Monday, April 19, 2021

The Lingo of Storytelling

When I was a young child, just a few weeks before I entered Kindergarten, our family moved from Ohio to Michigan. Being the pest that I was, I was hanging out at our new neighbor’s house one day watching her work in her garden.

She asked me what foods I liked.

I said, “I like cherries, but I don’t like the seeds.”

“Seeds?” She paused in her digging. “You must be from the South. Here in the North, we call them pits.”

That was my first introduction to dialect and how the vocabulary we use depends on where we are and what we’re doing.

A few weeks ago, Mary Conealy brought us a post about the Lingo of Designed Pages – a brief vocabulary of the series of edits we authors enjoy as our stories travel from our computers to published books. You can read that post here: Designed Pages--the Lingo

Today, I’m bringing you a brief introduction to the vocabulary of writing stories. I’ve gleaned these often-used but seldom-defined words from questions posed by newbie writers. Some of these might be familiar to you, but some might not be.

Just for fun, see if you can come up with a definition before reading mine. Keep track of the times we agree, and then share your score in the comments!

1. Protagonist: As the main character in the story, the protagonist is the person that the story is about. Also called the Hero or the Heroine. A romance will have both.

2. Antagonist: The antagonist in the story is the character who is working against the protagonist. The bad guy. Of course, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a guy (think of Cruella D’Ville in 101 Dalmatians) or even a person. It can be a setting, the weather, or even the fallout from a bad decision the protagonist made in the past. The antagonist doesn’t even have to be “bad,” as long as he or she is working against the protagonist’s goals.

3. Secondary Character: This is any character who adds to the characters’ stories without insisting on telling their own. These are the parents, the neighbors, the sidekicks, the grandmotherly woman at church. Secondary characters round out your cast of characters and give your protagonist someone to talk to or to react to. They can also provide a much needed moment of comic relief in a tense scene.

4. Active Voice: This is a grammar term that means that the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action of the verb. Like this: “Sam ate the grasshopper.” The active voice is preferable for modern popular fiction since it tends to keep the reader involved in the action of the story.

5. Passive Voice: Another grammar term. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the one having the action done to him. Like this: “The grasshopper was eaten by Sam.” Quite often, a passive voice sentence will have an understood agent, as in: “The grasshopper was eaten.” The passive voice is out of favor in popular fiction right now, so learn to identify the passive voice and to turn those sentences into active ones.

By the way, does it help to know that Sam is a dog? He'll eat anything that stays still long enough to go into his mouth!

6. In media res: This is a Latin term that used to be taught in composition and writing classes. It means “in the middle of things.” We quite often refer to the concept without using the Latin phrase – we all know to start our stories in the middle of the action, right?

7. Three-Act Structure: This is one way to structure a plot. There are others, but this is the one you see most often. It’s intuitive to both the author and the reader and easy to use. What are the three acts? 
The basics: 1, 2, 3. Beginning, Middle, End. 
Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezy. 
Until someone adds in a “2A” and a “2B.” Then, if you’re like me, you start thinking in four acts instead of three… 
But the main point is that there is a structure to your writing that readers can follow.

8. Plot Points: This subject is big enough for its own book – and many authors have written books about Plot Points! But we’re only talking about vocabulary today.

Plot points are the more-or-less evenly spaced turning points within the structure of your story. Depending on the writer, you might have three plot points, or as many as sixteen. I work with five major plot points and two or three minor ones. Every author develops their own method and names for plot points, and some of the names you might hear are “inciting incident,” “call to adventure,” “moment of grace,” “black moment,” “final battle,” etc.

9. Synopsis: This is a summary of the completed story that tells potential agents, editors, and publishers what your story is about. The length varies depending on the guidelines of the entity you’re sending it to, but one thing never varies: always tell the complete story, including the surprise ending.

10. Back Cover Copy: This is a different kind of summary of your story. This is what you write to entice readers to open the book and start reading the story. It should have a great hook and never, ever, give away the ending of the story. I've included an example below in the description of today's giveaway!

This was just a beginning of the vocabulary we need to acquire during our steep learning curve of becoming an author. If you think of any that I missed, be sure to mention them in the comments!

And how did you do on our informal quiz? Let me know what your score was in the comment section, and you’ll be in the drawing for my newest audiobook release, Softly Blows the Bugle!

Don't forget to come "virtually" hungry - it's calving time in the Black Hills and the cowboys have been working all night. The virtual buffet has chuckwagon fare today: sourdough biscuits, strong coffee, steak, and eggs.

Welcome back to the Amish community at Weaver's Creek, where the bonds of family and faith bind up the brokenhearted.

When Elizabeth Kaufman received the news of her husband's death at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, she felt only relief. She determined that she would never be at the mercy of any man again, even if it meant not having a family of her own. Then along came Aaron Zook . . .

Despite the severity of his injuries, Aaron has resolved to move west and leave the pain of the past behind him. He never imagined that the Amish way of life his grandfather had rejected long ago would be so enticing. That, and a certain widow he can't get out of his mind.

Yet, even in a simple community, life has a way of getting complicated. Aaron soon finds that while he may have left the battlefield behind, there is another fight he must win--the one for the heart of the woman he loves.



  1. Jan, a good glossary and thanks for reminding us of these terms. You're right, plot structure would take a whole book and has, but this is a good place to start. Don't forget our old friends "Scene" and "Sequel." This was a big stumbling block for me as a new writer. I'd do a scene and go merrily on my way without having the characters react. Older and wiser...
    I get tripped up on genres and it's still hard for me to distinguish between "historical romance" and "historical fiction." My current WIP has a strong romance, but it also wraps around the Battles of Lexington and Concord, so there's more than just the H&H mooning over each other and having misunderstandings. Does including real historical events make it "historical fiction"?
    Shoring up the first half of my WIP this week before tackling the second half. Much to do but enjoying this life.
    Don't put me in the drawing, I don't do audio books, but I'm sure someone does.
    Thanks Jan! May be back later.
    Your Kaybee
    Figuring it all out in New Hampshire

    1. Good morning, Kaybee!

      It sounds like your new book is "historical romance." That's a great genre - a romance set against the backdrop of historical events. The way to tell the difference is to consider which part is the key element? Could your romance take place in another era? Then it's probably HR. Or does the romance take a back seat to the historical events? If so, then it's probably HF.

      And I did a post on different ways of writing scenes. With my current WIP I'm using the "scene and sequel" pattern. I keep an index card on my computer outlining "scene" (Goal, Conflict, Disaster) and "sequel" (Reaction, Dilemma, Decision.) It helps me remember to keep the two straight!

      Have a great time in New Hampshire today! Is it spring there, yet?

  2. Morning, Jan! Thanks for another great back-to-basics type post. I'm fuzzy on my Latin, so that one I didn't remember, but I did pretty well otherwise. And yes, it's spring in the Hills--we drove from Aberdeen yesterday and there are pheasants and calves everywhere as well as snow :)

    1. Spring in the Black Hills! We woke up to a new snowfall of at least 4" this morning. The dogs love it!

      And congratulations on a good score in the quiz! I always find it helpful to review the terms I'm using - especially the difference between a synopsis and a back cover copy. *insert eyeroll* You'd think I'd be able to remember those, right?

  3. Such good information! I remember when I first started writing, I felt like I'd fallen down a jargon rabbit hole. Someone told me to RUE in my WIP, and I was all...huh? (Resist the urge to explain in my work in progress)

    I love this crash course in writing terms. It would have saved me a lot of bewildered moments. :)

    1. Oh, yes! RUE! And WIP! Those are two more to add to the list. When we use them every day, we forget that others might not know what we mean. :-/

    2. POV was a killer for me. SO confusing.

  4. A great list of important writing terms and excellent explanations, Jan! I'll add GMC to the mix: Goals, Motivation and Conflict. Coined by Deb Dixon in her book by the same name, GMC provided an ah-ha moment for me when I finally grasped the concept. IMHO, the conflict is the make or break element in most stories.

    1. Great addition, Debby! That's another one of those acronyms that I use without even thinking it's an acronym!

      And yes, Deb Dixon's book was a light-bulb moment for me, too.

  5. Hi Jan:

    Thanks for your excellent post today. It has made me want to hear your take on 'voice'. It's something for me that I can't define but I know it when I 'hear' it.

    About plot points: James Patterson makes each scene its own chapter and each chapter changes the trajectory of the story. Would you call these 'trajectory changes' plot points or just mid-course corrections toward the final objective?

    BTW: I already have, "The Roll of Drums," and, "The Sound of Distant Thunder," and I have ears to hear when audio books are in the air. :)


    1. I'm not sure I'm ready to take on "voice" yet. It's a slippery thing to you said, I know it when I hear it!

      Thanks for stopping by, and you're in the drawing!

  6. Great glossary Jan! I echo Debby's addition of GMC. Also log line and pitch.

    1. Thanks, Lee-Ann!

      And yes, we should include log line and pitch. I might have to do a part 2 of this post next month!

  7. I've never heard the term In Media Res before, Jan. Cool. Although I can count it as learning something, I probably won't remember it, so it may NOT count. Thanks anyway. Great blog post.

    1. You already use "in media res," Mary. You start every book smack dab in the middle of the action - "in the middle (media) of things (res)!"

    2. Hi Mary:

      Back when the Seekers started, one of the first things I remember is a Seeker saying that an editor said about a manuscript, "Cut the first three chapters and start on chapter four." That's an example of "in media res". I like to think of it as "shoot the sheriff on the first page" though Horace said it more eloquently.

  8. Mary, I hadn't heard that term either, but now I will pretend I INVENTED it and I'll sound so cool and smart. :)

    Jan, this is a great teaching post. It cuts to the nitty gritty of explanation and makes it sensible. And you know, I wish folks knew that the more they write (if they love it!) the more seamless this becomes. Now that doesn't mean you won't get edits and revisions! But it means that the process of going through all of this becomes easier. More fluid. Your post will help aspiring authors "see" the parts and once they see them, they can blend them. Well done.

    And keep your stinkin' snow to yourself, Drex! :)

    1. You're so right about things becoming easier as you write more. So many of the things I struggled with ten years ago have become second nature now.

      Of course, there is always more to learn!

      Our snow is almost gone, but we had another bout with it on Tuesday and might be getting more tomorrow (Friday.) In our time of living in the Black Hills, snow through Mother's Day is normal. THEN we plant the gardens!

  9. How interesting. Thank you for sharing.


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