Mike Klaassen


A Practical Glossary of Fiction-Writing Terms

by Mike Klaassen


Action. The fiction-writing mode of showing things happening, in detail, as they occur. 

Active voice. Sentences structured so the subject performs the action of the verb. For example,

  • John (subject) danced (verb).

Authorial intrusion. Obtrusive narration, by which the author reveals himself to the reader.

Background. Information about the character that is relevant to the reader's understanding of the character's behavior and motivation. 

Character. The who of a story. A character may be a person, an animal, or some other persona. 

Circumlocution. The use of many words to say something that could be said more clearly and directly by using few words.

  • Instead of saying "His father's father's father," saying "His great grandfather."

Cliché. Phrases, comparisons, expressions, or figures of speech that have been used so frequently, they have lost effectiveness. 

Climax. That portion of a scene or story in which conflict and suspense peak prior to resolution.

Conflict. A physical, verbal, or mental struggle between opposing forces.
Conversation (dialogue). The fiction-writing mode of presenting characters talking. Synonym: dialogue. Conversation is often accompanied by a verb of attribution, such as said. Dialogue may be categorized in four types: on-the nose, parallel, oblique, and subtext. On-the-nose dialogue is conversation in which the speaker says exactly what he means, with no attempt to demur, deceive, be witty, use subterfuge, etc. Parallel dialogue is conversation in which each segment of one character's dialogue responds to the previous segment of another's dialogue (One character asks a question or makes a statement, and the other character answers the question or follows up with a statement.).  Oblique dialogue is conversation in which a character does not respond logically to what another character just said. For example, (1) talking at cross-purposes, (2) answering unasked questions, (3) providing answers that sound like answers but really aren't, (4) changing subjects without warning, or (5) carrying on more than one conversation at a time. Subtext dialogue is conversation in which the words spoken differ from what the speaker means. For example if the speaker is hinting at something, attempting to deceive, or issuing a veiled threat.  

Description. The fiction-writing mode for portraying people, things, or concepts. Purple prose is a type of description so elaborate, colorful, or flowery that it draws attention to itself. Transmorphic description is a figure of speech that
attributes human, god, animal, objects, concepts or natural phenomenon with attributes of one another. For example, describing a human as pit-bull terrier. Transmorphic description may be described using other, somewhat overlapping terms such as anthropomorphism, personification, objectification, prosopopoeia, and zoomorphism.

Dialogue attribution. Words added to dialogue to tell the reader which character is speaking.

  • He said, ". . . ."

Elements of fiction. The five major components of fiction: plot, character, setting, theme,and style. 

Emotion. The fiction-writing mode of relating how a character feels. 

Emotional complexity. Differing or conflicting emotions occurring simultaneously. 

Epiphany. A character's sudden realization or burst of insight. 

Euphemism. The substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another.

  • Billy stepped behind the bushes to answer the call of nature.

Expletive. A "filler" word that contributes little if anything to the meaning of the sentence. Expletives may be classified into three categories: syntactic expletives, expletive attributives, and bad language. A syntactic expletive is a filler word that does not contribute meaning to the sentence. Examples include it and there when used as a dummy subject, as in "It is hot today." or "There will come a time for revenge." An expletive attributive is a modifier that contributes little, if anything, to the meaning of the sentence. An expletive attributive may suggest strength of feeling (anger, irritation, admiration) and thus become a grammatical intensifier. For example, damn, bloody, wretched, magnificent. Examples (in italics):

  • They disconnected the damned phone. 
  • The politicians had better get their bloody act together.
  • He had to obey the wretched order.      

Bad language is vulgar, obscene, or profane language. 

Exposition. The fiction-writing mode of conveying information. 

Expository device. Various devices used by an author to convey information in fiction. Classic examples include props such as treasure maps and messages in bottles. Others include newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, and trial transcriptions. The advancement of technology has provided new expository devices: e-mails, text messages, podcasts. In the world of science fiction and fantasy, expository devices are limited only by the writer’s imagination. 

External plot. The overarching plotline of a story.  

Fiction-writing mode. One of eleven types of writing used by authors to construct stories. See description, action, narration, conversation, exposition, summarization, introspection, sensation, transition, emotion, recollection. 

Figure of speech. A technique of using words in other than their usual manner to suggest an image, emotion,  sensation, tone, or other effect. For example, circumlocution, euphemism, extended metaphor, hyperbole, idiom, innuendo, irony, metaphor, mixed metaphor, simile.

Flashback. A scene that interrupts the real-time of the story while the character relives a past event.  

Flow of dialogue. The rhythm and pace of dialogue.

Forecasting. Words by which the narrator alerts the reader to what may lie ahead in the story.

  • Little did Morris know that he would soon be . . .  

Foreshadowing. Words which subtly prepare the reader for an upcoming event. For example, prior to an earthquake, having a character view a fallen stalactite in a cave, then wondering if a quake had knocked it down.

Full capacity. A quality of characters who speak with more freshness, wit, erudition, loquaciousness, and panache than do most real people.

Goal. Something desired by the character. A character may have a primary goal for the duration of the story. The character may have a shorter-term goal for each scene.

Hyperbole. An exaggeration of a statement.

  • The harpoon weighed a ton.

Idiom. An expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.

  • After a two-year engagement, they tied the knot in front of family and friends.

Imagery. Writing in a manner that stimulates an illusion of sensory perception. 

Immediacy. The degree to which a story unfolds as it is being told, helping the reader maintain the illusion that he's experiencing the events of the story rather than reading or hearing them after the fact. Immediacy ranges from delayed to immediate.

Incidental action. Small amounts of relatively unimportant activity, including gestures, mannerisms, and body language. 

Information dump. An excess of information presented at one time. 

Innuendo: A hidden meaning in a sentence that makes sense whether or not the hidden meaning is detected by the reader or listener.

  • At the end of their first date, Arty told Jenny he would like to see more of her."

Taken literally, Arty would like to see Jenny again. The phrase could also mean that Arty would like to see more of Jenny's  body. 

Internal plot. A character's emotional, mental, or spiritual journey, coincident with the story’s overarching plot. 

Introspection. The fiction-writing mode of sharing a character's thinking. Introspection is often facilitated by the use of a verb of thought, such as think, hope, wonder, pray, reason, realize, decide. Introspection may be categorized in two types: direct and indirect. Direct introspection shares a character's thoughts, written in that character’s exact words in first person, present tense.

  • I hope Bart will listen to reason before someone gets hurt.

Indirect introspection reveals a character's thoughts written in summary or paraphrased form.

  • Cisco hoped Bart would listen to reason.

Irony. The use of words to convey a meaning opposite to usual meaning.

  • Al saw that the thermometer had risen to three degrees Fahrenheit, a real heat wave.

Literary technique. A method for achieving a specific fiction-writing effect. 

Melodramatic. Inappropriate, excessive, exaggerated, or indulgent effort to sensationalize fiction. 

Metaphor. Explicitly stating that one entity is another for the purpose of suggesting a resemblance.

  • Number 64, the left tackle, is a tank.

A mixed metaphor  is a figure of speech that combines elements of unrelated metaphors, resulting in incongruous comparisons.

  • Barking up the wrong tree is a metaphor. And so is Up the creek without a paddle. But Barking up the wrong creek  is a mixed metaphor.

An extended metaphor is a metaphor continued into subsequent sentences or even throughout a story. William
Shakespeare wrote one of the most well known extended metaphors:  

  • All the world's a stage. And all men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts . . . (Jaques Act I, Scene VII, lines 139-166). 

Milieu. The setting of a story, including its social, geographical, and political context.

Modifier. Words, such as adjectives and adverbs, that change the meaning of another word. An intensifier is a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. For example (in italics),

  • The extremely miffed giant climbed down the beanstalk.

A qualifier is a modifier that weakens the word modified. For example (in italics),

  • The slightly miffed giant climbed down the beanstalk. 

Narration. The fiction-writing mode by which the narrator communicates directly to the reader. Narration may be divided into two types: unobtrusive and obtrusive. Unobtrusive narration is communication from the narrator that is so subtle that there appears to be no narrator. Obtrusive narration is communication that draws attention to the narrator. Obtrusive narration may be categorized into three types: direct-address narration, reminder narration, foreshadowing narration. Direct-address narration names the reader.

  • Now, dear reader, little does Bartholomew know . . . 

Reminder narration is a statement by the narrator to help the reader recall what has previously transpired in the story.

  • As you recall, at the beginning of the story . . .

Foreshadowing narration is communication by which the narrator alerts the reader to what may lie ahead in the story.

  • Little did Robin know that he would soon be . . . 

Narrative distance. The sense of proximity between the narrator of written fiction and the character of the story. Ranges from distant, to close, to intimate. 

Obtrusiveness. Writing that draws attention to itself and thus to the narrator of the story.

Parallelism. The use of similar structures in two or more clauses.

  • In the War of 1812, the Americans assumed the conquest of the Canada was merely a matter of marching, while the British hoped the defense of Canada was a matter of superior use of limited resources. 

Passive voice. Sentences structured so the subject of the sentence does not perform the action of the verb.

  • The ball (subject) was hit (verb).

Plot. What happens in a story. A series of events presented in a manner designed to create dramatic effect. 

Point of view. The character or persona through whom a story is told. 

Punctuation. A set of symbols used by the author to guide the reader as to how the writing should be read.

Real time of the story. The "now" of a story as it unfolds.

Recollection. The fiction-writing mode for revealing what a character recalls. Recollection may be accompanied by a verb of recollection, a verb or verb phrase used to facilitate a character's recollection. For example, remembered, recalled, called to mind, thought back to, reminisced

Resistance. Something that blocks, delays, or complicates a character's attempt to achieve his goal. 

Resolution. How a scene or story ends after the climax.

Response. A reaction to stimulus. 

Rhythm. The cadence of words as a passage of writing is read. 

Rising action. The progression throughout a story of increasingly dramatic scenes. 

Scene. A passage of writing in which the character attempts to achieve a goal. 

Scene setup. Information at the beginning of a scene to establish the character, viewpoint, time, place, and situation, especially as that information relates to the previous passage of writing.

Section. A passage of writing (set off by one or more section breaks) within a chapter.

Section break. A blank line within a manuscript or published fiction used to signal a change of time, place, or  viewpoint. 

Sensation. The fiction-writing mode for evoking the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). A verb of sensation is a verb used to facilitate a character's perception of senses. For example, see, hear, feel, smell, and taste

Sequel. A passage of writing in which the character reflects on the outcome of a scene.

Setting. The "where and when" of a story. 

Show, don't tell. A fiction-writing axiom that recommends demonstration over narration.

Simile. A comparison between two things using like or as.

  • Number 64, the left tackle, was big and powerful like a tank.
  • Wendy was as gentle as a lamb.

Sixth sense. Information gained without the aid of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. 

Spatial organization. The order in which components of the story's setting are described.

Stakes. Whatever may be gained or lost as a result of a character's effort. 

Stimulus. An agent, action, or condition that elicits or accelerates a response. 

Style. The "how" of fiction. A composite of the myriad of choices an author makes in the writing of a story. 

Structure of a story. An overall conceptual structure of a story. Story structure may be viewed in three parts: macrostructure, midlevel structure, and microstructure. Macrostructure is the overarching structure of a story. For example, beginning, middle, and ending.  Midlevel structure is the structure of a story between the macro-structure and the micro-structure. For example, scene, transition, and sequel. Micro structure is the structure of a story beneath both the macro-structure and the midlevel-structure. For example, stimulus, internalization, and response.

Subtext. Meaning beyond the written words and their literal interpretation. 

Summarization. The fiction-writing mode of restating or recapitulating actions or events. 

Suspended disbelief. A state of the reader's mind in which he perceives himself experiencing or "living" the story

Suspense. Anxiety caused by uncertainty as to whether, over a period of time, a character will be successful in achieving his goal.

Syntax. Words organized into a phrase or sentence. 

Telling detail. A detail that reveals the essence of that which is being described.

Tension. Anxiety as to whether the character will overcome an obstacle in his attempt to achieve
an objective. 

Theme. The "why" of a story. A story's underlying meaning or message. 

Timeline of a story. A schedule of the events of a story in the order by which they occur. A story's timeline may be divided into three parts: backstory, current story, and future story. Backstory includes events relevant to the story but which happen before the written beginning. Current story includes events which happen in the "now" of a story, as the tale unfolds. Future story includes events that might come after the written ending. For example, characters living
happily ever after. 

Tone. Word choice reflecting the narrator's attitude toward the subject matter or audience. For example, the tone of writing may be humorous, ominous, scolding, playful, wondrous, instructional, snarky, morbid. 

Transition. The fiction-writing mode of moving from one place, time, or character to another. 

Verb tense. The verb form that indicates when a written situation takes place. For example, past tense, present tense, and future tense. 

Voice. Voice in written fiction comes in three forms: author's voice, narrative voice, and character voice. An author's voice is his style of writing, the sum effect of all the decisions he makes in creating fiction. Narrative voice is a writing style adopted by the author to tell a particular story. An author may adopt a different style for each story he tells or use the same narrative style for multiple stories. Character voice is a character's unique manner of speaking, including inflection, vocabulary, personal speaking habits, and accent, if any.