Commentary

Storytelling’s Terminology Problem

This post is 4 in the series: Navigating the Jungle of Storytelling Advice
If you surf the web for tips on constructing stories, finding a new source of advice can be like vacationing in a foreign country: everyone speaks a language you don’t know. This is partly because some advice givers want their own patented terms and partly because industry lingo doesn’t cover important storytelling concepts. Regardless of the driving force, many advice givers have created their own terms.

How Terminology Can Confuse and Mislead

You might wonder if fussing over word use is somewhat pedantic. What does it matter if different terms are used by different people? Allow me to describe some of the things I’ve seen out there.

  • One well-known book on plotting starts by stating that in every story there must be a character dealing with “imminent death.” However, it turns out “death” is mostly metaphorical, so anything bad that might happen could be considered a death. That’s a pretty confusing way of expressing what others in the industry would call “raising the stakes.”
  • I once read an article with a title insisting that worldbuilding isn’t important. But as it turned out, the writer of the article had redefined “worldbuilding” to mean “extensive worldbuilding.” The term “world conjuring” had been invented to describe moderate worldbuilding. So the writer was actually saying that for many stories, it’s unnecessary to figure out every aspect of the world. However, this real opinion wasn’t provocative enough to get clicks.
  • One website insists that the key to success is to follow a plot formula defined by your genre. Since that idea falls apart with a little examination, the person running the site has invented a new genre for every formula they want to share. This way they could still claim genre is everything, but “genre” means different types of plots.

Without understanding the terminology people use, it’s difficult to have productive discussions about storytelling. And unfortunately, many advice givers aren’t that clear or up-front about their definitions.

To make differences in terminology less confusing, I’ll give you a list of important terms that I know aren’t used consistently – including terms invented by Mythcreants. Then I’ll describe the differences for you.

Plot Terms

Story

For Mythcreants, a story is a unit of narrative structure that opens a plot thread, has a turning point, and then closes the plot thread. Anything before the story opens is prologue, and anything after it closes is epilogue, regardless of how they are labeled. Prologue and epilogue are not technically part of the story. If story structure is not present, then the work is still fiction, but it is not a story.

However, other advice givers may mean “story” less technically. It could be a synonym for fiction, theme, or something else. Or they may define story structure differently, including prologue and epilogue as part of the story.

Throughline, or Dramatic Question

If a work of fiction is large, like a novel, it will technically have many stories intertwined – many openings, turning points, and closures. However, one story will be more encompassing and load-bearing than any other. This is the glue that holds the work together.

When I started writing about this years ago, I called it a number of things: the main plot, the central plot, the story’s core, the story’s heart. Nowadays we call it the throughline. Elsewhere, I’ve seen the opening of the throughline referred to as the dramatic question.

Plot, or Structure

Some define plot as the specific events that happen in the story, whereas the structure is the way those events are arranged – such as dividing them into three acts, for instance. Mythcreants doesn’t find much use for the word “plot” under this definition, so we generally treat them as the same thing.

Problem, Question, or Hook

I don’t think there’s an adequate word in English for the thing that opens a story, but all of the above words can be used. Their uniting factor is that they create uncertainty, or in storytelling lingo, tension. “Question” is probably the most accurate term, but in most stories it’s specifically a problem.

“Hook” covers both problems and questions, but most advice givers use it for whatever grabs interest at the very beginning of a written work. What grabs interest is usually a problem or question, but it’s not always the same problem or question that starts the main story (throughline). That muddies the waters.

Tension

This term is generally used consistently by industry professionals, but there can be confusion in more casual circles. In a nutshell, tension is a sense of uncertainty about something that matters to the reader. The best synonym for tension is suspense, but whereas suspense is associated with thrillers, etc., tension is a broader term for more varied and subtle uses. Every functioning story has some level of tension.

Conflict

This is another term that is generally used consistently in the industry, but it can be misleading to newcomers. Conflict is not just open violence; it is any competition between a protagonist and antagonist where the outcome is in doubt. One example might be a salary negotiation between an employee and their boss. I have a full post on conflict.

Disaster

I’ve seen this term used by other advice givers. The mantra goes that every scene must end in “disaster.” I don’t use this term because I find it misleading; it makes people think that the protagonists should always fail at their goals. What it actually means is that when the protagonists succeed, an extra hook should be added to restore the story’s tension. That’s what a disaster is: a hook. Since many writers are reluctant to add as much conflict as their story needs, exaggerated terms like “disaster” are used to prod them harder.

In Media Res

To open a work “in media res” means to start in the middle. However, people don’t agree on what the middle is. Since many works of fiction opens with lots of prologue, some consider cutting out prologue as “in media res.” However, Mythcreants would call this starting at the beginning – a generally good practice and not worth remarking on.

We consider “in media res” to be opening the work with a flash forward, wherein the protagonist has already been struggling with their big problem for a while. Because critical context is left out, what we could call “in media res” requires a later flashback to the beginning, or at the very least, a long explanation. That makes it a niche technique that most stories shouldn’t use.

Climax, or Turning Point

“Climax” is a fairly well understood concept, but there’s no universal definition on how much of the story should be considered the climax. You could call a whole chapter a climax, or just one scene (the climactic scene), or, as I might do, one single moment. This climax of the climax is what I call the critical turning point. The critical turning point is the climax, but I think “turning point” is more clear and descriptive, particularly when I am referring to a single moment.

Heroine’s Journey

When Mythcreants refers to the heroine’s journey, we’re talking about a specific plot structure I covered. When someone else says “heroine’s journey,” they could mean anything. It might be a different structure or a vague idea of what stories with female protagonists have in common.

Narrative Terms

First Person vs Third Person, or Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is a term for whether the narration is deep inside of a character’s head (close) or looking at the character from the outside (distant). Technically, this is separate from the pronouns you use for your protagonist (“I” for first person, “she/he/they” for third).

However, first person is expected to have close narration, whereas third person can be either close or distant. For this reason, many people equate first person with close and third person with distant. So when you hear advice on first-person vs third-person narration, the advice giver might actually be describing what Mythcreants calls narrative distance.

Framing Premise

I came up with “framing premise” to refer to something that is closely related to point of view. A story’s framing premise is the implied explanation for how the story is being told. Generally it fits one of three types.

  1. Another person is recounting the tale to you.
  2. You are watching it unfold before your eyes.
  3. You are reading a document.

Even if you always write in first person, narrating as though someone is retelling their past is different from narrating as though readers are witnessing the story in real time. Generally a story should not change the framing premise.

Character Terms

Hero and Villain

The term “hero” can mean either a character who acts heroically or the story’s protagonist. This gets confusing when a story has a villainous protagonist. Do you call them the villain or the hero? The term “anti-hero” helps fill this gap, but it’s generally used for a protagonist that is flawed, yet more heroic than villainous, whereas “anti-villain” is generally used for sympathetic villains that are still antagonists. Luckily, “protagonist” and “antagonist” are clear terms, so rely on them when you need to.

Strong Character

This one has been thrown around so much, it’s hard to know if it means anything. Often, it just means a character that is well written in a generic sense. However, in many writing circles, a strong character is specifically a character that feels like a real person.

Likable Character

When Mythcreants uses “likable,” we mean a character that most readers will care about, regardless of how charming that character would be in real life. Others sometimes use “likable” or “unlikable” to mean how flawed the character is or whether that character would make a good friend, etc.

Attachment

This is a term I use for emotional engagement in a story, in particular, the degree to which readers care about your characters.

Candy and Spinach

These are terms I coined to refer to the dynamics of character glory and humiliation in a story. I have a full post about them. Here, I’ll just mention that “candy” is a more robust replacement for a term we don’t recommend: “Mary Sue.”

Character Karma

This is another term I coined to fill an existing gap. This concept refers to whether a character deserves good or bad fortune in the eyes of the audience. Karma influences both the likability of a character and audience satisfaction with story events. I described character karma in more depth in a recent podcast.

Worldbuilding Terms

Rational Magic

I adopted this term from Brandon Sanderson, though I haven’t seen it in use elsewhere. A rational magic system is one that follows a consistent set of rules. It feels logically consistent.

At Mythcreants, the opposite of rational magic is arbitrary magic, where each magical spell feels like a separate invention and not a part of a whole.

Hard Magic

Like Sanderson, Mythcreants uses hard magic to refer to magic systems that are fully explained to the audience. Someone else might mean “rational magic.” I’ve also seen people equate all magic systems with hard magic.

Soft Magic

The opposite of hard magic is soft magic. Using Sanderson’s definition, soft magic is remote and mysterious, particularly because protagonists don’t wield it themselves. It may or may not be a rational system with consistent rules; it’s mysterious because the audience doesn’t know the rules.


Terminology goes hand in hand with understanding. It’s difficult to advance our knowledge of storytelling without the terms to talk about it. But hopefully, these problems are only growing pains. Storytelling itself may be old, but compared to what humans are capable of, I think it’s in its infancy. Given time, maybe we’ll not only have more precise, universal terms, but also the understanding to guarantee a story’s success.

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Comments

  1. Martin Christopher

    I know Dramatic Question in the context of each individual scene: What does make the reader feel that this scene can not be skipped? What is the reader looking forward to while the scene develops?

    I guess you could have a dramatic question for the entire work as a whole, but that would be kind of the premise of the work, doesn’t it?

    • Chris Winkle

      Calling a dramatic question for a whole work the “premise” wouldn’t be too far off I think. However, I think “premise” often includes details that are not technically part of the dramatic question. For instance, a premise might be: “in a world without violence, one woman must stop a new menace from taking hold.” The dramatic question would be “can she stop the menace from taking hold?” The “in a world without violence” would be part of the premise, but not part of the dramatic question.

      Scenes are basically sub-stories so most concepts that apply to stories overall are also relevant for scenes.

  2. SunlessNick

    Handy article.

    Since that idea falls apart with a little examination, the person running the site has invented a new genre for every formula they want to share.

    Is there any value to be found in the definitions of these new genres or “genres?”

    • Chris Winkle

      If you’re interested in plot formulas or plot categories, you might find them interesting. But as genres? Genres are their own creatures that cannot be tamed. Any architect who tries to come up with genre categories by thinking about what would make sense and not what people are actually doing will be disappointed with irrelevancy, I think.

  3. C.C.

    Great article! Having universal terms to explain the craft would be neat, especially since the practical fiction-writing advice are growing online. I remember back in the day when one of the pearls of wisdom was “start with action!” and some people thought that was the “bullets flying”-kind of action, producing the “Who are these people and why are they shooting at each other?”-beginnings.
    What drives me a bit bonkers is the many genre-specific terms these days. Trying to explain what I’m writing can sometimes sound like a Starbucks-order.

    • Chris Winkle

      Would you mind giving a few examples of these genre-specific terms you’re mentioning? I’m curious.

      • C.C.

        Oh, sure. I tend to mix genres a lot, and have a hard time finding a subgenre that will fit well, so trying to describe a work in progress with genre-terms could be like: low fantasy, hybrid alternate history and cozy murder mystery, world-within-a-world adventure mixed with mannerpunk… and an extra shot of espresso. Projects are sometimes really hard to describe. I love the subgenres & crossgenres of fantasy/sci-fi, and the theme/setting/plot-specifics, they’re fun to read about. And I guess a lot of people write and read works of fiction that require new terms in an evergrowing list of variations, overlapping and new inventions. It feels very similar to craft terminology, where writers try to explain their particular writing process with more or less confusing results. Mythcreants have really clear and well-defined words for new craft terms though. And creating order out of the nebulous chaotic thing that is fiction writing, that’s an heroic feat, I think. I really enjoyed the walk-through.

  4. Scribalist

    It’s great that theory terminology is being addressed. In my opinion, narrative distance has less to do with first vs third person and more with the sort of details the writer is providing: Sensory vs. Analytical.

    Sensory details involve conflict arriving from sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. These details remove distance. Analytical details involve conflict arriving from who, what, when, where, why and how. These details provide distance.

    In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, act I, scene 4 gives us Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech, which is sarcastic and unemotional. And yet, Shakespeare provides many sensory details, much description. We even get to see the words “love,” “angry,” “frighted,” which would be writing sins in our day. No distance is provided distance, because the irony is clear. The analytical details are stretched and obscured to show the sensory ones.

    Then in scene 5 of the same act, we have the very emotional kissing scene between the two lovers. Sensory details are missing, the most we get are “gentle,” “rough,” “tender,” “blushing,” (a gerund even) “dear,” and even staler words like “mannerly,” and “holy.” They speak of saints and pilgrims, indirectly of themselves. This scene is very distant, invoking the dramatic irony set at the beginning of the play. Even Juliet’s saying “kiss by the book” all but shouts, “Use your own imagination! No fairy queens here!”

  5. Dave L

    I have seen at least three different definitions for “genre” across various sites and books

  6. Leon

    I always thought a good story begins with a crisis.

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