets the intimate thoughts of the Point of View character. Too little of this breaks the flow. Too much bores the reader. This can be a good mode for transitional scenes. Jack drove his Buick away from the bar. He’d struck out again. Maybe he needed to chew on a mint. Or maybe¬†Martha was right. Maybe he should finally call her.

It takes more effort to write scenes directly, and stay with the story in real time. But your story will be much more readable than an overview.


My mother passed away a week ago tomorrow, after a two year fight with pancreatic cancer. She was a feisty one. She’d had a heart attack, three back surgeries, and the cancer, and yet she kept pushing forward.

She was a relentless genealogical researcher, and found family traces back four centuries. She also located her two long lost brothers, whom her birth mother had given up when they were babies. The first passed away (also from cancer) just after she reached him in about 1983. The second she found just recently, before she passed. She never got to meet them.

She loved writing, although she didn’t have much of a formal education. But that didn’t slow her down. She used to write articles for the local newspaper in Oregon City, before they closed. It is now a parking lot.

And she loved to paint and etch.

She wasn’t the greatest mother when my sisters and I were kids. She had a nasty temper and shared it with us often. But when someone close to you passes, you focus on the positives. I’ve wondered for a long time what I would say if I was asked to give her eulogy. For a long time I held on to some of the things about her that made me angry. But now that she’s gone, I realize why we say the nicest things about people when they die.

We want to take the best of who they were with us on our journey, and leave the negatives in history.