My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Creative Writing Terms A-E


Act- A major division in a play. Many plays are further broken into scenes. Also what most people are doing when they pretend to be writers down at the local coffee shop.

Action Thriller- A sub-genre of thriller where the pacing of a story is characterized by continuous and rapid high tension events. What The Scarlet Letter really should have been.

Active Voice- Where the subject performs the action of the verb. In linguistics, the agent is the subject. Conventional wisdom would suggest that one should always write in the active voice unless there is a very good reason not to.  Or you're Herman Melville.  However many take great umbrage with this suggestion.

Agent- An elusive creature who often lives in a cave. Many of them do not understand technology from after 1980 and continue to demand submissions follow conventions of a time before it was even possible to easily make COPIES of something. In theory they try to sell a writer's work and guide their career towards appropriate venues and good matches, but in reality they do as much as they can to avoid writers, erecting barriers between themselves and writers like a Turret Defense Game.

Allusion- A reference, without explanation, to a prior work, historical event, or historical person. Typically the subject of an allusion should be well known to avoid confusion, but if someone doesn't understand a Star Trek or Firefly reference, that's really their problem for not being cool enough.

Article- A short, non-fiction work which often forms one part of a larger publication (newspaper, magazine, blog). Also, the part of English grammar that drives second language learners from Asia to drink.


Backlist- Books that are still in print, but are not being published in the current season.  Because books about gardening don't tend to get snapped up during the monsoon and apparently no one will actually buy The Winter of Our Discontent during in May.

Back Story- When the synopsis on the back of a paperback is considerably better than actually reading the book itself.  However, more commonly it refers to events that have taken place prior to the start of a story. Generally the latter refers to character and "world events" are considered to be part of setting. Extensive back stories can require a sophistication at exposition lest they risk being clunky. Clunky exposition is one of the hallmarks of really shitty writing.

Beta Male- A term that describes a sensitive guy usually within a romance of some kind and often in a romantic triangle with an Alpha Male.  The fact that most writers are beta males, being all sensitive and artistic and shit, and the fact that a lot of writing has an element of wish fulfillment in it, the romance goes well for the beta male a hugely disproportionate amount of the time in media that is written (like books, TV, movies, and almost everything that's blasting culture into your brains 24/7).  And so we end up with a culture where "nice guys" feel entitled to have totally hot women look beyond their extra hundred pounds or scrawny physique and see the true treasures within.  Thanks writers. You have single handedly contributed to a huge aspect of misogyny.  Assholes!

Biography-  A story about one person that is written by a different person. In other words every political AUTObiography you've ever read.  ~rimshot~  While most historical, political, and trend setter biographies are non-fiction, and "biographies" is used in book classification to describe non-fiction, many works of fiction are essentially fictitious biographies.

Bombast- A form of writing where the word choice for the caliber of rhetoric and diction vastly outstrips the importance of the concept to which the writing refers. An overly elaborate style that is disproportionate to the topic. If you've been online since 1987, you are already aware of this even though you might not know the term. Pedants who write about one space vs. two spaces after a sentence using the sort of language that one would generally reserve for war criminals and despots would fall into this, as would describing the gruesome immolation that you hope occurs to someone's face because they like iProducts.

Biz of CW- A personal term I sometimes use that refers to the myriad of ways in which a creative writer might monetize their efforts and make money.  There are a lot more options these days than short story accolades-->agent--> publisher--> book contract--> advance--> lines of coke off of hookers' asses.  There are a lot of ways to make money by writing, and all are creative on some level, but this specifically refers to creative writing (fiction, drama, poetry, creative non-fiction, genre defying avant guarde stuff that eight MFA's think is brilliant but most can't understand). It is an abbreviation of Business of Creative Writing, which was the title of a class I took as part of my major.


Canon- A group of literary works, written mostly by dead white guys, which a group of mostly living white guys think is really important to read.  Recently a bunch of uppity marginalized people tried to add in other voices and the resulting conflict over what should be cannon caused the rise of the white guy avatar, Harold Bloom, who tried to limit the canon, but was eventually defeated because his pompous arrogance turned inward on itself (as evil always does).  Some still think there is a list out there, but most have opened the canon to include other voices and art that hasn't always gotten the "high art" stamp of approval from the Oxford and Cambridge tweed jacket society.  The canon really pisses off literary critics because half the time what ends up in there is the stuff they insisted at the time wasn't "literature," and the stuff that they thought was brilliant, no one can remember a year later.  In fact, over time, it's kind of fair to say that literary critics tend to be pretty irrelevant to what ends up being canonized, and it is other things (like social relevance) that cause a work to resonate. The canon is mostly speculative fiction, which today is would be dismissed as genre, but literary critics haven't caught on yet the inherent irony in demanding realism in everything.  It's only been seventy years.  Give them time.

Character- Something in a story with consciousness, intelligence, and usually morals and some ability to change.  This is usually a person, and sometimes an animal, but it could also be an anthropomorphized object, a idea, a robot, a sentient car that fights crime, or your protagonists hair.

Character Driven- A story in which the characters are moving the plot rather than the plot moving the characters. Snobs will attempt to delineate this as the difference between genre and literature.  Just hand them The Stand or Game of Thrones if they pull that shit (and NOT the mini-series with Molly Ringwald or the HBO show respectively).  A character driven plot may have things happen, but the story moves because of the characters working for and against each other, and the real climax of the story is usually internal, even if it has external echos.

Cliche- French for stereotype.  A phrase, idea, event, or element which has been overused to the point of losing its meaning. This is often confused by will meaning douchecanoes on the internet as "anything I'm tired of reading."  The trouble with cliche is that it isn't a term with well defined boundaries. Certain expressions overused to the point that they are often not even fully registered by a reader are not cliches.  Cliches share a long and highly contested border with idioms, and while some idioms are not cliches ("stand tall" or "laid back") others are ("lock, stock, and barrel" "vent one's spleen").  Cliches are not always small phrases.  They can be ideas (a computer that enslaves humanity) things (a planet destroying space station) plot devices (reporter who isn't totally biased for or against "the people" gets killed/kidnapped) or characters (an evil twin).  Many "large" cliches are also called tropes, but "trope" tends to be an even more elastic term given to anything that has been written about more than twice.  It is sometimes difficult to tell when a trope has become a cliche.  It is a misconception that all cliches are bad, and probably why most people who think that have never written much beyond the "Why you shouldn't write cliches!" website.  Everything has been done before, so avoiding all cliches all the time is almost impossible, but a reinvented cliche can be delightful both at the large level or at the phrasal level.

Conventions- Features of subject matter, form, and technique that occur within a work of literature.  They may involve large elements like plot devices and character tropes or tiny language choices like diction.  Conventions form a sort of "grammar" of a story, and--like grammar--they involve some rules that are flexible, some that are intractable, and some that can be broken to great effect.  (Think of the ways in which the conventions of an Elizabethan sonnet were broken, and what that did to emphasize the subject mater's theme, for a great example.)  In some cases conventions can become tropes or even cliches.  The conventions of different KINDS of fiction are what lead to the idea of genre.  Westerns have different conventions than science fiction. Lit snobs thing "literature" transcends conventions, but if anyone who has read what gets classified as literature these days knows that literary fiction is its own genre with its own set of conventions (minimalism, character driven often to the detriment of plot, present tense narrative, second person metafiction, a narrative arc that involves bottoming out, a non-cis/non-straight child with intolerant parents, coming to terms with cultural paradox, HIV/AIDS, stories of childhood, irredeemable characters, dysfunctional relationships, abuse, angst out the wazoo...I could go on).  This set of conventions--this genre, if you will--simply happens to be in favor in the Court of the Ivory Tower these days.

Creative Writing- Writing that's....you know....like....creative and stuff.  Everything from the most soundy sound poetry to creative non-fiction that really sort of forgot most of the creative part is creative writing.  We could complicate this by pointing out that all writing is creative, but I haven't pissed off my small army of tech writer friends in at least a day or two.


Deconstruction-  A particularly relevant form of literary criticism to a writer.  Derrida founded this school of thought (ironically when his intended topic was to laud structuralism) as a way to examine the inherent weakness of language to express definite ideas.  Though even a brief summary of deconstruction would take pages, the important thing for writers to understand is that it is particularly focused on the subversion of binary opposites (nature vs. nurture, good vs. evil, male vs. female).  Anzaldua,  Haraway  and more went on to apply these ideas to gender roles, ethnicity, queer theory, and others.  A writer would be remiss not to be aware of the subtitles and nuance in all but the most sophist melodramas that have crept into literature due to these influences.  There is even a moral conflict in the most ridiculous, over-the-top, good-versus-evil space opera of popular culture; Luke could feel the good in him.  (For the moment, we'll leave out the part about how most mammalian fathers cannot watch their genetic offspring being casually murdered, and we'll go with "good."  Yeah, that's it.)

Denouement- In French this means something like "the unknotting."   A non-French ways to say it might be, "The Wrap Up," but intellectuals prefer French or Italian terms for simple concepts so they seem much smarter when they say them.  The Denouement is the final part of a traditional story arc, happening right after the climax of the story.  Many stories play with this structure, and it is not uncommon to see a protracted denouement or a even a denouement at the beginning of the story.

Description- Something Anne Rice does too much of.  Description is writing that creates a picture or (or other sensory details if visual imagery isn't used).

Deus ex Machina- Latin for "a god from  a machine."  In Greek plays sometimes a god would be lowered to deal with all the problems of the humans using their phenomenal cosmic power.  Not merely a case of Oh those silly Greeks! however, this kind of external-force-solves-all-problems was still quite common in Victorian literature, but instead of gods, it took the form of rich uncles, unknown inheritances, and proof of heretofore unknown birthrights and various serendipitous twists of fate.  Now we use the phrase to refer to any poorly written device that solves the problems of the characters suddenly at the end of a plot without the characters doing anything.  Of course, every once in a while some writer forgets that deus ex machina is a bad thing, basically goes all the way back to lowering a god to solve all the characters' problems, and then you get something like the last few episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

Didactic- Anything Ayn Rand ever wrote.  HA!  Literally this means "intended to give instruction."  It could be on a discipline or a philosophy or most commonly on morality.  It's usually not a term used for blatant propaganda for a given political or religious cause; we just call that propaganda.  The call on a writer to be didactic is huge, and it comes from everywhere on the political spectrum. You will be grilled as hard by the religious right for a protagonist who has an abortion as you will from the progressive left for a character who thinks abortion is a sin.  People will bring themselves to your work and wonder why you have failed to make a character more like their ideal.  (I once read a rant about Malcolm Reynolds making a rape joke in the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds" that really questioned his value as "a good guy."  Here's a character who kicks unarmed people into jetstreams, steals everything he can get his hands on, tortures unarmed and prone douche bags by stabbing them repeatedly, shoots unarmed agents, and the thing that makes him not "good" is an ambiguous joke that might be more about the smack down that's coming than any innuendo of rape.  The point being, the person who wrote the rant, wanted that character to be closer to their ideal.)

Distance- What your partner will ask for when they're too afraid to break up with you. *rimshot*   I'll be here all week folks, please tip your servers.  In basic literary analysis, there are four points of view; first, third omniscient, third limited, and the rarely used second.  As a creative writer, these points of view are seen as tools (each with strengths and weaknesses), but one of the most common mistakes of beginning writers is to assume that first person is more "in the head" of the character.  In fact, there are multiple decisions that affect the style of writing including point of view, distance, and narrative tense.  Distance can be said to be a completely separate from the point of view, and writers will often talk about a "close third" or a "distant first."  Raymond Carver provides many good examples of a distant first person, the narratives are strictly concerned with physical sensations and external actions--there is no revelation about what is in a character's head.  Ender's Game is a pretty popular example of a close third.  The thought processes of Ender were made clear to the reader.


Earn it- I use this phrase a lot when I'm talking about breaking a convention of writing. Many writers refer to these conventions as rules, but it is more useful to talk about why the are conventions and how to make it work to break them. Breaking a rule requires that you earn it. Entry one.

Essay- A short composition on a subject that is intended to discuss a certain aspect of the subject to a general audience (unlike a treatise that attempts to be definitive).  Since Western Academia considers itself the center of the universe,  they will insist that an essay be based on Greek system of advocacy and contain a thesis that is defended.  The fact that many other cultures do things differently is just too bad for those cultures and the fact that they aren't in charge.  Losers.

Expressionism- A loosely defined movement primarily defined by it's rejection of realism within both style and content.  By exaggerating and distorting the portrayal of emotionally upset characters, it sought to draw an audience into the emotional cauldron of a character by altering the style of art itself.  Though largely outdated now, its influence lingers on in the way instability of character often shows in instability of writing within works of artists like Beckett and Arthur Miller, and in the writer Kurt Vonnegut.  Known for the alacrity with which it can cause severe hotties to think a writer is "way deep in that......ya know...meta kind of way."

Creative Writing Terms F-J