If you’re new (or even not so new) to the world of writing, you may have discovered that us writerly folks have our own jargon. Even if you’re not a writer, if you’re an avid reader you’ve probably associated with enough writers (and/or literary critics) to have heard some odd terms being tossed about. So I thought I’d help you out with this small starter list of writerly words and abbreviations. This is by no means a comprehensive glossary – I’ve just tried to pick some of the most common or weird-sounding terms.
This stands for Work in Progress. A short story in its first draft or a novel in its third draft is a WIP if it’s unpublished and the author is still working on it.
MC stands for Main Character. There are a lot of other terms to define character types (like protagonist, anti-hero) and one of these may or may not be the main character. But if you’re reading about a writer or a book and you see “MC,” it just means Main Character.
Mary Sue (or Gary Stu)
This is a character that is “too perfect.” A Mary Sue character is often super-model beautiful, multi-talented and excels at everything without trying hard, is loved by everyone, and makes few or no mistakes. A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu for a male character) frequently is an idealized version of the author, and the story can read like a contrived excuse to showcase the author’s perfect fantasies.
A trope is a story concept, plot device, or character type that is common and perhaps clichéd. A trope in storytelling is not a bad thing, however, because there are endless ways to creatively build upon the base idea. The Cinderella or Rags-to-Riches concept is a trope. Other genre-specific tropes are concepts like a character returning from the dead in fantasy or sci-fi, or a masquerade ball where someone winds up dead in a mystery story.
This word can sometimes mean something similar to trope, in that it covers a basic, classic type of character or idea that everyone is already familiar with. Archetype usually refers to characters rather than plots or concepts. For example, archetypal characters found in the vast majority of stories are characters that fulfill the roles of the Hero, the Villain, the Sidekick, the Mentor, etc.
This happens when the story is being told in one point of view (say, third person through the eyes of James), but then suddenly the narration switches to Sara’s point of view. It’s fine to have multiple Points of View (POV) in a story, but head-hopping occurs when multiple POVs are within one scene, or worse, within the same paragraph. Writers, stick to one POV per scene to avoid confusing the reader.
Deus Ex Machina
This literally means “god from the machine,” and it refers to the theaters of ancient Greece, where at the end of the play a god was let down onto the stage (via a mechanized pulley system) to conveniently save the day after the characters had spent the entire play screwing things up. In modern storytelling, a deus ex machina is an improbable and “too convenient” fix as a way of quickly solving all the problems and ending the story.
Anton Chekhov said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” In other words, if an author draws attention to a certain detail, the reader expects it to be important later on. Writers, don’t leave your readers hanging, waiting for that gun to go off.
This stands for Manuscript. A WIP is always an MS, but a completed MS that is ready to be sent to an agent is no longer a WIP. Got it?
Plotter versus Pantser
A Plotter is a writer who loves outlining and planning out their story before they sit down to write. A Pantser is a write-by-the-seat-of-their-pants person, who gets an idea and starts to write, figuring out the plot as they go along.
Do you have any other writerly jargon terms to add to this list?
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