Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Newbie's Guide to Literary Terms

Every writer has to start somewhere, and writing fiction can be intimidating enough with fellow writers tossing around literary terms like candy on Halloween. Sometimes you can see what's in the wrapping, while most of the time you have no idea what's within. Let's delve into a few of these terms:

■ Narrative
■ Exposition
■ Introspection
■ Plot Device
■ Deus Ex Machina

I retrieved a few of my terms from the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary. The first term we'll look at is the narrative. That one relates to the whole picture. It's defined as:

narrative: "an account, story, or tale"

When you write a story, you create a narrative. The narrative is an account of the journey your protagonists (hero/heroine) and antagonists (villain, death, etc) undertake.

Let's look at the term exposition. This relates to how you convey your information. Your voice conveys to the reader what's in the narrative. Of course, like the narrative, you can mess up the exposition as well. Have you ever given so much back story that a crit partner knew the color of your character's underwear? Well, they might've said you gave an information dump or an exposition dump.

Formally, exposition is defined in the dictionary as: "the act of presenting, explaining, or expounding facts or ideas."

As authors, the exposition for us is the dialogue, description through imagery, etc. that gives the audience the background of the characters and the present situation.

So anytime someone says there's a problem with your exposition, you can elegantly extend your pinky finger in the air and tell them you'll correct it no problem. (Just make sure to ask for a specific page and paragraph since you'll likely have a lot to crawl through.)

Our exposition can go too far. Have you ever read a book where you got bored, couldn't wait to put it down? Perhaps the author included too much description. Or they had a never ending flashback or talked about every dog the character had since childhood. Details are nice, but like the next topic below, it should be used enough to convey the story and advance the plot.

Our next topic is introspection. Via our dictionary, introspection is defined as:

introspection: "The observation and analysis of one's own mental processes and
emotional states."

In essence, introspection is when your character reacts or thinks about something that has occurred. It's important when using introspection to not give too much or too little. For example, if your villain just left your heroine in the middle of the nowhere with no ride, I doubt she will have one line or two of introspection. There will likely be some dialogue (cursing), a visceral reaction (anger), and then some introspection on what has occurred and how she feels. Introspection is a valuable tool for romance writers.

Now we come to the plot device. Have you ever been told by a crit partner that you used something in your story as plot device? Perhaps you pulled a Deus Ex Machina out of thin air? How about we define these two terms together?

plot device: a character or object in the story that is only used to advance the plot.

deus ex machina: a plot device where the story's conflict is resolved through something that is not related to the story in any way. Also known as the "hand of God."

Based on the definitions given above, you can see these should be avoided in your manuscript. It's far too easy to use these our plots. For example, it would be too easy to let the heroine I described above find a car running and ready a few feet away from where the villain ditched her.
The car is a smaller form of Deus Ex Machina. A larger example would be if our heroine confronted the villain at his house. While in a knife fight, we might learn that the hero hid at the house the whole time and he comes bounding out of the attic to fight the villain and save the day. Way too easy! Why not have the heroine save herself in a battle to the death?

How do you avoid plot devices? If something is critical to making your story work, it should be fully ingrained in your plot. If you have a magical necklace that saves the day, give the necklace a history. Foreshadow it. Make the object a more active part of your story. There are ways to surprise the reader in the end without giving them the "cringe effect."

Cringe Effect: When a crit partner reads your work, cringes, and moans, "Oh, c'mon that came out of nowhere!"

Here are some great articles/blog posts on the topic I discussed above:

Any other terms you can think of when you started writing?

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