Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction

by David Smith

This is only a partial list of the terms we have found most useful in critiquing sf. The glossary is issued now and then … but it is a living document. Amendments are welcome. If you use additional terms, or have better examples than those listed here, please suggest them.

  • Action outline presents the plot and conflicts with little regard for staging. The author is describing a world idea, not telling the story. An action outline is a synopsis of a book not yet written; it is a precursor to a scene outline. See Scene Outline.
  • At stake. Drama is powerful if something is at stake: that is, if the characters involved have something to gain and something to lose. The reader must have something at stake as well — a desire to see the outcome. Usually this is either a stake in the theme, in the characters and their aspirations, or in the resolution of the conflict. When nothing is at stake, there is no drama. (Jim Morrow)
  • Author surrogate. A character whom the author, consciously or unconsciously, models after himself. Such characters (e.g. Jubal Harshaw, Stranger in a Strange Land) often dominate the story when they should not, or acquire too many positive attributes, too few faults. Author surrogates often hog the point of view to the detriment of other characters.
  • Authorism. Inappropriate intrusion of the writer’s physical surroundings, mannerisms, or prejudices into the narrative. Overtly, characters pour cups of coffee whenever they’re thinking, because that’s what the author does. More subtly, characters sit around doing nothing but complaining that they don’t know what to do … because the author doesn’t know either. (Tom Disch)
  • Backfill. Providing background in the storyline flow, rather than in a prolog. Many devices are available: flashback, lecture (generally static and to be avoided), dream sequence, explanation to an ignorant character. A subset of Exposition.
  • Bait and switch. When an author encourages the reader to invest attention in a developing emotional or suspenseful situation (‘bait’), only to substitute (‘switch’) a high-action payoff which has nothing to do with the previous development, or a POV cut so that the expected climax is unresolved but instead left to the reader’s imagination. A bad habit because it leaves the reader feeling vaguely unfulfilled and unwilling to invest energy in future setups, because the reader doubts that paying attention will be rewarded. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov.)
  • Begin fallacy. Describing action that is introduced to the reader for the first time by saying that so-and-so ‘began to’ <verb>. Eliminating the ‘began to’ almost always strengthens the text. A detail of Style.
  • Big scene. A scene is big when its drama is powerful and when the drama is central to the theme. Big scenes should occur at regular intervals, neither bunched too closely together nor strung too far apart. (Jim Morrow)
  • Black box scene analysis. A convenient means of evaluating how important a scene is. Think of the scene as a black box: characters go in to it and come out of it. What have they gained or lost? What irrevocable things have happened? How are they different people afterwards than before? The black-box scene analysis is a useful means of separating local dexterity (entertaining imagery) from important plot or character development. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Blood and guts. Describes an event or scene which involves characters in their fundamental, primal desires, stripped of convention, artifice, or propriety. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Bogus alternatives. Cumbersome narration of infeasible actions which a character didn’t take because it would mess up the story. Usually goes overboard and includes long-winded explanations why. If you’re going to handwave past a dumb choice, the faster you do it, the better. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Bridge. A sentence or paragraph which connects two different scenes together. Often used to get into and out of flashbacks.
  • Caesar’s palmtop. A handy device an author introduces, in all innocence, whose existence in this particular fictional universe implies a huge offstage infrastructure that demands so much overhead explanation that it knocks the reader out of paying attention to the story. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Card tricks in the dark. Authorial cleverness to no visible purpose. Wit without dramatic payoff. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Characters. Those who people the premise, affect it and are affected by it. The best characters are complex, with good and bad points, triumphs and tragedies. They face moral choices. Over the course of the story, they evolve and their evolution mirrors the theme the author is after. They care strongly and face obstacles, and because of these the reader cares strongly for them. Examples of excellence: Herbert, The Dragon in the Sea, Sparrow, Ramsey, Bonnett; Silverberg, The Man in the Maze, Muller, Boardman, Rawlins.
  • Chekhov’s gun. If you put a gun onstage in Act I, Chekhov once wrote, you must use it by Act III. A Chekhov’s gun is a fictional element (threat, character, mystery, prize, challenge) introduced early and with fanfare and in which the author expects the reader to invest. That investment must pay off with deployment later in the story even if the Chekhov’s gun then disappears offstage for a long interval. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Chewing the furniture. Characters who are over-emoting for their situations. The term is adapted from the theater, where it is used to describe poor actors who ham it up. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Chrome. From the chrome on an automobile. Scenic detail which has no plot significance but brings a place, character or period to life. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Clever-author syndrome. Where an author shows off with some literary fireworks — ten-dollar vocabulary, obscure references, overly artful constructions — which remind us how smart the author is but detract from the story. (CSFW: David Smith).
  • Conflate. ‘To blow together': to combine two similar dramatic elements (such as characters or scenes) to eliminate dramatic redundancy.
  • Conflict. The opposition of forces between focus characters and their surroundings: either other focus characters or ‘natural forces’ (which include, in addition to the elements, peripheral characters). One can have conflict without drama, but it is almost impossible to have drama without conflict.
  • Cookie. An element, not necessary to the plot, which rewards the reader who has been paying careful attention. Ideally, a cookie is a clever turn of phrase, an image, an allusion, or some other element of richness which the lazy reader will pass by Then the careful reader, who finds it, realizes that the author has left this small package just as a reward for paying attention … and that, in turn, encourages the reader to pay even more attention. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Countersinking. Expositional redundancy, usually performed by an author who isn’t confident of his storytelling: making the actions implied in the story explicit. “‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, urging her to leave.” (Lewis Shiner)
  • Dare to be stupid. An exhortation by a critic to an author whom the critic thinks is not stretching enough. Authors grow by daring to write bolder, more imaginative, more personal, or more emotionally powerful situations and confrontations. Since writing that stretches is by definition unpracticed, the result may be rougher than a less ambitious effort. The author must trust the critics to recognize the stretch and help the author build or expand his talents. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Destage. To move offstage action which has been shown onstage. Things can be intentionally destaged (when they’re undramatic) or unintentionally (when the author’s staged the wrong things). (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Destination. The emotional endpoint of a story: where the author’s intent coincides and rings with the action in the story, where the experiential contract between writer and reader is fulfilled. The author sets out to create certain responses in the reader; the destination is the place where the author does so. One may have plot destinations (Frodo gets to the Crack of Doom), character destinations (Frodo masters the Ring and himself), or understanding destinations (Frodo learns he’s adult and strong enough to scour the Shire). But stories must always have destinations. In the best writing, the characters’ struggle involves multiple destinations that relate to one another (inner and outer journeys echo each other). (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Deus ex machina. Miraculous (often offstage) solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. Look, the Martians all caught cold and died! (Lewis Shiner)
  • Disengage (to). A reader who is not paying close attention to the text is disengaged. Offstage action or a poorly-realized fictional dream disengage the reader: he skips or skims sentences, paragraphs, pages or whole chapters. The ultimate disengagement is the reader who puts down the book without bothering to finish it.

An author must use both carrot and stick with the reader. Punish a reader who disengages, by making sure that necessary material is woven throughout the book, so that nothing may be skipped. Reward a reader who engages, by making every scene alive, tight, and well-written.

  • Drama. The ability to create powerful scenes, to present conflicts in a way which grips the reader, whether or not the storyline is believable. The tension of conflict forms the bedrock of drama. Example: Bester, The Demolished Man. Drama differs from conflict because drama takes place exclusively onstage, and in a manner the reader engages. Drama differs from staging to the extent that the drama is the conflict present in the situation, staging the extent to which it is realized in front of the reader. Badly staged conflict loses most of the force of its inherent drama.
  • Easter egg. Adapted from computer programming, a specialized form of cookie in which the author ‘hides’ some surprise, not germane to the story (indeed, often irrelevant or irreverent), deep within the text, to be discovered only by the closest possible reading. For instance, in Quest of the Three Worlds, Cordwainer Smith encoded, as the first letters of consecutive sentences, the phrases KENNEDY SHOT and OSWALD TOO, without disrupting the flow of his narrative. Tuckerizing is a form of easter egg. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Economy. At the beginning of a story, the author invests words in introducing characters, premise, plot. The reader invests time. By the end of the story, those elements should pay off. A story is economical if all elements introduced pay off, preferably in many different ways. Stories which introduce elements that later prove largely irrelevant are uneconomical, lead the reader to disengagement. Good Varley (Millennium, Ophiuchi Hotline) is extremely economical. The epic form can sustain a certain intentional use of uneconomic structure; indeed, it may be said to be part of the epic form. Wolfe, Book of the New Sun, is lavishly and deliberately uneconomical. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Edges of Ideas. The places where technology and background should come onstage: not the mechanics of a new event, gizmo, or political structure, but rather how people’s lives are affected by their new background. Example of excellence: the opening chapters of Orwell’s 1984. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Emotional Circuit Breaker. A tendency in an author to cut away from a scene when the stakes get high, just as it is reaching its emotional peak, often followed by a lower-stakes retelling or narration of the same events (but safely removed in time or space). Generally speaking, the emotional circuit breaker is a bad thing, because it deprives the reader of the tension and excitement created by the immediacy. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Emotional Disturbance. The internal corollary to the out-of-whack event, it represents a character whose inner state is fundamentally unstable and who must do something assertive to restore equilibrium. Often the out-of-whack event triggers the emotional disturbance, but sometimes a character’s emotional disturbance can be the reason the out-of-whack event occurs. (CSFW: Pete Chvany)
  • Empathic Universe. A common feature of melodramatic or romantic writing, it occurs when the author customizes the environment to match the protagonist’s moods. Lightning flashes as a Gothic horror opens; fog descends when the protagonist is confused; rain falls on funerals but the sun returns when the mourner becomes hopeful. Usually overused. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Engage (to). Used intransitively, it means a reader who is paying close attention. Used transitively, it means an author or a piece of fiction that forces the reader to pay close attention. A reader who is engaged is following closely, intent on capturing everything that occurs in the story. The stronger the reader’s engagement, the stronger the fictional dream. Stories which are economical, and in which the important events occur onstage, engage the reader. Readers are also engaged when scenes are so vital, alive and well realized that the reader cannot skip past them. See Local Dexterity. Setting action offstage, or including inefficient material, causes the reader to disengage. Puzzle-oriented mysteries engage the reader, because anything and everything may be a clue. The primary objective of the first four pages of any story is to hook and engage the reader. Whatever its flaws, Dune accomplishes this by the striking visuals of its early scenes. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Exposition. Directly conveying information from author to reader. This may be done through overt description by an omniscient narrator, a mental movie camera inside the head of a point-of-view character, dialog among characters, and other ways. In exposition, normally less is more; it’s better to learn a setting as a byproduct of engaging action than through exposition.
  • Expository lump. A chunk of exposition that, whether or not relevant to the plot, is insufficiently integrated into the story being told. As such, is seems to come from left field, as if a page from an encyclopedia accidentally got shuffled in. Asimov is famous for these. A subheading, known as “I’ve Suffered For My Art (And Now It’s Your Turn)” occurs when the author, having done masses of boring research, proves this by unloading them on the stunned reader.
  • Eyeball kick. A perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image. (Rudy Rucker)
  • Fast forward. The literary convention of shortcutting things the reader already knows but the characters may not. Example: Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin: “I got home and told Wolfe everything that had happened since I stumbled over Helaine Bradford’s body in Adam Roberts’ room. He grunted occasionally and belched when I was done.”) Especially handy in mysteries. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Fat writing. A plethora of unnecessary and grandiose verbiage — too many words. A woman “saw me abandon my wagon and shovel for greener pastures and intersected me” could become a woman “across the street stopped me.” Why not be simple? Also known as verdant greenery. (CSFW: Sarah Smith)
  • Ficelle character. From the French word for ‘string,’ a term used by Henry James to denote a character who exists simply to move the plot or drama from place to place. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Rosencranz and Guildenstern are ficelle characters. Vladimir Nabokov called them peri characters. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov)
  • Fictional dream. The illusion that there is no filter between reader and events, that the reader is actually experiencing what he is reading. The stronger the fictional dream, the more immediate the story. Disrupting the fictional dream is usually bad. Pointless digressions, expository lumps, lists, turgid prose, unrealistic characters, or a premise with holes in it, all disrupt the fictional dream. (John Gardner)
  • Film it. A self-test of critiquing. To judge a scene or chapter, mentally convert it into a movie or screenplay. This effectively subtracts all narration and exposition and leaves only description, dialog, and action. Things which shrink dramatically when filmed are heavy on telling, light on showing. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • First-draft-itis. Various flaws which everyone, including the author, agrees immediately should be corrected. E.g.: a character who has blue eyes in Chapter 2 has brown eyes in Chapter 7; or an important feature of the society which is first manifested in Chapter 20 and implicitly contradicted in what was written before. See Retrofit.
  • Focus character. A character who serves a dramatic purpose greater than simply illustrating or illuminating the world — a character about whom the reader cares even when he’s offstage. Focus characters have distinct personalities; they further the themes and interact directly with other focus characters. In Lord of the Rings, for example, Saruman is a focus character but Sauron is not (he’s a natural force). (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Fog. A reader’s state of inability to imagine clearly the setting or action the author is presenting. Usually arises because the author has skimped on tactile description or otherwise shortchanged the reader of critical external clarity. Stories can (and should) sustain motivational ambiguity but they should blow away fog. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Foreground (to) (v.t.). Draw attention to for artistic effect, or make the central element in a scene or story. (CSFW: Sarah Smith)
  • Frame. A structure which puts boundaries on a story about to be told — as, for example, a character announces to another character, I’m going to tell you a story. Often used in a prolog. Sometimes used to link many stories together into a novel form, as in The Canterbury Tales, where the pilgrimage is the frame, or The Bridge of San Luis Rey, where the bridge collapse is the frame. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Freeze-frame. Adapted from the movies, a brief pause for description of a new person, thing, or event. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Gag detail. Unnecessarily unrealistic detail that blows the credibility of the story. “I can accept a Neanderthal going to Harvard, but a Neanderthal with a middle name? Gag.” (CSFW: Sarah Smith)
  • Get-it-in-the-mail syndrome. Prose over which the author, in his eagerness to finish a work, has taken too little time or care. It implies that the author can easily fix the problems if he concentrates on them. (CSFW: Sari Boren)
  • Grouper Effect. Named after the grouper, which eats by opening its capacious mouth and swallowing a huge volume of water, toothlessly capturing its prey in the resulting suction, the specialized form of get-it-in-the-mail syndrome which results when participants in a workshop feel get-it-in-the-mail pressure to submit works to the group. A pun. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov)
  • Handwaving. Distracting the reader with verbal fireworks to keep him from noticing a severe logical flaw. (Stewart Brand)
  • Head fake. A plot action that appears to be significant but is rapidly proved to be a net null, leaving the plot moving in exactly the same direction. Excessive head fakes undermine the reader’s engagement because the reader becomes trained that they are not real. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Here-to-there mistake. Over-describing interim stages because of a mistaken belief that the reader will not infer them. A writer whose character’s eyes are closed, for example, wants to describe something visually and feels compelled to say, ‘he opened his eyes’. Omitting this phrase usually works better — the reader can infer the eye-opening from the visual description. Similarly, ‘he got into the car, put the key in the ignition, started the engine and backed out of the driveway’ is too much description: ‘he got into the car and backed out of the driveway.’
  • Homoism. Similar to Nowism, the mistake of making aliens behave in inappropriate human ways, use inappropriate humanoid gestures or facial expressions, or generally manifest their emotions in human terms. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Honorable near miss. Description of a work which aims at a worthwhile objective but fails to achieve it. (Quoted by Darrell Schweitzer)
  • Hook. Making the reader engage quickly. In a novel, the reader must usually be hooked in the first chapter; in a short story, by the end of the first page.
  • Imitative fallacy. The common trap of trying to make the narrative imitate the personality of the protagonist. When the novel is concerned with an unlikable or inaccessible protagonist, the narrative is also unlikable and inaccessible. Since the reader cannot figure out the protagonist, nor is the reader given any reason to care about the protagonist, the reader disengages. The prose must transcend the imitative fallacy. Two examples of excellence are Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (hypocritical evangelist), and Babbitt (smug placid businessman). (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Inappropriate metaphor. A metaphor should serve two purposes: create a tactile image and also convey an emotional or contextual subtext. A metaphor is inappropriate when the subtext is inconsistent with the author’s intentions: “The desert cowboy blew out his bearded cheeks like a startled puffer fish.” Puffer fish in the desert? (CSFW: Alex Jablokov)
  • Inappropriate mystery. An author will often use mystery as a means of propelling a reader forward: characters speak of things that are opaque to the reader, a character goes offstage to do something important, or a development is referred to indirectly (“I was just heading out the door when the phone rang, with terrible news”). Mystery is inappropriate when the expected dramatic followup is lacking: the offstage action proves to be a diversion, or the suspense proves false. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Info dump. Another accurate term for an expository lump.
  • Instruction manuals. Unnecessary description of how futurist technology works. Best dumped entirely, because they usually signify that the author’s so proud of his device he can’t risk describing its operations. “Bob spoke into the telephone, where his sounds vibrated the compressed charcoal, producing an electric current that traveled over the wires … ” See how silly that sounds? (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Laputa. Named after Gulliver’s floating aerial island, this is a fictional construction introduced without foundation. Readers will initially delight in Laputas but, the longer they float along without foundation, the more their suspension of disbelief erodes. They thus tend to work best in small doses like short stories. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Laughtrack. Emotional countersinking, where the characters’ give cues that tell the reader how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry crocodile tears at their own pain, and, by feeling everything themselves, eliminate the reader’s imperative to do so, so the reader disengages. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Local dexterity. An authorial facility with the micro-units of fiction — lines, images, paragraphs, even scenes — so that they are a pleasure to read and are vivid to the reader. Example of excellence: anything by Ross Thomas. Local dexterity can occasionally disguise the absence of drama or conflict in a scene. A symptom of this: after reading a piece, the critic thinks, “I really enjoyed reading it but nothing happened.”
  • Lock in (to). A character is locked in to a situation when he cannot escape from its conflict, usually because the stakes are high enough, and the consequences of non-participation so onerous, that trying and failing to better than doing nothing. For example, Robinson Crusoe is locked in; he must survive. Usually there is an irrevocable action, early in the story, which locks the character into his problem.
  • Maid-and-butler dialog is dialog in which (probably ficelle) characters tell one another things they should already know, so that the reader can overhear them (“So sad that Madame had her cardiac arrest in the parlor and was carried out on a green stretcher last Thursday, June fifth, Nineteen Thirty-Four,” or, “Gee, Rod, here we are on Mars. It’s a good thing we were able to flee the wreckage of our burning spacecraft.”) Usually manifested by apparent simple-mindedness of the characters forced to deliver these inanities.
  • Main character. The most important (sole?) focus character.
  • McGuffin. An external constraint (object, fact, person) whose sole dramatic purpose is to force a character or characters into actions which serve the author’s dramatic theme. Examples: the Maltese Falcon, the One Ring (in Tolkien). (Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Melodrama comes in two varieties.
    • Melodramatic Settings are when the environment too-visibly reflects, often in a pushbutton fashion, the characters’ emotional state (Bogart in the pouring rain on the Paris train platform, being stood up by Ingrid Bergman).
    • Melodramatic Actions are taken by peripheral characters for the principal purpose of making the protagonist’s life miserable and without furthering the peripheral character’s own objectives; indeed, they are often nonsensical or contrary to the peripheral characters’ interests. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Microwaving the soufflé. A tendency to rush past important setup material in the author’s haste to get to the payoff. Generally leaves the reader feeling frustrated on two counts: (1) the setup, being rushed, is uninteresting, and (2) the payoff, being insufficiently set up, is not earned. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Milepost character. A character who is absolutely unchanging throughout a story. A focus character’s different perspectives on him or him show us, in emotional parallax, how the focus character has changed. Examples include Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield and Bill Ferry in Lord of the Rings.
  • Mime conversation. A dialog supposedly loaded with portentous significance to all participants – contorted facial expressions, heavy word emphasis, significant looks – completely opaque to readers because relevant facts are neither stated nor inferrable. “But when you told me that – ” “-s! And thus he couldn’t – ” “Of course, and I was such a fool, so now if — ” “not if, but-when! And — ” Such conversation infuriating to the reader and also cheat him of the genuine emotional conflict and change that are core to viable fiction. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • More ink around the dogs. A colloquial exhortation to emphasize a bit of chrome, taken from an otherwise dreadful story featuring fascinating dogs, the only feature the critics found worthy in the entire tale. (CSFW: Sari Boren)
  • Motif. A recurring visual objective correlative of the theme. In Catch-22, for instance, the theme is that war is insane, so the recurring motif is one character calling another character crazy, under a wide variety of circumstances, so that we continually revisit the same element, each time with a different view. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Motivation. Characters act for two reasons: (1) the author wants certain things to happen in a story, and (2) the actions further a character’s objectives. The latter is motivation; when it is bad, the reader becomes angry with the apparent stupidity or illogic of the character, and disengages. See Plot-Driven.
  • Nowism. Short for ‘now-chauvinism’. The tendency to export present-day forms, conventions, technology or morality to a future setting where they are inappropriate or unlikely. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Objective correlative: the tangible manifestation of an intangible, created and used by the author to help the reader grasp the intangible concept. Most literature is about emotions or ideals — things that you cannot see or touch. So the objective correlative becomes a focus, a tangible surrogate. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the painting becomes the objective correlative of Dorian Gray’s soul — it shows the invisible rot. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s child is the objective correlative of her sinful passions.

An important characteristic of objective correlatives is that they are usually vested with attributes which tilt the reader toward the emotion the author wants him to feel in relation to the intangible being staged. (T. S. Eliot)

  • Offstage. Events which occur other than onstage. Examples: reminiscence, narration, indirect quotation. Events which can only be inferred are the ultimate distance offstage.
  • Onstage. Events which are shown directly to the reader, who becomes a real-time observer while the action takes place. Onstage events are more dramatic and the reader weights them more important than events offstage.
  • Organ music. Details which seek to countersink an emotional response in the reader even before anything happens (such as crackling lightning and rain outside a window before anyone’s murdered). (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Out-of-whack event. In Aristotelian drama, the story concerns a character whose stable life is knocked out of whack by an external force. The remainder of the story concerns his attempts to put his life back into whack, and his success or failure. The out-of-whack event inaugurates the struggle.

Commonly the out-of-whack event occurs at the novel’s opening (e.g. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith is brought to Earth; or Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber, Corwin recovers his powers but not his memory). It may already be in the past (e.g. Silverberg, The Man in the Maze, the aliens tamper with Muller’s brain to broadcast evil emotions).

If the out-of-whack event is delayed too long, the story seems to move slowly. “Shoot the sheriff on page 1.” (CSFW: David Smith)

  • Overhead. The amount of reality-bending in a science fiction or fantasy story which the reader must absorb as a precondition of enjoying the work and appreciating the dramatic point. Science fiction has more overhead than mainstream fiction: the author is building a world that does not exist so as to stage something which cannot be illustrated in the world that does exist. Staging overhead unobtrusively but unmistakably is always a problem; the shorter the work, the harder the problem (see Info Dump). Well-balanced stories have no more overhead than necessary to make the dramatic point; part of the difficulty in writing sf short stories, thus, is the need to provide overhead in a cramped space. This may in part contribute to the proliferation of used furniture, which (however tacky and cliched) is at least familiar and thus requires less overhead. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov)
  • Pace. The timing by which the major events in the plot unfold and by which the big scenes are shown. Dramatic tension is largely a function of pace. Pace is also the process of stretching out the big scenes (slowing down time) and compressing the offstage action (speeding up time) to match the reader’s emotions.
  • Packing peanuts. Elements included in a story to fill out spaces between big scenes or important events. All stories need some packing peanuts; be wary of stories which are nothing but packing peanuts. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov)
  • Pay off (to). To be employed later in the furtherance of the dramatic or thematic intent of the story. Under the principle of economy, elements which fail to pay off weaken the story and cause the reader to disengage. (Jim Morrow)
  • Perception fallacy. If a scene is told from a particular character’s point of view (that is, no omniscient narrator), everything shown in that scene must be perceivable by the POV character. The perception fallacy is the common mistake of assuming that, if this is so, all description must be filtered through the senses of that character, rather than being presented directly. (“I got into the cab. I saw that the steering wheel had blood on it. I looked under the seat and found the knife.” rather than “I got into the cab. The steering wheel had blood on it. The knife was under the seat.”)

The difference is whether the POV character is intrusive and disruptive or unobtrusive. This often has several unintended negative consequences:

  1. Reality is filtered through an extra lens. Instead of saying “rain poured down” the author writes “I felt the rain pour down”. A story always has one filter — author telling reader — and good authors generally try to make the author as unobtrusive as possible. Adding this second filter — author telling character to tell reader — is not only uneconomical, it is also often intrusive.
  2. Feeling trapped into the restriction that all information must come to the point-of-view character, with the result that characters often rush onstage to tell the point-of-view character something. This is even worse than the first problem, because now we have a third filter: character telling character telling author telling reader.
  3. Confusion between the perception of the author, the narrator (if any), and the POV character. See Author Surrogate.
  • Peripheral character ego. The antidote to superman syndrome, the legitimate desire of peripheral characters to be doing something even when being ignored by the protagonists and author. Every peripheral character should behave (whether onstage or off) as if he or she is the most important actor in the story, with his or her own genuine motivations and independence. Tom Stoppard, the maestro of this conceit, built it into a whole play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Phildickian. Named for Philip K. Dick, a surrealist science fiction writer, it describes situations in which reality and illusion become indistinguishable, or moments when the reader’s perception changes so that reality becomes illusion or vice versa. ‘When two people dream the same dream, it ceases to be an illusion’ — Philip K. Dick. (CSFW: Sarah Smith)
  • Plot. The external motivation, the narrative melody around which the story is told. Plot is the action that dramatizes premise or makes characters come to life. Example of excellence: Heinlein, The Moon in a Harsh Mistress; Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, and many others.
  • Plot-Driven is action which occurs, not because the characters are motivated to make it so, but because the author wants to yank the story in a particular direction. Usually manifests by the characters refusing to act in the way that the author has programmed them to, or by being wooden when performing the actions in question. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Plot inversion. Events are meaningful to the reader when the reader understand what they signify. Thus for a scene to be meaningful, there must be (1) table-setting to establish what is at stake, and (2) the action itself. Normal plot construction puts the table-setting first, so the reader is prepared. Plot inversion reverses this order, so we have the events and only later learn what they mean. Although this can sometimes be very effective (it’s a standard device in whodunit mysteries, where deceiving the reader is part of the game), usually it’s a mistake. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Point of view and point-of-view character. The ‘hidden camera’ through which the reader perceives a scene. It may be inside a focus character (we see that character’s thoughts and reactions to events), it may move among characters, or it may remain outside of all characters as either an omniscient narrator or an active, present author-voice (e.g. John Fowles, Italo Calvino) commenting on the action.

    Point of view is a scarce resource, since it may be only one character at any one instant. Almost by definition, the reader will perceive the point-of-view character as the most important in a scene, and will be sympathetic to the point-of-view character (see Author Surrogate). Identical action will be perceived very differently by the reader if the point-of-view character is shifted (e.g. Rashomon; or Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quincunx). Granting a character point-of-view status for a scene usually signals that the character is a focus character, and is an easy way to separate focus and peripheral characters at the beginning of a story. Among the common points of view are:

    • THIRD PERSON:
      • Omniscient: The narrator knows everything, can shift in time and place at whim, from character to character, inside people’s thoughts, feelings and motives.
      • Intrusive: The narrator editorializes on the story being told (Dickens, Fielding, Dostoevsky, John Fowles).
      • Unobtrusive or impersonal: Presents the story without comment (Zola, Flaubert, Dashiell Hammett).
      • Limited: The narrator is confined to a single character, sitting on his shoulder or inside his head, observing only what is available to that character (Henry James, Raymond Chandler).
    • FIRST PERSON narrator is almost always intrusive and limited: confined to a single character who may be a witness (c.f. The Great Gatsby), a minor participant (Doctor Watson), or the central character (Chandler’s Philip Marlowe). First person narrators are frequently either reader surrogates, author surrogates, or both.
  • Polysyllabism. The tendency to use a big word for effect even when a small word is better. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • POV. Abbreviation for point of view.
  • Powderpuff. The authorial habit of being too nice to characters about whom the author cares. Violates the basic principle, if you want your reader to care about your characters, do horrible things to them early on. Also called Pitty-Pat. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Premise. The science fiction universe. In mainstream fiction, the premise is almost exclusively the present, real world. Science fiction uses the real world as a springboard or boomerang; it changes one or more major elements, then builds from that difference, showing us the shadow-side of changing human biology, technology, sociology, or psychology. Example of excellence: LeGuin, Left Hand of Darkness, the planet Winter populated by human beings who are hermaphroditic neuters for most of their lives; Huxley, Brave New World, regulation in the guise of hedonism; Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy or I, Robot.
  • Protagonist. The central character of a story. Often the protagonist is a POV character or the sole POV character, but not necessarily (Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist, but Doctor Watson has the POV throughout; same for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin).
  • Pump up (to). Expanding a scene’s staging to give it more impact on the reader: foreshadowing it, placing it onstage, stretching out time, increasing the stakes. It is the literary foreplay that allows a scene to deliver its maximum dramatic impact. (Jim Morrow)
  • Punish the careless reader. An authorial device to make a reader engage: to sprinkle throughout the story information vital to understanding subsequent events; this punishes the careless reader by making him retreat and reread. Punishment works only when matched by rewarding the careful reader. See Cookie. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Pushbutton words. Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the reader’s intellect or critical faculties, like ‘song’, ‘poet’, ‘tears’ or ‘dreams’. They are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Commonly found in romance novel titles. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Reaction shot. From the movies, a cutaway shift inside a bundle of narrative action which shows us the emotional or other responses of a character, usually a reader surrogate.
  • Reader cheating. Producing a result (a surprise, a deduction, an unexpected denouement) without having given the reader a fair opportunity to foresee the result. For instance, having a detective deduce the murderer based on evidence the author has willfully concealed from the reader is reader cheating. (Example: a point of view character who knows things and acts on them but lies in internal narrative so as to distract the reader.) (CSFW: James Patrick Kelly)
  • Reader surrogate. A focus character who voices or experiences the thoughts, reactions and emotions which the author desires the reader to have. Usually the point-of-view character, usually observing a scene or being acted upon (e.g. being tortured or interrogated). (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Rear-view mirror description. The habit of describing things only after they’ve figured in the action, never before they’re used. “She dodged behind the boulder that she’d just seen out of the corner of her eye.” The effect on the reader is that the description isn’t seen for itself, but rather as if glimpsed only in the rear-view mirror. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Red velour shirt. A character (usually a ficelle character) whose sole purpose is to die or otherwise be abused as a means of demonstrating that a situation is dangerous. Usually used in indicate that the character in question is insufficiently realized. From the old “Star Trek” television series, where the faceless crewman who beamed down with Kirk, McCoy, and Spock inevitably wore a red velour shirt and died before the opening credits. See “He’s dead, Jim.” Rosenkranz and Guildenstern wear red velour shirts. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Replacement principle. The axiom that, in the future, everything we know now will be replaced with something more technological and better. Often an important means of avoiding nowism, it can sometimes be taken to absurd extremes. (Kathryn Cramer)
  • Retrofit. An editing term. To rewrite a previous chapter or scene for the purpose of making a later scene work better, by setting up something that is needed later, introducing a premise, situation or character so that its presence later in the story is justified. To revise a previous chapter or scene to conform details to what is necessary later in the story. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Reward the careful reader. The counterpart of punishing the careless reader: rewarding means, in this case, providing extra bonus details, small bits of readerly pleasure. Tuckerizing (see below) is a simple example; others are eyeball images, resonant metaphors, throwaway jokes, and so on. “As for you, the writer, never forget the following: the reader is like a circus horse which has to be taught that it will be rewarded with a lump of sugar every time it acquits itself well. If that sugar is withheld, it will not perform.” — Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars. (CSFW: David Smith) See Cookie.
  • Rhinoceros. Abbreviated from “there’s a rhinoceros in the room,” this is an attribute (a story element or of the author’s writing) which is shriekingly obvious to everyone except the people closest to it. (In horror movies, the idiotic willingness of characters to split up and search dark mansions is a rhinoceros.) The term is most useful in a critiquing context as a means of helping an author identify recurring tropes, tics, or fetishes in his own writing. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Rubber science. An explanation which, although probably false according to what we know of the universe, sounds technical and convincing. Rubber science is acceptable in all forms of sf except hard-core hard sf, where the main dramatic point is the complete credibility of the science shown. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Rules of engagement. An element of overhead: the definitions of permissible and impermissible contact and behavior of a fictionally-created device or being. Aliens are most real when they have consistent rules of engagement, which operate according to logic not easily visible to the reader, but which is nevertheless clear to the aliens (and, most likely, to the author). Often when designing aliens or rubber science, it is helpful to write a separate description of the rules of engagement, not to be included in the story (where it would be an info dump), but rather as a guide to the author as to what the new creation will and will not do. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Runaround. Frenetic activity by characters we don’t care about, usually in search of objects or goals we’re uninterested in seeing them achieve. Usually injected into action stories when the author realizes that he’s failing his dramatic objectives. Can be recognized when, although the action is fast and furious, the reader skims along with a glazed eye. Often the more spectacular the gore — e.g., the more bodies left on the battlefield at scene’s end — the greater the runaround, and the weaker the story. A tipoff of weak characterization. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Said-bookisms. Large words that mean ‘said,’ designed to connote additional information not conveyed in dialog or description. If used to excess, they result in overwriting: “I’m climaxing!” he ejaculated. See also Tom Swifty. (CSFW: James Patrick Kelly)
  • Scene is the basic dramatic sub-unit — an interaction involving one or more focus characters. Scenes are usually ended by the announcement that time has passed (‘a week later’), by a termination of the dialog (‘she left then’), a shift in point-of-view character, or an external event (‘the room exploded’). A scene which straddles a chapter break is a guaranteed tension-maintainer.
  • Scene outline is a blow-by-blow description of the onstage events. It covers everything the action outline covered, but also (1) segregates background information from the narrative flow, (2) identifies point-of-view characters, (3) addresses what is shown onstage, what offstage, (4) is subdivided into scenes or chapters. A scene outline is often a useful successor to an action outline: it can help a writer avoid staging scenes which are undramatic. The following things typically go into it:
    • Expression of the theme
    • Background information, broken into convenient subheadings
    • Scene-by-scene description of the story.

Any outline should define any jargon it intends to use. Focus characters should be introduced with solid capitals so the reader-critic knows to pay attention. An outline should be edited and polished, if not for drama, at least for clear economical exposition. Often scene outlines are written in present tense. (CSFW: David Smith)

  • Segue. Another term for bridge: a phrase or sentence which links two different scenes. In general, the smoother and less obtrusive the segue, the better.
  • Shadow staging. Presenting a crucial event (such as an out-of- whack event) by its consequences rather than showing it directly. In Sophie’s Choice, for example, Sophie’s choice is shadow-staged throughout the whole novel. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Simile of action. Metaphors or similes can be considered as a means of coining adjectives by repackaging nouns: “He was as strong as a bull, rosy-fingered dawn, it was as easy as pie.” Metaphors are relatively seldom used to convey adverbs, and especially seldom to convey intention. It can be done in a few words if you know what to look for: namely, a simile in a structure such as: “He <verb> as if he was <metaphoric verb>ing,” as in a sentence like “he regarded the outstretched hand as if it were a day-old fish.” This has the extremely desirable result of describing intention without shifting narrational point of view; the technique can be used with high frequency without becoming obtrusive. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Smart subconscious. Term used when a critic (or the author) reviews text in light of a new approach or theory and discovers, much to his or her surprise, that within the previous text are a whole series of small items or details which help express this approach or theory; the smart subconscious was planting them in hopes that they would eventually be discovered. Smart subconscious is a possible explanation for subtext. (CSFW: Paul Tumey)
  • Snark rule. “I tell you once, I tell you twice, what I tell you three times is true.” Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark. When three or more critics concur on an element in a story, it is highly likely to be true. (Jennifer Jackson)
  • Sorcerer’s apprentice’s mop. A device or gadget which, if introduced into a society will spread, become pervasive, and change every aspect of society (cf. the telephone or the nanobots in Greg Bear’s Blood Music). Authors who intend such devices as throwaways introduce them into their stories at great peril, because eventually the author must either abruptly chop off exploration of the gadget (frustrating the reader) or make it the focus of the entire story (frustrating the author). (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Space western. A pernicious form of used furniture where every Martian or Jovian town looks and sounds like Dodge City (Lewis Shiner).
  • Staging is bringing scenes to vivid life, making them so tangible and evocative that the reader is transfixed, bringing out the inherent drama or magnifying it so that it hits with great force. Example: Peake, Titus Groan, Steerpike in the kitchen with the chef Swelter; Orwell, 1984, O’Brien interrogates Winston Smith.
  • Stalling. When an author, knowing a big scene or crucial event is upcoming, writes desultory here-to-there scenes as a means of deferring the more difficult (and emotionally charged) task of writing the big scene. Common in first drafts. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Stapledon. A character prone to holding forth, at length and without interruption, while various info dumps are unloaded on the helpless reader. Often surrounded by sycophantic peripheral characters whose lines are generally limited to, “Why, it certainly seems so, Socrates. No man of sense could dispute that.” (Lewis Shiner)
  • Storyboard. Adapted from the movies, a visually-oriented simple description of the events in a scene. Often useful for authors wishing to structure or restructure their plots and separate these elements from dialog, narration and other details of technique. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Style. Style is using words to create an aura, an effect that permeates the story. Extreme style becomes baroque, obtrusive stylization, but when handled deftly, the words become part of the fabric of the world. Examples: Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia; Zelazny, Lord of Light or Jack of Shadows; and Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun. Example of style run amok, disguising melodrama: late Hemingway.
  • Story clock. The pace at which action is internally described. See fast forward and travel time. (CSFW: James Patrick Kelly)
  • Subtext. A secondary level of action or content in a scene. Not stated overtly — that is, not perceived by the characters — and sometimes not even consciously perceived by the author.
  • Superman syndrome. The habit of magnifying the good points of focus characters and either giving them no bad points whatsoever or obscuring and rationalizing the minor ones they have. Usually leads to melodrama and heavyhandedness. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Tense. The dominant verb-tense in which the main story is told. Most are told in straight past tense, although in a few cases (e.g. Tiptree, Brightness Falls from the Air; Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale) the present tense is sustained throughout. Tense is a very powerful way of distinguishing point of view or voice. Giving the present-tense solely to one character immediately makes that voice unique, whenever and wherever the reader encounters it.
  • Texture encompasses both crispness of prose and efficiency of delivering images to the reader. At one level, it is word choice: at another, image choice. (E.g. when dealing with aliens in whom smell is the dominant sense, most things should be described by their aroma, and the characters should respond to aroma rather than to other attributes.) See Inappropriate Metaphor.

Texture often completes the circle by building a whole-book, macro-level vision of the premise by sustained, consistent micro-level evidence. Examples: Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, where the Russopunk vocabulary is laced throughout the book; and Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar, which intercuts storylines with news broadcasts, ads, and other vignettes of existence.

  • Thematic Redundancy. Retelling essentially the same story without changing any major element.
  • Theme is the underlying element which governs the author’s selection of dramatic events to show onstage. Can be a belief (e.g. Catch-22, war is insane, only lunatics fight in wars), a proposition to be proved, a moral dilemma, or an attribute of human character.

The theme of Left Hand of Darkness is sexuality; Dragon in the Sea, neurosis; and Lord of the Rings, the evil of power. Implanting the theme in every aspect of the story — setting, characters, plot, texture — often strengthens its power. In Left Hand, beings who are sexually indifferent live on a planet named Winter. Cold affects every aspect of the story just as neuter androgyny affects the personality of every character. Just as the point-of-view character — a normal human who serves as the reader surrogate — becomes physically cold, he becomes sexually neutral.

  • Three-act structure. The classic plot:
    • Act 1. The protagonist’s life is knocked out of whack. He confronts an obstacle which he is locked in to solving or being vanquished by. In great literature the obstacle is tied directly into a specific theme.
    • Act 2. The protagonist investigates the obstacle, tries to solve or conquer it, and is repulsed, leaving him worse off than before. The situation is desperate.
    • Act 3. Using the knowledge gained in Act 2, the protagonist formulates a new plan and risks all. The story’s resolution may be heroic (the character succeeds and the reader is uplifted), tragic (the character is destroyed but the reader learns something about the theme from his destruction), or nihilistic (the character is destroyed and no one learns anything). (Aristotle)
  • Tic. A minor mannerism — verbal, visual or otherwise — which is uniquely assigned to a particular character as a means of identifying him. One character twirls his hair; another ends many of his sentences by saying “right?” Used properly, they help the reader distinguish among characters in the early going and can, by the finish, be sufficient to identify a character even without further attribution. (Jane Yolen)
  • Tom Swifty. A fetish for adverbs, usually in modifying speech. “‘We’d better hurry,’ said Tom swiftly.” As Strunk and White say, an adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. Whenever the tone is clear from the context or dialog, omit the adverb. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Toon. A comic relief character generally intended to be recognized as such — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are toons (most of Shakespeare’s comic relief characters are toons). Toons have a limited place in fiction; an excess of them can render an otherwise serious work trivial. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Travel time. A component of pacing. Characters don’t reverse important decisions in their personalities overnight. The emotional distance a character travels should generally be proportionate to the amount of travel time — measured in words — the change requires.

Travel time can be increased by intercutting a different story, by filling the intervening space with straight action, or by developing other characters, description or thematic material.

  • Trope. A figure of speech, usually used to describe overworked images, literary or dramatic conventions, or stale ideas borrowed from other authors. See Used Furniture.
  • Tuckerizing. Named after Wilson Tucker, the practice of introducing as peripheral characters, or offstage icons, names recognizable to the reader. (For example, naming the Moon’s capital Heinlein and its main street La Rue de la Professor Bernardo de la Paz.) A subclass of rewarding the careful reader.
  • Underserve. When an author gives an element less stage time than it deserves. Most often underserved are peripheral characters or those for whom the author feels little sympathy. Stories are strong in proportion to the obstacles — events or bad guys — that the good guys overcome. If you underserve your peripheral elements, you undercut your drama. (CSFW: David Smith)
  • Unperceived source. An inspiration for an author’s creation which the author does not recognize until it is pointed out to him. Many authors resist acknowledging their unperceived sources. (Geoff Ryman) See smart subconscious.
  • Unreliable narrator. A storyteller who is eventually revealed to have been concealing the truth, or even mis-stating it (unintentionally or deliberately). A development of twentieth-century literature (first made famous in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), the unreliable narrator is often used to force the reader to reinterpret events previously experienced. (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Unstage. To destage something intentionally. Often used as a rewrite term.
  • Use it or lose it. A critiquing comment. A story or novel will introduce many elements, some of which are put onstage at an early point in the proceedings with the apparent implication that they will figure in later action. If the element is later unused, the reader feels dissatisfied, because he has not been rewarded for paying attention to it. Thus a critic will often note an element in a story with a recommendation that it either to pumped up to play in the themes or plot (use it) or that it be deleted (lose it). (CSFW: Steve Popkes)
  • Used furniture. A background out of Central Casting, often chosen by an author too lazy to invent a good one. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Voice. The narrational form used. Often confused with point of view, but it is distinct. The same scene, told from the point of view of the same character, will have a very different texture if done first-person-singular (“I raced down the alley”) rather than third-person-singular (“Our hero raced down the alley”). In very rare occasions (e.g. McInerny, Bright Lights/ Big City), second-person is used (“you open the door and are hit in the head; lights explode in your brain”). In a story with multiple points of view, each character may have his own tense and voice, and thus distinguish characters on a textual level.

Adjusting voice can increase or decrease the distance between author, reader and character. Using first-person, for example, brings reader and character practically into the same head. Using a narrative-reminiscence style shortens the distance between reader and author.

  • Watson. A supporting character whose principal purpose is to voice the reader’s confusions and concerns, so that the protagonist is given an opportunity to answer them without resorting to expository lump. “My God, Holmes, you mean the bell-pull was a snake?” (CSFW: David Smith)
  • White Room Syndrome. An authorial imagination inadequate to the situation at hand; most common in the beginning of a story. “She awoke in a white room.” The white room is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. (Lewis Shiner)
  • Zipper story. A particular form of story involving two (or more) alternating strands, which in the story’s beginning appear completely unrelated but which over time come closer and closer together until their connection becomes the story’s climax. Fred Pohl’s novel Gateway is a zipper story. (CSFW: David Smith)

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