Sep 19, 2011

Writing Lingo for New Writers

Some of my fellow NV peeps have been confused by the terminology often used in the comments on their stories. This is not a comprehensive list of the terms/shorthand writers use in critique, but should give a quick and dirty explanation for the more common ones that have been causing confusion.

Backstory: Backstory is anything that has happened to a character that informs their way of thinking/emotions regarding what is going on in the present action.
  • Example: Your heroine was once bitten by a dog, or witnessed someone getting mauled by a Rottweiler. She developed a healthy and very understandable fear of dogs. Only now, twenty years later, she's losing her vision and needs the aid of a seeing-eye dog to keep her independence. That fear of dogs is going to inform how she reacts to the new seeing-eye dog. Those things that happened in the past and caused this fear are her backstory.
If it happened in the past, but it's very important to understanding what is going on with the character's current emotional/mental state(must be directly linked to the scene at hand), it needs mentioning.(See also: Info-dump)

Cliché: Generally these are common(and loved) conventions(or tropes) to any particular genre. But with repetition, they can get old--familiarity breeding contempt and all that. A stamp of originality or an unexpected twist can breathe new life into old conventions. Cinderella with her wicked step-sisters and step mother could be called a cliche, but if you put a twist on it(like a CinderFella) it breaks from expectation and becomes something new. Heroine in danger, hero lawman comes to protect her is a common trope in certain subgenres--you could make it new by making the Heroine coming to protect the hero. Unexpected twists derail a trope from becoming a cliche.

Conflict: There's oodles of stuff online and in books about conflict, so just a word: There are two kinds: internal and external. External is physical, Internal is emotional. Both the heroine and hero need internal conflict, ideally their conflicts should interact so that they propel the story. External conflict is usually what forces them to continue interacting, and ideally will be something that futzes with their internal conflicts. 

Cute-meet: Okay, this is one I'm not entirely certain about! It refers to the way the H/H meet at the start of the book, but I think negative sentiment gets attached to cute meetings when the meeting is coincidental as well. I'm not entirely sure about that, but that's what my gut says. But my gut also says pickles and pizza are AWESOME together, and people flail a bit when I say this usually so your cute-meet mileage may vary. 

Erotic romance vs Erotica: Erotic-anything is explicit, no metaphors, writing. Naughty stories that could set an eReader on fire. Erotica does this without emotion/connection/romance. Erotic romance does it within the confines of a romantic story/situation, with or without the implication of an HEA.

HEA: Happily Ever After, the long walk off into the sunset expected at the end of most romance. Used to mean marriage, but it can just be a committed relationship now, with or without the bouquet-tossing. 

Head-hopping: This refers to switching from the POV of one character to another throughout a scene. There are different arguments regarding how frequently you can change POV without it becoming jarring to the reader. To some, one POV per scene, that's it. To others, it's okay to switch off while in the same scene. It's all in the execution, but it's probably not something you want to overuse. When you change POV from one character to another, make sure that the change gets onto the page in an obvious way, so the reader doesn't get confused as to who is speaking/thinking at any time. 

Info-dump: Info-dump is shorthand for a big blob of text relating to the past that interrupts the current scene. In order to keep the current scene from becoming a flashback, or--referring the example above--from becoming the story of the genesis of her fear, those backstory references need to be very small. A sentence here, a sentence there, enough to clue the reader into something going on, but not so much that it overshadows current action. Besides, if your character knows all about something that happened to her in the past, when she thinks about it, she's not going to go through the whole memory, blow-by-blow. She's going to mentally reference it in a handful of words, a long phrase, a sentence... and then get right back to what she has to actively deal with in the current scene. 

POV: Stands for Point of View. This is used in two ways. One can simply mean which character something is being viewed from: Who's POV is this, Jack's or Jills? The second way deals with narrative style. Since those explanations are very long, I'm doing only a brief explanation and a link to Wikipedia for more information.
  • 1st person POV: The main character is the narrator, and instead of all he/she pronouns, I/me is used. Traditionally, this type of narrative is limited to one character throughout the novel, however there is another type that alternates between different characters.
  • 2nd person POV: This method is infrequently used. It is the equivalent of the narrator telling the reader her own story. So instead of I/me used in first person, You is the primary pronoun(unless speaking of other characters--they'll still be he/she). I can only think of one example of 2nd person--the Choose Your Own Adventure books for children rely on 2nd person. So, I suppose any adult interactive fiction would probably also do so, but I haven't actually read any.
  • 3rd person POV: There are a few kinds of 3rd person POV, but the basic tenant is some narrator is telling a story about others. The pronouns are He/She, not I/me(1st), not You(2nd). Most romance is written 3rd person limited, which allows you to experience a scene, or a sequence of action, through the eyes of one character at a time. That character can only feel/think her own emotions/thoughts. Other characters actions/expressions are passed through the filter of your POV character. The POV usually swaps back and forth between the hero and heroine in contemporary romance(see also: head-hopping)
WIP: Work In Progress - Unfinished manuscript you're working on.

That's all I got right now, hope it helps! If you are confused by a term, there are dozens of sites out there you should be able to find at least a definition, but if you have further questions, I'm happy to explain(if I know!) or have anyone answer in comments.


  1. I was going to ask what NV meant then I saw it in your labels!

  2. Thanks Amalie. I never knew about cute-meet. Ya learn summin new every day... :)

  3. Great glossary--cute-meet is also often said meet-cute. And I would say that tropes and cliches are slightly different--tropes are what you mention above but cliche is also certain over-used sayings "raining cats and dogs" "madder than a hornet" "tempest in a teapot" etc. Too many cliche sayings takes the originality out of a work. Fabulous definitions of Backstory and Info Dumping. People will often use "ms" to mean finished book and I've seen that over at NV as well.

  4. I only know about meet-cute because of The Holiday (Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law & Jack Black) If you haven't seen it DO! X M

  5. @jab: I've got a kind of tunnel-vision right now. New first chapters piling in every day, lots of chat about it, I should deviate from my single-mindedness and post pictures of the kittens!

    @Aimee: I haven't heard it yet this time, but I've heard it *personally* on critiques before. So I threw it in there!

    @chancey: I think that tropes cross over to cliche when they are the same-old same-old. I think Flo even mentioned something like that on the video this morning. I was like... did I put that in the post... I thin... I hope...

    @Mel: Have not seen it, but I am puttin it on my list! I would watch Jack Black change tires or do his taxes. He's so ridiculous/adorable. I don't know why that's a combination I key to, but it is!

  6. This is a great resource for anyone who's just starting off! When I first got involved in the writing community, I had to rely on context to get the meanings of these phrases. Your blog readers are lucky to have you!

  7. @Shelley: Thanks :) Something good has to come from all those craft books I've been snarfling down!

  8. Oh my! I wish I had found this list when I first started reading writing blogs! It took me soooo long to catch on to the lingo--and nuances of each term. Nice summary! :)

  9. LOL, I was also going to ask what NV meant until I saw jabblog's comment. I'm clueless! :D

    This is a great list, I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure out what WIP meant when I first started blogging. I still didn't know some of these, so this list is very helpful.

  10. We all kind of take terms for granted after we've been using them for a while. I know I do.

    @Julie: I don't tend to stay confused for long, I have no shame. I'll grab anyone and go...WHAT'S THAT MEAN? Though, I think it is probably easier to do that through messages and stuff than blog comments, where you're never sure if people will answer.


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