Common Usages: Phrase Definitions

“…fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude…there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities. That is why I have tried to give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice — of how fiction works — in order to reconnect that technique to the world…As a result, the chapters of this book have a way of collapsing into one another, because each is motivated by the same aesthetic: when I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I am talking about the perception of detail I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”
James Wood, Preface to How Fiction Works


“Ah-ha Moment:” A phrase I first learned from Deborah Brevoort, a favorite professor at both undergraduate and graduate school. She describes it as the reader’s response when a major question is answered mixed with the realization that this answer could be the only possible one. (The “of COURSE he was the murder” moment). Ideally, it is the reader’s recognition of the author’s foreshadowing, symbolism, metaphors, etc. as each fold together into the only possible end.

Arrive Late, Leave Early: Another phrase I first learned from Deborah Brevoort. I’m sure she is not the originator of the phrase, but I credit her for introducing it to me. “Arriving late” is when a reader/viewer enters a story or scene after something has started (an argument, for example). By doing so, the reader/viewer has to actively “catch-up” or “figure out” what is happening/has happened. (See the first chapter of Ilsa J. Bick’s White Space, as example). “Leaving early” has the opposite action but similar effect. Exit a scene or action before things are perfectly wrapped up, leaving the reader wanting to know more. (See below “What Happens Next.”)

Authorial choices or Authorial decisions: See Writerly choices.

Emotional Honesty: I believe this term was used at my master’s program or maybe it was just used as a description for my own writing’s failure. It refers to ensuring the description, or “showing,” of a character’s emotional response to a situation is as true to life as possible. Basically, we all know how we (or others) have or would react to situations. Emotional honesty is simply exploiting that knowledge in our writing by applying it to our characters.

Escalating Risk: This term relates to “Raising the Stakes” (see below) and Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, describes it as:

…not making the basic danger deeper, that is, worse in the same way. Rather, it means adding different types of danger, those unanticipated extra losses that compound misery. To put it another way, if a gigantic meteor from space is going to wipe out Earth in three days, there is now way to make that imminent calamity worse. Heck, we are all going to die! However, you certainly can make the intervening three days more hellish. War could break out. What? With only three days of human life left to live? Sure. Why not?  

(Paperback, pg 77)

(For further discussion see: The Hunger Games: Stakes, Risk & Character in YA Lit)

Free Indirect Style or Close Third Person:  From James Wood’s book, How Fiction Works

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for — ‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

(Hardcover, pg 7, section 6)

Free indirect style is at its most powerful when hardly visible or audible: ‘Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears.’ In my example, the word ‘stupid’ marks the sentence as written in free indirect style. Remove it, and we have standard reported thought: ‘Ted watched the orchestra through tears.’ The addition of the word ‘stupid’ raises the question: Whose word is this? It’s unlikely that I would want to call my character stupid merely for listening to some music in a concert hall. No, in a marvelous alchemical transfer, the word now belongs partly to Ted. He is listening to music and crying, and is embarrassed — we can imagine him furiously rubbing his eyes — that he has allowed these ‘stupid’ tears to fall.

 (Hardcover, pg 10, section 8)

Ideas: Ideas shall be defined as every thought relating, directly or indirectly, to the actualized creation. Every word put to page, as well as all thoughts surrounding the word, is an Idea. Everything the words build is an Idea, including, but not limited to, sentences, images, metaphors, paragraph and chapter breaks, etcetera. Ideas are acknowledged human consciousness. (For further discussion see: On Filling the Well)

Inherent Conflict: Another term of Donald Maass from Writing the Breakout Novel, inherent conflict is the building of premise that contains conflict before the story begins:

Does the world of my story have conflict built into it? Opposing force, both strong, perhaps both in the right? If the milieu of the story is not only multifaceted but also involves opposing factions or points of view then you have a basis for strong, difficult-to-resolve conflict.

(Paperback, pg 41)

The simplest example I have of this, although more New Adult than Young Adult, is the Ugly Betty television series. The inherent conflict is a terribly unfashionable, plucky, idealistic, serious young lady desperately wants to fit in and succeed at a vapid fashion magazine. All the obvious conflicts ensue.

(For further discussion see: The Hunger Games: Stakes, Risk & Character in YA Lit)

Narrative Protagonist: A term relating to “free indirect style” or “close third person” which flags the protagonist as narrator or, at least, with some narrator capabilities, within this third-person style.

Plot vs. Story: A few quotes on Plot and Story.

“Plot is the organization of a story: its events and their sequence” (Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel, pg 133, Nook App, iPad Mini)

“To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted by a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of event and their design in time” (Robert McKee, Story, pg 43, hardcover).

“A series of acts builds the largest structure of all: the Story. A story is simply one huge master event” (Robert McKee, Story, pg 41, hardcover)

“STORY CLIMAX: A story is a series of acts that build to a last act climax or story climax which brings about absolute and irreversible change” (Robert McKee, Story, pg 42, hardcover).

Raising the Stakes: The act of putting character(s) in more complex and/or dangerous situations while elevating the importance of what the character(s) will lose if they fail. The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins accomplishes this very well.

Robert McKee writes concisely about risk in his book, Story:

Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his goal?

(McKee, hardcover, pg 149)

And further:

The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk he’s willing to take to achieve it; the greater the value, the greater the risk.

(McKee, hardcover, pg 150)

(For further discussion see: Grammatical Person & the Element of SurpriseBlood Red Road: Language as Character & Setting; Allegiant: Thought Acts in YA; Ashes: Thought Acts in YA; The Fifth Wave: Embodying Narrative in YA)

Second Act Issues: A phrase most commonly used in relation to scripts or plays, but which relates to all storytelling forms. The second act is when the main plot pauses so that the protagonist can acquire the skills to overcome the major conflict. The “issue” arises when this section isn’t interesting enough unto itself to keep the reader engaged, or gets too far away from the main plot, main characters or central conflict.

(For further discussion see: Allegiant: Thought Acts in YAAshes: Thought Acts in YA)

Story Interest: Story Interest is really no more than the overarching elements of work: situation, plot, character, time period, location, conflict, etcetera.

(For further discussion see: On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of “On the Aims of the Artistic Process“)

Story vs. Plot: See above Plot vs. Story.

Studio Story: A pretentious term taken from visual art school, which describes the artist’s (sometimes blatantly false, but always exaggerated) story of their artistic process. Where/when they write, what music they listen to, their habits, their hardships, their strikes of inspirations. Who/what/where/why they were inspired to create/write.  A “studio story” is as much story as the work itself. It is a large part of PR and marketing of the artist.

Even literary agent, Donald Maass’, book Writing the Breakout Novel unintentionally references the studio story.

Listen to authors try to explain their breakout novels, and it usually sounds something like this: ‘One day I was fascinated by a drop of bright red blood on a pure white rose, and I just started writing. The next thing I knew, I had four hundred pages. I had no idea that it would be so popular! Heck, I just wrote what I felt’ (pg 33).

This statement disregards or manipulates the effort, process and practice of writing (or any art form). It is the shiny, easy, relatable studio story; crumbs to throw to the public. There is nothing wrong with creating a studio story. However, be aware that these stories are, at best, exaggerations of the artists and/or process and, at worst, complete fiction. I’m unaware of the studio story’s origin. It may have started with the artists’s use of pseudonyms to protect their personal lives from the public. As our culture began blurring the lines between public and private life (coupled with an art buying trend where buyers didn’t trust artworks to hold value), the desire for personal information about artists necessitated the creation of story. Perhaps the creation of studio story satiates the contemporary public and their desire to understand art and artists. Perhaps the fiction protects the delicate artist and their process from outsider eyes. I’m unclear on this not having had the “public” experience. However, I’d bet the studio story assists the public to personally connect with the artist and artwork before they engage with the piece itself (i.e., marketing). (Well-known examples of studio stories: J.K. Rowling living out of a car while writing Harry Potter; Stephenie Meyer never having read a vampire book or seen a vampire movie before writing the Twilight series).

(For further discussion see: A Note to Readers and  On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of “On the Aims of the Artistic Process“)

Technical Interest: Technical Interest is the decisive approach and conscious aim of one or more elements of the artistic method. An artist’s decision to attend to their personal process and/or the medium’s predetermined method.

(For further discussion see: On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of “On the Aims of the Artistic Process“)

Thematic Interest: Thematic Interest is an all-encompassing theory or perspective of or about the world translated into an artistic work. To recognize a Thematic Interest is tantamount to self-awareness. Even more complicated is attending to Thematic Interest — the molding of the concern. Theme arises from the questioning, the seeking; the ideas we aim to prove or disprove, or, at the very least, usher into discussion. It is the underbelly of the material.

(For further discussion see: On the Aims of the Artistic Process | On the Artistic Process of “On the Aims of the Artistic Process“)

Thought Acts: “Thoughts acts” exist in the expression of a character’s thoughts. (This definition may be further complicated by the narrative style.) The “action” of a “thought act” is due to the fact that thinking is an activity. Mentally, to conceive, cogitate, deduce, and conclude is as complicated for the human mind as playing a complex piece of classic music live. Thought acts may be divided into two categories: “active” and “inactive.” More importantly, the “activation” of this style of internal dialogue is what separates it from  narrative description.

Inactive thought acts” is another way of describing close third person. A style of writing which, arguably, is a narrative style existing within a character’s mind. A narrative wrapped around the perspective of the protagonist, as James Wood says:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes  a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for — ‘close third person’ or ‘going into the character.’ (Wood pg. 7-8)

Simultaneously, the world enshrouds the character and represents itself to the reader through the beer bottle glasses of this character. The inactive thought act is used to describe the external world. Descriptions that color the world, turning the reader outward to view and experience the fictional world through the character’s eyes, thus making the world subjective. Within this subjective perspective of the book, the author gains the ability to surprise the reader by knowing more than their characters. Finally, the thing that makes an “inactive thought act” a thought act at all is the fact the character is “actively” seeing and warping the perspective of the world, then inactively presenting it as description to the reader.

Active thought acts” are a character’s thoughts as they cogitate and deduce the information received by inactive thought acts. Further, it is the written representation of how characters decide to take physical action. Obviously, this is one way that plot and conflicts are formed and forwarded, as well as how “character” is created or defined.

(For further discussion see: Ashes: Thought Acts in YA and Allegiant: Thought Acts in YA.)

VoiceVoice is actually delineated into three different areas. There is the Authorial Voice, the Narrative Voice, and any number of Character Voices.

Authorial Voice I find is most closely tied to a writer’s style. It is how readers’ determine the difference between, say, Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. Both write young adult, dystopia, high-action, high-concept novelists. However, you know when you’re reading a Roth novel that its not a Collins’ novel. This type of voice can, although not necessarily will, span an author’s career. Career spanning Authorial Voice brings to mind authors Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Although, it should be stated that an author’s personality may be very different from his Authorial Voice.

I think Character Voice is probably the most commonly held idea of voice. When someone states “I connected to the voice,” they are usually speaking about the protagonist’s Voice or the Narrative Voice (if in first person). (Note that because I work in children’s publishing and am reading mostly young adult, the majority of manuscripts are in first person.) Ideally, each individual character has their own specific voice. Tommy Wallach’s We All Looked Up is told through four third-person perspectives and a successful example of differing Character Voices. I can say it is successful because even without the chapter titles (characters’ names) I knew which characters’ perspective I was reading. This discussion obviously leads us to ideas of Characterization, which I’m not wholly certain is a literary term, but it is in performance, so I’ll use it. (On a side note, I think every writer should take an acting class, as the study of characterization through physical embodiment is great advance to writing character.)

The Narrative Voice is the personality of the narrator and directly effects the tone of the story. Whether omniscience or first person the narrative voice is the choice of the author, it is affected in some way or another, it may never be generic or neutral. In Illuminae, one of the multi-narrators, is just a human transcriber of security video. The authors’ infuse so much personality into the simple word by word description that the transcriber becomes a character through his omniscience. Point being it is impossible to create a neutral or generic Narrative Voice. Simply deciding which details are important to put on the page is a Narrative Voice choice. In first person narratives, the line between Narrative Voice and Character Voice becomes a bit blurred, however they still exist because there can never be a “voiceless” story. (This also applies to all forms of non-fiction writing.)

“What Happens Next?”: The ideal response elicited from the reader during the reading process. This is the question all writers should want their readers to ask. It is the un-put-down-ableness of a novel. All aspects of writing, from plotting to sentence structure, should be aiming to accomplish this fête.

(For further discussion see: Blood Red Road: Language as Character & Setting)

Writerly choices or Authorial choices or Authorial decisions: I’ve found myself sprinkling these terms in every post and page, so for clarity, here’s a short definition/explanation. Really these terms of art are nothing more than a shorthand for the “active, aware use of aspects or elements of writing” (commonly known as “writing craft,” a term I abhor). All that means is that the author’s sole job is to (1) make decisions, (2) test if those decisions work, and if they don’t, then (3) make new ones. (Broken down into the writing process, these three stages are (1) initial stages of the idea – note taking, research, plot outlining, etc – (2) the first draft and (3) revisions and editing). These “choices” or “decisions” are nothing more or less than preferences of word choice, sentence structure, event placement, character names, narrative structure, setting, punctuation, etc. etc. etc. Simple enough, n’est-ce pas?

21 thoughts on “Common Usages: Phrase Definitions

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