The Trek Creative Lexicon

--Adapted shamelessly from--

The Turkey City Lexicon

A Primer for SF Workshops

Edited by Lewis Shiner, Second Edition by Bruce Sterling Re-Re-Edited and added to by Garry Stahl, Jay P. Hailey and others.

--Not Copyrighted--

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       This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop, with a special look at the needs of Star Trek fan fiction. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF writing issue makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to "reinvent the wheel" (see section 3) at every session. The terms here were generally developed over a period of many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are acknowledged in brackets at the end of the entry. Particular help for this project was provided by Bruce Sterling and other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas. Additional terms by the Trek Creative FIDO echo and internet mailing list.
       This is not a list of flaws per say, or things that must, at all costs, be avoided. It is a set of shorthand terms for common complex ideas that repeatedly occur.

From the Original Turkey City Lexicon
Introduction by Lewis Shiner
Introduction (II) by Bruce Sterling

Science Fiction:  A from of speculative fiction first defined and promoted as such by Hugo Gernsback by founding the first magazine dedicated to it, Amazing Stories, in 1926. The Science Fiction Achievement award, given to various works each year by vote of the members of the World Science Fiction Society, is named the "Hugo" after him.
       Science fiction is often defined in terms of various sub genre. These can include:
       Hard SF: Obeys the known rules of physics with one exception. (FTL, Hyperdrive etc.) Can speculate on future developments within reason.
       Soft SF: Obeys the general rule for Hard SF but can play freer with the exceptions.
       Science Fantasy: Follows the framework of science fiction, using the tropes of that genre I.E. space ships, strange worlds etc. but hews closer to the rules of fantasy. Most space opera is Science Fantasy.  Star Wars and Star Trek are clearly memebers of this sub-genre.
       Fantasy: Breaks known laws of physics and replaces them with alternative laws. "Magic" known unreal beasts on Earth etc.
       Alternate History: Can be hard or soft but explores the possible future if certain events in history had not turned out as they did. The Confederacy won, ancient people did invent the steam engine, etc.  Harry Turtledove is a well known author that specilzes in this sub-genre.

Star Trek       Popular Science Fiction TV show that ran from 1966 to 1968, also known as "The Original Series" or "TOS". Also included are those TV series, movies, and books based on and/or derivative of TOS.

  • 1973-1974 Star Trek, the Animated Series -- TAS
  • 1987-1994 -- Star Trek: The Next Generation -- TNG
  • 1993-1999 -- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- DS9
  • 1995-2001 -- Star Trek: Voyager -- VOY
  • 2001 - current -- Enterprise / Star Trek: Enterprise -- ENT
  • 1979 -- Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- ST1/TMP
  • 1982 -- Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan -- ST2/WOK
  • 1984 -- Star Trek: The Search for Spock -- ST3/SFS
  • 1986 -- Star Trek: The Voyage Home -- ST4/TVH
  • 1989 -- Star Trek: The Final Frontier -- ST5/TFF
  • 1991 -- Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country -- ST6/TUC
  • 1994 -- Star Trek: Generations -- ST7/STG
  • 1996 -- Star Trek: First Contact -- ST8/FC
  • 1998 -- Star Trek: Insurrection -- ST9/STI
  • 2002 -- Star Trek: Nemesis -- ST10/STX
  • Countless Books, too many to name here.
  • And... ...Our Fan Fiction, a good selection which is to be found on the websites one page back.


Part One: Words and Sentences

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.

Brand Name Fever       Use of a brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM's and still have no idea what it looks like.

"Burly Detective" Syndrome        Fear of proper names. Found in most of the same pulp magazines that abound with "said" bookisms and Tom Swifties. This is where you can't call Mike Shayne "Shayne" but substitute "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth." Like the "said" bookism it comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph, or even page. This is only true of particularly strong and highly visible words, like, say, "vertiginous." It's always better to re-use an ordinary, simple noun or verb rather than contrive a cumbersome method of avoiding it.
       The oppisite of this is the "paid by the word Hack" that will never use a single word when several will do the same thing. The example is given of the (Horror!) Pro author that refered to each and every character every time they were refered to or spoke by full title rank and name. "Chief Engineer Lt. Commander Jordi LaForge."  One author of the pule era famous, or infamous for indicating ever shot of a gun (bang, bang) was asked why he did it that way.  "There is no way the detective is goinmg to stop shooting when he still has fifteen cents in his revolver." was the reply.  Speaking of cours of the three cent a word rate at the time.

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.]

The Capitalization Syndrome of Death        This is where the author, for some Reason or another, feels like every Word deserves Capitalization so to heighten its Importance. Found most often in fantasy novels. [suggested by John Meyer]

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]

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]

Pushbutton Words       Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the intellect or critical faculties. Words like "song" or "poet" or "tears" or "dreams." These are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Most often found in story titles.

Random Hunting and Pecking       Writing words that are not pronouncable. Like "Lymlpsfdasn" to describe a foreign language. [suggested by John Meyer]

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       Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word "said." "Said" is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is difficult to overuse. It is infinitely less distracting than "he retorted," "she inquired," or the all-time favorite, "he ejaculated." A good rule of thumb is that if using a word other than "said" makes your point clearer or gives the sentence better flow (a situation much rarer than most writers believe), then do so. If it doesn't, then try one of three things: Use "said"(generally best); alter the structure of the sentence so that the speaking verb is unnecessary (occasionally helpful, but again not so often as one might think); attach an adverb (this is almost always a bad idea). See "Tom Swifty". [Contributions by Joe Manno]

Tom Swifty       Similar compulsion to follow the word "said" (or "said" bookism) with an adverb. As in, "'We'd better hurry', said Tom swiftly." Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. 99% of the time it is clear from context how something was said.

"Very Simply"       The overuse of common adverbs to the point of distraction. Remember that the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. These two along with their relative "Basically" are perhaps the worse offenders. This writer does a "Very Simply" check on all creative efforts and 9 out of 10 times the removal of these slackers improves the sentence. [Suggested by Garry Stahl]


Part Two: Paragraphs and Prose Structure

Bathos        A sudden change in level of diction. "The massive hound barked in a stentorian voice then made wee-wee on the carpet."

Countersinking        Expositional redundancy. Making the actions implied in a conversation explicit, e.g., "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."

Dischism       Intrusion of author's physical surroundings (or mental state) into the narrative. Like the character who always lights a cigarette when the author does, or is thinking about how they wished they hadn't quit smoking. In more subtle forms the characters complain that they're confused and don't know what to do--when this is actually the author's condition. [Tom Disch]

False Humanity        An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly, whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story. The actions of such characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the author has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something to emote about.

False Interiorization        Another Dischism, in which the author, too lazy to describe the surroundings, inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc.

Fuzz        Element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow she forgot to bring her gun."

Hand Waving       Distracting the reader with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw. [Stuart Brand]

Laughtrack       Characters give cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.

Show, not Tell       Violates the cardinal rule of good writing. The reader should be allowed to react, not instructed in how to react. Carefully observed details render authorial value judgments unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling us "she had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," specific incidents, involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey, should be shown. "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.". -Anton Chekhov, short-story writer and dramatist (1860-1904)
            One indicator that you are telling, not showing, is leaving the perspective in which you are telling the story and jumping in with the "Narrator's voice" to hand out information. Handing out some straightforward information about a character is not in itself questionable if done well. Rigid adherence to show-don't-tell can become absurd. Minor matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in a swift, straightforward fashion.  If Sue had a bad childhood and she thinks about it the story can get into her thoughts and let the reader know that Sue is thinking about her childhood, provided there is a good reason why she would think about it. Same with Bob telling Joe about Sue's bad childhood, if (and only if) Bob could be expected to know about it and has reason to tell Joe. If handled this way take care to a) keep it short to avoid an Info Dump (see below), and  b) work some more explanation into the story later on, to avoid a Plot Orphan (see below).[last paragraph suggested by Steve Oostrom]

Signal from Fred       A comic form of the "Dischism" in which the author's subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical comments: "This doesn't make sense." "This is really boring." "This sounds like a bad movie." [Attr. Damon Knight]

Squid in the Mouth       Inappropriate humor in front of strangers. Basically the failure of an author to realize that certain assumptions or jokes are not shared by the world at large. In fact, the world at large will look upon such a writer as if they had a squid in their mouths. [Jim Blaylock]
       Since SF writers as a breed are generally quite loony, and in fact make this a stock in trade, "squid in the mouth" doubles as a term of grudging praise, describing the essential, irreducible, divinely unpredictable lunacy of the true SF writer. [Attr. James P Blaylock]

Squid on the Mantelpiece        Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."

White Room Syndrome       Author's imagination fails to provide details. Most common in the beginning of a story. "She awoke in a white room." The white room is obviously the white piece of paper confronting the author. The character has just woken up in order to be starting fresh, like the author. Often in order to ponder her circumstances and provide an excuse for Info Dump.

Wiring Diagram Fiction       A genre ailment related to "False Humanity," "Wiring Diagram Fiction" involves "characters" who show no convincing emotional reactions at all, since they are overwhelmed by the author's fascination with gadgetry or didactic lectures.

You Can't Fire Me, I Quit       Attempting to diffuse lack of credibility with hand-waving. "I would never have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself." As if by anticipating the reader's objections the author had somehow answered them. [John Kessel]


Part Three: Common Workshop Story Types

Adam and Eve Story       Nauseatingly common subset of the "Shaggy God Story" in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc., leaves two survivors, man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and Eve, parents of the human race!!

The Cozy Catastrophe       Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo- Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off. [Attr. Brian Aldiss]

Dennis Hopper Syndrome       A story based on some arcane bit of science or folklore, which noodles around producing random weirdness. Then a loony character-actor (usually best played by Dennis Hopper) barges into the story and baldly tells the protagonist what's going on by explaining the underlying mystery in a long bug-eyed rant. [Attr. Howard Waldrop]

Deus ex Machina or "God in the Box"       Story featuring a miraculous solution to the story's conflict, which comes out of nowhere and renders the plot struggles irelevant. H G Wells warned against SF's love for the deus ex machina when he coined the famous dictum that "If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting." Science fiction, which specializes in making the impossible seem plausible, is always deeply intrigued by godlike powers in the handy pocket size. Artificial Intelligence, virtual realities and nanotechnology are three contemporary SF MacGuffins that are cheap portable sources of limitless miracle.

The Grubby Apartment Story       Similar to the "poor me" story, this autobiographical effort features a miserably quasi-bohemian writer, living in urban angst in a grubby apartment. The story commonly stars the author's friends in thin disguises -- friends who may also be the author's workshop companions, to their considerable alarm.

The Jar of Tang       "For you see, we are all living in a jar of Tang!" or "For you see, I am a dog!" A story contrived so that the author can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the author can cry "Fooled you!" For instance, the story takes place in a desert of coarse orange sand surrounded by an impenetrable vitrine barrier; surprise! our heroes are microbes in a jar of Tang powdered orange drink.
       This is a classic case of the difference between a conceit and an idea. "What if we all lived in a jar of Tang?" is an example of the former; "What if the revolutionaries from the sixties had been allowed to set up their own society?" is an example of the latter. Good SF requires ideas, not conceits. [Attr. Stephen P. Brown]
       When done with serious intent rather than as a passing conceit, this type of story can be dignified by the term "Concealed Environment." [Attr. Christopher Priest]

Just-Like Fallacy       SF story which thinly adapts the trappings of a standard pulp adventure setting. The spaceship is "just like" an Atlantic steamer, down to the Scottish engineer in the hold. A colony planet is "just like" Arizona except for two moons in the sky. "Space Westerns" and futuristic hard-boiled detective stories have been especially common versions.

The Kitchen-Sink Story       A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it. [Attr. Damon Knight]

The Motherhood Statement       SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately "burn the motherhood statement." [Attr. Greg Egan]

The "Poor Me" Story       Autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can't get laid. [Attr. Kate Wilhelm]

Re-Inventing the Wheel       A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader. Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming.

The Rembrandt Comic Book       A story in which incredible craftsmanship has been lavished on a theme or idea which is basically trivial or subliterary, and which simply cannot bear the weight of such deadly-serious artistic portent.

The Shaggy God Story       A piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional "explanations" for the theological events. [Attr. Michael Moorcock]

The Slipstream Story       Non-SF story which is so ontologically distorted or related in such a bizarrely non-realist fashion that it cannot pass muster as commercial mainstream fiction and therefore seeks shelter in the SF or fantasy genre. Postmodern critique and technique are particularly fruitful in creating slipstream stories.

The Steam-Grommet Factory       Didactic SF story which consists entirely of a guided tour of a large and elaborate gimmick. A common technique of SF utopias and dystopias. [Attr. Gardner Dozois]

The Tabloid Weird       Story produced by a confusion of SF and Fantasy tropes -- or rather, by a confusion of basic world-views. Tabloid Weird is usually produced by the author's own inability to distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and- effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe. Either the FBI is hunting the escaped mutant from the genetics lab, or the drill-bit has bored straight into Hell -- but not both at once in the very same piece of fiction. Even fantasy worlds need an internal consistency, so that a Sasquatch Deal-with-the-Devil story is also "Tabloid Weird." Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don't mix well, even for comic effect. [Attr. Howard Waldrop]

The Whistling Dog       A story related in such an elaborate, arcane, or convoluted manner that it impresses by its sheer narrative ingenuity, but which, as a story, is basically not worth the candle. Like the whistling dog, it's astonishing that the thing can whistle -- but it doesn't actually whistle very well. [Attr. Harlan Ellison]


Part Four: Plots

Abbess Phone Home       Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.

And plot        Picaresque plot in which this happens, and then that happens, and then something else happens, and it all adds up to nothing in particular.

Bogus Alternatives        List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently includes all the reasons why. A type of Dischism in which the author works out complicated plot problems at the reader's expense. "If I'd gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn't want to spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then..." etc. Best dispensed with entirely.

Booster Plot        A subplot used to get the characters into the situation the author wants then in. This is not bad, or even undesired in and of itself. It is only bad if it becomes a "Plot Orphan". [Suggested by Jungle Kitty]

Card Tricks in the Dark        Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or  b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but it serves no visible fictional purpose. [Attr. Tim Powers]

Hollywood & Vine Syndrome       The author being under the impression that everything has to originate from, pass through, or other wise get connected to Earth in some fashion. Be it transplanted Earth people, duplicate Earths etc. That is if you stand on Earth long enough every race in the Galaxy will pass before you. Star Trek is particularly bad for this. One wonders how ancient man developed "normally" while tripping over aliens all the time. Also known as "It's a Small Universe" [Garry Stahl]

Hot Box       A situation in which the characters are forced together not of their own wills. The classic example is the prision cell in which two characters of differing backgrounds and modivations must learn to deal with each other to get free. The "hot box" does not have to be a literal box. Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat is a perfect example.

Idiot Plot        A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author's convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own. [Attr. James Blish]

Kudzu plot        Plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy organic profusion, smothering everything in its path.

Plot Orphans       Points of a plot brought up early in the story in seemingly an important way, and totally forgotten or unaddressed by the end. The "Exact Duplicate of Earth" comment in the TOS episode "Miri" is a perfect example. Plot orphans are sloppy writing and/or sloppy editing at work. [Garry Stahl]

Plot Coupons        The true structure of the quest-type fantasy novel. The "hero" collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending. Note that "the author" can be substitute for "the Gods" in such a work: "The Gods decreed he would pursue this quest." Right, mate. The author decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. [Dave Langford]

Second-order Idiot Plot       A plot involving an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot. [Attr. Damon Knight]

The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot, AKA "BIG RED"        Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel ("It never happened"), parallel universes ("It never happened *here*"), unconscious duplicates ("We're all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!") and dream-sequences ("It was all a dream!") have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story's or series' central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*). [suggested by Stephen J. Barringer]

The Rug Jerk       Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov's principles: "If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III." The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards. [suggested by Stephen J. Barringer]


Part Five: Background

Appropriate Stupidity       Any time the main character acts in an untypically stupid fashion, such as not raising the shields when they should, or trusting an obviously untrustworthy type, in order to develop a situation where the character must now act heroically to extract themselves and others from the situation of their own making.
       To this author a lame method of setting up the situation or advancing the plot by having your protagonist act in an untypical manner, so sloppy plot development can occur. Captain Kirk not raising the shields in Star Trek 2 is a perfect example. To be avoided in any case. [Sandi Hedlund, Garry Stahl]

"As You Know, Bob" (see "info dump")        The most pernicious form of Info Dump. In which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.

Author Needs You to Know       Dialog or action that blatantly has no purpose other than to educate the reader about some important story detail. Usually a failed attempt to smoothly work in an infodump; cousin of the As You Know Bob. "'Do you really need it spelled out?' Bob ranted. 'We [followed by explanation]..." Or, "So, boss, remind me what time I'm supposed to whack the president?" Or, "Say, Captain, do we have enough fuel to reach Tau Ceti, our destination, in our scheduled time of six months?" [suggested by Andrew Burt]

Betty Sue        Mary Sue's less pretty, less smart, and less perfect sister. (See "Mary Sue" definition three.) A metaphor for the way things really are. The Betty Sue Federation still has rough edges and imperfect people in imperfect places. Society is less than ideal. In short the reality of the situation. [Garry Stahl]

Dramatic Sensor       Specific to Star Trek, the "sensor" that weakens the shields, or lessens the effect of the weapons, or makes the ordinarily stable technology flaky on the PC ship whenever the writer feels a sense of heightened drama is required. The use of false danger to heighten the dramatic moment or attempt to create dramatic tension where none would normally exist.

The Edges of Ideas       The solution to the Info Dump problem (how to fill in the background). The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important; all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need info dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background. This is also known as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life."

Extras       The milling crowd, unwashed masses, or any unnamed bit character that does not warrant development.

Eyeball Kick       That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." [Rudy Rucker]

Frontloading        Piling too much exposition into the beginning of the story, so that it becomes so dense and dry that it is almost impossible to read. [Attr. Connie Willis]

Info Dump       Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles inserted in the text, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as "expository lumps." The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as "kuttnering," after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as "Heinleining." The "Captain's Log" is a tolerable example of info dump.

Infohiding       Withholding crucial information from the reader that the POV knows. Used to create cheap tension without having a necessarily tense plot. "Bob felt all his energy focused as he pried off the heavy lid from the sarcophagus. Bob knew from the hieroglyphics what he'd find. Upon seeing its wondrous contents, he suddenly knew how he would wreak his revenge on Anne. He heard a noise. 'Keep back; you know me -- you know I'll shoot,' Bob warned the advancing figure." This jars the reader out of the POV's view, reminding them there's an Author out there pulling the strings. Solution: tell the reader outright anything the POV sees/knows that is of relevance; if it's not a tense item in itself, chances are it will be a letdown when the reader does find out, so make the thing itself tense, and let the reader share it with the POV. Alternatively, if you need to keep something hidden, present it from a POV who can't find out what's in there either; then the reader is not reminded they're not the POV (though the hidden thing itself should still be interesting and worthy of being hidden). [suggested by Andrew Burt]

"I've Suffered For My Art" (and now it's your turn) Research dump.       A form of Info Dump in which the author inflicts upon the reader irrelevant, but hard-won, bits of data acquired while researching the story.

McGuffin       A McGuffin could be a person, an object, or an event that characters of a story are interested in but that, intrinsically, if of little concern. For example, in Hitchcock's movie North by Northwest, thugs are on the look out for a character named George Kaplan. Roger Thornhill, an ad executive, gets mistaken for Kaplan and so he is chased instead. Meanwhile Thornhill himself tries to find Kaplan who doesn't even exist.
       Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops us in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original." (quoted from the OED)
       Hitchcock borrowed it from a shaggy-dog story where a train passenger is carrying a large odd-shaped package. The passenger calls it a MacGuffin and explains to the curious fellow passengers that it's a device used to catch lions in Scottish Highlands. When they protest that there are no lions in the Highlands, he simply replies, "Well, then this can't be a MacGuffin." [Coined by Alfred Hitchcock]

Mary Sue       1) The Perfect Protagonist. In a Trek story she (usually a she, named after the author but not necessarily) graduates first in her class and the Academy while at the same time teaching the Command school and re-writing the curriculum. She is posted at once to the Enterprise where her efforts increase the sensor power by five, adds three warp factors to the ship's speed and makes better coffee than any one else. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy et all fall madly in love with her and when the villains attack she and she alone can save the ship by sacrificing herself. [Jay Hailey]
       A Mary Sue character can be a Captain. But he, or she, is usually a brooding bad ass, anti-social type, who sneers at everyone and has a massive disrespect for authority and rules. His ship is usually the new super-dooper experimental mega space battleship of which there is no other. Only Captain Mary Sue and the USS Enormous Phallus can possibly save the Federation.
       The third form of Mary Sue, and perhaps the most vile (from the reader's virepoint) is the Perfect Antagonist "too cool to lose" (Jezabelle Sue). The author is thoroughly in love with his villain and can't stand to see them lose. Nothing the PCs can do seems to alter the situation. When by the vilest of methods they do defeat the wonderful villain, the villain still gets away to wreck havoc in the future. Black Omne of the "Phoenix" books is a perfect example of this. [Garry Stahl]

2) The protagonists and their ship are the "best of the best". The ship is the latest experimental faster than heck super- battle- stealth- dreadnaught- etc., capable of traveling faster than heck, through time, and chocolate pudding with equal ease, that Starfleet has ever made. All the crew are Mary Sues as per definition one.
        This is usually the clue that the story or stories will be blatant wish fulfillment and power projection. Most usually found in "club fiction" where the author(s) write about the club members' characters in a Star Trek club.

3) The way things "ought" to be. The perfect Society as the Federation sees itself, Prejudice and greed free. Truly equal opportunity and resources for all. [Garry Stahl]

Nowhere Nowhen Story       Putting too little exposition into the story's beginning, so that the story, while physically readable, seems to take place in a vacuum and fails to engage any readerly interest. [Attr. L. Sprague de Camp]

Ontological riff       Passage in an SF story which suggests that our deepest and most basic convictions about the nature of reality, space-time, or consciousness have been violated, technologically transformed, or at least rendered thoroughly dubious. The works of H. P. Lovecraft, Barrington Bayley, and Philip K Dick abound in "ontological riffs."

NPC        Any other major character. Minor crew with repeated speaking lines, the villains, the Commander that sends the PCs out. Any character that is not a PC, but warrants some developmental time, non point of view characters. Also a term from RPGs. "Non-Player Character".

PC        The Protagonist Character(s). The people in the story the reader is suppose to identify with and root for. In a first person narrative, the character telling the story. A term from role-playing games, the PC or player character.

Space Western (see "used furniture")        The most pernicious suite of used furniture. The grizzled space captain swaggering into the spacer bar and slugging down a Jovian brandy, then laying down a few credits for a space hooker to give him a Galactic Rim Job.

Stapledon        Name assigned to the voice which takes center stage in lecture. Actually a common noun, as: "You have a stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing the characters resolve it."

Used Furniture        Use of a background out of Central Casting. Rather than invent a background and have to explain it, or risk re-inventing the wheel, let's just steal one. We'll set it in the Star Trek Universe, only we'll call it the Empire instead of the Federation.


Part Six: Character and Viewpoint

Funny-hat characterization       A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.

Mrs. Brown       The small, downtrodden, eminently common, everyday little person who nevertheless encapsulates something vital and important about the human condition. "Mrs. Brown" is a rare personage in the SF genre, being generally overshadowed by swaggering submyth types made of the finest gold-plated cardboard. In a famous essay, "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," Ursula K. Le Guin decried Mrs. Brown's absence from the SF field. [Attr: Virginia Woolf]

Submyth       Classic character-types in SF which aspire to the condition of archetype but don't quite make it, such as the mad scientist, the crazed supercomputer, the emotionless super-rational alien, the vindictive mutant child, etc. [Attr. Ursula K. Le Guin]

Viewpoint glitch       The author loses track of point-of-view, switches point-of-view for no good reason, or relates something that the viewpoint character could not possibly know.


Part Seven: Miscellaneous

AM/FM       Engineer's term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of "Actual Machines" from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of "Fucking Magic."

Consensus Reality       Useful term for the purported world in which the majority of modern sane people generally agree that they live -- as opposed to the worlds of, say, Forteans, semioticians or quantum physicists.

Intellectual sexiness       The intoxicating glamor of a novel scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual merit that it may someday prove to possess.

The Ol' Baloney Factory       "Science Fiction" as a publishing and promotional entity in the world of commerce.

TPTB       The Powers That Be. Paramount suits, the people that control the output of "Trek Entertainment Product". The people we love to hate, and would love to be, if it wasn't for the sheer idiocy of Hollyweird.


       Other terms are welcome, and will be added as they come up. Do you have a good one? Share it and it can end up here.

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Introduction by Lewis Shiner

       This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop. Having an accurate and descriptive critical term for a common SF problem makes it easier to recognize and discuss. This guide is intended to save workshop participants from having to "reinvent the wheel" (see section 3) at every session.
       The terms here were generally developed over a period of many years in many workshops. Those identified with a particular writer are acknowledged in parentheses at the end of the entry. Particular help for this project was provided by Bruce Sterling and the other regulars of the Turkey City Workshop in Austin, Texas.

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Introduction (II) by Bruce Sterling

       People often ask where science fiction writers get their ideas. They rarely ask where society gets its science fiction writers. In many cases the answer is science fiction workshops.
       Workshops come in many varieties -- regional and national, amateur and professional, formal and frazzled. In science fiction's best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be writers are wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus. Thanks to the seminal efforts of Robin Wilson, would-be sf writers can receive actual academic credit for this experience.
       But the workshopping experience does not require any shepherding by experts. Like a bad rock band, an SF-writer's workshop can be set up in any vacant garage by any group of spotty enthusiasts with nothing better to occupy their time. No one has a copyright on talent, desire, or enthusiasm.
       The general course of action in the modern SF workshop (known as the "Milford system") goes as follows. Attendees bring short manuscripts, with enough copies for everyone present. No one can attend or comment who does not bring a story. The contributors read and annotate all the stories. When that's done, everyone forms a circle, a story is picked at random, and the person to the writer's right begins the critique. (Large groups may require deliberate scheduling.)
       Following the circle in order, with a minimum of cross-talk or interruptions, each person emits his/her considered opinions of the story's merits and/or demerits. The author is strictly required, by rigid law and custom, to make no outcries, no matter how he or she may squirm. When the circle is done and the last reader has vented his or her opinion, the silently suffering author is allowed an extended reply, which, it is hoped, will not exceed half an hour or so, and will avoid gratuitously personal ripostes. This harrowing process continues, with possible breaks for food, until all the stories are done, whereupon everyone tries to repair ruptured relationships in an orgy of drink and gossip.
       No doubt a very interesting book could be written about science fiction in which the writing itself played no part. This phantom history could detail the social demimonde of workshops and their associated cliques: Milford, the Futurians, Milwaukee Fictioneers, Turkey City, New Wave, Hydra Club, Jules Verne's Eleven Without Women, and year after year after year of Clarion -- a thousand SF groups around the world, known and unknown.
       Anyone can play. I've noticed that workshops have a particularly crucial role in non-Anglophone societies, where fans, writers, and publishers are often closely united in the same handful of zealots. This kind of fellow-feeling may be the true hearts-blood of the genre.
       We now come to the core of this piece, the SF Workshop Lexicon. This lexicon was compiled by Mr Lewis Shiner and myself from the work of many writers and critics over many years of genre history, and it contains buzzwords, notions and critical terms of direct use to SF workshops.
       The first version, known as the "Turkey City Lexicon" after the Austin, Texas writers' workshop that was a cradle of cyberpunk, appeared in 1988. In proper ideologically-correct cyberpunk fashion, the Turkey City Lexicon was distributed uncopyrighted and free-of-charge: a decommodified, photocopied chunk of free literary software. Lewis Shiner still thinks that this was the best deployment of an effort of this sort, and thinks I should stop fooling around with this fait accompli. After all, the original Lexicon remains uncopyrighted, and it has been floating around in fanzines, prozines and computer networks for seven years now. I respect Lew's opinion, and in fact I kind of agree with him. But I'm an ideologue, congenitally unable to leave well-enough alone.
       In September 1990 I re-wrote the Lexicon as an installment in my critical column for the British magazine INTERZONE. When Robin Wilson asked me to refurbish the Lexicon yet again for PARAGONS, I couldn't resist the temptation. I'm always open to improvements and amendments for the Lexicon. It seems to me that if a document of this sort fails to grow it will surely become a literary monument, and, well, heaven forbid. For what it's worth, I plan to re-release this latest edition to the Internet at the first opportunity. You can email me about it: I'm "".
       Some Lexicon terms are attributed to their originators, when I could find them; others are not, and I apologize for my ignorance.
       Science fiction boasts many specialized critical terms. You can find a passel of these in Gary K Wolfe's CRITICAL TERMS FOR SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY: A GLOSSARY AND GUIDE TO SCHOLARSHIP (Greenwood Press, 1986). But you won't find them in here. This lexicon is not a guide to scholarship. The Workshop Lexicon is a guide (of sorts) for down-and-dirty hairy-knuckled sci-fi writers, the kind of ambitious subliterate guttersnipes who actually write and sell professional genre material. It's rough, rollicking, rule-of-thumb stuff suitable for shouting aloud while pounding the table.

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