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Basic writing terms
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.
- Focal character
- Viewpoint character
- Foil character
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.
See Dramatic structure.
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.
- Novels, see also the main novel page.
- Novellas and Short stories
- Scripts, Plays and Screenplays
- Fables and Fairy tales
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.
Point of View
Narrative point of view (also point-of-view or viewpoint) describes from which grammatical person's perspective the story is perceived. The narrative mode encompasses not only who tells the story, but also how the story is described or expressed (for example, by using stream of consciousness or unreliable narration). See viewpoint character.
The person who is used to tell the story is called the "narrator," a character developed by the author expressly for the purpose of relating events to the audience. The experiences and observations related by the narrator are not generally to be regarded as those of the author, though in some cases (especially in non-fiction), it is possible for the narrator and author to be the same person. However, the narrator may be a fictive person devised by the author as a stand-alone entity, or even a character. The narrator is considered participant if an actual character in the story, and nonparticipant if only an implied character, or a sort of omniscient or semi-omniscient being who does not take part in the story but only relates it to the audience.
First-person narrative is a narrative mode where a story is narrated by one character at a time, speaking for and about themselves. First-person narrative may be singular, plural or multiple as well as being an authoritative, reliable or deceptive "voice" and represents point of view in the writing.
The character/s explicitly refers to themselves using words and phrases involving "I" (referred to as the first-person singular) and/or "We" (the first-person plural). This allows the reader or audience to see the point of view (including opinions, thoughts, and feelings) only of the narrator, and no other characters. In some stories, first-person narrators may refer to information they have heard from the other characters, in order to try to deliver a larger point of view. Other stories may switch from one narrator to another, allowing the reader or audience to experience the thoughts and feelings of more than one character.
Second-person narrative is a narrative mode where a story is narrated by one character at a time, speaking for "you" (singular and plural). It brings the reader into the story. An example would be: "You got up. You walked to the bar and said hello to the bartender, Marty. You got your drink and paid and left."
Traditionally, the employment of the second-person form in literary fiction has not been as prevalent as the corresponding first-person and third-person forms, yet second-person narration is, in many languages, a very common technique of several popular and non- or quasi-fictional written genres such as guide books, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, and advertisements.
Although not the most common narrative technique in literary fiction, second-person narration has constituted a favoured form of various literary works within, notably, the modern and post-modern tradition.
Third-person narration provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as "he", "she", "it", or "they", but never as "I" or "we" (first-person), or "you" (second-person). In third-person narrative, it is necessary that the narrator be merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story, but not a character of any kind within the story being told. Third-person singular (he/she) is overwhelmingly the most common type of third-person narrative, although there have been successful uses of the third-person plural (they), as in Maxine Swann's short story "Flower Children". Even more common, however, is to see singular and plural used together in one story, at different times, depending upon the number of people being referred to at a given moment in the plot.
The third-person limited is a narrative mode in which the reader experiences the story through the senses and thoughts of just one character. This is almost always the main character—e.g., Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling's series. In third-person limited, the narration is limited in the same way a first-person narrative might be—i.e., the narrator cannot tell the reader things that the focal character does not know—but the text is written in the third person.
The third-person omniscient is a narrative mode in which both the reader and author observe the situation either through the senses and thoughts of more than one character, or through an overarching godlike perspective that sees and knows everything that happens and everything the characters are thinking. Third-person omniscient is virtually always the narrative mode chosen for sprawling, epic stories such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
However, while a godlike all-knowing perspective necessarily uses third-person omniscient, there are other uses for this narrative mode. Third-person omniscient simply means that the narrator can tell the reader things that the main character does not know, or things that none of the characters know, or things that no human being could ever know (e.g., what the first conscious creature felt like as it climbed out of the primordial ooze, in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
The third-person objective employs a narrator who tells a story without describing any character's thoughts, opinions, or feelings; instead it gives an objective, unbiased point of view. Often the narrator is self-dehumanized in order to make the narrative more neutral; this type of narrative mode, outside of fiction, is often employed by newspaper articles, biographical documents, and scientific journals. This point of view can be described as a "fly on the wall" or "camera lens" approach that can only record the observable actions, but does not interpret these actions or relay what thoughts are going through the minds of the characters. Works of fiction that use this style put a great deal of emphasis on characters acting out their feelings in an observable way. Internal thoughts, if expressed, are given voice through an aside or soliloquy.
The third-person subjective is when the narrator conveys the thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. of one or more characters. If it is just one character, it can be termed third-person limited.
While the general rule is for novels to adopt a single approach to point of view throughout, there are exceptions. Many stories, especially in literature, alternate between the first and third person. In this case, an author will move back and forth between a more omniscient third-person narrator to a more personal first-person narrator. Often, a narrator using the first person will try to be more objective by also employing the third person for important action scenes, especially those in which he/she is not directly involved or in scenes where he/she is not present to have viewed the events in first person. This mode is found in the novel The Poisonwood Bible.
Epistolary novels, which were very common in the early years of the novel, generally consist of a series of letters written by different characters, and necessarily switching when the writer changes; the classic books Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Abraham "Bram" Stoker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde take this approach. Sometimes, though, they may all be letters from one character, such as C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island switches between third and first person, as do Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.
An example of a possible unreliable narrator is the narrator for the television series How I Met Your Mother, where the "Father" (Ted) has been known to lie to his "children" (his in-tale audience; the audience hears this narration as though they are the children) about events in the series, especially when the events seem to be revealing the eponymous "Mother".
Stream of consciousness
Stream of consciousness is a narrative mode that seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her actions.
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 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 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' 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.
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, 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.