Slang for Writers

Here are 78 terms we discussed in my fiction writing class in the Whidbey Island Writers’ MFA Program.  It runs from Anagnorisis to Zigzagging, with notes from various students (like me), Bruce Holland Rogers (the instructor), and some examples and details from Wikipedia.

I’ve discussed some of these (like Envy) before on this blog. A lot of these may not make you a better writer… but some might. It’s fun to know what prolepsis is, and you earn style points if you can drop it into conversation with your critique group.

And you must know skaz!



The moment of epiphany or discovery for a character in a story. (see Epiphany, below).


“She thought, I’m not going to see my mother again. She thought, I’m not going to sleep in my bed again.” From the story: Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been?

Aristotle’s Caveat applies: this term is from his description of Greek Tragedy.

Wikipedia: “Aristotle was the first writer to discuss the uses of anagnorisis, with peripeteia caused by it. He considered it the mark of a superior tragedy, as when Oedipus killed his father and married his mother in ignorance, and later learned the truth, or when Iphigeneia in Tauris realizes in time that the strangers she is to sacrifice are her brother and his friend, and refrains from sacrificing them…

Anagnorisis, however, is not limited to classical or Elizabethan sources. Author and lecturer Ivan Pintor Iranzo points out that contemporary auteur M. Night Shyamalan uses similar revelations in The Sixth Sense, in which child psychologist Malcolm Crowe successfully treats a child who is having visions of dead people, only to realize at the close of the film that Crowe himself is dead…”


A device used in horror to create uncertainty in the reader at the end of the piece, after the climax, preventing or inhibiting the reader’s return to a normal view of reality. It upsets the sense of the universe as orderly and questions that the story is really over.


“This definition centers around horror because the psychological function of horror is the opposite of most other fiction. Most fiction is designed to reinforce our comfort in the world. Most fiction reassures us and shows that the universe is orderly.

Horror, at its purest, unsettles us and makes us feel that the universe is not comfortable or kind. If the vampires are all dead and vampirism has been destroyed forever, then the story has been a dark fantasy that in the end reinforces belief in an orderly world, even if we’ve been scared along the way. Horror makes us close the book with a shudder. They’re still out there!” – Bruce


Blake Snyder’s term for the event that begins the story. That is, a story opens with a set-up, a portrayal of how life is for the main character. Then, the Catalyst takes place, the narrator’s world is changed, and the story begins. Pages before the Catalyst need only provide the reader what is needed to understand the story, and should be minimal. In 3-act structure, the Catalyst comes before the break into the Act II.

Robert McKee calls the Catalyst the “Inciting Incident,” which is also a good term.



The purging of strong emotion, such as pity or fear.


“I do think that we often read for the sake of an artificial tension and the release of associated feelings. Aristotle said that the purged emotions should be pity and terror. I think it’s good to note that in any definition, but I think that other emotions that are raised and release can qualify as catharsis provided that the reader does feel purged.

Catharsis reminds me of the physiological change I feel after a good cry or a good belly laugh. I feel cleansed.” – Bruce

Wikipedia: “Since before Poetics catharsis was purely a medical term, Aristotle is employing it as a medical metaphor. “It is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions.”

Character Story

A story about a person trying to change his role in life. It starts with the character reaching a break point and ends with the character a) taking on a new role, b) reverting to the old role, or c) despairing of change.


Compare Milieu, Idea, and Event Stories.

“I don’t recall that Card anywhere overtly states that MICE represents a formula for ratios where 8:1:1:1 would be a pure milieu story, 1:1:1:8 would be a pure event story, and 1:4:4:1 would be a story focused on a split between idea and character. However, I’ve seen others write about such a ratio and even used the notion in my columns about MICE as used in short-shorts. The numbers are nonsense really in that there’s no rational way that I can see to rationalize the difference between 1:4:4:1 and 1:2:2:1, for example. At the same time, though, plugging numbers into the ratio does suggest a couple of good ideas. One is that no position ever has a value less than 1 because every story has some element of setting, idea, character, and action. Another is that all stories mix and match these strategies.” – Bruce

Circumstantial Summary

A look at how things “usually are”. It establishes a normal state that the reader uses for comparison to the dramatic events of the story.



An event that happens by chance; a structural device used to increase dramatic tension. An often over-used device which, when it resolves story tension, can make the reader feel cheated. This type of “negative” coincidence can work well in comedy.


If a chance event makes things easier for either the character or the writer, then the reader rightly feels cheated. However, a coincidence that makes things harder for the character and for the writer is likely to be tolerated as it just serves to pile on troubles and difficulties. ” – Bruce

One place that is pretty safe for coincidence is in the original premise of the story. First, this is — of course — when characters get into trouble rather than out of it, as we’ve discussed.

But I think there’s a cultural understanding among all readers that stories are not about everyday circumstances, so coincidences that appear on page one are more likely to be tolerated.


A comparison, through metaphor or simile, of two things radically different from one another. A conceit requires an explanation in order to be an effective comparison.


“It is the nature of the conceit to be long.” That doesn’t sound good. At first, I thought that a conceit was A Bad Thing, but I like what Burroway goes on to say.

Both examples look like they might be written in first person. I’d say that a conceit could communicate the worldview of a narrator pretty effectively. This could be fun if the narrator is eccentric — a conceit seems to have a lot of humor potential.


The point in the story where the next decision is do-or-die, everything is on the line. The crisis is when the character thinks, “Do I cut the red wire, or the blue one?” The climax is when she cuts the wire.


Crisis first, then Climax.


An ending that resolves the story’s complications. It provides not only a conclusion, but also an explanation.


“Dénouement suggests that you are relaxing all the tension that you built up in the story. Validation suggests that you are establishing for the reader what to take away from the story, what to make of it, and also suggests that you’re clearly signaling to the reader, “Yep, it really is over now.”

I can say that both of these versions of anticlimax are ways of letting the characters walk away from the ruins of the struggle. In one emphasis, they are catching their breath. In the other, they are realizing what it all meant. But there is liable to be a bit of dénouement in the validation and a bit of validation in the dénouement.” – Bruce

Wikipedia: “The Penultimate Peril… in Lemony Snicket‘s Series of Unfortunate Events, heavily emphasizes dénouement as a plot point (e.g., the character Dewey Denouement and the Hotel Denouement).

Some works have no dénouement, often because of a quick or surprise ending (e.g., Lord of the Flies).

One famous example of the detective dénouement is the explanatory speech given by a forensic pyschologist after the climax of the 1960 film Psycho.

In the TV show Monk, Adrian Monk often uses this method using the words “here’s what happened.” A black-and-white montage of the events prior to the murder accompanies his narration.”


The idea of the piece. The coherent line of thought in the hero and the line of thought propagated in the audience.


Aristotle’s Caveat applies: this term is from his description of Greek Tragedy.

“In Aristotle’s time, dianoia could be clearly tied to theme in that what the hero was thinking at the end was like a statement of theme. “I should never have put my own laws ahead of the laws of the gods. Just look at how I have destroyed myself by such a terrible misjudgment!” But for fiction writers in our time, dianoia and theme may be quite different. Certainly the line of thought of a character may be the opposite of what we want the reader to think.” – Bruce

Dramatic Irony

When the audience or readers know more than a character.


Wikipedia: For example:

  • In City Lights the audience knows that Charlie Chaplin‘s character is not a millionaire, but the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) is unaware and believes he’s rich.
  • In North by Northwest, the audience knows that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not Kaplan; Vandamm (James Mason) and his accomplices do not. The audience also knows that Kaplan is a fictitious agent invented by the CIA; Roger (initially) and Vandamm (throughout) do not.
  • In Oedipus the King, the reader knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer that he is seeking; Oedipus, Creon and Jocasta do not.
  • In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful to Othello, but Othello does not. The audience also knows that Iago is scheming to bring about Othello’s downfall, a fact hidden from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo.
  • In Cask of Amontillado, the reader knows something bad is going to happen to Fortunato, while Fortunato does not.
  • In The Truman Show, the viewer is aware that Truman is on a television show, but Truman himself only gradually learns this.
  • In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet speaks from her balcony, not realizing Romeo can hear her.”

Dramatic Series

Those events without which there would be no connected and meaningful story.


The character of a natural series is that we know how such things go, so we don’t need to be told again how they go. Whereas the dramatic series is unique, and if anything is left out, we won’t know what to imaginatively fill in. – Bruce


The verbal representation of a visual representation — the description of an artwork.


“Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray makes extensive use of this device, not only describing the picture in question, but also depicting its changes to reflect the title character’s corruption.” – Stefon


Also Reader Envy. An emotion that, when evoked in a reader by a reader’s experience of a character, can arouse intense interest in the reader. A reader might envy a character for any aspect of his or her fictional life. Even a character’s decision to pursue what he or she truly wants can create envy in a reader.

Coined by Dwight Swain, who said, “make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.”

Even more effective when combined with a Save the Cat scene.



A “moment of clarity” for a character; a revelation. Often the moment of epiphany is a highly poetic moment in the author’s writing style, extending the sensation of the epiphany to include the reader as well as the character.


I like adding the notion that it’s a poetic moment because epiphanies as James Joyce practiced them are moments of clarity, but are also generally beautiful or connected to images and sensations. The character comes to understand something, and character and reader together understand and feel…and are a little stunned. – Bruce

Event Story

A story about an effort to restore an old order or establish a new one to a world out of order (such as due to imbalance, injustice, breakdown, evil, decay, disease).


The event story structure is simple: It begins when the main characters become involved in the effort to heal the world’s disease, and ends when their either accomplish their goal or utterly fail to do so.” — Card, pp.53-54

A few of the examples Card gives include The Count of Monte Cristo and Oedipus Rex (the disaster is a crime unpunished or unavenged in these), Macbeth (a usurper), The Prince and the Pauper (person has lost his true position in the world), and The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever (evil force bent on destruction). – Stefon

Expository Lump

Packing a large amount of information about character or setting or both into a thick collection, divulged all at once. The author is trying to explain too much in too few words.


I’ve gotten exposition across through sheer subplot. One novel I wrote was about a girl and her father, living on a gigantic grounded spaceship on Saturn’s moon Titan, filled with religious pilgrims from Jupiter.

The story was to begin with a mysterious radio message they receive… but I couldn’t get there, because I needed pages just to cover who, what, where, and when. My subplot: The daughter was missing.

So page one was about a man looking for his daughter. Missing child, simple and visceral. As readers see him searching, they see he’s in a spaceship, they learn it’s on Titan, they meet secondary pilgrim characters, they get a little history, and by the time the father finds the daughter on page four, the exposition was all done. Ready for the radio message.

It fit the novel, because the girl was the type to wander off, and the father always struggled to protect her. – Steve

False Ending

A type of twist ending where the apparent conclusion of the story is provided, only to be unsettled by the true conclusion.


My favorite example is from the movie version of The Return of the King. That thing had *three* false endings, complete with at least one false fade to black.

The Ring is another good example, with the false ending getting shattered when the little boy says, “You weren’t supposed to help her!” And then the consequences begin.

I have trouble thinking of one from a novel, offhand, but I think that has to do with the page count problem Mullen talked about. It’s hard to buy into a false ending when there are still thirty pages to go. – Stefon


An interruption in chronological narration, almost always a memory, perhaps to provide exposition or address character or theme.

— Reed/White

Wikipedia: “The Harry Potter series employs a magical device called a Pensieve, which changes the nature of flashbacks from a mere narrative device to an event directly experienced by the characters, which are thus able to provide commentary.”

Flat Character

A character shown in just one or a limited set of aspects. Flat characters often exist to perform a single and usually brief function in a story (such as bring out the roundness of main characters; see Yin-Yang).


Found Fiction

A story that has a history of creation and a fictional provenance. That history is included somewhere in the text. The reader learns at some point that the novel is a physical, created thing within the reality of the novel — because one of the characters wrote the thing down. Stories in the form of letters or diary entries, or a message in a bottle, are typical examples.

Because Found Fiction is a story that pretends to be real, it is the opposite of Metafiction, a story that reminds the reader that it is not real.


Fred is the part of the writer that communicates indirectly, through dreams, hunches, intuitions and psychic hunches. It is also called the subconscious mind, the unconscious mind, and the deep mind.


Free Indirect Style

Narrative that sometimes reports what happens in a neutral fashion and other times slips into the words and thoughts of the viewpoint character.


Gentle Beginning

A beginning that is undramatic or only slightly dramatic. Any conflicts looming in such a beginning are only hinted at, and at the moment nothing dangerous seems at hand.



A character’s miscalculation or an error of misunderstanding about the way the world works. A blind spot, often a willful one.


Aristotle’s Caveat applies: this term is from his description of Greek Tragedy.

The “unlesson.”

“Blind spot” is good, better than “fatal flaw.” Each metaphor has its own strengths and weaknesses, so I favor including all of them in a definition. The weakness of “blind spot” is that it suggests that the flaw isn’t willful, which it sometimes is. That is, the flaw may be because of rigid adherence to some principles that the character has made the foundation of his worldview.” – Bruce

High Mimetic

High Mimetic characters operate in the “everyday” world, but they can function at a higher level than ordinary people. In comedy, high mimetic characters are often crowned king or queen. In tragedy, their downfall involves many people – the death of an entire noble family, the military destruction of a nation.


“In general I think one of the defining factors of a High Mimetic character is that his/her capacities might be at the limit of what a human can accomplish, but not do exceed it. Aragorn is another example we used at the residency.” – Stefon

“Because the protagonists of high mimetic are powerful and political characters, their downfall is more than just personal, but brings down a noble family, a royal line, or even results in the military destruction of a nation. High mimetic tragedy is liable to have a high body count.” – Bruce

Superheroes are all over the Frye spectrum. I’d say Batman is high mimetic, Spider-Man is romantic, and Superman is mythic. – Steve

Idea Story

A story in which a problem or question is posed at the beginning, and at the end of the tale the answer is revealed. Mysteries are the classic examples.


The SF “puzzle” stories of Larry Niven are like this. In fact, SF pretty much owns the Idea Story.

Implied Author

The author at his or her philosophical best, wise and compassionate.


“The Implied Author is a term from Wayne Booth. It refers to the better self that we try to exhibit when we are writing. The Implied Author is probably more wise and compassionate than the real flesh-and-blood writer who on an average day might be rather cranky.” – Bruce

I think Booth, below, says that readers imagine an author, whether the author likes it or not. So an author had best consider the image of himself that he’s creating. (One way is authority through Intertextuality.)

“Booth not only argued… that readers will always infer the existence of an author behind any text they encounter. He also claimed that readers always draw conclusions about the beliefs and judgments (and also, conclusions about the skills and “success”) of a text’s implied author, along the text’s various lines of interest:

“However impersonal he may try to be, his readers will inevitably construct a picture of the official scribe who writes in this manner — and of course that official scribe will never be neutral toward all values. Our reaction to his various commitments, secret or overt, will help to determine our response to the work.”

Wikipedia, “Wayne C. Booth”

Implied Contract

The unspoken deal between the author and the reader. The reader invests time and money, and the author presents a satisfying narrative. The author will keep the reader in mind and will present an ending that fits the beginning.

— White/White

“That is your first contract with the reader — you will end what you began.” — Card, from Characters & Viewpoint, p. 55.

Inset Narrative

A story within a story which acts as a “side trip” from the main story. Tales of the Arabian Nights is a classic example of an inset narrative.


“I’d say that a frame and an inset narrative refer to different proportions. If there’s a little bit of frame at the beginning and end and most of the substance is not in the frame, but the story it contains, then we tend to talk about the frame. On the other hand, if most of the story happens before and after the inset narrative and the inset narrative is a sort of side trip from the main story, then I don’t think we’re likely to call that main story a “frame.”

A frame decorates the story within it. An inset narrative decorates the story it is told within. So either the “frame” or the “inset story” represents a small proportion of the whole.” – Bruce

Intense Beginning

A beginning that is highly dramatic and demonstrates or indicates immediate conflict. Danger is here, or very close by and ready to spring.



Writing that depends a lot on the reader’s awareness of other texts, usually through reference or imitation. The danger here is that it can be less effective for readers who do not know the references.


“One can speak of the degree to which a story or novel is intertextual, and in workshop, you might be discussing a work that alludes so much and so often to other works, that imitates passages that the reader must know in order to understand the writer’s intention, so that what you want to tell the writer that the story will be too intertextual for any reader but a PhD in comparative literature to appreciate.” – Bruce

I think I like Intertextuality as a writer, because it’s a way of shaping the Implied Author. Highly intertextualized (6 syllables, oh yeah) stories show me that the author knows the genre, is an authority, and that I’m in capable hands.

Intrusive Author

A narrative style where the author calls attention to him/herself as the teller of the tale. Intrusive authors can be implicit or explicit, addressing the reader directly.


“The author can intrude without addressing the reader except implicitly. Any time the author calls attention to himself as the teller of the tale, that’s intrusive whether the reader is overtly brought into it or not. “Here the story stops for a moment, and the scenery steps forward as the focus. The bricks that Nelson sees from his apartment were laid down over a hundred years ago…” The author is making us aware of the story as story, and the author is necessarily addressing the reader, but not by name and not by using the second person…

Certainly there are degrees of intrusion, but I would say that any of them separates the reader from the flow of events. Whatever the degree of intrusion, it’s still an intrusion. The author had better deliver by giving me something better than the normal continuation of the story!” – Bruce

Ironic (Mode)

In Frye’s Theory of Modes, ironic characters are physically, mentally or morally less than normal human beings. Ironic is the mode below low mimetic. Examples include Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Quoyle from The Shipping News, or any of the suspects in a typical murder mystery. In Ironic Comedy, an ironic character is integrated into society. In Ironic Tragedy, the character is cut off from society (perhaps exiled or killed).

— Mears/White

Wikipedia (“Anatomy of Criticism”): “The ironic mode [of tragedy] often shows the death or suffering of a protagonist who is both weak and pitiful compared to the rest of humanity and the protagonist’s environment; Franz Kafka‘s works provide many examples of such. At other times, the protagonist is not necessarily weaker than the average person yet suffers severe persecution at the hands of a deranged society. Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s Hester Prynne, Hardy’s Tess, and the sentencing of Jesus Christ exemplify this treatment…

Ironic comedy is perhaps more difficult, and Frye devotes a good deal more space to this than the other comedic modes. At one extreme, ironic comedy borders on savagery, the inflicting of pain on a helpless victim. Some examples of this include tales of lynch mobs, murder mysteries, or human sacrifice. Yet ironic comedy may also offer biting satire of a society replete with snobbery. It may even depict a protagonist rejected by society (thus failing the typical comic reintegration) yet who appears wiser than the rejecting society. Aristophanes, Ben Jonson, Molière, Henry Fielding, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Graham Greene offer examples of the wide range of ironic comic possibility.”

Low Mimetic

Low mimetic characters are “everyday” people. In comedy, low mimetic characters often end up getting married. In tragedy, they die, get sent to prison, are exiled.


Wikipedia (“Anatomy of Criticism”): “Low mimetic tragedy shows the death or sacrifice of an ordinary human being and evokes pathos, as with Thomas Hardy‘s Tess or Henry James‘s Daisy Miller….

Low mimetic comedy often shows the social elevation of the hero or heroine and often ends in marriage.”


Originally, a dramatic genre in which theme music (melodies) played for each character when s/he appeared onstage. The modern use of melodrama indicates a story in which the author’s manipulation is showing.


I think there’s a potential for an unreliable-narrator sort of trick here. Suppose that within a story, one character tells a story to another character. You want the reader to suspect the veracity of the told story or the teller’s reasons for telling it. So make the telling melodramatic. What you want is for the reader to see that this is a manipulative telling of a story.” – Bruce


A type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. Typically this is done repeatedly throughout a story, so that the reader is constantly reminded that he or she is reading fiction.


One metafictional technique: Intertextuality. For the opposite of Metafiction, see Found Fiction.

Wikipedia: Some common metafictive devices in novels include:

Metaphoric Faults

1) Dead Metaphors or Cliche Metaphors: Metaphors so familiar they have lost the force of their original meaning. Perhaps confused in the forum with Overdone Metaphors. A metaphor can become so cliched that it works its way into literal meaning, eg, “firebrand.”

2) Far-fetched Metaphors: Surprising, but not apt metaphors. The imagination has to make too big of a leap. If the Far-fetched Metaphor is explained, it becomes an Overdone Metaphor and thus a Conceit. Without the explanation, it may just be damn confusing or silly. My example: “He looked as out of place as a porcupine at a bunny convention.”

3) Mixed Metaphors: Metaphors which compare the original image with things from two or more different areas of reference. “Don’t burn your bridges before they’re hatched.” Generally, mixing metaphors is not a horrible crime, because there are simply too many examples from popular novels in which they work just fine. No examples here, sorry.

4) Obscure Metaphors: The similarity the author sees between the two images isn’t translating onto the page. This blends a little too well with Far-fetched Metaphors.

5) Overdone metaphors: Over-explaining of a metaphor, the result of which is that the metaphor is rammed down the reader’s throat. If a metaphor requires explanation, it is a Conceit. Bruce might say that an Overdone Metaphor is in fact a Cliched Metaphor.



This includes both the physical locations of the story and every aspect of the culture in which it takes place. Milieu centered stories teach the reader about the setting, often with a sparsely defined MC, in whose shoes the reader can place himself. Standard format: the story begins with the arrival of someone from outside of the milieu. Over the course of the story, that character gets to know the place/culture. The story ends when this character is leaving the milieu.


Card mentions Dune and LOTR, I’d add Niven’s Ringworld, and if customs, laws, etc are included, then One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (where the milieu is an insane asylum). Blake Snyder’s movie genre “Institutionalized” would fall here.

Wall Street (Wall street, outsider Charlie Sheen)
Goodfellas (The mob, outsider Ray Liotta)
American Beauty (Suburbia, outsider Kevin Spacey)

Mythic Mode

A step above Romantic on Frye’s scale. Mythic characters are gods, or beings with godlike powers, like Superman or Zeus. Zalazny’s Chronicles of Amber is an example.

Wikipedia (“Anatomy of Criticism”): “Mythic tragedy deals with the death of gods… Mythic comedy deals with acceptance into the society of gods, often through a number of trials as with Hercules or through salvation or assumption as in the Bible.”


That which is narrated. Oops, that’s circular! Any reported sequence of events. Anything that is storytelling.


I disagree that narrative is “storytelling,” because a story is held to a higher standard than something narrated. So let’s trim the definition:

Narrative – A reported sequence of events.

Narrative Hook

An opening so arresting that your reader is compelled to go on with the story. It is also a promise to the reader, and must be honest and fit the story.


Your hook had better tell the truth. It’s a promise to the reader, so don’t get carried away.

Wikipedia: “One of the most common forms is dramatic action, which engages the reader into wondering what the consequences of the action will be. This particular form has been recommended from the earliest days, stemming from Aristotle, and the widely used term in medias res stems from the Roman Empire. But action is not, in itself, a hook, without the reader’s wondering what will happen next, or what caused the actions to occur.”

Natural Series of Events

The everyday events and character actions that are not essential to the story, but that are nevertheless entertaining and reveal character, setting, or any element that the reader might enjoy knowing more about. A story may be sprinkled with Natural events as a sort of camouflage, to make it look like reality and to fuel the suspension of disbelief.

— White/White

Novel Dog
Sam the Novel Dog
The cute greyhound who likes to crash various posts on this blog. He runs fast and sleeps hard.

Omniscient POV

This all-knowing Point of View conveys information from outside the perspective of any single character. It can give views into the motivations or history of many characters or events in a single scene, or provide information unavailable to any character, without necessarily breaking reader expectation.

— Mears/White

On-the-Nose Dialogue

A form of bad dialogue where the characters state exactly what they want. It leaves nothing for the reader to interpret or actively understand.


This dialogue may relate to a Natural Series of Events or Melodrama. I dislike On-the-nose Dialogue because it’s melodramatic.

“On-the-nose is utilitarian and direct. I think that “Well, that makes me mad!” is both utilitarian and direct…and boring. A complicating feature is that when an emotion is just reported, I don’t want to believe it. If the narrator tells me, “John got angry,” I believe it only a little. If John says, “I’m angry,” I believe it less since people have reason to lie about their emotions. If I see John’s hand shake as he picks up the vase, studies it, and hurls it to the floor, I believe that there’s some emotion there. I may not know for sure how to label the emotion yet, but I strongly believe it’s there. – Bruce


Spectacle, whether in story, plot, or language. Opsis can be sex, violence, special effects or just a really cool turn of phrase.


Aristotle’s Caveat applies: this term is from his description of Greek Tragedy. (“For Aristotle no contribution of the writer was really opsis since the spectacle was all the stagecraft applied to the text after the writer was done.” – Bruce)


1) (Grammatical) The use of simple sentences without coordinating conjunctions (but,or, yet, for, and, nor, so).

2) (Psychological) The use of simple sentences without coordinating conjunctions, with the exception of “and,” which is a conjunction, but one which conveys no information about how the clauses relate.


“I think Mullan muddies the issue a little when he uses examples of sentences that are connected with “and.” From a grammatical perspective, these examples are not really parataxis because “and” is a coordinating conjunction. In practice, though, Mullan is right. “And” is the least informative of the conjunctions, telling the reader nothing about causal relationships. Psychologically, then, we can reasonably consider narratives that use only the conjunction “and” to be examples of parataxis.

What does this mean for the uberglossary? I’d like you to know these distinctions: the grammatical definition (no conjunctions) and the psychological definition (no conjunctions except for “and,” which is actually a conjunction that contributes no information about how the clauses relate).

In essays, the essay form of the mosaic is large-scale parataxis. If I write about three experiences that I have had with chairs without explaining how they are related or without transitions, the reader will try to figure out how those three experiences are presented together to get at some idea. What idea? The reader has to try to find the relationship with only the evidence that I presented these three episodes together.

So I think that describing the sentence style of parataxis helps to explain the larger-scale style of putting things next to each other to demand that the reader detect how they relate to one another. ” – Bruce


1) Patch-work Pastiche: a work assembled using a medley of different styles and traditions.

2) Homage Pastiche: writing in an imitation of another type of writing.


Pathetic Fallacy

Ascribing feelings to things that do not have them. Saying that a storm cloud is angry is pathetic fallacy. The term was coined by John Ruskin, and “pathetic” refers to the ability to feel emotion. Though Ruskin called it a “fallacy,” it can enhance fiction if used with the right narrative voice and in a way that avoids cliché.

— White/White

I wonder if the key to success with regard to describing setting details is to defamiliarize, as Lodge describes Dickens doing in Bleak House (Lodge, p. 87). For example:

“The sea was angry that day” (cliche)
“the waves collided at disagreeing angles” – Janet


A reversal; the moment in the plot when the reader thinks “well, now he’s doomed.”


Aristotle’s Caveat applies: this term is from his description of Greek Tragedy.

“Aristotle felt that a good drama had one peripeteia and one anagnorisis. The story could be looked at as a rising action before the reversal and/or discovery and as a falling action after. The story changes directions thanks to one or both of these moments…

So in his theory, peripeteia refers to a shift in the direction of the story. At the moment of peripeteia, there is a reversal. The character begins to fall from that moment. In terms of the hero’s fortunes, it’s all downhill after this reversal. In Greek drama, I think the hero always knew that things had turned bad at this moment, but the character wouldn’t necessarily have to know that. The audience has to see it, though.” – Bruce


Story plus causality. Or rather, narrative plus causality. An arrangement of narrative events designed to create anticipation in the reader. The purpose of plot is to keep the reader turning pages.



A technique of storytelling that constantly reminds the reader, “I am telling you a story.” Stand-up comedy is the classic example. “Tell me” narrative. See Window Metaphor below.


Presentation always reminds the reader, “I am telling you a story, which you are now reading.” The reader sometimes enters the story as with representation, but not for long. The presentational story keeps finding ways to say, “This is a story.” – Bruce

Is it me, or does this overlap with metafiction? Not really. Presentational can refer to style, such as poetic language, that reminds the reader that this is writing, and not a fictional dream.


A narrative technique which lets the reader know up front what will happen later in the story. Prolepsis is the rhetorical trick of anticipation, the present “telling” about the future through an intrusive author.


Prolepsis is not foreshadowing or flashing forward.

“The key word is “rhetorical.”

Prolepsis is *telling* us something about the future. Foreshadowing is manipulating the events that are shown in the present to get the reader to worry about particular things in the future. The present doesn’t yet “know” what the future holds, but the universe seems to be throwing hints at our feet. The universe, not the author.

Flashing forward is simply cutting and pasting time, and whatever moment we’re in is the “now” of the story, even as we jump forward and back in time. That is, it’s still all showing, and still all present-time.
So prolepsis is both the present commenting on the future *and* is telling rather than showing. You have to have an intrusive narrator to write prolepsis.” – Bruce

Railroad Dialogue

Any dialogue that is for the author’s convenience, and it shows. People aren’t saying what they would say. They are saying what the writer needs for them to say. The As-You-Know-Bob is a subcategory of this.


In other words, the characters are speaking to get exposition across or to reach a plot point. This is unrealistic and not believable.

Railroad Plot (Device)

Any plot device that obviously occurs for the writer’s convenience, no matter how unlikely it may be. This includes character actions and decisions (“let’s split up and look for the monster!” “There’s an intruder? Well, instead of calling the police I’ll put on my robe and investigate, unarmed and by myself.”), fortunate coincidences (“A meteor landed on the villain?”), and so forth.



Forcing the story where the writer wants it to go, regardless of how foolish or unreasonable the characters look in the process. It breaks down further into two subcategories: Railroad Dialog and Railroad Plot (see above).


The heart of it is that the characters are serving the writer, rather than acting like real people. Since writers are usually nasty to their characters, that means that the characters are acting in self-destructive ways — in other words, stupidly. – Steve


A technique of storytelling that tries the draw the reader deeply into the story, giving it the illusion of reality. “Show me” narrative. See Window Metaphor below.


Here we have our fictional uninterrupted dream. No metafiction, no fancy distracting style, no intertextuality, just pure story. Interestingly, Found Fiction is a representative tool.


In Frye’s Theory of Modes, a romantic character is superhuman or semi-divine. Examples include Conan as Howard wrote him, King Arthur, Odysseus, and Gandalf.

In a Romantic Tragedy a great hero dies. In a Romantic Comedy, the hero is incorporated into an idyllic or pastoral scene.

— Mears/White

Superheroes are all over the Frye spectrum. I’d say Batman is high mimetic, Spider-Man is romantic, and Superman is mythic. – Steve

Wikipedia (“Anatomy of Criticism”): “Romantic tragedy features elegies mourning the death of heroes such as Arthur or Beowulf… In romantic comic modes, the setting is pastoral or idyllic, and there is an integration of the hero with an idealized simplified form of nature.”

Round Character

A character that is shown in a variety of different aspects; a complex character. Main characters are usually round characters.


See Yin-Yang Characterization for an effective way to create round characters.

“Save the Cat” Scene

A particular scene crafted to show a character’s sympathetic or moral side to the reader, so the reader feels connected to the character and is willing to take the story seriously.

Coined by screenwriter Blake Snyder, who wrote, “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”

— White/White

Sequential Summary

A summary of events related in order but compressed, so a long duration within a story takes place in only a few words or sentences (contrast circumstantial summary).

— Mears/White

Sequential Suspension of Disbelief

A type of metafiction (see definition above) where the reader enters the “fictive dream” for long periods of time before being told of the fiction-within-the-fiction. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is an example of sequential Suspension of Disbelief.


“The technique of catching the reader up in a narrative that seems like it is the main narrative, but which will be revealed to be someone else’s novel or script or plot treatment. The reader will be jolted out of one dream but will be allowed to settle into another one. The key to making the jolt pleasant rather than irritating is to have planted hints in the text-within-the-story that it *is* a text, that it is not the actual story.” – Bruce

Related to the Vase/Faces Plot.

Single Character Objective

A 3rd person POV where the reader cannot see the interior thoughts of any of the characters. Instead, it’s as though we are looking through a camera which has the same view as the character’s eyes. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is an example of SCO.


It is not really that we see through the character’s eyes. We see through the character’s consciousness.” – Bruce

Single Character Subjective

This Point of View conveys information from the limited perspective of a single narrator, who can be Reliable or Unreliable. Readers can know about other characters only what the point-of-view character knows about them, so readers can see them from the outside, and the viewpoint character can only infer their thoughts (and may be incorrect in those inferences).

— Mears/White


A type of first-person narration that has the characteristics of the spoken rather than the written word. Skaz uses vernacular grammar and colloquial speech, embellishments and mistakes. It is often present-tense speech, to give the feel of a spontaneous, oral performance. “Catcher in the Rye” is narrated using skaz.


My favorite example of skaz is “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess: “The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither.” – Stefon

Jargon is what firefighters REALLY say; skaz is what we writers create.


A satisfying narrative, usually conveying the sense that something significant happened.


If a plot is a narrative that shows causality, then a story is a satisfying plot, says I.

Stream of Consciousness

A character’s thoughts presented as they occur — thoughts, feelings, leaps of association, memories, fantasies.


“Examples (from Wikipedia list):
On the Road, Kerouac
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey
seemingly everything, Bret Easton Ellis” – Janet

Situational Irony

When the opposite of what the audience expects is what happens. Also called Cosmic Irony.


Summary Scene

When the writer describes what habitually happened, but describes it with the sort of detail you’d provide in a scene. A presentation of summary action in the form of a scene.



Every day that month, Mrs. Farkas came into the bakery and asked what had come out of the oven most recently, then invariably asked for something else. She stood leaning on her cane while Balasz wrapped her purchase in paper, then took a long time to count out the exact coins from her purse. Then she counted them again as she laid them, one at a time, on the glass counter. “Until the next time,” Balasz would say, and she would answer, “Indeed,” or “Until then.” ” – Bruce


An object or event that represents something beyond itself.


With a concept like this, the broader the definition, the better. We probably can’t nail it down much more than this without falling into a rabbit hole. – Bruce


“The part standing for the whole.” A form of symbolic language in which a part of a thing or person is used to stand for the whole. Nicknames are constructed this way when the kid with the biggest nose is called The Nose. An author may either name a character for a certain characteristic, or simply focus attention on this aspect that is going to stand for the whole person.

Metonymy is a related term, in which we use something associated with a person or institution to mean the whole of that person or institution. A crown is not part of a queen the way that her nose is, but the crown can mean the person of the queen or, more commonly, the entire institution of royalty. In the same way that the person with the big nose may be called The Nose in life or in fiction, the thug who always wears a sharkskin suit may be called “Sharkskin” by the author or by other characters.

— Mears/White


The attitude of the voice providing the narration; the personality or emotional color of the text.

— Reed/White

Wikipedia: “In many cases, the tone of a piece of work may change or evolve. Elements of tone include diction, or word choice; syntax, the grammatical arrangement of words in a text for effect; imagery, or vivid appeals to the senses; details, facts that are included or omitted; extended metaphor, language that compares seemingly unrelated things throughout the composition.”


An ending scene (or perhaps only a few words) that announces the end of the story, eases the reader back to the world from the story, or confirms the meaning of the story for the reader. One brief, effective example is the end of John Collier’s “The Chaser.

— White/White

See Dénouement.

Vase/Faces Plot

A type of plot based on the familiar image that can be seen either as a vase or two faces looking at one another. The successful vase/faces plot will be seen as a Vase story with clues planted that nag at the reader that something is amiss until it is revealed that it is, in fact, a two faces story. The film The Sixth Sense is an example of a vase/faces plot.


“A common technique is little errors of verisimilitude that actually aren’t errors if the story is about two faces, but that look like mistakes in a vase story. They just can’t be big mistakes. They have to rattle the suspension of disbelief without breaking it.” – Bruce

This is related to, or a particular example of, Sequential Suspension of Disbelief.

Window Metaphor

“A window of plain glass (a utilitarian style) lets the reader see the picture on the other side. A window made of cut crystal (a more elaborate style) lets the reader see the picture on the other side, and also shows how beautiful the glass itself is (at some cost to clear vision). A window of stained glass (highly stylized) may make the picture on the other side of the glass very hard to see, but the glass itself is remarkably beautiful. You can find readers who prefer each kind of window or style.

“I think that Representation aims for the plainest possible window. Presentation provides a window that in some way keeps reminding the reader that there’s a window there.”

— Holland Rogers/Mears

Yin-Yang Complexity

A clear way to portray a character as well-rounded is to give the character contradictory traits. For example, a man may be jealous toward his girlfriend, but obsequious toward his mother (usually, secondary characters are the catalysts that bring out the complexity in main characters). The presence of opposite emotions, and the internal conflict that results, is the key to round characters. They are a paradox, just as real people are.

Robert McKee: “Consider Hamlet, the most complex character ever written… He seems spiritual until he’s blasphemous. To Ophelia he’s first loving and tender, then callous, even sadistic. He’s courageous, then cowardly. At times he’s cool and cautious, then impulsive and rash, as he stabs someone behind a curtain without knowing who’s there. Hamlet is ruthless and compassionate, proud and self-pitying, witty and sad, weary and dynamic, lucid and confused, sane and mad. His is an innocent worldliness, a worldly innocence, a living contradiction of almost any human qualities we could imagine.”



The author’s addition of tiny successes and failures, ups and downs, moment to moment, in a character’s struggle. Zigzagging enhances the reader’s sense of tension in a given scene, and would make the great inverted checkmark of a story’s plot appear microscopically jagged, in a fractal way. Coined by Jerome Stern in Making Shapely Fiction. He also calls it “micro-plotting.”

— White/White

9 Responses to Slang for Writers

  1. Just when I thought I knew everything about writing! Steve, these are great. Thanks for posting.

  2. Abi says:

    These are really useful, thanks!

  3. Sara C. says:

    I am sooo glad I found this–with a week before Bruce’s terribly intimidating final, and still not knowing the difference between epiphany and anagnorisis. I mean, we have the uberglossary, but not with all of Bruce’s examples and comments. Yay!!

  4. Ruth Layne says:

    This is so great. What a wonderful tool for us un-educated folk.

  5. […] The Slang for Writers I found is more about writing and plot development terms, so not relevant to this post. Good to read, though. Consider it a bonus. […]

  6. Brian Poe says:

    Brian Poe

    Slang for Writers | Novel Dog

  7. Thanks to my father who informed me about this blog, this blog is really awesome.

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