What Is Prose Fiction?

Dan Cavallari

Prose fiction is an imaginary story, usually written down, that someone tells in everyday, natural language. The opposite of nonfiction and poetry, it lets people leave reality, exploring characters and events that typically are limited only by the scope of the writer’s imagination. It generally uses a variety of techniques such as narrative and has a wide range in terms of length. Although individuals label these stories by form and genre, a common thread is the use of universal themes that trigger emotional responses from readers. The definition of “good” and “bad” for these works is fairly subjective, because they are based on the way people talk and behave in regular conversation and situations, which changes over time.

Prose fiction comes in novels of varying length.
Prose fiction comes in novels of varying length.


The direct opposite of prose fiction is prose nonfiction, which is based purely on facts. Examples in this category include history textbooks and autobiographies. Some people also see poetry as a contrast, because it relies on rhyming, meter and other techniques, such as metaphor, rather than using more conversational language.

Set during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is an example of an imaginary story that takes place against a real backdrop.
Set during the French Revolution, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is an example of an imaginary story that takes place against a real backdrop.

The Benefit of Imagination

Even though a writer can base his characters and events loosely on real facts or people, in general, the majority of what goes into a prose fiction work is made up. As a result, the author has an enormous amount of flexibility, as he can design his plot and characters based on his own imagination rather than on what he knows from reality. In fact, people often use this style of writing specifically to have fun with the unknown, such as exploring the future. Many people read these works as a way to temporarily escape regular life.

Victor Hugo, who wrote novels that included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is considered a master of French prose fiction.
Victor Hugo, who wrote novels that included The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is considered a master of French prose fiction.


Writers can use different techniques in this type of literature, such as metaphor, exposition and narrative. One of the most popular ways to develop characters and move a plot forward is through dialogue, which is a conversation between at least two characters. Authors also may use a variety of viewpoints, such as first, second and third person.

Charles Dickens was an author of prose fiction.
Charles Dickens was an author of prose fiction.


A work of prose fiction can be any length, but editors and publishers typically use word count to determine what category it fits into best. The shortest group, flash fiction, has only 1,000 words or less. Short stories have up to 7,000, while a novella ranges between 10,000 – 60,000 words. Anything between 60,000 and 200,000 generally is a novel.

Features in each category can be similar, but each length has its own set of challenges. With flash fiction or a short story, for example, it can be hard to develop the plot or characters enough. With a novel, on the other hand, it is often difficult to keep track of complex plot points and characters.

Forms and Subgroups

Looking at form or style is another way to categorize prose fiction. These include historical, picaresque, epistolary, Bildungsroman, social, science and romance fiction, as well as metafiction. Within these groups are subcategories such as thriller, fantasy, mystery, drama, chick-lit and comedy. Although a written work might fit into more than one form or subcategory, in general, publishers usually like a single classification, because it typically helps in assigning submissions to specific, specialized editors.

Universal Themes

One of the things that usually makes prose fiction work is that, regardless of how outlandish or silly a plot might be, and no matter what the length or classification is, writers tend to put universal themes into their stories. These are concepts that the majority of people understand, such as the need for friends or the fact people can learn from their mistakes. By including these ideas, authors often are able to make characters and events seem realistic and believable, striking an emotional chord with the reader. When this happens, assuming the work is marketed well and also is readily available, it has the potential to become very popular and well known, because many people might relate to it.

“Good” and “Bad”

By definition, this kind of writing is based on how people talk in regular conversation. Speech changes over time, however, with people altering the words they use and even how they construct sentences. Prose fiction that individuals think is good in one time period or culture, therefore, can be labeled as bad in another.

As an example, both Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo use long, extended sentences in their work. Some sentences even make up entire paragraphs, and plot movement is quite slow. Many contemporary readers, who are typically used to shorter, more direct writing, find the stories of these writers hard to understand or are bored with the drawn-out style. Some editors even have admitted that these classics might get rejected by contemporary publishing houses.

Writers of prose fiction often use a conversational tone and may use metaphornarrative techniques.
Writers of prose fiction often use a conversational tone and may use metaphornarrative techniques.

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Discussion Comments


Is the novel a new literary form?


Actually, prose and poetry should be differentiated so that the readers will understand what is prose and poetry. Prose is a text that implies narration, description or argument, and it can use rhymes.

Poetry is the art of poems and uses rhymes. The conventional writers like Milton used to write poems like prose, but it is not prose. Some American writers such as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Archibald MacLeish and some other American poets write poems with no rhyme schemes.


Fantastic advice for a new fantasy writer like me. I acknowledge your views and endorse them. But your advice will definitely encourage new writers and I expect it to lead to a really great novel creation one day.


Prose fiction comes in so many different wrappings that I sometimes have a hard time deciding which kind to go with. I am an avid reader, and if I go more than just a couple of days without a book, I start to go a little crazy.

I find, though, that I can’t read the same kinds of fiction all of the time. I like all kinds of genres (paranormal, romance, horror, science fiction, the classics), and I definitely have my favorites.

It’s just that I cannot possibly sit down and figure out all of the intricate details to some of my favorite works after I’ve chased two kids all day long. On those days, I need something that is easy to read and digest – something to take me away but that I don’t have to really think about either.

However, there are also those days where I can devour entire novels or multiple short stories at the drop of a hat no matter how intricate they may get.


Prose fiction is just plain awesome! I absolutely love to pick up a novel, or a novella, or even hit up some flash fiction on the web.

This kind of writing allows you to become a part of a whole other world that could never possibly happen in real life. Truthfully, I also find that it can be very uplifting and relaxing to lose yourself in one of these stories, even if for a little while.

It is almost like going on a little mini-vacation for a few minutes or hours rather than days.


Prose fiction is probably one of the most written types of literature today. Many people love the possibilities that come along with the territory and they are not alone! I love it, too.

However, I find that while many people are super excited to write prose fiction, they are not super excited to edit and then edit again. And, to be honest, anyone who wants to turn out truly quality work will realize that the haggard editing process is part of it.

New writers of fiction literature are actually some of most notorious for falling into this bad habit. They feel that editing is taking away from their creation. The fact is, however, that (as any experienced writer can tell you) editing should always hone and further develop a story rather than the reverse.


If you are planning to try and write any kind of book you should try finding a community of writers to get some basic knowledge of the process.

There are a lot of pitfalls in writing to get published. Like vanity publishers who can scam you out of money and so on.

An online forum of creative writers is often a fantastic resource, with almost every question you could think of to ask, already on there with twenty different replies.

Fiction writing is a craft, like any other, and working in isolation is hobbling yourself for no good reason.


@chivebasil - It's true that the young adult fiction market is booming at the moment, but do bear in mind that means there are a lot of other people trying to cash in on it. There's nothing wrong with writing a book with the intention to make money, but it is a long, hard road with no guarantee that you will make back what you put into it.

If you have a story which you are passionate about, and want to finish for its own sake, that at least means you will get something out of the process.

Also, remember that it takes forever. A rough average time from starting to search for a publisher, to your book hitting the shelves is about two years. Not a quick way to make money.


@BabaB - Amen! Writing is hard work, but the process is very satisfying. I am working on some ideas and am attempting to write children's picture books. Some may think writing children's picture books is a "piece of cake." Not so!

A picture book usually has 32 or fewer pages. The writer has to show an obvious problem or problems, and an underlying one. Developing characters who have conflicts and resolve them is a challenge. One must write in scenes where one action leads to a reaction and so on.

When writing a picture book, a writer needs to compress the action and dialogue, avoiding unnecessary words and ideas. This task of boiling down to a nutshell is very difficult.


I have been thinking a lot lately about trying to write a young adult novels and if it takes off adapting it into a series. I have analyzed the publishing market and it seems like this genre has enormous popularity and a lot of sales potential. A lot of these books have been turned into movies and by releasing them as part of a series they get inflated sales.

I know that all this focus on money kind of makes me sound like a hack writer but I think about it like this. I could spend years writing a "great" novel and then slave to get it published and watch as it goes unrecognized by both critics and readers. Or I could try to write something that pleases a crowd and sells a lot of copies. I make my living from writing. It is how I feed my wife and kids. I have to think practically abut what is going to fly off the book shelves


@zsazsa56 - It is true that reading can help your writing. But in my experience it can also hurt you writing. Two examples.

I have found that a lot of times my writing imitates whatever I am reading. If I am reading something that is very minimal, my writing will start to loose some of its lyrical flourishes and start to flatten out. If I am reading a thriller I will start to think of plots for thrillers. Sometimes reading a lot can limit your imagination.

Also, reading great novels can make you very self conscious about your own skill. You see the incredible achievements of some writers and wonder how you could ever accomplish something so great yourself. I remember after I read War and Peace I didn't write anything for a year. What is the point I wondered, it will never be as good as what came before me. I got over it thankfully but sometimes other peoples work makes your own seem really bad.


I have heard that the best training for being a good writer is to be a good reader. You should read as widely and as deeply as possible. If you follow this course you will become familiar with all the strategies of plot development, character sketching, developing themes and all the other mechanics that go into writing fiction. The novels of others have a lot to teach aspiring writers.


Writing a fiction story in any genre or of any length, long or short, is a difficult endeavor. I have taken classes, workshops and read books on how to write books - so I can say truthfully it will not be easy, when I get started.

I'll just name a few of the ideas a writer needs to keep in mind as he is writing. A writer needs to research his subject, learning it thoroughly. How are the characters going to start out and how they going to change throughout the story? Each action has to logically lead to the next. A main theme has to be developed. There are many more guidelines.

A writer has to be prepared to revise and revise some more. Writing is hard work, but very satisfying.

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