Friday, December 24, 2010


by Jodie Renner, editor and author

Here are some terms used in writing, editing and publishing fiction, listed in alphabetical order.

Action scene: A scene where the movement escalates to a crisis.

Active voice: A way of describing action that is preferable to passive voice. “Jason mowed the lawn” is active; “The lawn was mowed by Jason” is passive (generally to be avoided).

Anthology: A collection of short stories, novelettes, or novellas written by various authors and compiled in one book or journal.

Antagonist: The character or force in the story that opposes the protagonist. The “bad guy.”

Author intrusion: When the author of a novel provides extra information directly to the reader, rather than through dialogue or the thoughts of the characters. Usually an explanation of the times or circumstances, or a commentary or editorial about some aspect of the story. Generally to be avoided, as it takes the reader out of the story.

Autobiography: The writer’s life story written into a book. (also memoir or narrative nonfiction)

Backlist: Published books that are still in print but aren’t part of the “new” stuff coming out during the current season.

Backstory: History of a character or events that took place before the story events. Novice writers tend to introduce too much backstory too soon.

Bio: Brief info about the author. Usually appears at the end of a novel.

Biography: An in-depth examination of the life of someone other than the writer. (narrative nonfiction)

Brainstorming: Throwing out ideas and getting them down as fast as you can on paper or screen, without judging or censoring them at this point. Just get as many ideas on paper as you can for now. Then later you can decide which ones to actually use.

Chapbook: A small booklet of poetry, journal entries, or stories, often published by small presses.

Character: A story person who is brought to life via action, attitudes, dialogue, description, thoughts, and the impressions and reactions of fellow characters.

Character arc: The status of the main character as it unfolds throughout the story, the storyline or series of episodes. Characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes.
“The changes, evolution, or degradation that happens to characters over the course of the story or series.” (Jessica Page Morrell)

Character development: “The means used to develop and reveal characters, including appearance, traits, thoughts, emotions, manners, gestures, actions, backstory, and dialogue.” (Jessica Page Morrell)

Chronological order: A way of telling your story in same order as the events happened. Also called “linear order.”

Cliché: An expression that’s been used so much it has lost its power and gone stale. Some examples are: quiet as a mouse, sharp as a tack, snug as a bug in a rug, chills running up and down her spine, warm as toast, cold as ice, short and sweet, hot and bothered. Writers should avoid using clichés whenever possible. Instead, try to find a fresh way to express your idea.

Cliff-hanger: When the outcome of an event, scene, or story is unknown or in doubt.

Climax: The point of greatest tension in a story. The turning point in the action; the point at which the outcome is to be decided.

Closing scene: This is one of the most important parts of your story. It’s the last chance to make your point and leave the reader with a valid emotional sense of completion.

Colloquial: Conversational dialogue. An informal way of communicating; the way people really talk to each other, as opposed to the more formal “written English.” Uses lots of contractions and slang expressions.

Coming-of-age story: A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence.

Commercial novels: Novels designed to appeal to a large audience. Academics tend to disdain commercial fiction in favor of “literary” fiction.

Complication: Intensifying the conflict; usually the protagonist meets an unforeseen obstacle.

Conflict: A complication that moves to a climax. Conflict is the opposition presented to the main character of a story by another character, by events or situations, by fate, or by some act of the main character’s own personality or nature. More loosely defined for contemporary fiction, it is the problem or tension that must be dealt with by the end of the story. A plot needs plenty of conflict in order to be interesting. Conflict is what drives a story forward.

Copyright: “All beginning writers fret over this concept because they’re worried about their work being stolen. By U.S. law, anything you write is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it. But when your work is published, it should be accompanied by the standard notice, Copyright © DATE by AUTHOR’S NAME.” (Tom Monteleone)

Crucible or cauldron: “A locale or situation that embroils and holds together characters as the conflict in the story heats up.” (Morrell)

Denouement: The resolution of a story. Unraveling or untying the knots in a story’s ending by sorting out the details and solving the questions and issues raised.

Deus ex machine: Latin for “a god from a machine.” Borrowed from Greek drama in which a god descended or arrived onto the stage to resolve problems. In modern fiction, problems that are solved by coincidences or acts of nature. To be avoided.

Dialogue: Capturing what your characters are saying and surrounding it with quotation marks. Be sure to use colloquial language, not formal language for dialogue.

Dialogue tag: (also called “speech tag” or “tagline”): “Phrase that accompanies dialogue and tells who’s talking, as in he said or she asked. In general, speech tags should be invisible and exist only to prevent confusion.” (Jessica Page Morrell)

Draft: Usually preceded by the word “rough.” It’s generally an early version of a story, outline, or chapter of a novel. Early drafts work on plot, characterization, and pacing, rather than style and grammar.

Dramatic arc: “A narrative journey of discovery that carries your reader from the first to the last page. Arcs state the problem to be solved and work toward the resolution. You can actually have more than one dramatic arc in your novel. It’s probably better that way.” (Tom Monteleone)

Dramatic irony: The contrast between what the audience knows (a murderer waits in the bedroom) and what a character says (the victim enters the bedroom, innocently saying, “I think I'll have a long sleep”).

Dramatic narrative: The kind of story that makes a good novel. It uses dramatic tension to keep the reader involved.

Dramatic summary (or just “summary,” as opposed to “scene”): A quick summary of the key points of a scene or event, rather than giving a play-by-play account of the action and events. As in, “She got up, got dressed, had breakfast and dashed out the door.”

e-book (eBook) or electronic book: A book published in electronic format rather than on paper. Usually appears on a website or on a CD-ROM, and can be downloaded to computers or portable readers (e-readers) such as Kindle.

Editing: This is what makes your writing better. It is more than just checking for grammar, logic, and factual errors. It’s also looking for subtle ways to improve the narrative.

Entry point: Where you decide to start your story – the opening scene. This is an important choice. Once you’ve written your novel, you may decide to go back and change the entry point, for greater impact, to create a compelling “hook” for your readers.

Epilogue: Tacked on to the end of a novel, to tell readers what happened after the final chapter of the story. Some writers use it as a “wrap-up” chapter.”

Epiphany: A moment of insight, discovery, or revelation by which a character’s life or view of life is greatly altered.

e-publishing: Any type of non-paper publication, in digital format.

Exposition: Info presented on the characters and story world.

Falling action: The action that follows the climax and moves the story toward its resolution.

Final draft: The final version of your manuscript after all the editing, revising, copyediting, and proofreading has been done.

First-person point of view: A narrative style in which the story is told by one character, who refers to himself as “I”. Some examples of well-known novels written in the first-person: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

Flashback: An interruption of the main (front) story by inserting a scene that happened in the past. Flashback techniques include memories, dreams, stories of the past told by characters, or even author intrusions.

Flash fiction: Fiction under 500 words long.

Flat character: A character that is not sufficiently developed; not complex enough to be interesting or intriguing. Also known as a “cardboard character.” You can round out a flat character in your story and make him more interesting and compelling by giving him motivations, hopes, fears, insecurities, weaknesses and strengths.

Foil: A character that is used to reveal qualities in the protagonist by holding the opposite qualities; for example a stingy character would underscore the main character’s generosity.

Foreshadowing: Introducing clues or hints to suggest later interesting developments. Used to heighten reader interest and intrigue.

Formulaic fiction: “Fiction that follows a familiar formula. The evil scientist who tries to take over the world and is destroyed by his own creation is a very old formula. The “odd man” who rebels against his oppressive society is another.” (Tom Monteleone) Most romances follow a formula.

Genre: Also called a category. A specific type of fiction, such as romance, thriller, mystery, science fiction, horror, gothic, western, erotica, historical fiction, or fantasy.

Ghost writer: A professional writer who writes the story of a well-known figure, or anyone who writes or rewrites someone else’s story. Ghost writers don’t usually get the credit (or enough credit) for their writing.

Gothic novel: “A genre that tells a story involving a pretty young woman, a castle or mansion, a menace, and a hero. This is one of the most well-known genres because it’s considered the oldest form of the novel.” (Tom Monteleone)

Graphic novel: A hybrid made by using comic book features to tell a story. Usually contains boxes with illustrations and balloons for dialogue, plus narration along the bottom of each box.

Guidelines (GL): The set of instructions an agent, publisher or editor gives out to writers for submitting their manuscript for consideration, often tailored to the particular market.

Historical fiction: Fiction set in the past. In order to be succeed in this genre, it’s important to really do your research into the period in history in which your novel is set, so your story is credible. Be careful not to use expressions that weren’t in use at the time.

Hook: An effective opening (first sentence and first paragraph) that creates a question or suggests conflict to come, and piques the reader’s curiosity and interest, so he or she wants to keep reading.

Idiomatic expression: An expression that is particular to a certain language and cultural usage, for example, “get your goat” when it means “make you angry.”

In media res: Latin for "in the middle of things"; starting a story or scene in the midst of ongoing action. An effective technique for hooking the reader in at the start of a novel.

Inciting incident: The precipitating event that sets the story in motion, disrupts the status quo, and threatens the protagonist.

Inner conflict: A character’s confusion, resistance, or doubts about his goals and direction.

Interior dialogue or monologue: Revealing a character’s thoughts.

Literary fiction: A term used to distinguish so-called “serious” fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from other types of genre fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the “page-turner”) focuses more on narrative and plot.

Main character or protagonist: The person in your novel through whom most of the narrative is experienced or told. It is the person we root for and care about the most.

Manuscript: Your story, typed, in pre-published format.

Melodrama: “Using or exploiting implausible, sensational, sentimental, or emotionally charged aspects in a story to create drama.” (Morrell) To be avoided.

Memoir: A narrative of a writer’s (or fictional narrator’s) family history or personal background.

Mid-list: A publishing buzzword that refers to books that aren’t best-sellers.

Motivation: A character’s drive that builds throughout a story and provides plausible explanations for actions and goals. The external forces (setting, circumstances) and internal forces (personality, temperament, morality, intelligence) that compel a character to act as he or she does in a story.

Multiple viewpoint: The point of view rotates among the characters; the readers see into the thoughts of more than one character. Best used to illustrate conflict, contrast, misunderstanding and deception among the characters.

Narrative: The story, or what happens (both fiction and nonfiction).

Narrative distance: The degree of access that the reader is granted to the characters’ thoughts, perceptions, and knowledge. Today’s readers and publishers prefer a close narrative distance – more intimacy with the main character.

Narrator: The voice and implied speaker in fiction who tells the story – this is not the writer. The narrator can be an insider in the story – a major character, a first-person character, or a minor character.

Novel: A fiction book that’s usually a minimum of 50,000 words (less for YA fiction and middle-grade novels). If yours is over 110,000 words, it probably needs some revisions to tighten it up.

Novelette: A story of about 8,000 to 20,000 words.

Novella: Fiction generally between 20,000 and 50,000 words, but can vary.

Opening: The first few pages of your novel. Especially the first paragraph and first page – very important.

Outline: A plan for your story. Can take several forms, such as written in paragraphs or point-form. Some writers do a scene-by-scene outline; others just do a rough synopsis of the main plot. Character outlines are also very useful.

Pace: The speed at which a story unfolds. Varies within the story, but certain genres, like suspense thrillers, are generally faster-paced.

Passive voice: A way of describing action in which the subject receives the action instead of performing it. Weakens the impact, so to be avoided. Use active voice instead. Passive: “The ball was thrown by the boy.” Active: “The boy threw the ball.”

Pen name or pseudonym: When the writer makes up another name to use as the author of his books. Usually used when the author doesn’t want his/her real identity known. Some authors write different genres under different names.

Plagiarism: “Stealing someone else’s work, usually word-for-word, and publishing it as your own work.” (Tom Monteleone)

Plot: A series of causally-related events with ever-intensifying conflicts, which forces the characters to take action to resolve the conflicts.

Plot line: The series of events that push a story forward.

Plot point: “Crucial events in fiction from which there is no turning back and which crank up tension and introduce new elements and complications.” (Morrell)

Point of view (Viewpoint): “Perspective, vantage point, or filtering consciousness from which the story is presented.” (Morrell) Point of view refers to who is telling the story and how it is told. The point of view character is the character whose thoughts, feelings and perceptions are revealed to the reader.

Premise: Who and what the story is about. You should be able to state the premise of your story in a sentence or two: Who does what, and why? The premise brings out or hints at the main conflict.

Protagonist: The main character in fiction that the reader comes to know intimately, and who is most changed and hurt by the events of the plot. The protagonist or hero/heroine is the central character in the story who engages our interest or sympathy.

Purple prose: "A term used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response." (Wikipedia)

Resolution: The ending in the story after the climax, when the situation is sorted out.

Reversal: The moment in a story when an unexpected event occurs, changing the plot direction.

Revising or Revision: Making changes to your manuscript to improve the plot, characterization, dialogue, point of view, pacing, style, voice, etc.

Rising action: The events, conflicts, and crises that happen in the story leading up to the climax.

Round character: A well-developed, complex, compelling character with motivations, hopes, fears, interests, insecurities, strengths, etc. A round character is multi-dimensional, as opposed to a one-dimensional “flat” or “cardboard” character.

SASE: self-addressed stamped envelope

Sense impressions: Describing or showing what your character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. An effective technique for pulling the reader more completely into your story.

Scene: “A structural unit in fiction, set in a precise time and location and made up of action, description, and sometimes exposition. A scene is an event that is essential to the plot, is based around a goal or purpose, meeting some form of opposition, and usually contains some form of emotional reversal.” (Morrell)

Sci fi: Science Fiction

Secondary characters: They have roughly the same role as “supporting actors” in films. Their role helps develop the main characters as well as the plot and subplots.

Sequel: Within a novel, a section that follows a scene, where a character reacts to the events of the preceding scene. Also refers to other stories that follow the character(s) of the first, on new adventures.

Setting: Time and place of a story, including geographical location, terrain, urban/rural, weather, interiors, epoch, year, season, day/night, lighting, and other factors that establish credibility and context. The locale, time and social circumstances of a story.

Short short story: Fiction story that is under 1,000 words.

Short story: Fiction story that is under 10,000 words, but is often much shorter. Usually less than 7,000 for most markets.

Slush pile: The pile (or electronic files) of unsolicited manuscripts sent to an agent or publisher, who will slowly work his/her way through them, often getting “readers” to rate them first.

Speculative fiction: Fiction dealing with realities other than our own. Science fiction.

Speech tag: See “Dialogue tag.”

Static: A scene that lacks action, dialogue and tension, and doesn’t move the story forward. Take out all static scenes or summarize them in a few sentences instead.

Static character: A character who remains unchanged throughout the story. Generally to be avoided.

Stock characters: Minor characters who occupy traditional roles, such as nosy neighbour, sassy waitress, cynical cop, etc.

Story line: “The series of linked events that follows a protagonist pursuing the story goal toward a resolution and fulfills the story’s promise, thus making it emotionally satisfying.” (Morrell)

Style: “How a writer uses language to communicate ideas or a story. Includes voice, syntax, diction, sentence length and structure, and figurative language.” (Morrell)
The way in which an author uses words that give his or her work a distinctive manner of expression. It is the combined qualities that distinguish one writer’s work from another’s. Closely related to “voice.”

Subplot: Secondary or minor plot in a story, usually related to the main plot.

Subtext: The story within the story. “The river of emotion that lies beneath scenes. Usually what is unspoken during dialogue, often because it is too dangerous to speak of.” (Morrell)

Suspense: The pleasurable anxiety we feel that heightens our attention to the story. Anxiety about what will happen next in a story. “Creating curiosity, worry and involvement by withholding and delaying information and resolutions.” (Morrell)

Symbol: “An object, action or image imbued with meaning; it stands for something beyond itself.”

Synopsis: Similar to a plot outline. Usually sent to agents and publishers along with a query letter. The main points of your story, told in narrative form (not point form), but in present tense. Usually around one to ten pages long, depending on the submission requirements of the particular agent or publisher.

Tagline: See “Dialogue tag.”

Telling: “Can refer to relating information that happens offstage or a habit of summarizing rather than dramatizing action, emotions, and information.” (Morrell)

Third-person point of view: The point of view most writers use. The narrator describes the action by using he, she, it, they, etc.

Tone: The prevailing mood or atmosphere in a literary work – joyful, sad, brooding, angry, playful, and so on. A writer’s tone can be formal, informal, playful, ironic, and especially, optimistic or pessimistic.

Transition: A technique used to move the reader quickly from one scene to the next. “Telling” rather than “showing”.

Unreliable narrator: “A narrator who intentionally or unintentionally misleads the reader. Often has a hidden agenda, secret, or specific reason for misleading the reader.” (Morrell)

Vanity publishing: Books published at the total expense of the author.

Voice: Has two meanings: a) the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or b) the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. (from, Fiction Writing)
Because voice has so much to do with the reader's experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.

Wraparound structure: A story that begins near the climax, then returns to the opening scene or inciting incident and proceeds toward the end.” (Morrell)

Word count: The number of words in your manuscript. If it’s not visible in the bottom left corner, just click on Control + Shift + G (all three at the same time), and a box will appear, giving you the word count of your whole document, or that section of it that is open in this file.

Wordiness: a sloppy kind of writing, where the writer uses many more words and repetitions of ideas than is necessary to get the meaning across. Slows down the pace and bores the reader. This type of writing needs to be revised and tightened up.

YA (Young Adult) fiction: The category of fiction for young adults, ages 12 to 18 (some publishers say 12 to 16). YA novels are often between 20,000 and 50,000 words long, but can of course be longer.


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