The Nearly Complete Glossary of every writing term ever

The world of novel writing is filled with confusing terminology. To help you better sound cultured at your next family gathering, we present the Nearly Complete glossary of every writing term you were too embarrassed to ask.

(Missing something? Let us know in the writer’s group.)

  • characters
    The people, creatures and pet rocks that inhabit your storyworld.
  • dialogue
    When two or more of your characters have a conversation.
  • Novels grouped by shared conventions. One novel can have overlapping genres, or even invent a new one.
  • Everything you've written for your novel, and probably your final Horcrux. Defend it with your life - or at least back it up sometimes.
  • plot
    All the things that happen in your novel, in whatever order you decide.
  • world building
    The geography, history and cultures of the world your story is set in, real or otherwise. Badly-drawn maps optional.
  • writing habits
    Anything in regards to where, when or how you write - and how much coffee you chuck in the process.
  • brainstorming
    Any exercise designed to come up with a bunch of different ideas - good ones and bad ones.
  • inspiration
    Something you can find anywhere, but mostly in fortune cookies.
  • motivation
    The magical force that keeps you from watching Netflix all day.
  • NaNoWriMo
    The National Novel Writing Month; a yearly event in which novelists set out to write 50,000 words in one month's time.
  • outlining
    Making a broad-strokes overview of the events in your novel. Some swear by it; some swear at it.
  • perfectionism
    Something that's only ever good in job interviews.
  • WIP
    Work-in-progress. Any novel you're currently pouring your heart, soul and sanity into.
  • writer's block
    When your inspiration disappears into thin air. Often involves tumbleweeds and a monkey playing cymbals.
  • writer's life
    Not nearly as rock'n'roll as on Californication.

    Story structure

  • chapters
    Parts of your novel grouped together through a common topic, related events or a shared point-of-view character.
  • Stories that focus primarily on character development, internal conflict and personal growth. Still have a plot.
  • cliffhangers
    Any unresolved issues at the end of a scene, chapter or novel that make the reader want to keep reading.
  • The ending of your story, after the climax, where loose ends are tied up and last matters resolved.
  • Optional chapter after the main story, often with some time in between. May contain the denouement, or even set up a sequel.
  • flashbacks
    When you jump back to any scenes that happened before the main story.
  • hooks
    The first line, paragraph or page of your novel, intended to drag your reader in. Ridiculously intriguing, hopefully.
  • When something happens that sets off the main events in your story. Say, finding out yer' a wizard.
  • Stories that focus primarily on events, external conflict and action. Still have characters.
  • Chapter before the main story, sometimes from an uncommon POV. Tends to establish the story or give background information.
  • Smaller storylines that support the main plot, often involving supporting characters.
  • Some sort of moral message that the rest of your story revolves around.
  • Common themes, settings or characters that are too universal to get stale. Think good versus evil; a remote village or a mentor.
  • clichés
    Anything that's been done so often that your readers can smell it from a mile away.
  • climax
    The part of your story that the rest of your novel has been working towards.
  • conflict
    When something prevents your character from achieving what they want to achieve.
  • foreshadowing
    Giving a subtle clue about something that happens later in the story, so as to build anticipation and tension.
  • Inconsistencies in a storyline that go against the logic of the rest of the plot.
  • plot twists
    The delicate art of pulling the rug out from under your reader.
  • prose
    Any writing that's not poetry. Can also refer to your choice of words.
  • suspension of disbelief
    Your reader's willingness and ability to believe something they know to be made-up - like your novel.
  • tropes
    Recurring motives in works of fiction. Tools, not flaws.
  • antagonists
    Anyone who stands in the way of the protagonist getting what they want. Often bad or immoral, but not necessarily.
  • Knights in not-so-shining armor. Flawed heroes, often doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
  • character development
    The way your characters' values, goals and behaviour change over time. Makes them way more interesting.
  • flat characters
    Superficial characters that show no depth, growth or unpredictability. The opposite of round characters.
  • When the narrator knows everything about everyone. Usually not an actual character in the story.
  • POV characters
    Point-of-view characters. Characters through whose eyes the reader witnesses the story.
  • The main character or characters of your story - the ones your reader is supposed to empathize with.
  • round characters
    Complex characters that intrigue and surprise the reader, and show significant character development. The opposite of flat characters.
  • A character who primarily accompanies another character, and generally walks in their shadow. What Donkey is to Shrek.
  • supporting characters
    Characters that the story doesn't revolve around, but who still play a fairly notable role in the overall plot.
  • Flat characters whose main purpose is to add diversity to the cast, often in terms of gender, ethnicity or sexuality.
  • Narrators that give the reader untrue information, such as due to clouded judgement, delusions, bad memory or even straight-up lies.
  • Opposite of passive voice. When whoever is performing the action becomes the subject of the sentence, such as in "the man air-guitared in the shower."
  • Anything used to indicate who's speaking in a piece of dialogue. She said. He whispered.
  • narration
    Your story as it's being told to the reader.
  • The last comma in a phrase like "novels, tea, and a fireplace." Subject of heated debate and plenty of fist fights.
  • pacing
    The speed at which your story moves. Slow when things are important, faster when they're not.
  • Opposite of active voice, and often a flaw. When whatever is being acted upon becomes the subject of the sentence, such as in "the shower was air-guitared in by the man."
  • purple prose
    Prose that is so unnecessarily descriptive that it distracts from the story. Also known as flowery prose.
  • rookie mistakes
    Anything signalling to the world that you don't know what you're doing.
  • An underlying meaning that the reader can pick up on, but that's not explicitly stated. Keeps your audience on the edge of their seats.
  • Whether your story is described in the past, the present or - god forbid - the future.
  • backstory
    Anything that happened before the start of your novel.
  • Constructed language. A language that has been deliberately created rather than naturally evolved, such as for a creative work. Think Elvish, Klingon or Dothraki.
  • Sharing background information with your readers. Should be done right, or not at all. See also: info dumps.
  • research
    Going out to find little nuggets of information that make your story all the more vivid.
  • The place in which your story is set, both in space and time.
  • beta reading
    Having someone other than yourself read your manuscript, allowing you to see your story through a fresh set of eyes.
  • kill your darlings
    Conventional wisdom stating that the thing you're most fond of is usually the worst - and should therefore be axed.
  • Having someone check your novel for writing style, grammar, spelling, structure and punctuation.
  • proofreading
    Reading through your manuscript as if it were finished; spotting final typos and getting a general sense of the story. 
  • Having someone check your novel for strengths, weaknesses, plot holes and general flow. Also called developmental edit.
  • Test of female representation in fiction, requiring that it contains (1) two female characters who (2) talk to each other about (3) something else than a man. Failed a lot more than you'd think.
  • The principle that every element in a story must be necessary information. Essentially, don't describe a gun over the mantle unless it ends up being fired.
  • Test for writing realistic dialogue, requiring that a major piece of exposition - like dead parents - get hinted at, rather than literally mentioned.
  • When a dire situation is resolved by the last-minute introduction of something powerful. Can leave the reader feeling cheated.
  • Literally, 'in the middle of things'. Common advice asserting you should start your novel in the midst of an action rather than with exposition.
  • Anything the characters really want, but the audience isn't so emotionally invested in. Think Holy Grails, Golden Fleeces or plans to the Death Star.
  • Something that's primarily introduced to move the plot forward. Can come across as forced and unnatural when done wrong.
  • red herrings
    Something that serves to mislead or distract your reader, such as to conceal an imminent plot twist.
  • Variant of the Bechdel test, stating that if you can replace a female character with a sexy lamp and the story still pretty much works, you're doing something wrong.
  • show don't tell
    Conventional wisdom that rather than telling the reader what they need to know, you show them evidence and let them connect the dots.
  • Trying to make something more mature by throwing sex, gore and lots of awkward cursing at it. Rarely works.
  • evil overlord
    A villainous antagonist whose only goal is to destroy the world, for no apparent reason. Worn-out and endlessly boring.
  • Haphazardly changing from one point-of-view to another, leaving the reader utterly confused.
  • Forcing one massive chunk of backstory down your reader's throat, rather than gently sprinkling it throughout your story.
  • A romantic relationship involving three people. Not wrong when done right, but not nearly as original as you think.
  • Mary Sue
    A character so perfect we want to throw up a little.
  • When you slap your reader in the face with whatever message you're trying to get across.
  • When your character is basically a way cooler version of you. Often leads to really dull Mary Sues.
  • A character being of critical importance to the world through no merit of their own. Often a sign of lazy writing.
  • File format for e-books that allows the reader to change the layout to their liking. Most universally supported of all the formats.
  • File format similar to the EPUB, but specifically for Amazon's Kindle line of e-readers.
  • File format for documents and ebooks. Allows the author more control over the layout, but offers less flexibility to the reader.
  • The pages in your novel that succeed the story. May contain an appendix, acknowledgements, or even ads for a sequel book.
  • The text on the back of a print novel, designed to entice potential readers.
  • Your name printed on the book cover. Comes with complementary warm and fuzzy feelings.
  • A quote that may or may not be relevant to the story, or inspired the author to write the story.
  • The pages in your novel that precede the actual story. Publishing information, dedications, epigraphs and the like.
  • A short, catchy line displayed on your book cover. High risk of being cheesy.
  • When one person is paid to write a book for someone else, and they pinky-swear not to tell people.
  • International Standard Book Number; the code used to identify your novel.
  • Someone who handles the commercial aspects on your behalf, dealing with publishers and such. For a cut of the profits, of course.
  • Print-on-demand. A form of self-publishing that will only print your novel once someone places an order.
  • The name an author uses when, by choice or necessity, they don't use their own.
  • A letter sent to a publisher to entice them into reading your manuscript.
  • Under the traditional publishing model, the share of money you receive per sale of your novel.
  • Publishing without the help of an established publisher. Great when done right; terrible when not.
  • A summarized description of the contents of your novel, from beginning to end. Often required by literary agents.
  • The five traditionally dominant publishers in the United States: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.
  • A publisher taking advantage of authors who really really want to be published. Known for terrible service, lots of upfront payments and other shady practices. Steer clear.

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  • About the author

    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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  • about the teacher

    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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