I have been very busy of late preparing for the fall semester, and unfortunately, this blog has suffered from inattention. I will try to keep at it as best I can. Here is something I have been compiling for my intro to creative writing (fiction, nonfiction) classes–a glossary of terms. These concepts come up frequently when we analyze stories or workshop drafts. I thought it would be convenient to have them in one place. No doubt I have left off some essential term; the glossary should grow over time. But I believe I have captured most of the things I tend to emphasize. So why share on the blog? I know some of my readers are writers themselves, and good writers are those who never stop learning. I hope some will benefit from this. In addition to my own input, I have relied on the following sources (all phenomenal books):
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Narrative Design by Madison Smart Bell
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind
A narrative whose literal objects, characters, and/or events are systematically symbolic of a group of more abstract concepts on another plane, often philosophical or religious. (See symbolism)
A character in a story who in some way opposes the protagonist, directly or indirectly. Other story elements can play antagonist roles (such as setting or an inner-conflicted character).
When the writer manifests himself/herself in the story in an uninvited, unexpected fashion.
Narrative action that has preceded and led up to the present action of the story. It is the raw material from which a story’s exposition is made. (See exposition, flashback)
A technique in fiction and creative nonfiction where the writer breaks the story or essay into fragments and weaves together multiple strands in a continuous, recurring fashion. This might involve telling a story from multiple points of view or modes (e.g. narrative, thematic, descriptive, analytical). Or more than one plot line can be braided. In nonfiction it might involve the weaving of story elements with information blocks. Usually braiding is more effective when the writer does not make explicit transitions between the parts. Rather, jumps between parts can be indicated through extra space, headings or typographical symbols. (See collage, modular narrative)
The purging of strong emotions generated by a story, usually invoked in a climatic scene. (See climax)
An actor in a fictional narrative, a personage invented by the writer.
The method of rendering invented personages in a story.
The moment when the forces deployed in a story come to a head.
An artistic technique of assembling a work via fragments or seemingly unrelated parts without transitions. In fiction and creative nonfiction, collage effects can be made out of juxtaposing vignettes and images, carried forward with little or no exposition.
Combining or condensing multiple incidents or situations in order to flesh out a story more efficient, more coherent way.
The opposition of forces (of character, plot, imagery, theme) in a story, which leads to climax and resolution.
True stories, well told. A genre of writing that blends the styles of essay, journalism, memoir, and narrative, with an implicit promise to the reader that the information presented is factual, true, “not made up.”
The “wrap up” phase of a narrative final outcomes are explained and loose-ends tied up.
The structural, formal organization of all the elements in a given story.
The idiosyncratic manner of speaking, drawing on a variety of factors: religion, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.
Conversation occurring among characters in a story, standardly indicated via direct quotation marks, e.g. “Hello, it’s me,” she said.
The factual content that is usually woven into creative nonfiction scene blocks.
A quotation from some other writer’s text, placed at the beginning of your own story. Often used to suggest the story’s theme.
The moment in a story when events, images, ideas, or any combination thereof have reached a critical mass and produce for the reader an explosive moment of clarity and shining insight.
The relation of whatever background information (backstory) is necessary for the reader to understand the present action of a story.
Sequence of events following the climax. The “fallout” or “domino effect” of a plot, as it moves towards resolution.
True statements that have been confirmed by outside sources (witnesses, historical records, references, etc.). Facts can be verified. Opinions cannot.
The genre of writing that tells stories using invented characters and plots. A reader assumes that most if not all of the narrative elements are “made up.”
A recursion from the present action of the story to a full scene in the narrative’s backstory.
A type of short story, also known as miniature fiction and the “short short,” distinguished by its brevity. Definitions vary, but flash fiction generally runs from a couple hundred words up to about 1000 words. Because they are so brief, flash fiction stories tend to be narrative “snapshots”: they feature highly condensed plots, focused on one or two carefully observed scenes, or a modular structure that might be more lyrical and thematic than plot driven.
Focalizer. The primary consciousness in the story. The events, situations, and dialogue is all filtered through the focalizer, who commands the story’s point of view. Sometimes a writer will shift the focalizer from one character to another, which means the focalizer does not always equate to the narrator or protagonist.
The mode of selecting and ordering scenes in a story, based on the meaning, theme, or thesis the writer wishes to present. Scenes that don’t somehow relate to the focus, no matter how interesting in themselves, may have to be cut during revision.
The organizing principle that gives shape to a story. In creative nonfiction, it is the overarching narrative, the reader’s journey from start to finish. Inside the frame, the writer places scene-blocks, information blocks, and reflective passages. Sometimes fiction uses a frame, too. Here you will find a mix of scenes, summarized, backstory, narrative reflection, and flashbacks — all working inside the narrative arc of the main story. The frame gives a stable structure to the whole story. It is usually plot-based but can also be modular or thematic (See also linear narrative and modular narrative.)
Graphic rendition of a story’s movement from exposition to rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
Any episode in a story that is given a full dramatic rendering. A reader will feel immersed in the descriptions, dialogue, and action of a scene, as if watching it unfold on screen.
A partially dramatized scene, with some summary elements included. A hybrid of full scene and summary.
A way of opening a story or scene with compelling description or action that thrusts the reader into the heat of the action as quickly as possible, without the clutter of exposition. In effect, the writer plunges the reader into the story, which arouses interest and curiosity. The reader needs to keep reading to find out more. (See also In media res.)
The use of descriptions to suggest or evoke something beyond what is literally being narrated. Maximizes the use of the five senses, what can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelled. Patterns of imagery often relate to themes and characters in a story.
A research strategy in which the writer immerses himself or herself in an environment to gain a more intimate and reliable knowledge of setting, history, context, and characters. Immersion means inserting oneself in that environment frequently and for extended periods of time and is a way of learning to see from an outside point of view.
Also known as “free indirect discourse” or “indirect speech.” A third-person narrative technique wherein the narrator speaks the thoughts of a character as if they are the narrator’s own. It frees the author from having to use direct quotes and attributions such as ‘he thought’ and ‘she thought’. It also establishes an intimacy between an otherwise distant narrator and the character. In effect, the narrator can feel and think on behalf of the character. See interior monologue.
A component of creative nonfiction in which the writer breaks away from storytelling (scene blocks) and delivers factual reporting or history that adds necessary context and texture to the story. (See also embedded information).
In media res
Latin for “in the middle of things”. The tactic of opening a story in the middle of a narrative sequence rather than at the natural “beginning”, usually with no exposition.
Inner point of view
A technique in which the writer sees the world through the eyes of the real people or fictional characters in the story.
An innovation of modernist writers wherein a character’s thoughts are rendered directly in a stream of consciousness style. Often the monologue is put into italics to distinguish it from other parts of the narrative. The monologue is vivid, dramatic, and can reflect the mind’s random and associative stream of ideas and impressions, or it can reflect a more rational stream of thought.
A technique for researching nonfiction stories. The writer asks questions, listens, takes notes, and double checks the accuracy of any quotes to be used in the final story.
Descriptions that allow a reader to hear and see characters more vividly. The details are precise and revelatory.
A style of nonfiction writing that relies on outside sources (interviews, research, eyewitnesses) to report facts and truths, usually for a general audience.
In journalism, the lede conveys the Five W’s (who, what, when, where, and why/how) at the beginning of a story. In creative nonfiction, the lede functions differently. It introduces the purpose of the story and indicates where the reader will be led. Often the lede can be cut or placed after the “hook.” (See Hook and In meda res.)
A false and defamatory statement in writing about a third party (excepting public figures). Must meet two tests in court: the statement is not true and its intent is to injure the third party.
A story organized in a linear sequence, proceeding from beginning to middle to end with few or no deviations, taking care to trace relationships of cause and effect.
A style of fiction that blends fantasy with reality. It produces dreamlike, surreal, uncanny effects while maintaining some anchor, no matter how fragile, to the everyday world.
A true story revealing the intimacies of an author’s life. A memoir usually focuses on one aspect or period or incident in the author’s life. This contrasts with autobiography which is more epic in scope. (See personal essay)
A postmodern style of storytelling wherein the writer makes storytelling part of the fabric of the story itself. In other words, the form of the narration calls attention to itself in ironic and self-conscious ways. Metafictional stories play with reflexive narrators, unconventional plots, unrealistic settings, etc.
An implied comparison which does not use the words “like”, “as”, or “as if” to connect the subjects being compared.
A story organized according to some nonlinear principle–and usually without a strict cause-effect structure. Modular narratives are organized by juxtapositions of scenes, scene-blocks, embedded information, exposition, etc., rather than by linear continuity, which moves from start to finish in time. (See braiding, collage)
A character’s wants, needs, and desires, revealed to a reader through description, summary, dialogue, monologue, decisions, and actions.
The mode of telling a story. In first-person narration, the story is told by a speaker called I or We. In third-person narration, an outside narrator tells the story about he, she, and they. In second-person narration, the narrator uses the voice of “you” to tell the story.
The person in charge of telling the story. Can be a character in the story or an outside, more “objective” observer.
Latin for “does not follow”. Any narrative element that appears to be misplaced, thus confusing the linear sequence.
A “little novel.” Narrative fiction that is longer than a short story but shorter than a full length novel.
The power of knowing everything about the actions, thoughts, and feelings of any of the characters in a story. A story which reports only the actions of all the characters is externally omniscient. A story which also reports the thoughts and feelings of the characters is internally omniscient as well. An author has the power to be selectively omniscient, which means focusing the omniscient point of view on usually one character in the story.
A nonfiction style of writing about an idea or theme, wherein the writer bases most of the content on personal experience. Essays are not narrative by nature but can include narrative elements. (See scene blocks).
What happens in the story. The sequence of events. More specifically, the plot is how the sequence of events is presented in real time, how the events of the story are structured, organized and laid out for the reader.
Point of view
The perspective on the events in the story. The position(s) from which the story is narrated. (See Narration)
Whatever is happening in a narrative’s present time frame. (See flashback.)
The forward motion or momentum generated by a strong plot. The unfolding of the plot in a natural and necessary chain reaction of cause and effect.
Traditionally, the “hero” of the story. More generally, the protagonist is the main character, whose fate is the focus of the storytelling. Protagonists are not always “good guys.”
A mode of story-telling which appears to present an accurate picture of the real-world as we commonly perceive it.
Time as measured by a clock, uncondensed, not expanded. Good storytellers know how to distort real time, when to jump, skip, condense, summarize, and extend real time.
A frequently necessary nonfiction technique that involves the recreation of a circumstance, incident, or memory, while striving to remain as true to the spirit and facts as possible. Unethical or incompetent or excessive reconstruction results in fabrication (not desirable!).
A technique used commonly in personal essay and memoir wherein the writer thinks aloud about what is happening or has happened in the story. Can consist of pondering, musing, assessing, judging, opining, and emoting.
The outcome, positive or negative or inconclusive, of conflicts in a story.
Storytelling in the rear-view. When a narrator looks back on past action and reviews, comments, reflects, usually with a sense of perspective not available at the time the actions occurred. Retrospection adds another layer of perspective to the narrative point of view.
An unexpected turn of events in a plot.
The process of rethinking, re-imagining, re-organizing, and rewriting some or all of a story.
Sequence of events building towards a climax, where conflicts are more acute, resulting in heightened tension and suspense.
The foundation of most good storytelling. A scene is a unit of action containing an incident with a definable beginning and end. Something happens that is thematically significant or advances the plot. (See full-scene.)
The physical environment and time period in which a story takes place.
A fictional narrative that arose in the 19th century in magazines in America and Europe. Short stories are short enough to be read in one sitting and typically focus on one main character and one narrative plot line using a mix of scenes, imagery, summary, dialogue, and setting. Styles of short story vary, but the traditional short story tends towards realism.
A stated comparison using the words “like, “as,” or “as if.”
Information which lies below the stated surface of the story. Relates to backstory.
An efficient retelling of events in a story that are not given a full dramatic treatment. Telling the story instead of showing it.
An unconventional mode of story-telling which depends on fantastic alterations and distortions of the world as we commonly perceive it.
An urgent desire to know a piece of information or outcome. Authors generate suspense by withholding key information from readers.
The systematic use of something in a narrative to represent something else, often the use of a concrete object or image to stand for an abstraction.
A message or meaning embedded in a narrative. Usually the themes evolve naturally out of the story in a suggestive way and are not explicitly revealed to readers.
What the story sounds like when told. Analogous to tone of voice in conversation, where the mood of the storyteller is conveyed above and beyond the actual content of the story.
A character whose version of events is not entirely to be trusted by the reader.
Vector (narrative arc)
A line defining the direction of movement in a story, roughly synonymous with a plot line.
A measure of how successfully the writer has evoked a vivid and continuous fictional dream in the mind of the reader (fictional truth). In creative nonfiction, a measure of how faithfully and realistically the writer has evoked the truth of the topic.
A small, graceful literary sketch. A short, impressionistic scene that provides insight into character, setting, or theme.
The personality of the narrator, conveyed through a combination of style (word choices, word order) , dialect, and degree of interior consciousness shared with the reader.