HOW TO SPEAK WRITERESE
Like most professions, the writing business has its own lingo. In my early fiction writing days, I often didn't understand what agents and more knowledgeable author wannabes were talking about. An agent once told me in a rejection letter that I needed to "show more, rather than tell." Huh? Wasn't that what I was doing?
When an agent was considering taking on my manuscript, The Starlite Drive-in, she said she was impressed that a first time novelist could layer as much as I did. It sounded positive but what the hell did she mean?
Through the years, I've collected words and phrases that agents, editors and published writers use. Your mastery of them shows experience and expertise. It's a long list so I'll dole it out in manageable doses. I should add that those in the know may debate some of my definitions, but as a writer and workshop instructor, these are the ones I use. It's my glossary, and you're welcome to it.
THE FICTION WRITER'S GLOSSARY
BACKSTORY — Significant events that occur before the book opens but are relevant to the story. Should be revealed in small portions as the current story progresses. Sometimes inserted as FLASHBACKS.
CENTRAL DRAMATIC QUESTION — The main story question that drives the plot. In The African Queen, the central dramatic question is, “Will Rosie and Charlie manage to blow up the German warship?” Important as a guide for plotting and managing your novel. The central dramatic question must be answered by the end of the novel.
CHARACTER ARC — The internal passage a character makes that changes him/her as a person; character growth. The main characters should be different at the end of the story than they were at the beginning. Even if they don't get what they want, they should have learned something about themselves.
CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY — A story in which the main conflict arises from forces internal to the principle characters; inner conflict.
CHARACTER MOTIVATION — The reasons, conscious or unconscious, that make a character behave the way s/he does; allows the reader to believe that a character could and would take certain actions.
CLIMAX — The point at which the central dramatic question is answered, and the protagonist wins what s/he wants or loses it.
CLINCHER DETAIL — A detail that shows us the author knows his subject.
COMMERCIAL — A short story or novel that is more plot-driven than character-driven. Tends to rely more on action and clever, fast-moving events than on psychology and complexity of character. Called “high concept” in the movie business.
CONFLICT — Opposition of wills; people in conflict have antagonistic goals, desires, and agendas. A story moves forward through meaningful conflict. Conflict is present in every classic story from The Bible to The Odyssey to Moby Dick to The Maltese Falcon to The Accidental Tourist. It can arise not only from other people but also from nature (The Old Man and the Sea), political events and social upheaval (Gone with the Wind, Dr. Zhivago), and from internal sources (Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment).
CRUCIBLE — A container. A setting or situation your characters can’t easily get out of. For example: a ship, a desert island, a biosphere, a broken elevator.
DRAMA — According to Webster: “A literary composition that tells a story, usually of human conflict, by means of dialogue and action.”
FICTIONAL DREAM — The feeling that you’re in the middle of the story with the characters, not just reading it.
FLASHBACK — An event that occurs in the past and changes a character's life. Without the flashback, the reader may not understand a character's motivations.
HERO’S JOURNEY — A classic, time-tested, myth-based story form, popularized by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler.
HIGH CONCEPT — A term that comes from the movie business, indicating a story with explosive action, exciting special effects and melodrama. A sensationalistic story designed to arouse intense emotions.
HOOK — A dramatic story opening that grabs the reader; usually includes story questions.
MORE TO COME LATER.