Glossary of Terms
Action/Adventure: a genre that demands pacing, relentless crises, and plenty of the stuff for which it is named. Character development need not be present to any great degree. See conflict, pacing, genre.
Antagonist: the foe of your protagonist—usually, though not always, the “villain” to your “hero.” The antagonist could be a windstorm, or a disapproving father, or an alien who accidentally wipes out most of the human race. It is that which the protagonist must strive against. See conflict.
Art: This is the part of writing that cannot be taught, the scintillation and perspicacity that lead to the literary classic and genre writing of a superior level. When you have mastered your craft, when all the tools of writing are ready at your fingertips, you will be maximally prepared to create art. Until then, you must labor at craft. See craft.
Author’s stance: What does the author think about the material, time, place, setting, or social/political environment? The answers to those questions create the author’s stance. This may be quite different from the dominant narrative voice. If it is different, irony is the effect. See narrative voice.
Bifurcated Plot: a plot that splits in two at one point yielding a main thread and a strongly developed subplot that nevertheless must merge back into the main plot and support the climax by novel’s end. See plot, subplot.
Book doctoring: repairing major problems in another novelist’s manuscript.
Breakout novel: the novel that lets a writer break into the big time. A publishing house, believing they have spotted a major talent, will guide an author through a series of several novels, watching his growth, until they believe they see a manuscript that is markedly superior to those that came before. This novel is given nation-wide publicity exposure.
Bridge chapter: a chapter whose conflict spills into the next one. Typically a chapter has its own conflict, crises, and climax, but in this situation the conflict cannot be handled well enough in one chapter. It demands two.
Chapter: ultimately an arbitrary division of the novel to satisfy readers. The writer writes at the level of scenes, not chapters. Because readers like biting off and digesting their reading in chunks, novels are divided into chapter units, which are not unlike short stories. Chapters are limited to about ten pages nowadays (longer in mainstream). Make sure your chapters are all relatively the same length—eight and eleven page chapters are fine, but not four and twenty-four page chapters. The reader should feel that progress tackling the book is steady. One, two, or more scenes can comprise one chapter. No matter how many scenes it takes, the chapter should feel unified. See scene, bridge chapter.
Characterization: the way you bring your characters to life. Dialogue is an important element of delineating character; description can be used (though sparingly nowadays); actions will reveal character; and what other characters say and do in response to your principals can go far to illuminate your characters: “This guy’s bigger than a tank!” The characterization of your principals should be largely finished before the first 25% of the novel is completed. See interior monologue.
Characters: these are the actors in your drama. Four levels of characters exist: principal, secondary, task, and walk-on.
Character sketches: an essential part of your prewriting process, typically done around the same time as your outline. Elizabeth George believes they should be done before your outline. Dramatic characters grow and change, but in order for this growth to be believable you must know what they are like before the novel’s action begins. A character sketch may be divided into three parts: a description of the character’s background, a description of the physical person, and a description of the personality. Each part may take one page or more. For example, in the background or backstory, list the important dates in the character’s life (year of birth, marriage, etc.), places lived and why, relevant material or anecdotes about family and friends, specifics about education and jobs, information about spouses and children where applicable, traumas or special events in the person’s life, etc. The writer should know all three areas in a detailed way. See outline, characters, incorporated backstory.
Conflict: along with crises and climax, it forms the essential triad without which your novel will fail. The conflict is the precipitating event that forces the protagonist into actions that will consume his/her energy until the climax is reached. Conflict is essential because without it you have no story: think of an entire life being compressed into “and they lived happily ever after.” The conflict jump starts and shapes the novel and is played out over the course of several crises. Crises are essential because these are the “high points” of the novel, individual examples or expressions of the conflict that run through the book. Each crisis must pull the reader from the previous event into a higher sense of drama or action. The conflict begins at a strong level of tension and moves through escalating crises to the climax, which is the point at which the conflict is resolved. Once the climax is reached, your book—with very few exceptions—should be over. Note: each individual scene should have its own conflict, crisis or crises, and climax as well.
Concept: an annotation of two or three paragraphs for your entire novel. Think of it as answering your friend’s question, “Tell me what your new novel is about but do it in two minutes.” The concept should demonstrate a conflict, implied crises, and a climax.
Craft: the nuts and bolts of writing well. Unlike art, craft can be taught. When a writer has strong craft, the writer’s art is more easily displayed. In a sense, this glossary is an attempt to outline our craft.
Credibility error: a goof usually caused by lack of research or forethought. Don’t place a large Navy taskforce in Olympia—Olympia is not a resident naval port. Don’t have a gunman with a six-shooter fire seven shots without reloading. Don’t have a car running on empty in chapter one still running without benefit of a fill-up in chapter twenty. You get the idea.
Crisis Summary Sheet: this lists all the crises of your novel and is a planning tool that can be converted to an outline with relative ease. Knowing the action of your novel will help you add needed characterization in creating your outline. See conflict, outline, expanded concept, character sketches.
Description: a powerful weapon that should be used sparingly. You cannot afford to indulge in pages of description the way 19th century writers did; now you must imbed it in your narrative. Your descriptive elements are apportioned among the five senses. Let the reader see, feel, smell, taste, and hear the world you create, but do not slow the forward thrust of the plot to do so.
Dialogue: one of the most important skill sets you can master. Dialogue is used chiefly to A) advance the plot or B) develop character. See characterization, dragons.
Dragons: These are errors that kill your chances of publication. An agent, seeing one or more of these, will quickly throw your manuscript in the trash. Obviously, then, these are to be avoided at all costs. The worst dragon is probably the dragon of bad dialogue, of stuff that nobody ever in the history of the world said or would say: “Hey, I think I know who did it—it came to me like a cloud of spit!” There are many more dragons including the structure dragon, the character dragon, and the plot dragon, but they can all be spotted with time and knowledge of craft. See plot, dialogue, characterization.
Dramatic Sense: the sense of acceleration in your novel, a sense that things are constantly going from bad to worse. Each crisis is bigger than the one before with the reader being rushed by the plot from one scene to the next. Without the quality of dramatic sense, your novel will fail. Put another way, mastery of dramatic sense will help you write irresistible fiction.
Dual protagonists: a fairly common phenomenon of the mystery genre (more rarely, of others), dual protagonists work together to overcome the antagonist or bring the conflict of the novel to its resolution. They can be thought of as two halves of a whole.
Epilogue: useful chiefly for novels that are part of a series where the intention to continue the series is hinted, one of the few legitimate reasons to prolong a novel past the climax. See conflict.
Erotic: a genre requiring not so much a healthy libido as a lack of prudishness. Sheer repetition may be the bane of the genre.
Expanded Concept: a document that may run much longer than the concept that birthed it; this is formed by studying your concept and, when thinking of additional scenes that might fit, inserting them. Anywhere from three to twenty-six annotations of scenes might be added (the average for novices is just seven). The chief difference between the expanded concept and the outline is that the expanded concept lacks the balance of the outline. In other words, some areas of your novel will probably be covered in more detail than others, a potential drawback that can be amended by editing. See also crisis summary sheet, outline.
Exposition: occurring early in your novel, this will set the stage for conflict, letting the reader know useful information about characters, setting, backstories, etc.
False plot: a tricky technique used by professionals. Begin your novel with a false plot that encourages the reader to sense the action to move in one direction and then overwhelm the false start by breaking in with the real plot.
Fantasy: a genre often lumped together with science fiction. Fantasy tends to focus on fictional worlds governed by laws of magic in addition to laws of physics. Sometimes, however, the magic is present in the “real” world or magic bridges the barriers between worlds. Fantasy tends to be a conservative genre, emphasizing the forces of order and preservation over chaos and change. One of the longer genres in terms of word count. See genre, subgenre.
Fine Edit: Here you have the chance to turn your book into a work of art. Aim for scintillating language and the elimination of dragons. The fine edit may take longer than the actual writing of the rough draft itself.
Fragment plot-generating method: one of five plot-generating methods used in the guild. Start with an exciting image or scene that pops into your mind then add another and another, etc. You will have many fragments of a whole, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Connecting the fragments must happen but may be difficult. This will suit some writers or plots better than others.
Generative grammar: a grammar that makes heavy use of verbals (infinitives and gerunds), resulting in good sentence variety and richness of expression.
Genre: a category of books decided by marketing and reader tastes. Genres will often dictate types of conflict, characters, settings, acceptable and unacceptable plots, and more. Some genres are: romance, westerns, sci-fi/fantasy, mysteries, and suspense. You must read widely in a genre before attempting to write in it. See modeling.
Genre plot generating method: one of five plot-generating methods used in the guild. Begin with a thorough knowledge of your chosen genre; then identify the elements typical in a plot of that genre. Incorporate those elements into a plot of your own, perhaps taking inspiration from a newspaper article or other sources of current events as well.
Gimmick: a striking event or characteristic that will add flavor and originality to plot events. Here is an example of a common plot but with a gimmick added: a man is shot stone cold dead while driving his car, but the car continues straight down the road for half a mile before it pulls into a parking lot. The gimmick provides freshness to a death scene which in itself might be terribly ordinary.
Hook: this grabs the reader in chapter one or in a prologue. It allows you to interest the reader early and then build dramatic sense. Perhaps you can hook the reader with a countdown towards a cataclysmic event, with a reluctant protagonist haunted by a fatal mistake in her past, with a narrative voice of unspeakable evil . . . just use your imagination. Good writers often have hooks at the end of scenes to draw the reader into the next scene/chapter. Know your genre and write hooks you think readers of the genre could not resist. See genre.
Horror: a popular genre aimed at producing shudders. The reader must identify with the protagonist(s) in the horror novel; otherwise you will end up with an unexciting description of various butcheries sans suspense or pathos. See genre.
Idea: a kernel from which a novel may grow. An idea should be expressible in one sentence and, thus, capable of drawing feedback.
Incorporated Backstory: a term borrowed from Faulkner to describe an extended “flashback” into a character’s past. Sometimes called a looped subplot. It is different from a standard subplot, however, in that it visits a time before the action of the novel begins. See subplot, character sketches.
Inspirational: a genre requiring not so much religious fervor as a mind open to manifestations of the divine. See genre.
Interior monologue: a primary way to show characterization, this is the stream of thoughts running through the head of your narrative voice. See characterization, narrative voice.
Mainstream: the royalty of genres with writing that is generally considered to be of the highest quality. Mainstream conflicts may be internal more often than not, and deft characterization is expected. Mainstream novels may run longer than the norm (the norm being 90,000-120,000 words nowadays). Note that “mainstream” can be further divided into the “literary mainstream” subgenre in which everything above applies—but more so. See genre, subgenre.
Major termination: the end of a scene and/or chapter. You are in no way committed to the same course in the material that follows, which may be as different as night from day.
Mid-list: a disappearing phenomenon of the American publishing scene. Midlist authors used to survive quite comfortably on mediocre sales year after year. Now, publishing houses prefer to identify those they will boost into stardom and discard others with less promise. See breakout novel.
Minor termination: the use of line skips or asterisks to indicate a transition to another scene of a chapter. Minor terminations are made for the following reasons: 1) to signify a change in narrative voice; 2) to indicate a long passage of time; 3) to indicate a significant change in the cast of characters, location, or type of action.
Modeling: the practice of reading novels in your chosen genre not for pleasure but for concentrated study. Mark what you consider to be excellent examples of description, speech and turns of phrase, concise and precise stretches of narration, and enviable passages of interior monologue and the thought processes of the narrative voice. Modeling allows the writer to learn from accomplished novelists. Correct modeling practices can help you write salable novels. See genre.
Mystery: probably the most popular genre and one of the most demanding in terms of plot creation. The following subgenres exist under the category “mystery,” each with its own conventions: the private eye mystery; the amateur detective; the police procedural; heists, snatches, and robberies; criminal sleuths; cozies; the period mystery; and the romantic mystery. See plot, subgenre, genre.
Narrative Voice: a more useful term than “point of view,” narrative voice refers to the way of observing and speaking typical of the character the author is “following around” in that scene. Novels may have several narrative voices, but there should only be one per scene. Further, too many switches between narrative voices in the novel may lead to confusion and irritation on the part of the reader.
Outline: it may be defined as a relatively detailed summary of the plot of your novel. The outline may contain 3,000 or more words. The outline should relate the entire story, including the climax. A perusal of the outline by yourself or others will help to ensure that you have a good plot with dramatic sense. It is at this stage that suggestions can be made and changes undertaken most profitably. Avoid dialogue in your outline and keep descriptions to a minimum. Do include the climax.
Pacing: this is important though quite simple in theory—it is the rate at which the story moves. See plot, dramatic sense.
Plot: the totality of what happens in your novel. The plot dragon is a difficult one to overcome, for it will destroy your chances of publication. Gone are the days, for example, when you could write a mystery in which various heirs to a fortune are killed off over time; that plot would get your novel rejected today. Gone are the days when you could unfold your story so slowly that within the first 40 pages nothing of note happens. You must look to create variety and freshness in a plot that, frankly, will not be too different from others in its genre. See also genre, modeling, hook, gimmick, subplot, plot texturing.
Plot Texturing: an attempt to avoid linearity of plot through, for example, the addition of subplots. Descriptive details, expansion of narrative prose, and gimmickry can also introduce complexity to a linear plot. See plot, subplot, gimmick.
Prologue: action or exposition which precedes chapter one. Prologues should be rare. See hook.
Protagonist: Your hero—or, at least, your person of interest. The protagonist should be likable or interesting. A successful protagonist could be a person with whom the reader identifies or a person whom the reader would like to emulate. Conversely, it could be a person who offers the reader an entry into a completely different sphere of life. See antagonist, character sketches.
Query letter: the most important thing you write, for if this does not generate professional interest in an agent or editor then not one word of your novel will be read—or, at best, you are resigned to unsolicited submissions to publishers and their slush piles.
Romance: a popular genre with a relatively short word count and characterization that need not be of the finest quality. See genre.
Scene: the basic writing unit: a unit built around one or more characters who are present throughout the scene with lesser characters who may come and go. A proper scene contains conflict, crises, and a climax. See chapter, conflict, plot.
Scene Instructions: Notes to yourself—not for the consumption of others–scene instructions will help ensure that you a) remember which genre you’re writing in b) understand the pacing this scene requires and c) lists the conflict, crises, and climax for the scene. Scene instructions will specify the proper narrative voice and the necessary details for your setting. Scene instructions are written with action sequences from the outline in mind. See scene, outline, narrative voice, setting.
Science Fiction: a popular genre focusing on the future and/or the impact of technology. Interaction with aliens may or may not be postulated. See fantasy.
Scintillating language: language that leaps off the page; language that makes agents and editors take interest. See fine edit.
Segments: the plot of the novel in numbered sentences, running to perhaps 275-300 or more. Segments are combined into paragraphs to form the outline. They also provide material for your scene instructions. Example segment: “7. Ordered out of the sinking plane, Erich seeks life raft.” See plot, outline, scene instructions.
Set Piece: this represents the one occasion in which you are allowed to interject material into a novel that does not contribute to the rush of that novel. It is by nature autonomous, not part of your plot; its purpose is to give the reader an insight into an aspect of your novel or evoke a mood. Example: in the action of one scene, a drunken teenager plows his car into an ice cream truck, killing its driver along with two children. The set piece which precedes this action could simply involve a few minutes of the ice cream truck driver’s day, including the excited faces of the children who just caught him before he left their block.
Setting: This may be divided into three subheadings: time, environment, and detail. Or it could be divided further into historical time, macro-geographical (area of the world), micro-geographical (a limited “what the eye can see”), the day, characters’ appearances, intimate generalities (clothing and furniture descriptions), and intimate specifics (“brand names,” specifications). Setting supplies the imaginative details that complete the credibility of the work in the reader’s mind. A specific setting needs to be created by the writer but once. See scene instructions.
Subgenre: a separate category within a genre, often with its own conventions. The historical romance, for example, can be much longer than the typical romance and feature a larger conflict that mirrors or counterpoints the romantic conflict. Sword and sorcery fantasy used to be a widely read subgenre, with Conan and Elric two of its more popular heroes; epic fantasy is probably more popular now (The Lord of the Rings, et al). See also the mystery, genre, conflict.
Subplot: this action occurs simultaneously with the main plot line and is concerned with furthering the total action of the novel. Subplots help your plot from becoming too linear. A Murder of Crows, by Steve Shepard, may be modeled for excellent use of subplots. See plot texturing.
Suspense: a popular genre with great dramatic sense. The conflict may be external or internal. See genre, mystery, conflict.
Synopsis: a summary of the content of a novel written for the purpose of attracting professional interest to the novel. The synopsis makes no pretense of being the most complete summary of your novel, but it strives to be the most interesting. The climax should never be given away here.
Transition: a bridge of words to take you from one sequence of action to another, sequences normally divided by time and location. You must recognize when you need a transition in your writing. You need to realize, “Wait a minute, I’m writing a lot of verbiage here for no other reason than to transport my character from one place to another.” Transitions are written, as opposed to other methods. See minor terminations.
Unreliable narrator: This is a narrator who lies or who misses key points in the narrative. Therefore, the information provided to the reader is found to be untrustworthy. It could be a child, a person with a disability, or a villain—even a charismatic one. Could Humbert Humbert of Lolita be classified as an unreliable narrator? How about the kidnapped child from In the Presence of the Enemy?
Western: a rather antiquated genre with action in a particular setting, usually the American west during the late 19th century. See genre, setting, conflict.
“What-if” plot generating: one of five plot-generating methods used in the guild. Ask yourself a series of “What if?” questions, keeping in mind their suitability for a potential plot. What if the President converted to Islam? What if he then tried to replace the Constitution and our current system of laws with Sharia? What if he were then deposed in the first coup of our nation’s history? You see how this works.
© 2007 by Scott Earle, Ph.D