Glossary

This glossary defines some of the terms used in reviews, particularly when we use a definition that may not align perfectly with a definition that others are using.

We've drawn some terms and examples from the SFWA article "Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops: Second Edition," by Bruce Sterling, edited by Lewis Shiner, and from "Stories We've Seen Too Often," by the SFF magazine Strange Horizons, both of which do a great job of making it easier to talk about bad (and good) writing.

Abandon Earth: A story where Earth became so polluted that everyone had to move to another planet--particularly if the new planet (e.g. Mars) had to be terraformed. Trying to move billions of people would consume fantastic resources--far more than would be needed to clean up almost any imaginable kind of pollution. And the effort to terraform a world like Mars would far exceed what it would take to "terraform" the polluted Earth.

Contrast that with stories that offer a plausible excuse (e.g. encounter with a black hole destroys the Earth) or where just a few people escape an apocalypse.

The "And" Plot: Not really a plot at all; just a sequence of events. "This happened and that happened and the other thing happened and . . ." ultimately leading nowhere. In a proper plot, there is a protagonist trying to accomplish some goal. If you can't say who the main character was and/or what he/she was trying to accomplish, then the story likely has an "and" plot.

As You Know, Bob: An info dump disguised as dialogue in which one character tells another character something that a) the listener already knows and b) almost no one would talk about in a casual conversation. A non-SF example involving two people getting into a car might be: "As you know, Bob, our automobiles are powered by gasoline, which we buy from stations located all over the city."

Cardboard Characters: Characters whose behavior serves the plot but comes across as unnatural. The most common variety is the Cardboard Villain, who persecutes the protagonist out of pure meanness.

Cardboard Universe: The whole universe is out to get the protagonist. Not the same as the Idiot Setting, where the universe is bad for everyone (or almost everyone) for stupid reasons; the cardboard universe is only out to get the protagonist. Typically, the protagonist has a run of misfortune that breaks suspension of disbelief.

The common factor that all cardboard characters have in common is that they show that the author spent little or no time thinking about things from their point of view. As soon as the reader asks, "why are they doing that?" suspension of disbelief collapses.

Emergent AI: A story in which an artificial intelligence arises spontaneously as a side-effect of some other computation, e.g. "too many computers on the Internet connected at once." This breaks disbelief because it makes about as much sense as expecting a monster to arise because a child mixed all the chemicals in his/her chemistry set together.

Emotional AI: Any story involving a robot, android, or other machine intelligence where the AI has human emotions and motivations that complicate the plot. This breaks disbelief because it makes no sense for anyone to have designed a machine whose emotions interfere with its normal functions.

Evil Corp: A corporation that serves as cardboard villain. Evil Corp knows that it's doing things that kill its own customers, but it doesn't care. It frequently has its own armed forces, which is uses against the protagonist, and it generally has the government wrapped around its finger.

Evil Gov: A government that serves as cardboard villain. Evil Gov is obsessed with secrecy just for the sake of keeping things secret. It is typically incompetent at everything it does except persecuting the protagonist, the only task at which it excels.

Grounding a Character: For the most part, characters in stories should be grounded, meaning the author should let us know the character's name, age, gender, race, height, proportions (fat vs. thin), hair/eye color, etc. Not to the extent of an infodump, of course, but enough to make the character seem real to the reader. This is particularly important when there are multiple characters to tell apart, and it's particularly challenging for a first-person narrator.

Failure to do this typically results in characters the reader can't relate to.

Head Hopping: Also called POV Shifts. A single scene of a story should only focus on one character--if the author shows us the thoughts and emotions of more than one character, we have "hopped" into someone else's head.

There is a valid way of doing this, called third-person-omniscient point of view, but it's a distinct style of writing, involving a narrator who's almost a character in his/her own right. It's extremely difficult to make this work at anything short of novel length.

Idiot Plot: When the challenge faced by the characters is a story results from stupid decisions they themselves made.

Idiot Setting: A background in which the whole world is an awful, awful place where it never occurs to anyone to ever try to fix anything. This is a bit like what Damon Knight called the "Second-Order Idiot Plot," in which the story depends on everyone in the world consistently making stupid decisions. 

Imaginary Toads in Imaginary Gardens: A speculative fiction story can either have real toads in imaginary gardens (a relatable character in an exotic setting) or else have imaginary toads in real gardens (exotic characters in a familiar setting) but if it has imaginary toads in imaginary gardens, then the reader can't relate to anything in the story, and the result is too dull to read.

In practice, almost all stories use real toads; that is, even if the protagonist is supposed to be an alien or a fantasy creature, the author makes them so human that the reader continually forgets they're not. It's a big part of why Emotional AI stories are so common and serious ones are so rare.

It's not an absolute rule, though; Very rarely someone successfully pulls off an imaginary-toads-in-imaginary-gardens story, and when they do, it's worth pointing out.

Info Dump: Narration that stops the action so the author can explain something that readers don't actually need to know yet.

Not to be confused with show don't tell.

Lampshading: When an author knows that something in a story doesn't match with reality, he/she will typically lampshade it by calling attention to the fact. E.g. "Why doesn't it collapse under its own gravity?" Done right, this clues the readers to expect some explanation and reassures them that the author isn't just ignorant. Done badly, it becomes You Can't Fire Me--I Quit!

Linear Plot: A story where the protagonist accomplishes his/her goal with no serious challenges. The action moves smoothly from point A to point B with nothing interesting happening at all.

Mary Sue: "A character for whom author favoritism is so strong that it breaks suspension of disbelief." (as defined by SF author Django Wexler). This is the person who's instantly the best at everything he/she tries, the one who escapes all conflicts unscathed, the one who always knows exactly what to do, etc.

When the bad guy has these properties, I call him/her a "Typhoid Mary Sue."

Despite the name, most Mary Sues are male.

Message Dump: An info dump in which the information expresses the author's political or religious views.

Pastiche: A story that extends a classic SF/F story by a different author. Lovecraft pastiches are probably the most common, but others exist. Arguably, pastiches are just glorified fan fiction.

Purple Prose: Narration that is so elaborate that it draws attention to itself and away from the story. A single sentence with lots of fancy words isn't enough; when we criticize a story for purple prose, we mean that most of the narration was like that.

Shaggy God Story: Any story that tries to use science fiction to explain stories in the Bible (or, arguably, other holy texts). Most typically, this involves the sole survivors on an empty planet being named "Adam" and "Eve." 

Show Don't Tell Failure (a form of intrusive narration): An author who consistently "tells" what should be "shown" produces something that looks like notes for a story rather than an actual story.

We believe show-don't-tell failures are the commonest reason most people can identify a story as "not very well-written" after reading only a few paragraphs.

This is "intrusive narration" because the reader is jolted out of the story by unwanted observations from the narrator. E.g. saying "April was a bad person" just annoys the reader. April's actions in the story should show to the reader that April is a bad person; no one wants the narrator to simply tell it to them. Good writers are expert in knowing when to show and when to tell.

Jason Black's excellent three-part series starting with "Write Scenes, not Summaries" gives this important subject detailed treatment with copious examples.

Not to be confused with an info dump.

You Can't Fire Me, I Quit: An attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike — as if by anticipating the reader’s objections, the author had somehow answered them. “I would never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it myself!” “It was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in real life!” “It’s a one-in-a-million chance, but it’s so crazy it just might work!” (Taken from "Turkey City.") This is a form of failed lampshading.

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