Prose Macrostructure

Prose is "connected discourse" (larger works of language such as stories, papers, articles, or books). Macrostructure is large-scale structure, as shown in an outline of a written work. It tends to be different for each type of prose. Newcomer, in an 1899 book titled Elements of Rhetoric, listed four categories of prose: narration, exposition, argumentation, and description.

What four types of prose does Newcomer list?

Narrative discourse tells a story. It is about people and places and things that happen. Expository discourse explains things. It does not necessarily tell a story. Argumentation is also called rhetoric. It is language aimed at convincing, persuading, or making a point. Description is an attempt to "paint a picture" with words or to convey information without necessarily telling a story, explaining a principle, or making an argument.

What is the typical structure of a story?

Distinctive types of structure mark all four categories of prose. The typical story, contains four distinct stages: a setting, a problem, complications, and a resolution.

1. The setting specifies time and place, major characters, and important context-setting events. For example, "Once upon a time there was a brave young knight..."

2. Next the reader learns about the problem (also called motive or premise ). This gives the main theme of the story. For example, "A wicked warlock had cast a spell upon the kingdom..."

3. The bulk of the story consists of complications in attempts to solve the problem. For example, the hero fights the wicked warlock and encounters all sorts of difficulties.

4. The last part of the story is the resolution. Sometimes the problem is resolved in a happy ending ("They lived happily ever after"). Other times the main character suffers a defeat and you have a tragedy, or a "moral" from which others can learn.

Where does most of the entertainment in a story come from, usually?

Most of the entertainment in a story comes from step 3, the complications. The premise of the story (step 2) may fade into the background during a series of entertaining complications. In the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the pursuit of the Golden Fleece provides the main motive or premise for the story. However, the real story is found in the adventures Jason and the Argonauts have along the way. This is typical of stories or narratives, from ancient times to the present: the real action is in sub-goals that occur on the way to accomplishing the main goal.

The four-part story structure can be diagrammed in a story structure hierarchy.


The top levels of a story structure hierarchy

We become familiar with many familiar patterns that fit within this general scheme. Stereotyped story structures help us do top-down processing, guiding our understanding of the incoming data (the words we read).

Consider this story fragment.

Once upon a time there was a king who lost his wife. He proclaimed that all the pretty maidens in the kingdom should be assembled in the town square. One beautiful maiden, named Maude, refused to go. She was in love with a handsome but poor woodsman.

How does familiarity with typical story schemata help a reader make inferences?

Can you guess how the story develops? Based on your past experience with similar stories, you can make inferences (reasonable guesses) such as the following:

"Hmm...the king has assembled the maidens to choose a new wife. The maiden doesn't want to become his wife because she loves the woodsman. The story will be about the conflict between the king's desire for a beautiful wife and Maude's desire to marry her true love. Maude will probably be forced to go with the king at first, but she will probably end up with her true love, the woodsman, in the end."

If you can guess this, it is because you have encountered similar patterns or schemas in the past. The separation of true lovers by hostile powers, followed by attempts at reunification, is a common premise or "motive" in romantic stories.


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