Glossary of fiction and creative nonfiction terms

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 Continue reading “Glossary of fiction and creative nonfiction terms”

American Studies

Two American college students sit cross-legged on the green lawn in the late afternoon May sun. One in a pink, sleeveless blouse, white shorts, round, tan thighs open to the sky, her brunette hair pulled behind the ears, gently falling down the nape of her neck. The other young woman bends her head idly over a spiral notebook, brown pony tail brushing the pages, her left arm perched on a bent leg. Her back is broad and athletic, spanned by a polo shirt, lavender cotton stretching across her knees. They are grinning, lazily. They talk into the calm air, not afraid of its silence. The one in the pink blouse is doing something with her hands, knitting weed stalks or weaving blades of grass. Time slows around them and their backpacks. The light is good.

The sun’s orange hue deepens as it sinks, becoming level with their heads. The light borrows their hair, irradiating their heads like haloed stained glass angels. It intersects their tanned arms planted behind them, palms anchored to the ground. It forms long shadows of their arms and the surrounding trees on the fresh grass. It clarifies the crevices in the brick facade of the library at their right – flares against the window panels, each a shimmering pool of fire. It is as if the landscape and the building are going to be licked by a giant tongue sliding from a smiling mouth.

Across the street stands a Georgian-revival apartment building. Four pillars painted in antique beige, the walls red brick painted by the sun. As the girls converse with what seems at a distance to be genteel, colonial dignity, a victory of independence over tyranny, a hovering self-reliance trembles in the wind like an afterthought.

Something tranquil and good blossoms into the shining orange moments. Were it not for the light breeze and their mild voices, there would be the stillness of a painting, something to be admired in a warm gallery over white wine and brittle crackers.

One of the girls sets her ballpoint pen to the notebook, tracing casual ligatures. Then, triggered by nothing seen, their legs simultaneously unwind and stretch. In an instant, the position they’ve been imbibing has become cramped, too static. They get up, brush pant legs, adjust shirts. They look at their watches and amble across the street to a pizzeria.

A Ford pulls up and parks around the corner. Two college boys tumble out. They wait for cars to pass, then shuffle into the pizzeria, hands in pockets. The sun has without notice sunk, replaced by a rapid dusk light, round and dull.


Soon the young women receive diplomas, accept rings, take vows, sign insurance forms and Christmas cards, make plans to reunite, produce babies, grow rancid, accustom themselves to traffic jams, rubbernecking, clenched teeth at long red lights, bristle at stop signs, accelerate feebly home after long and crushing work days, persist through Christmas lights, Valentine flowers, holiday sweets, barbecued meat. Trips to the grocery store become routine. PTA meetings. Expected and unexpected funerals. Harried vacations. Appliances replaced. Days take on a patina of sadness. Crows feet. Epsom salts. Cancer tests. Dentist bills. Family happiness tempered by creeping disappointments.

Sometimes at midnight a suspicion haunts their minds, separated by many miles and only slightly different situations. Like a ghost it whispers, you were perfect. I watched and gathered the moment, how the angled rays beatified you for a few minutes on a May afternoon in 1984. It touched you. You didn’t notice, or forgot the sensation. Only sometimes you imagine in day dreams, the little spaces that drop into the din all too temporarily, you imagine the resting point, the glide of seconds, no maps or day timers, an open frontier, a pen doodling wisps of ink, a green stalk, a supple blade, a tether cut innocently, an eddy of moments, bracketed, embraced, then released, lost, bequeathed to a past never captured on film or memory. In front of the library, the grass, your tan legs. In that sunlight you did not need names or identities. You shimmered, you belonged there.

In the space where dreams slide away into consciousness, as if expecting a child to cry from a bedroom down the hall, the women, hundreds of miles apart, lift their heads, jerked awake, eyes blinking into the darkened room, remember who they are, where they’re from, where they’re at. They see the day in May 1984 clearly. A week before graduation. School work done. Courses passed. Books returned to the library. Nothing left to do in the notebook but doodle. They remember now, seeing themselves as someone nearby might have seen them. Why did they move away so quickly? What could have been? What might have been? They yearn for the forgetfulness that sleep brings, wet faces turning into the pillows.

Brief Candle

The last time I saw Aunt Betty was the Rustler Steakhouse. We took a corner booth; there weren’t any tables available. She watched me spear a final morsel of ribeye and swirl it in a pool of watery catsup, the red meat clinging to the fork tongs. Behind her a massive bison skull was leaning off the wall, looking down on both of us.

“So you’re smoking 100’s now,” I said. “What’s the doc have to say about that?”

“It extends the pleasure. Doc doesn’t agree. He wants me to outlast life.” She smiled. Her teeth were the color of decades-old formica, but I loved her anyway. I wasn’t going to try and talk her out of quitting anymore.

She’d invited me to dinner because I was graduating next month, and she wanted to give me advice. I was drifting. Didn’t know what I wanted. Prospects cloudy with a chance of rain. I thought she had brought me here to lecture me. I didn’t understand why she was so willing to let go of it all. It bugged me.

“Most people’s lives,” she said, “the bits worth remembering, would run the length of this cigarette. All the most important stuff don’t take long.”

She flicked open her Zippo. “You’re born, like this. All the good times are the deep drags, smooth in the lungs, settling there. The tragedies: coughs of flem, choking on the smoke; a live ash falls and burns your arm.”

She held the cigarette in her fingers, the fire ring blinking, alive. She had this way of over dramatizing the smallest statements. This time, it fit.

“And then what? What about the end?” I said, staring down the eye of the cigarette that was killing her. As long as I’d known her, we’d been able to be blunt with each other, cutting to the quick.

“Butts in a glass ashtray. We all burn out eventually, you know.” She smiled again.

Did she want to confess her regrets? Why she never married and had kids. Why she never took pottery classes. Never went to Hawaii like she always wanted. Maybe, I thought, I’d crossed a line, said too much, too judgmental. I wanted to take it back. Who was I? Some ungrateful clueless kid.

“It seems a waste of time. A whole lifetime reduced to a cigarette. What about all the space in between? When nothing much happens?”

She laughed, the phlegm chugging deep inside her. “I know, most of life is pointless. That’s what these are for. They fill the gaps between the stories.”

I could see she knew something I didn’t, that whatever was bothering me, keeping me from pushing through, was the same thing she had learned to put up with. She allowed the smoke to gush from her lungs, a waterfall of air, and the booth filled with ghosty ringlets, like reels of magnetic tape unravelling off the spools.

– James Esch
Published in Mississippi Crow, 2008

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