Coming To Terms

By Joe Moore

When I first started trying to write fiction, about the only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to tell a story. I had no idea what the basic rules for writing were, so I broke them all. I also came across many words and terms related to writing that remained undefined for a long time. As time passed, I started honing the craft and the terminology that goes with it. I’m still learning the craft today, but once a term is defined, it rarely changes. To help those that are just getting their feet wet in this wacky business of making stuff up in a dark room staring at a monitor and talking to imaginary people, here are a few terms that I wish someone would have defined for me back in the day. Hope there’s one here that you’ve wondered about but never knew for sure. Or maybe two or three. So let’s come to terms with writing terms.

Concept: A vague notion such as: A world ruled by apes.

High Concept: Usually verges on the outrageous or bigger-than-life “world” story such as: A world ruled by apes where humans are the subspecies.

Idea: A story description that sounds more like a short synopsis.

Premise: Similar to an idea, the premise is a one- or two-sentence reply to the question: “What is your story about?”

Genre: Categories of fiction (suspense, science fiction, horror, romance, etc.) that help create inherent expectations for the reader. Each genre will predetermine your basic story structure.

Mystery: Usually begins with an event and spends the rest of the story finding who caused it.

Thriller: Usually begins with the threat of an event and spends the rest of the story trying to stop it.

Plot: A series of events that determine the beginning, middle and end of a story.

Subplot(s): A secondary series of events that contribute to the main plot and characters.

Commercial Fiction: Plots that generally deal with externally driven characters and conflicts.

Literary Fiction: Plots that generally deal with internally driven characters and conflicts.

Plot Driven: A story that relies heavily on a series of events to push the characters forward.

Character Driven: A story that relies heavily on the characters to push the plot forward.

Story Question: A global question posed early in the story that intrigues the reader enough to keep reading. The story question signals to the reader when the story will end.

Theme: What the story says about the human condition.

Moral: A life lesson taught or insinuated at the conclusion of a story.

Suspense: Creates a desire in the reader for something to happen, delays the satisfaction of that desire, then delivers what the reader wants in an anticipated yet unexpected manner. Suspense is used to keep the reader wanting to read more.

Conflict: Conflict is the basic difference of goals between the protagonist and antagonist.

Foreshadow: The delivery of small hints about what’s going to happen later in the novel, and is used to heighten suspense.

Telegraphing: Revealing too much too soon. Telegraphing can diminish or destroy suspense.

Query Letter: A one- or two-page business letter to an agent or editor that serves as an introduction and selling tool for the writer and story.

Elevator Pitch: Similar to the premise, the elevator pitch is a short summary of the story that is meant to attract the attention of an agent or editor.

Copy Editor: An editor who addresses such story elements as word choice, plot points, paragraph flow, clichés and style issues. The copy editor will also point out a need for clarification and possible plot mistakes.

Line Editor: An editor who deals with the rules of grammar and punctuation along with addressing such issues as passive voice and formatting.

Acquisition Editor: an editor who reviews submitted manuscripts for possible purchase and publications. The acquisition editor also deals with global issues that might need addressing before the manuscript is accepted.

This is by no means a complete list of writing terminology. Additional lists can be compiled dealing with terms about publishing contracts, marketing, and so many other topics. So, Kill-Zoners, is there a term and definition you would like to contribute to today’s discussion? Perhaps a term you would like defined. Now’s your chance to come to terms.

33 thoughts on “Coming To Terms

  1. Printing this off right now…
    And then I’ll need to share…
    And then I’ll need to memorize a few so when people ask me, I’ll actually have an answer.

  2. Joe, thanks! This is a very helpful post.

    My question is on levels of editing. I read a post recently that listed the levels of editing as: 1) developmental editing, 2) content editing, 3) copy editing, and 4) line editing.

    I had never seen the “content” editing listed before, or since. Do you agree with such a delineation? And if so, how would you define content editing?

    I hope Jodie will give us her opinion as well.


    • Steve, freelance editors often perform several of these roles. I often use the term “content editor” to define my main or first focus, on big-picture issues like point of view and logistics, time sequencing, possible discrepancies, etc., and also stylistic issues like showing instead of telling and packing, but I follow that kind of advice with copyediting and line editing, attention to wordiness, sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, etc.

  3. Steve, there’s some overlap between content, copy and line editing. Depending on the size of the publishing house, these can be distinct positions, or in the case of small publishers, one and the same. The content and acquisition editors share similar duties, and in most cases can easily be the same person. Copy and line editors perform different jobs, but again, in a small house are often the same person. Hope that helps.

  4. Great list, Joe! I would add something similar to Story Arc to the list–the concept of a Story Arc–the change that happens to a character at the end of the story as a result of conflict. A story arc can span multiple books, as well.

  5. Outstanding list, Joe. A delight of brevity with meaningful content.

    And Steve: I think in the four levels of editing model, the developmental editor is the one sits at a meeting with the author and waves his or her hands around a lot talking about really, really big ideas.

  6. There is a fifth level of editing, Joe, which most insiders call the “Basil Pass.” It’s a deep secret, however, because many of those who have undertaken it have gone insane.

  7. Great list, Joe! I especially like this distinction:

    Commercial Fiction: Plots that generally deal with externally driven characters and conflicts.

    Literary Fiction: Plots that generally deal with internally driven characters and conflicts.

  8. Excellent list, Joe. Here’s another distinction. In a mystery, pets are popular. In a thriller, you can kill them off. Don’t do that in a cozy or you’ll lose readers. And that leads us to another term. What’s a cozy? It’s a mystery usually involving a murder, an amateur sleuth, a confined setting with a limited number of suspects most of whom know each other, and no overt sex or violence.

  9. Joe–Thanks yet again. I will print this out and keep it with the other important content you’ve provided to TKZ readers. People tell me I’m writing thrillers, but the reader knows not only the who, but the why and the how. What he knows, however, is not known to my protagonist and her friends. The suspense (I hope) comes from anticipation of what will happen when the protagonist comes to knowledge. In other words, dramatic irony.

    • Barry, you’ve described the classic thriller. In most cases, the reader meets the antagonist soon after the story starts. The key to suspense is figuring out how to stop him/her from completing the threat.

  10. I’d add one more to Kathryn’s story arc example:

    Character arc: What is your protag’s emotional and intellectual journey? How does he change over the course of the book and why? And yeah, villains have arcs as well if you’re good at this.

    • PJ– I have a small quibble related to change in the protagonist’s emotional/intellectual journey. You are certainly right about most books. But
      A large number of thrillers–both print and film–involve little if any change on the hero’s part. I’m thinking of the James Bonds, Jack Reachers, Dirty Harrys. This kind of character isn’t vulnerable to the limits, self-doubts or moral ambiguity that lie behind a character’s need to change. They aren’t realistic in this regard, which is the principal reason for their appeal. I happen to prefer characters who must grapple with inner as well as outer conflict, but many readers want pure escape.

  11. A Logline. A short one or two sentence description of your book that follows this formula: When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], he [CONFLICT]. And if he doesn’t [GOAL] he will [CONSEQUENCES].

Comments are closed.