A phrasebook of terms for issues that occur repeatedly in fiction, inspired by a combination of admiration for the amazing usefulness of the terms provided by the Turkey City Lexicon http://www.sfwa.org/writing/turkeycity.html and the experience of editing a lot of books at once, as well as trying to avoid falling into my own traps when writing. Most of these are critical terms, primarily because quality is harder to describe than faults, and lots of these are easily avoided if you know to watch out for them, but there's the odd positive one in there somewhere, just to show I'm not a complete moaning Minnie. Also included is a 'Living the Life' section, with phrases for issues in the writer's life, based pretty much on my own experiences - some of which seem to be completely alien to other writers I know. If anyone has other terms for stuff they've come across, I'd be interested to hear them.
Points of Style
The Slippery Page
Unreadable fiction in which the eye slides down the page failing to take much in.
Small, arresting details, images, sentences or other things that snag the reader's attention and keep him or her interested.
Letters To The Editor
Taking the opportunity to gripe about pet peeves that have nothing to do with the story. If, while the hero is searching the streets for the man who will tell him the truth about what happened to his father, he passes a house done up in a style he doesn't like and he spends some time reflecting on tacky decorating, the author has inserted a Letter to the Editor.
A feature of the story dwelt on with unnecessary detail because it's something the author happens to like. If the heroine spends a full page cooking and we hear details about every ingredient, for example, then the foodie author has been Hobbying. (Letters to the Editor and Hobbying can be referred to collectively as Blogging.)
It'll Never Catch On
A venerable joke in historical fiction: someone introduced to an invention, product, artist or idea that has since become popular shakes his head and says, 'It'll never catch on, you know.' Possibly funny the first time someone used it, but very creaky now, as we've all heard it before.
Full of neat, pleasing and memorable incidents, scenes, turns of phrase and similar. Gives the audience that warm, satisfied feeling when reading and when reminiscing.
Combine Harvester Writing
'This landscape inspires such thoughts and feelings in me . . .' Dwelling on the writer, narrator or character as a figure of massive sensibility, without letting the reader share enough of their fun. Typically, the culprit is in a setting that inspires tremendous emotions in them - but we don't get to hear about the setting in a way that's clear enough to let us have our own reaction to it, and neither do we necessarily hear an overly moving description of what the feelings and thoughts are. Like praising a combine harvester without mentioning fields or bread: the culprit is a response processor, and we're supposed to admire them for being responsive more than we're supposed to take an interest in what they're responding to. An oblique form of boasting.
The feisty, sassy, wisecracking style that has proliferated, with varying degrees of success, in female-centred popular fiction in the past couple of decades, particularly popularised by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fun when it works, laboured when it doesn't, and no substitute for good character writing.
A motif, scene, character or other quirk that a writer cannot resist using over and over, even when not strictly necessary. Often used unconsciously because it encapsulates something about the writer's world-view or obsessions. Not necessarily a bad thing, but interesting once spotted. Named after the 'ninja hypothesis' (an idea from a website that I can't seem to find, which I'll happily attribute properly if someone tells me who I'm indebted to here) - that every work of art throughout history would be improved by the addition of ninjas.
Too Sexy For This Dungeon
A traumatic or violent situation described in an overly flippant way, often by a 'cool' character who's being smart-mouthed about something awful they underwent. Such a character will, implausibly, show little sign that being tortured, injured, bereaved or anything else has had any impact on them. Often used by nervous writers to escape the stress and difficulty of writing a scene of genuine pain.
The Blind Tourist
Setting a story in a real location to avoid having to do any scene-setting. The reader is informed that the action is happening in Paris, but the narrative notices little about the local surroundings and conveys no sense of place.
What I Wrote On My Holidays
Setting a novel in a nice landscape, typically involving lushly described sunlight, colours, scents and food, and using the landscape to convey an element of exoticism and heightened emotional import to whatever is happening to the hero. Can be very effective if well handled, but if not, can feel like a mechanical attempt to make the book more interesting, especially if the view of the landscape is basically that of a privileged tourist, giving rise to the suspicion that the author had a great two-week holiday there last year and needed another plot idea. If the author doesn't have a good understanding of the local culture and a willingness to treat local characters with respect, it looks unintentionally ignorant, and more generally, like the writer is an outsider in a world they're supposed to have a godlike understanding of.
The Plot Cosh
Doing something drastic to a character or set-up to force the story along or create suspense. In the Tarzan stories, for instance, chapters frequently produce cliffhangers by ending with somebody getting knocked out, or having someone lose their memory after a blow to the head, which is to say, they get whacked with the Plot Cosh. A character suddenly acting well below their usual level of intelligence to avoid narrative inconvenience - the detective who misses an obvious clue, the heroine who walks right into clear and present danger - can be said to have been slightly stunned after the Plot Cosh administered a light tap.
What the writer accrues by setting up situations, tensions, threats and other build-ups. If the author decides on a shocking climax that blows everything wide open, they will be spending the Narrative Capital they've saved - having the warring couple suddenly acknowledge their love, for instance. The more capital saved, the better the climax - but you can't spend the same capital twice, and if you try to have a climax bigger than your capital can buy, the audience feels robbed.
Finishing a story with a definite incident that, because it's definite, feels like it's a conclusion, but doesn't actually settle any of the problems that the plot has raised, leaving the reader with an unsatisfying ending. Often takes the form of solving an issue that has only cropped up in the latter part of the story, ignoring the issue that the story began with.
Hatched, Matched and Dispatched
A variant of False Resolution, in which a story that has taken place on a larger scale is wound up with a small, personal resolution such as a wedding, pregnancy or death, in a way that doesn't properly round off the bigger questions the plot has raised.
The Sailor's Bar
The work of an author who, aware that fiction needs conflict, has gone overboard and has his or her characters fight in every scene.
Why, I'm Glad You Asked
Pushing the plot along by having characters volunteer large amounts of useful information on small persuasion, even if there's no reason why they'd be so long-winded or helpful. Possibly the asker has beaten it out of them with the Plot Cosh.
Killing off a character that the reader has gotten fond of, in such a way that the dramatic and structural payoffs aren't satisfying enough to assuage the grief of seeing that nice person, who everyone had been expecting to stick around, meet with a sudden fate.
The Fireman's Proof
Common in square-jawed sci fi , and sometimes crime, where the all-action hero has to undo the work of mad scientists. He comes away concluding that Certain Things Shouldn't Be Meddled With, or that Nature Cannot Be Changed, or something similar - when the real problem was caused not by meddling science but by cockeyed experimental methods, like testing something on an entire planet before trying a small control group or breeding for aggression before you've properly checked the creature's intelligence. Similar to a fireman concluding that chemistry is a malign art because a lab caught fire after the technician fell asleep while boiling something, when the only thing that's really been proved is that you should watch your experiments more closely.
The Cliff of Justice
A convenient accident that saves the hero from moral difficulties. Just as he or she finally gains the upper hand in the climactic final struggle with the villain and is about to finish him off - or wait, is he? that would make the hero a killer! could we live with that? - the cliff edge crumbles, a rock falls from overhead, or the set otherwise intervenes and the villain dies without the hero having to do the dirty deed. This is supposed to resolve the structural need for punishment while leaving the hero untarnished, but doesn't work for two reasons: one, it's implausible, and two, it's a cop-out.
The narrative patch-job of an author who's chickening out. A situation arises in the plot that is difficult to solve, usually because it raises deep emotional, moral and/or psychological questions that would tax the author to deal with. Instead of diving in, grappling with them and producing a hard-won but satisfying solution, the author does a bit of quick pipe-work, comes up with a short plot explanation that almost works as an excuse for not going there, and rattles along as before. Works if the reader isn't paying too much attention, but a waste of an opportunity to write something really good.
Creating characters, groups or situations that represent an attitude or trait that the author doesn't like, and then criticising, satirising or punishing them - but refusing to portray them in anything but the most stereotypical (and unconvincing) way, as thinking about them carefully would be colluding with the enemy.
Having a great deal of the plot happen off-stage and only be relayed to the audience through character discussion. Not inherently bad, but pernicious when used as an excuse to avoid writing difficult scenes, as it means all the interesting moments are never shown and all that's left is a lot of talk.
You Always Do This
A variant of Noises Off. Having characters tell each other about issues in their relationship rather than writing scenes that show them.
The result of almost but not quite perfect rewriting. You think you've tidied it all up - but then later, there's a single sentence referring to a character who isn't there any more, or the appearance of someone who now has no reason to be there, or a reference to a conversation that now didn't take place, hanging loose and snagging the reader's attention.
You know you have to clean them off, but it's so difficult to spot them all. Little stray words and typos here and there that you should have wiped up - but there, you missed one, and now the whole page looks grubby.
It's Okay, Honey, I'm Evil
A means of handling the ending of a thriller that somewhat blows the tension. Having established one character (often male) as an is-he-isn't-he threat to the (often female) protagonist, in the climax, he appears and tries to talk her down while she retreats across the kitchen floor clutching a small fruit knife and whimpering uncertainly. However, everything he says so openly shows he's dangerous that it a) destroys any lingering suspense as to whether or not he's trustworthy and b) makes you wonder what on earth he's trying to achieve, as there's no way he could expect her to put down the knife when he's saying things like that.
A failure to give characters genuinely different personalities, so that, even if the author declares that Jon is the crazy one, Don is depressive and Ron is usually sensible, in the way they act and talk they're as alike as eggs in a box.
Nice Guy Disease
A central character who is, basically, a nice guy with no particular personality, who is as a result pretty boring.
The Rubber Rapee
A (usually) female character who bounces back from a sexual assault with implausible ease. Used by male writers who don't quite understand women, and female writers who like a good victim-heroine but aren't prepared to slow down the plot for mere psychological accuracy.
The Pet Man
A male character used by female authors, who acts as a love interest to the heroine without having anything as threatening as an independent set of interests, friends or objectives of his own. He does little in the plot that isn't centred around the heroine, and her emotional life and his relationship with her are the only things he participates in; readers who aren't in love with him tend to find him tiresome.
Two-dimensional characters who are set up as so bad that any and all aggression towards them is completely justified, giving the author an excuse for violent scenes.
Most common in fantasy literature: an implausible character name that no one in their right mind would actually be called. Often created by sticking together two pushbutton words that don't logically relate to each other, like Wolfharp or Lifespear, or by randomly jumbling up syllables the author finds mellifluous.
The Sabre-Toothed Kitten
A common figure in pulp sci fi and action that's paying lip-service to feminism without really being interested in women. She's tough, she's a kick-ass fighter, she kills evil men . . . the fact that she's also beautiful, cute, often small or young, provides the same comforting amount of T and A as a bimbo and has about the same level of personality doesn't mean she's not a strong female character. Honest.
Note to the guys: a woman who's just a body that fights is not a big advance on a woman who's just a body that fucks. Give her some thoughts.
Series and sequels
The Wicked Step-Author
A problem that can occur in a series or sequel where a story is taken over by a different writer. Being that it's hard to relate to someone else's brainchild as easily as you relate to your own, even if your intentions are good, a wicked step-author will, often unintentionally, neglect the existing characters, or virtues (such as a distinctive structure, mood, sense of humour or similar), of the original, devoting more energy to the new things they have added themselves. As a result, the reader or viewer gets a lot of stuff they're not interested in, and not enough of the things that made them fall in love with the series in the first place.
Note: a good author taking over an existing story can do marvellous things with it, so not all step-authors are wicked. The antithesis is the Fairy God-Author , bringing in a whole new lease of life.
May The Best Ep Win
A problem that besets TV series with developing plots, where numerous different writers get to write one or two episodes apiece and there's no acknowledged top artist. Having only a couple of hours to showcase themselves, every writer tries to write the defining episode of the series - which in practice tends to mean an awful lot of blown-up drama and speechifying about the characters, every single week, until we're all exhausted.
Open Mike Fantasy
A technique in fantasy either loved or hated by readers, depending on their tastes and the skill of the author, which is prone to crop up in sequels to stories with a single fantastical creature (though it sometimes happens spontaneously). In the first story, we had, let's say, a witch. In the sequel, we meet witches, vampires, elves, ghosts, goblins and every other kind of creature you can think of, much in the way that at a club's all-comers night, you may run into punks, goths, hippies and any number of other subculture types without having your sense of reality jarred. Essentially, magic as lifestyle rather than as magic.
References to other fictional works within a story in a way that doesn't add to it but simply shows off what other works the author happens to be familiar with. Intertextuality can be great, but when handled badly, in its most extreme form the method can create a puzzle that doesn't yield any pleasure beyond the satisfaction of working out what the author is talking about; in lesser forms, it can feel like the author trying to appropriate the virtues of the writers he or she is referencing rather than working to improve the story on its own terms.
The Blurred Photocopy
A work that's an imitation of an imitation of an imitation of something else. A Blurred Photocopy lacks the energy of the original, and, because it's too chained to a single descent of influences, doesn't have other works or styles refreshing it with new ideas. As such, subject to the law of diminishing returns, and readers are better off just reading the thing it's imitating, then trying something new.
A very good author who has a very bad influence on those who follow them; Raymond Carver and Tom Stoppard are notable examples. A Pen Fatale writes material that is startlingly, seductively clever and different - but the trouble is that only they can write in their style successfully.
The Jet-Powered Wagon
A story where the author's basic writing skills aren't up to the high-powered idea they're trying to get across. If you attach a jet engine to a jet chassis, it'll fly fast and far; however, if you attach it to a small wooden wagon, the body isn't strong enough to withstand the impact, and what you're likely to get is a rattle, a boom, and a mess of cogs and splinters.
Note: the Jet-Powered Wagon is a common mistake with young, would-be literary writers who've had a good education in twentieth-century classics. The authors they read and admire tend to be technically innovative and apparently 'transcend' the basics of writing, such as traditional storytelling and character. An inexperienced writer may miss something important, which is that as a practicing writer rather than an academic student, you have to be proficient in the basics before you understand them well enough to transcend them , and so shoots off to write something that has big ideas and no nuts-and-bolts competence. The result tends to be incoherent and uninvolving, either failing to hold the audience's attention at all or raising the question of why such a fuss is being made about an unremarkable set of events. At worst, it can be an effort to get away with not having the skills or experience needed for the fundamentals by attempting to dazzle the audience with philosophy; however, any philosophical point gets lost, because the writing isn't good enough to substantiate it. An honourable mistake, but still hard on the audience.
Critics and Feedback
A theme, technique or other device that will attract praise from critics more because it's fashionable or appealing to the critical psyche than because the work is outstanding.
The Well Said Fallacy
The automatic assumption that something is well executed because you agree with its morals or message. The cry of 'well said!' is fine to praise someone for saying something that needed saying, but should never be confused with 'well put'.
The assumption made by critics and academics that writing fiction is akin to essay-writing - ie, everything in the story is there to illustrate some previously-decided-upon theoretical point, rather than because it felt intuitively right, was the only way out of a corner, seemed funny at the time, or any of the other practical reasons that writers do things. Such criticism tends to put words into authors' mouths, and can lead to blind spots as to elements in the book that don't fit in with the supposed message.
Projecting your own interpretation onto something so strongly that you come away with a memory of it that reflects your own personal vision rather than what you actually read or saw. It's possible to sit through an entire movie or novel wearing the Rewrite Shades. This leads to arguments later, as it can be very difficult to tell when you've got the Rewrite Shades on, and different people can be equally convinced that their version is the correct one.
Doing the Author's Homework
Projecting an intelligent and complex explanation onto a story to explain something that otherwise doesn't make sense, and which was probably the author making a mistake. Also, projecting layers of deep meaning onto a story that doesn't really have them. Basically, putting in mental work to improve something that, if it was going to merit your praise, should have been done by the author.
Living the Life
The Overhead Projector
A frustratingly common device that sits on top of your skull, projecting onto the page an image of what you meant , rather than what you said. This notional gadget is responsible for the fact that authors trying to edit themselves can miss incomprehensible sentences and misspelled words, because they saw the image from the Projector, not what was actually there. It's the main reason why it's good to get a second opinion.
The Think Fuse
The finite amount of time some writers have between the first rush of inspiration and the bleary decision that it's probably not a good idea. In such circumstances, the only thing to do is drop everything and dash to hook the fuse up to the page before it burns out; fireworks hopefully ensue.
Where you need to keep your ideas when you're developing them. A roll of film tends to wither in the light, but can be shown indefinitely when processed into photos; similarly, an idea can be killed if its author talks about it too much before writing it down, but is beyond harm once it's written; hence, an idea you're not ready to discuss yet is being kept in the Darkroom.
The drastic downswing in confidence about a particular idea that follows the initial rush of having or writing it. Part of the emotional process, and not necessarily a sign that the idea is bad.
Note: It's often a good idea to write as much as possible before Writer's Remorse can kick in; you can always revise or cut later.
The feeling you get when you're searching for the perfect word: that there is a word for this concept that's not in the thesaurus, but you can't quite remember it. Usually this is not the case, and you're forced to go with a word that's slightly wrong, or else rewrite the whole bloody sentence.
A concept or action that you have the nagging sense really should have a single word to describe it-the action of a dog putting its head between its paws on the ground to invite you to play is one that always bugs me - but most unfairly, it doesn't.
Reading and absorbing as much as you can in the way of good stylists and general information, on the understanding that it'll mesh together in your subconscious and make your writing richer. Not to be confused with procrastination.
What happens when a writer with an unusual style or method that works for them listens too obediently to advisers who don't understand it: they end up playing against their own strengths and producing work below the standard they're capable of.
Note: taking wise advice is not the same thing as donning the Advice Cuffs; good feedback judgement is a vital skill for authors to develop.
Toughening yourself up for rejections by constantly reminding yourself that the odds against you are massive, you still have a lot to learn, there are hundreds of good writers out there competing with you . . . and so on. Equivalent to the martial arts kid standing under a freezing waterfall and punching at the rocks with his bare hands to harden him for the battle ahead, and a useful exercise, if disagreeable, if you're to keep going.
A Dead Letter
An idea that you've tried to shake up into a story, but whichever way up you turn it, just doesn't quite work and is best abandoned. Regrettably commoner than good ideas for most people, and useful to be able to identify to avoid wasting time.
Note: my personal rule of thumb for dead letters runs thus: write a fixed proportion of the story as early on as you can; it should be roughly a page for a short story, and a chapter for a novel. If, within that space, you already have enough elements present that the story can carry on under its own momentum - ie you can move the plot forward using the existing Narrative Capital for long enough to get to the point where you're introducing other characters and revelations, which will in turn generate more plot - then the story is probably going to work. If not, it's a dead letter. That's my own method; others may differ.