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Basic writing terms

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Basic writing terms are tools that writers and Wrimos use to refer to particular universal concepts in their work. These terms will appear everywhere in the forums. It's a good idea to have some basic understanding of them, so you can join in when people talk about them. This article deals with terms relating to Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, Style, Form, Genre, Narrator, Tense and Synopses, and other terms such as muse, fourth wall, prompt, outlining and pantsing.


Characters are the people who live in your novel or screenplay, from your main character (often abbreviated MC) to his second cousin once removed who only appears in one sentence. Though they may in some cases be based on real people, characters are fictional and, despite the feeling that many Wrimos share with Anne Lamott, do not have free will. That said, they certainly tend to act as if they do.


The plot refers to a series of events that take place in a novel, usually adhering to some kind of structure. Along with unruly characters, disorganized, confusing, crazy, boring, surprising, illogical, incomprehensible plots remain one of the chief frustrations for Wrimos during NaNoWriMo.

Dramatic structure

See Dramatic structure.

Plot techniques


The setting of a novel or script refers to where any event takes place. A novel or script can have one setting, or many; the settings can be as small as a single room, or as large as an entire universe (or multiverse). Settings can be realistic, fantastic, or something in between.


A theme is a broad idea, moral, or message, of an essay, paragraph, movie, or a book. The message may be about life, society, or human nature. Themes often explore timeless and universal ideas and may be implied rather than stated explicitly. Along with plot, character, setting, and style, theme is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.


In fiction, style is the manner in which the author tells the story. Along with plot, character, theme, and setting, style is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction


Form refers to the medium in which a story is communicated. A story can be communicated orally (through speech), and also in written form. It is the written forms of communication which are described here.


Genre (pronounced /ˈʒɑːnrə/, also /ˈdʒɑːnrə/; from French, genre French pronunciation: [ʒɑ̃ʀ], "kind" or "sort", from Latin: genus (stem gener-), Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature, as well as various other forms of art or culture e.g. music, based on some loose set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.



Past tense

Past tense is a grammatical tense that places an action or situation in the past of the current moment (in an absolute tense system), or prior to some other event, whether that is past, present, or future (in a relative tense system)

Simple past is formed for regular verbs by adding -d or –ed to the root of a word. Examples: He walked to the store, or They danced all night. A negation is produced by adding did not and the verb in its infinitive form. Example: He did not walk to the store. Question sentences are started with did as in Did he walk to the store?

Past progressive is formed by using the adequate form of to be and the verb’s present participle: He was going to church. By inserting not before the main verb a negation is achieved. Example: He was not going to church. A question is formed by prefixing the adequate form of to be as in Was he going?

Present tense

Present tense is a grammatical tense that locates a situation or event in present time. In English, the present may be used to express action in the present, a current state of being, an occurrence in the future, or an action that started in the past and continues.

In the present simple, English uses the verb without an ending (I get the lunch ready at one o'clock, usually) except that in the third person singular, (after he, she, it, your friend etc.) the suffix -s or -es is appended to the verb (It gets busy on the weekends. Sarah catches the early train.)

Emphatic present: The present tense can be expressed with emphasis by using the auxiliary verb do and the uninflected main verb, (I do walk. He does walk).

Present progressive or present continuous, which is used to describe events happening now, e.g. I am reading this wiki article, and I am thinking about editing it. This tense is formed by combining the present form of the verb "to be" with a present participle.

Present perfect, which in English is a present tense with retrospective aspect (I have visited Paris several times describes a present state of being based on past action; I have listened to you for five minutes now).

Present perfect progressive, which is used to describe events or actions that have begun at some point in the past and continue through the present, e.g. I have been reading this article for some time now.

Future tense

Future tense is a verb form that marks the event described by the verb as not having happened yet, but expected to happen in the future (in an absolute tense system), or to happen subsequent to some other event, whether that is past, present, or future (in a relative tense system).

The most common auxiliary verbs used to express futurity are will and shall. Prescriptive grammarians distinguish between these, preferring to express the simple future as will in the second and third persons and shall in the first person, and preferring to express obligation or determination in the opposite cases. However, in modern English worldwide, shall and will are generally used interchangeably, with will being more common.

English also uses must, should, can, may and might in a similar way:

  • Must expresses the highest degree of obligation and commitment (I / you must go) and is temporally nearest to present time in its expression of futurity ("I must go now.")
  • Should (the subjunctive form of shall in this context) implies obligation or commitment to the action contemplated. (I should go.)
  • Can implies the ability to commit the action but does not presuppose obligation or firm commitment to the action. (I can go.)
  • May expresses a relatively low sense of commitment (I may go) and is the most permissive (You may go); it can also suggest conditionality (I may go [if I have time]).
  • Might expresses a very low sense of commitment or obligation (I / you might go if I / you feel like it).


A synopsis is a brief summary of the major points of a written work, either as prose or as a table. It is generally an abridgment or condensation of a work. Almost all Wrimos (and writers in general) have their own methods for writing synopses; no one way is the best. If you are struggling with writing one, it is best to do a google search on 'how to write a novel synopsis'[1] and develop your own method from those presented.



Muses serve as aids to an author. They are sometimes represented as the true speaker, for whom the author is merely a mouthpiece.

Fourth wall

The fourth wall is the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play.

The presence of the fourth wall is an established convention of modern realistic theatre, which has led some artists to draw direct attention to it for dramatic or comedic effect when this boundary is "broken", for example by an actor onstage speaking to the audience directly. The acceptance of the transparency of the fourth wall is part of the suspension of disbelief between a fictional work and an audience, allowing them to enjoy the fiction as if they were observing real events.


A writing prompt is a short entry that generally contains a question to help you pick a topic to write about. An example would be: If you could travel to any place, real or fictional, from any time, what would it be and why? Writing prompts are often used in word wars and NaNoWordSprints.

Outlining and Pantsing


A novel outline is a story plan, written in the abbreviated form of a traditional outline with headings and subheadings. We're often taught how to outline a novel in school when we learn how to write book reports. To borrow a theme from Jennifer Crusie's latest novel, the easiest way to think of it is as a story to-do list.

An outline is valuable in a couple of ways: it creates a map of your novel, so you know where you're going when you write. Depending on how detailed the outline is, it can also be the foundation or first draft of your synopsis. An outline need not be lengthy or contain all the details of your story. It can be as simple as Peter De Vries suggested: a beginning, a muddle, and an end.

One of the most well-known ways of outlining a novel is Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method[2], which suggests that the aspiring author begins with a 'one sentence summary' and expands their outline from there.


Pantsing is a term coined in the NaNo forums for those who write 'by the seat of their pants'. This means they write their novels without any kind of outline, or with only the most basic idea of a plot or characters. It is also known as writing organically, allowing the plot to grow on its own.[3]