The Glossary: A Concise, Evolving Guide to the Elements of Literary Craft
“Easy reading is hard writing.” —Brad Listi
CRAFT. Our journal takes its title from the idea that the art of prose, like other forms of art, can be considered from the perspective of craft—“skill in carrying out one’s work,” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. As editors of this journal, we seek and relish the achievements of skill in writing. And in order to more effectively consider and discuss that skill—the craft of writing—we often break it down into specific elements. In fiction, writers exercise the skill of developing settings, characters, scenes, and so on, each of which we can consider somewhat independently to more granularly understand why a work of fiction does or does not move us.
While we’ve always tried to include explanations of craft terms we use in our discussions of literary work, we thought it might be helpful to organize such terms into a compilation for our readership. So here it is: a list of craft elements with definitions drawn from the ways in which we’ve seen authors talk about them. For some, we’ve included comments and examples, which we’d like to add more of over time, along with more terms and perspectives on them. We hope that this glossary might serve as a helpful (and by no means definitive) resource for building a shared vocabulary to discuss literary work and our approaches to it.
And just a quick word about how we might approach this compilation. It may seem like a daunting list of skills to master and apply to every story, and if you feel that way at all, remember: this glossary is more of a guidebook than a road map. In your travels, you’re not obligated to go everywhere a guidebook recommends. Daniel José Older advises us to think of craft elements as a palette, not a checklist. And as Becky Chambers said when remarking on craft elements related to plot, “These are all useful tools, and you should know how they work and how to use them and when to use them as a writer. But you don’t have to use them.” —CRAFT
Characterization & Character Development: The portrayal of a character as a person and how that person changes.
“Reading fiction is first and foremost meeting people.” —Brandi Reissenweber
“In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story.” —Flannery O’Connor
Dialogue: Verbal exchanges between characters.
Emotional/Character Arc: The emotional/psychological change that occurs in the protagonist over the course of the story. How the character has transformed through the events of the story.
“I think that’s the underlying structure of all literary fiction, the drama of seeing whether people will find out who they really are, whether they’re actually the people they think they are or whether they’re the people they fear they are.” —Alexander Chee
Flashback: A scene or description of a past event (relative to the story’s present time).
Flow: The movement or progression of one idea, scene, description, action, etc. to another.
Form: The overall shape of the story, especially as seen in the context of literary categories—often with respect to literary conventions, e.g. novella versus novel, allegory versus satire.
Notable Example: “The Fairy Godmother Advice Column” by Leah Cypess
Inciting Incident: A turning point that commits the protagonist to the narrative and character arcs of the story, usually by disrupting the status quo of the protagonist’s life; often considered a point of no return, after which the protagonist is involved in a(n inescapable and escalating) cause-and-effect chain of events.
“…for most conventional plot shapes, the inciting incident has to be clear, and it has to happen in the scene, on the page.” —Matt Bell
Interiority: The portrayal of characters’ inner lives: thoughts, emotions, etc. Must have a degree of authenticity.
“…the kingdom that the camera can never catch.” —Mary Karr
Notable Example: “A Father-to-Be” by Saul Bellow
Logical Consistency: The plausibility of events and actions according to the nature of the story’s world.
“Just treat me like I’m a…semi-intelligent person and give me a story that lives within its own boundaries.” —Adam Frank
Major Dramatic Question: A straightforward question answered (though perhaps not completely) by the story.
“Plot makes fiction coherent by drawing together all the characters, setting, voice, and everything else around a single organizing force…. And that thing, the force that draws everything together in a successful piece of fiction, is a single, pressing question.” —David Harris Ebenbach
Momentum: How sustained and/or substantial the forward progression is at a certain point in the story.
Motivation: What the character wants or cares about.
The “engine” of the story, according to Daniel José Older.
Narrative Arc: The meaningful change that occurs in the story’s world over the course of the story.
“How does the world change? That’s what gives your story meaning: how things change.” —Lani Diane Rich
Narrative Movement: The forward progression of the story. Often this means plot, but it could pertain to a character’s experience (including their thoughts) or the revelation of information to the reader.
“A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.” —George Saunders
“A short story is like taking the train cross country, but you get on in Chicago. It’s already in motion—something’s already happening when you’re called to be in the story.” —A.M. Holmes
Narrative Question (Driving/Key Question): The philosophical or psychological question the story poses and sets out to answer. The themes of a story are often related to this question, which could be as heady as “What is the nature of loneliness in the modern world?”
“What question are you exploring by telling this story?” —Kiersten White
Narrative Strategy: The set of core decisions an author makes in order to tell the story effectively and, ideally, uniquely.
“…the set of organizing principles that (in)form how the author is telling the story…the unique philosophy behind the construction of a work of fiction that applies to that work alone.” —Christopher Castellani
Notable Examples: “How to Talk to a Hunter” by Pam Houston
Pacing: How rapidly or slowly parts of the narrative proceed. Often, a story seems to move more quickly in sections with action, intense emotion, and dialogue; stories tend to feel slower when relating description and interiority.
Point of View: The perspective from which the story is told, which must be consistent for a cohesive reading experience.
“Where do I put the camera? I think that that’s the basic storytelling question. Where do you see the scene from? What do you tell the reader about it? What’s your stance towards the characters?” —Philip Pullman
Sigrid Nunez prefers to refer to point of view as the “dominant consciousness” of the story.
Point of Telling: Where the point of view is situated. The location of the narrator in time, space, and psychological distance from the events of the story.
“Past-tense narratives also have the advantage of implicit layering. There’s a gap between the time of the telling and the time of the story told, and this space can be made to resonate and hum.” —Richard Beard
During a session at The Muse and the Marketplace, Alexander Chee expanded on this idea by posing the question, “Why is this story being told now?” As in, what do the events of the story mean to the narrator at the time at which they are telling the story?
Notable Examples: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro; To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers; The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman; “It’s Not You” by Elizabeth McCracken; “Nondisclosure Agreement” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
Plot: The causally connected events of the story. The events that contribute to the progression of the narrative arc.
“…what literally happens (the external, observable, and objective action) in a story that moves it forward with a sense of organic flow.” —Charles Johnson
“…that series of events, arranged in a particular order, which brings about the desired final effect of a short story or novel.” —Alice LaPlante
“Plot is a sequence of actions that accumulate and effect some sort of change.” —Jhumpa Lahiri
Power/Energy: The sense of vitality or vigor a story possesses. Sources of power/energy are often characters, tension, and conflict.
Alan Lightman refers to “narrative force” as what is pushing the story along.
“We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.” —George Saunders
Premise: The setup or scenario; a fundamental circumstance in the story world that makes the plot or narrative arc possible (or even serves as its basis).
Gayle Forman refers to the premise as the “What If” of a story.
Scene: Movement through the story’s world or plot with explicit narration of immediate moments that describes actions, thoughts, and so on as they unfold.
Scenes: Self-contained units of narrative structure in which action is conveyed as though the reader is observing them happen; often considered the basic building block of a story (though some hold that “beats” are even more granular units of narrative).
Situatedness (Grounding): How the story is located or anchored in space and time. The more quickly the reader can get oriented—better yet, settled—in the story’s world, the more likely the reader will become immersed.
Notable Example: “Wood Sorrel House” by Zach Williams
Stakes: Something of consequence that the protagonist stands to gain and/or lose in the story.
“Once I know the stakes, I’m in.” —Kelly Luce (at The Muse and the Marketplace)
“Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” —Steve Almond
“Every story is about saving the world. The only question is, ‘What is the world you’re saving?’” —Max Gladstone
Notable Example: Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
Story: An account of events (narrative) with significance that seeks to evoke a psychological experience in the audience.
“Story is an event, or series of events with meaning. And that’s it.” —Lani Diane Rich
“The primary thing is of course that you give the reader an experience of something, and it probably should be a psychological experience, an experience that has both intelligence and emotion in it. And the story probably should have a voice.” —Lorrie Moore
“I want to feel like I’m inside the story, you know? I want characters who feel real to me, who, even if I have nothing in common with them, I understand why they’re behaving the way they are.” —Jasmine Guillory
“What I think a book does best and what the best books do is to create a world which is a version of the world and which is a place where the reader wants to be. And while they’re there, they hopefully have some kind of rich experience.” —Salman Rushdie
Style: The characteristic way an author uses the elements of craft.
“…style may just be the authentic application of technique….” —Ken Burns
Notable Examples: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, “Just a Little Fever” by Sheila Heti
Structure: The arrangement of a narrative’s parts (scenes, exposition, etc.); the organization of the story. The positioning of not just plot points but also scene and summary, dialogue, inciting incident, backstory, and other components.
“We might think of structure as simply: an organizational scheme that allows the story to answer a question it has caused the reader to ask.” —George Saunders
Notable Examples: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
Summary: Movement through the story’s world or plot with condensed narration.
Tension: The opposition of forces in the story (such as desires versus reality) that usually places the characters (and consequently the reader) in a state of stress.
Notable Example: “The Face in the Mirror” by Mohsin Hamid
Themes: Meaningful ideas that recur in or run through the narrative.
Tone: The disposition or temperament of the voice.
“An attitude taken by the narrative voice that can be described in terms of a mood, emotion or quality.” —Janet Burroway
Notable Example: “Only Orange” by Camille Bordas
Vividness: The degree of compelling detail, which often comes from specificity of language.
“Never give us a generic description. When we enter a new space, show it to us—but through a particular lens: your character’s point of view, modified by mood.” —Benjamin Percy
Voice: The manner in which language is used. The distinctive linguistic way the story is told to provide the texture of subjectivity.
“That is what is meant by a writer’s voice, how the texture of subjective perception finds its way into speech….” —Mark Doty
Notable Example: “Hellion” by Julia Elliott
Featured image by Pisit Heng courtesy of Unsplash