As graciously provided by Ojvind Bernander and supplemented by Critters
This lexicon distills a huge amount of thinking about writing.
The terms defined below are meant to be used when critiquing the manuscript of an author. By learning the definitions, the critiquer may also become aware of flaws in his or her own writing.
Most terms refer to things to avoid, but some, like the Eyeball Kick, are thought desirable.
A Primer for SF Workshops
Edited by Lewis Shiner
This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to "reinvent the wheel" (see section 3) at every session.
The terms here were generally developed over a period of many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are acknowledged in parentheses at the end of the entry. Particular help for this project was provided by Bruce Sterling and the other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas.
Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word "said." "Said" is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than "he retorted," "she inquired," or the all-time favorite, "he ejaculated."
Similar compulsion to follow the word "said" (or "said" bookish) with an adverb. As in, "'We'd better hurry,' said Tom swiftly." Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time it is clear from the context how something was said.
Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that abound with "said" bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can't call Mike Shayne "Shayne" but substitute "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth." Like the "said" bookish it comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly strong and highly visible words, like, say, "vertiginous." It's always better to re-use an ordinary, simple noun or verb rather than contrive a cumbersome method of avoiding it.
That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Rudy Rucker)
Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the intellect or critical faculties. Words like "song" or "poet" or "tears" or "dreams." These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Most often found in story titles.
Sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."
Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM's and still have no idea with it looks like.
Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."
Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed to react, not be instructed in *how* to react. Carefully observed details render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling us "she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," specific incidents--involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey--should be shown.
Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Inappropriate humor in front of strangers. Basically the failure of an author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared by the world at large. In fact. the world at large will look upon such a writer as if they had a squid in their mouths. (Jim Blaylock)
Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw (Stewart Brand)
Attempt to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. "I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself." As if by anticipating the reader's objections the author had somehow answered them. (John Kessel)
Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow she forgot to bring her gun."
Intrusion of author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit smoking. In more subtle forms, the characters complain that they're confused and don't know what to do--when this is actually the author's condition. (Tom Disch)
List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author works out complicated plot problems at the reader's expense. "If I'd gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn't want to spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then..." etc. Best dispensed with entirely.
Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.
Author's imagination fails to provide details. Most common in the beginning of a story. "She awoke in a white room." The white room is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. The character has just woken up in order to ponder her circumstances and provide an excuse for infodump (see below).
Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles inserted in the text, or covert, in which all actions stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to lecture. Actually a common noun, as: "You have a Stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing the characters resolve it."
Authorial tricks to no visible purpose. The author has contrived an elaborate plot to arrive at a) the punchline of a joke no one else will get b) some bit of historical trivia. In other words, if the point of your story is that this kid is going to grow up to be Joseph of Arimathea, there should be sufficient internal evidence for us to figure this out.
"For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see, I am a dog!" Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. "What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?" is an example of the former; "What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?" is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not conceits.
Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.
Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!
The true structure of the quest-type fantasy novel. The "hero" collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending. Note that "the author" can be substituted for "the Gods" in such a work: "The Gods decreed he would pursue this quest." Right, mate. The author decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. (Dave Langford)
The most pernicious form of Info Dump. In which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
(and now it's your turn). Research dump. A form of Info Dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader irrelevant, but hard-won bits of data acquired while researching the story.
In which the novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a situation already familiar to the experienced reader. You most often see this when a highly regarded mainstream writer tries to write an SF novel without actually reading any of the existing stuff first (because it's all obviously crap anyway). Thus you get endless explanations of, say, how an atomic war might get started by accident. Thank you, but we've all read that already. Also you get tedious explanations by physicists ot how their interstellar drive works. Unless it impacts the plot, we don't care.
Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let's just steal one. We'll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we'll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.
The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.
The solution to the Info Dump problem (how to fill in the background). The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important: all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need info dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background. This is also known as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life."
Writing too much about what you know. The kind of story where the starving writer living in the grubby apartment writes a story about a starving writer in a grubby apartment. Stars all his friends.
The following entries are additions suggested by members of Critters:
Withholding crucial information from the reader that the POV knows. Used to create cheap tension without having a necessarily tense plot. "Bob felt all his energy focused as he pried off the heavy lid from the sarcophagus. Bob knew from the hieroglyphics what he'd find. Upon seeing its wondrous contents, he suddenly knew how he would wreak his revenge on Anne. He heard a noise. 'Keep back; you know me -- you know I'll shoot,' Bob warned the advancing figure." This jars the reader out of the POV's view, reminding them there's an Author out there pulling the strings. Solution: tell the reader outright anything the POV sees/knows that is of relevance; if it's not a tense item in itself, chances are it will be a letdown when the reader does find out, so make the thing itself tense, and let the reader share it with the POV. Alternatively, if you need to keep something hidden, present it from a POV who can't find out what's in there either; then the reader is not reminded they're not the POV (though the hidden thing itself should still be interesting and worthy of being hidden). [suggested by Andrew Burt]
Dialog or action that blatantly has no purpose other than to educate the reader about some important story detail. Usually a failed attempt to smoothly work in an infodump; cousin of the As You Know Bob. "'Do you really need it spelled out?' Bob ranted. 'We [followed by explanation]..." Or, "So, boss, remind me what time I'm supposed to whack the president?" Or, "Say, Captain, do we have enough fuel to reach Tau Ceti, our destination, in our scheduled time of six months?" [suggested by Andrew Burt]
This is where the author, for some reason or another, feels like every Word deserves Capitalization so to heighten its Importance. Found most often in fantasy novels. [suggested by John Meyer]
Writing words that are not pronouncable. Like Lymlpsfdash to describe a foreign language. [suggested by John Meyer]
A bad manuscript which "shall return." [suggested by Amy Sterling Casil]
This one comes from James Blish (and borrowed by film reviewer Roger Ebert), but I've seen it in workshop stories. This is a plot which can only work if every character is an idiot. [suggested by Steven Howard Smith]
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov's principles: "If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III." The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards. [suggested by Stephen J. Barringer]
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel ("It never happened"), parallel universes ("It never happened *here*"), unconscious duplicates ("We're all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!") and dream-sequences ("It was all a dream!") have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story's or series' central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*). [suggested by Stephen J. Barringer]
If you have others, please submit them to Andrew Burt.