A Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction

Originally from Bruce:

Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction

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 souffl

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unreliable narrators

Pardon me for picking nits, but the unreliable narrator is an older convention than the 20th century. Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is told from the perspective of a narrator who just might be insane, thereby making his telling of the story, description of the house (or "house"), or discussion of the Usher family malady all suspect.

Other than that, a very useful post for both the writer and the person critiquing.