Plot Devices and literary words
Alien Space Bats – The term was originally used as a sarcastic attack on poorly written alternate histories due to lack of plausibility to create improbably plot divergences. Also refers to the use of Deus ex Machina in the form of Ancient Aliens.
Backronym – Same as an acronym but the word came first and the meaning behind the letters followed after.
Big Dumb Object (BDO) – The science fiction term refers to any mysterious object (usually of extraterrestrial or unknown origin and immense power) in a story which generates an intense sense of wonder just by being there. For example the Monoliths in 2001 A Space Odyssey, or The Void Ship in Doctor Who.
Brenda Starr dialogue – Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story’s setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.
“Burly Detective” Syndrome – This useful term is taken from SF’s cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne’s proper name, preferring such euphemisms as “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as “vertiginous.” Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.
Brand Name Fever – Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Honda and Sony and IBM and still have no idea with it looks like.
“Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” – A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. “Smeerps” are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)
Chekhov’s gun – “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” – Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889. It is a metaphor for a plot device or foreshadowing, which if shown or discussed should be used later.
Deus Ex Machina – Latin for: God from the machine. This device goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where a problem in the story is solved by the sudden invention of something that saves the day. It’s often criticized as lacking imagination on the part of the author, as it often violates the internal logic of a story.
Gingerbread – Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use “gingerbread” in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)
Head Hopping – Moving from one POV to another in the same scene without a scene break.
MacGuffin – “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” — Alfred Hitchcock
A plot device that provides the initial motivation for a character, and it may or may not end up coming back into the story at the end.
Not Simultaneous – The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. “Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau.” Alas, our hero couldn’t do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into “Ing Disease,” the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in “-ing,” a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)
Pathetic Fallacy – A literary term for the attributing of human emotion and conduct to all aspects within nature. It is a kind of personification that is found in poetic writing when, for example, clouds seem sullen, when leaves dance, when dogs laugh, or when rocks seem indifferent.
Quibble – A plot device where the exact verbal directions are followed to the letter but avoid its intended meaning, such as: A deal with the Devil, or Genie Wishes, or in The Lord of the Rings, Glorfindel‘s prophecy states that “not by the hand of man will the Witch-king of Angmar fall.” The Witch-king is slain by Éowyn, a woman.
Pushbutton Words – Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as “star,” “dance,” “dream,” “song,” “tears” and “poet,” clichés calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.
Red herring – A false clue that leads the characters toward an inaccurate conclusion within the plot of a story, considered to be the opposite of Chekhov’s Gun. The Chewbacca Defense is starting to come into the lexicon as a famous Red Herring It refers to a South Park episode and refers to using something so patently absurd that it makes no sense and creates confusion.
Red Shirt– Expendable, refers to the crewmen of the TV Series Star Trek who were often killed during a mission.
Retroactive continuity or Retcon – An alteration of facts about a story that already been published in order to accommodate a sequel or prequel, or simply to correct errors in the original chronology of events. Commonly used in Comic Books and Pulp Fiction.
Retronym –A neologism that gives a new name to an old object because of some development that requires clarification, such as Acoustic Guitar after the Electric Guitar was developed.
Roget’s Disease – The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)
“Said” Bookism – An artificial verb used to avoid the word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” “he ejaculated,” and other oddities. The term “said-book” comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.
Tautology– Needless repeating of a word or idea, such as ‘final result.’
The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis – A character from television series St Elsewhere who, in the last episode was seen waking up and the entire series was in his imagination. Refers to using the “it was all a dream” idea to end a story.
Editing terms or abbreviations
Grammar Terms and Rhetorical Devices
Accismus – The rhetorical refusal of something you actually want. Like in one of Aesop’s Fables:
Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’
Adnomination – The use of words with the same root in the same sentence. This rhetoric is sure to somehow work on someone, somewhere, someday.
Adynaton – Purposefully hyperbolic metaphors to suggest that something is impossible — like the classic adage, when pigs fly.
Anthimeria – The misuse of one word’s part of speech, such as using a noun for a verb. It’s been around for centuries, but is frequently used in the modern day, where “Facebooking” and “adulting” have seamlessly become part of the lexicon.
Aporia – The rhetorical expression of doubt — almost always insincerely.
Auxesis – Rhetorical exaggeration.
Bdelygmia – A rhetorical insult — the uglier and more elaborate, the better. Like most rhetorical devices, Shakespeare was a big fan. So was Dr. Seuss: “You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch, You’re a nasty wasty skunk, Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch. The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote, ‘Stink, stank, stunk!’”
Cacophony – The use of words that sound bad together. That probably sounds pretty ambiguous, until you remember that Lewis Carroll invented words for his poem “Jabberwocky” just to make it sound harsh and unmelodious:
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
Chiasmus – The reversal of grammatical structure across two phrases, without repeating any words.
Euphony – The use of words that sound good together. “Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam.” — Emily Dickenson
Zeugma – Placing two nouns with very different meanings in the same position in a sentence. Mark Twain was a master at this:
“They covered themselves with dust and glory.”
Page Set-up or Style words