As excited as you may be to share pages with a writing group or to have your story in the hands of an editor for early manuscript feedback, you might wonder about the lingo needed to get what they will share. Below is a road map of some macro-level terms used to reference book content and common challenges an editor might point out in a developing work. I've underlined terms that are mentioned while defining other concepts and provided links for further guidance.
Arc of a character In addition to the external path of the overall story (plot, or narrative arc), authors provide a character arc that the protagonist (and perhaps a few other characters) go on. This is usually the juice that readers connect with in a story, as it focuses on the emotional as well as physical journey of ups and downs of a character as their understanding or position in the world changes. This emotional change relates to the work's central theme.
Back matter The content that follows the main text of a book, including its conclusion, and its epilogue/afterword, if those are present. In traditionally published books (that follow The Chicago Manual of Style), the back matter can include the following (starred items are traditionally always in Back Matter, if they are present, which may not be true in fiction):
Acknowledgments; Appendix or appendices*; Chronology; Abbreviations; Glossary*; Notes; Bibliography or References*; (List of) Contributors*; Illustration Credits; Index(es)*; About the author
Backstory A character's past experiences or information they learned before the work's time span that influences how they now think, talk, or act. Backstory can be shared as an expositional summary, such as the way Kahled Hosseini begins the first chapter of The Kite Runner by recapping the pivotal moment at age 12 that shaped his worldview, or it can be revealed in dialogue. Backstory can be as simple as sharing that a couple had fought before, but is best added judiciously, so that only key backstory details that the reader must know are shared. Compelling examples of backstory include events that greatly affected the character, helping readers understand a character flaw or their motive for doing something in the time period covered in the work ("story present," as book coach Jennie Nash refers to it). See the book map at the end of this article of backstory and flashback checklists for more examples of what constitutes backstory.
Book coach A professional with structural editing or other experience who guides writers as they develop content. The focus of book coaches varies greatly. For instance, I have 200+ hours of training to help writers hone their message and focus from an initial concept and an outline or a few chapters, or can assist with improving a completed draft. Other coaches specialize in aspects such as finding agents and developing a pitch plan. Learn more about my services here.
Book map In a structural edit, an editor like me may provide a book map or "story map" that helps writers visualize elements that are uneven in an early manuscript. For instance, the theme may be missing in certain chapters, or the map may help a writer see that their work has too many themes, or a few undeveloped characters. Some writers use index cards or other means to develop their own book maps as a structural tool to analyze how a story arc develops or other aspects of their work. Here's one such example from writer Eva Deverell.
Dialogue tag A tagline that shows who is saying quoted text. There is debate about whether these words should stay simple, such as the underlined examples: "The dragon has escaped," Emily said, or "… has escaped," he added. Writers are often told to vary word choices when possible, so sticking with "said" and the like can seem boring. But a dialogue tag isn't meant to draw attention to itself. In reviewing works by Hemingway and the like, you'll see that these tags may be absent at times—or altogether if speakers continually switch between each other, and the writer has made it absolutely clear who is alternating turns in speaking.
Exposition Text that introduces key background information, including backstory, or a summary of what a scene looks like. The information can be shared as part of internal monologue or dialogue, a narrator's recap, or a character hearing the information on as radio or from another source.
Filter words Verbs that tell you what someone is doing, but that put distance between the reader and the character undertaking the action. Good books have emotional heft that makes the action meaningful. However, readers connect easiest to moments of action, emotionally speaking, which filter words gum up. In the following sentence, the filter word is underlined: "Jack saw Melanie reach back to her right pocket and pull out the knife." versus, "Melanie reached back to her right pocket, pulling out the knife." Other filter words are "realized," "experienced," and "thought."
Filter words tell the reader information rather than showing what's happening directly. That said, occasionally, a writer might want the reader to focus on the character doing the realizing or watching, maybe because the point of the scene is how well they're avoiding something or someone. Editors often flag filter words in a line edit.
Flashback A scene from a character's past that pulls readers out of the overall narrative. As implied by "flash" in the name, these are often quick breaks out of the story's present moment, perhaps lasting a sentence or a paragraph. However, if a flashback matters enough, it might take up a whole chapter. Like other scenes, a flashback often involves conflict or tension (there needs to be a good reason to insert a scene this way). A flashback could be to an earlier event in the plot, or to a scene that occurred before "story present" (i.e., the overall time frame covered in the work). As a signal to the reader that a flashback is coming, a writer may use an object in the original scene to remind the character of a past moment; the sound of a car alarm or something else in the original scene may then draw the character, and reader, back into the story's original scene.
Front matter The content that precedes the main text of a book. In traditionally published books (that follow The Chicago Manual of Style), the front matter can include the following (starred items are not always in Front matter, if they are among the elements present):
Book half title page; Series title page, other works, frontispiece, or a blank page; Title page; Copyright page; Dedication; Epigraph; (Table of) Contents; (List of) Illustrations; (List of) Tables; Foreword; Preface; Acknowledgments*; Introduction; Abbreviations*; Chronology*.
This post will help you consider whether to use a foreword, preface, or introduction, as well as when a prologue (and ending epilogue) come into the picture.
Head hopping When a writer does a confusing switch between the perspective (point of view) of one character to the thoughts/views of another character. To reduce confusion, it's often recommended that writers keep one character's perspective throughout at least the length of a scene, often lasting for several pages; even simpler for readers is when whole chapters or a whole work are in one character's perspective, but story needs and the writer's skill play into such decisions.
In dialogue, to reduce confusion about whose perspective is being shared, dialogue tags are often used. In addition, separate paragraphs are used to distinguish the speech, actions and thoughts of each person to help guide readers. As part of head hopping checks, be sure the person whose perspective you're sharing a conversation from could actually know the motive for another character doing something without being in their "head" at that moment. Unless the point of view character in the dialogue is also the narrator, and an all-knowing/omniscient one, for them to know the other character's motivation is head hopping rearing its ugly head.
Internal monologue Also called "internal dialogue" or "interior monologue." Refers to a character's thoughts that aren't said out loud (i.e., not quotes such as "I might as well go home," Carlos said.)
When using "direct internal dialogue," a writer shares exactly what a character is thinking, often from a first-person point of view (What have I gotten myself into? Jane wondered.) "Indirect internal dialogue" is another way for writers to add energy besides adding conversation, and this dialogue is shared in third-person singular or plural (Tom worried that she hadn't called from lack of interest.). Examples of ways internal monologue can be used are shared here.
Line edit I use this term for a type of editing that focuses primarily on guiding writers to polish their work after a structural edit has been completed. The emphasis of line editors like me is on editing for style and bringing out the writer's voice. Big picture elements are considered, such as point of view, as well as how the style of quotes is handled, whether there is awkward phrasing that saps energy, or overly complex sentences structures that don't fit the subject covered, or that detract from the mood and the author's voice. Line edits are more often done for fiction works such as novels and fantasy; however, they are becoming more common in nonfiction, as the bar gets set higher for writers of all stripes to focus on compelling language.
Some editors use this term to refer instead to a line-by-line mechanical edit, which involves checks for errors such as missing punctuation and for grammar glitches (what I and some others call "copy editing"). See this full list of the levels of editing you can consider, categorized based on how developed your work is.
Narration The retelling of a sequence of events, whether real or not; the story telling base of a book, which excludes quotes or quoted material. The person portrayed in a traditional memoir or the character who tells the overall story in something like a novel is the narrator. Traditional story telling uses first-person close (limited) narration, where the narrator only knows their own experiences, and what they have been told by others. But third-person (close or omniscient) is also common, and some authors, such as Lorrie Moore in Self-help, use second-person point of view narration. Several narrators can occur, as in the novel Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, and works by Jodi Picoult. Even when a writer uses a single narrator, they don't have to be the protagonist, as is true with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.
Pacing The general speed at which a narrative moves. Some genres such as murder mysteries are expected to have a fast pace, and more action than contemplation, while literary fiction, science fiction, and others, may have lengthy exposition or descriptions of scenes, and a slower pace. Regardless, it's important to avoid sharing exposition in large chunks, which drags down any pace, and is called "information dumping."
Plot The path of the overall story; the "once upon a time, X happened" part. Vivian Gornick calls plot the "situation" in her fabulous, relatively short book, The Situation and the Story. What she calls "story," others call theme. I cover the distinction between these two, and a book's "hook," in a previous post. The plot may unfold chronologically or not. It is also called a "story arc" because it should have high and low points, just as occurs in everyone's life. That doesn't mean writers have to follow a traditional three- or five-part story arc with a major climax in the middle that Western literature favors. An example is Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, where the female protagonist doesn't hit a low point until the last quarter of the novel.
Point of view The perspective of one character at a point in a story. That is, the point of view can stay the same throughout a work, can vary by chapter, or can vary within a chapter. When the point of view shifts often, or which character the point of view is from is not clearly indicated, head hopping can result that confuses readers. Different points of view allow for different effects. For instance, a third-person close (limited) point of view (where we access just that person's thoughts and what they know about others) lets readers really see the perspective of that character. Books with a single narrator often use first person, third-person close/limited, or third-person omniscient (where the narrator sees the thoughts of several characters). See books with different point-of-view examples under narration.
Protagonist The central person a book is focused on. Although it's possible to have several main characters, such as star-crossed lovers, readers will get lost if one isn't placed front and center for them to connect to the most—whether to like or to loathe. The protagonist may or may not be the same person as the narrator.
Scene Movie scenes provide a partial reference point. A scene in a manuscript can be a whole chapter, or more or less than that. Broadly speaking, a scene provides momentum and essential information through dialogue, (character) action, and bits of summary details. A scene occurs in a particular time and place, and from the point of view of one character. Flashbacks are scenes that interrupt the current story.
A chapter often has scenes interspersed with internal monologue and expository summary, with the scenes saved for the most compelling moments. By the end of a chapter, a character will have moved from point A to point B, where B is some type of completed experience. The character may reach a new understanding about how dangerous their brother's gambling habit is by chapter's end, may have learned a new skill or concept, or may experience a new level of motivation about an upcoming competition (being less or more motivated).
In Tara Westover's Educated, I counted six scenes in the second chapter. The Midwife chapter starts with a scene where Tara's mother talks nervously in the kitchen with a self-trained midwife who's visiting to purchase herbs, followed by a scene where the midwife's daughter one-ups Tara about how superior she is due to having childbirth experiences. By chapter's end, Tara's mother has served as a midwife dozens of times, including a scene where she outfoxes the police at a hospital. The chapter is bookended with a kitchen scene where she confidently talks to the visiting midwife who trained her, with Tara doing the same with the midwife's visiting daughter. Taken together, the scenes—and related summary details/exposition that make up about a third of the chapter—work together to show Tara's mother becoming more educated through midwife experiences, and therefore confident in life.
Setting The overall world described in something like a memoir, or the world created by a fiction author, as J.K. Rowling does well in the Harry Potter book series. In a memoir that involves a child's murder, it may be important to share beliefs of the family's culture around the death penalty, and what key family members believe regarding God, the afterlife, mental health, and such. In self-help and other nonfiction, the perspective a writer has on a subject may be important for the book's contextual world. So, for example, readers may want to know, for a book about using energy medicine, how the author views the source(s) of life energy, and how they believe holistic healing operates.
For writers of fantasy, sci fi, magical realism, and other fiction genres, world-building can get very complex, with writers altering some elements in everything from how the universe operates to what transportation and communication options exist, to how people approach their daily lives; it's often best, as a result, for fiction writers to add in world-building details as they go, as it's tempting to overdo those details early on at the expense of meaning making.
Structural edit This editing stage occurs on a nearly complete or a completed manuscript, if a writer will not be working with a book coach to develop a book in steps. The structural or "developmental" editor focuses on general factors that influence how a work hangs together, such as the tone of the overall content and pacing, and how to move chunks of content to a different location in a manuscript to benefit the reader's experience. Perhaps how the main character approached play in childhood influenced their competitive nature as an adult, so that, despite the book focusing on their adult life, inserting flashbacks from childhood would help to show readers how this tendency developed. Or a memoir that has subthemes might benefit from having content related to a subtheme moved earlier or later, to better weave it in with the overall theme. Also known as a "substantive" edit (see the editing levels in this post).
Style Many elements influence a writer's style, which is about language choices that go beyond conveying the basic meaning of content. Included are the way content flows, such as variation in sentence lengths, and the formality of word choices; style also involves choices about how to approach punctuation, and more. There is definite overlap between style and voice. In a line edit, style edits focus more on enhancing the flow of content and increasing the energy of text by reducing unnecessary repetition, extra wording, and such. When I have my copy editor's hat on, style checks are focused more on ensuring that the same element, such as an italicized term, is handled consistently throughout the text, and that rules about the best order of words ("syntax") are followed (to the extent deemed appropriate).
Theme What an author seeks to share with the world; the point of your work. A writer's main theme may start out fairly general, such as that everyone has the right to be creative, or that relationships matter more than financial success, and may evolve over time with deepened understanding. Some memoirs have braided main themes, such as The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, which covers how a family's failure to confront sexual abuse damages her and others, as well Marzano-Lesnevich's take on a child sex abuse case. More commonly, a book may have one or a few subthemes, such as one about the emotional damage caused by violent/irresponsible family members in Tara Westover's Educated. I cover the distinction between theme, plot, and a book's "hook" in a previous post.
Voice The personality and attitude the writer expresses on the page. For example, my take on the voice of Alexander Chee in his great essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is of someone who is smart, angst-ridden, and candid. Voice encompasses style matters, such as a preferred use of short sentences and word choices, and includes the writer's perspective, what aspects they focus on in a particular scene, such as sights and smells, and the writer's literary approach. Voice is distinct from "tone", which involves the mood and attitude you convey in an individual piece, such as swaggering or accepting, elegant or reasonable, related to the subject being covered. While it's important to pay close attention to the voice of authors you admire, and dislike, writing regularly is the best way to grow into your authorial voice, as covered more in-depth here.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez
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