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Turkey City Lexicon

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Turkey City Lexicon

A lexicon or glossary for critiquing science fiction originally compiled by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. To quote from Bruce Sterling's intro:
"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." (e)

Intro for the Turkey City Lexicon (as found on the SFWA web site, see below for link.)

A Primer for SF Workshops

Edited by Lewis Shiner

Second Edition by Bruce Sterling


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. 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 "mailto:bruces@well.com".

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.

Turkey City Lexicon (wikified)

Go to SF critique lexicon for my wikified (and work in progress) version of the Turkey City Lexicon.

Words and Sentences[edit]

begin fallacy

Describing action that is introduced to the reader for the first time by saying that so-and-so 'began to' <verb>. Eliminating the 'began to' almost always strengthens the text. A detail of style. (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

"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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

brand name fever

Use of 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 with it looks like. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

"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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

fat writing

Writing that uses too many or too large words just because the writer can. Also known as verdant greenery.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

gingerbread (words)

Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice writers sometimes use "gingerbread" in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

here-to-there mistake

A here-to-there mistake is over-describing interim stages because of a mistaken belief that the reader will not infer them. A writer whose character's eyes are closed, for example, wants to describe something visually and feels compelled to say, 'he opened his eyes'. Omitting this phrase usually works better -- the reader can infer the eye-opening from the visual description. Similarly, 'he got into the car, put the key in the ignition, started the engine and backed out of the driveway' is too much description: 'he got into the car and backed out of the driveway.' (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

ing disease

"ing disease" is the excessive use of gerunds (verbs transformed into nouns by adding "-ing"). --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

not simultaneous (grammar)

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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


Nowism is short for 'now-chauvinism'. The tendency to export present-day forms, conventions, technology or morality to a future setting where they are inappropriate or unlikely. (CSFW: David Smith) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


The tendency to use a big word for effect even when a small word is better. (CSFW: David Smith ) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

pushbutton words

Pushbutton words are words or phrases 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," cliches calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Words used to evoke an emotional response without engaging the reader's intellect or critical faculties, like 'song', 'poet', 'tears' or 'dreams'. They are supposed to make us misty-eyed without quite knowing why. Commonly found in romance novel titles. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

rear-view mirror description

The authorial habit of describing things only after they've figured in the action, never before they're used. "She dodged behind the boulder that she'd just seen out of the corner of her eye." The effect on the reader is that the description isn't seen for itself, but rather as if glimpsed only in the rear-view mirror. (CSFW: David Smith) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


Brenda Starr dialogue

A form of authorial laziness where long sections of talk have 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

mime conversation

An authorial laziness where the dialogue is supposedly loaded with portentous significance to all participants - contorted facial expressions, heavy word emphasis, significant looks - but completely opaque to readers because relevant facts are neither stated nor inferable.
"But when you told me that - "
"-s! And thus he couldn't - "
"Of course, and I was such a fool, so now if -- "
"not if, but-when! And -- "
Such conversation is infuriating to the reader and also cheat him of the genuine emotional conflict and change that are core to viable fiction. (CSFW: David Smith ) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

"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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

Tom Swifty

An unseemly compulsion to follow the word "said" with a colorful adverb, as in "'We'd better hurry,' Tom said swiftly." This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

Paragraphs and Prose Structure[edit]


A sudden, alarming change in the level of diction. "There will be bloody riots and savage insurrections leading to a violent popular uprising unless the regime starts being lots nicer about stuff." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

busting the weirdness budget

"Busting the weirdness budget" is when the narrative is top-heavy with gaudy, overpriced features. Readers will refuse to buy-in to a story that is merely a star-spangled list of eccentricities. An SF story cannot be too weird, but effective weirdness is cleverly designed and well deployed. -- (Source: A Workshop Lexicon: The "RevolutionSF" Iteration ) (e)


A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Countersinking is expositional redundancy, usually performed by a writer who isn't confident of his storytelling: making the actions implied in the story explicit. "'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave." (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


The unwitting intrusion of the writer's physical surroundings, or the author's own mental state, into the text of the story. Writers who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain of their confusion and indecision -- when this is actually the writer's condition at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. "Dischism" is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

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 writer has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something to emote about. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

false interiorization

A cheap labor-saving technique in which the writer, too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the viewpoint character with a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness, the urge to play marathon whist-games in the smoking-room, etc. -- (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

fuzz (narrative)

An element of motivation the writer was too lazy to supply. The word "somehow" is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow she had forgotten to bring her gun." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

hand waving

Hand waving is an attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose or other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe logical flaw. (Attr. Stewart Brand ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


In this form of authorial laziness, the characters grandstand and tug the reader's sleeve in an effort to force a specific emotional reaction. They laugh wildly at their own jokes, cry loudly at their own pain, and cheat the reader of any real chance of attaining genuine emotion. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

show, not tell

A cardinal principle of effective writing. The reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story, not instructed in how to react by the writer. Specific incidents and carefully observed details will render authorial lectures unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling the reader "She had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," a specific incident -- involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey -- should be shown.
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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

signal from Fred

A signal or message from Fred is a comic form of the "Dischism" in which the writer'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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

squid in the mouth

The failure of an writer to realize that his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large. Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the writer's remarks, the world-at-large will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live squid in the mouth.
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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

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 leveling 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." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

white room syndrome

A clear and common sign of the failure of the writer's imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a story, before the setting, background, or characters have gelled. "She awoke in a white room." The 'white room' is a featureless set for which details have yet to be invented -- a failure of invention by the writer. The character 'wakes' in order to begin a fresh train of thought -- again, just like the writer. This 'white room' opening is generally followed by much earnest pondering of circumstances and useless exposition; all of which can be cut, painlessly.
It remains to be seen whether the "white room" cliche will fade from use now that most writers confront glowing screens rather than blank white paper. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

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 writer's fascination with gadgetry or didactic lectures. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

you can't fire me, I quit

An attempt to diffuse the reader's incredulity with a pre-emptive strike -- as if by anticipating the reader's objections, the writer 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!" Surprisingly common, especially in SF. (Attr. John Kessel ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

Common Workshop Story Types[edit]

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!! (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

cozy catastrophe story

A 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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

deal with the Devil story

A story in which the the main character strikes a bargain with the Devil, typically exchanging his or her soul for fame, wealth, long life, skill, or something else they desire. This doesn't work out well for the character, where they find out that it isn't really what they wanted or is cheated somehow. (e)

Dennis Hopper syndrome story

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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

Deus ex machina

Or "God from the Box"
A 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Deus ex machina -- Miraculous (often offstage) solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. "Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!" (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ )
Contrast with Diabolus ex machina (e)

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 writer's friends in thin disguises -- friends who may also be the writer's workshop companions, to their considerable alarm. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

jar of Tang story

"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 writer can spring a silly surprise about its setting. Mainstay of the old Twilight Zone TV show. An entire pointless story contrived so the writer 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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

just-like story

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 engine room. 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

kitchen-sink story

A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the writer in the process of writing it. (Attr. Damon Knight ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

motherhood statement story

An 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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

"Poor me" story

An autobiographical piece in which the male viewpoint character complains that he is ugly and can't get laid. (Attr. Kate Wilhelm ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

re-inventing the wheel story

A novice writer 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

Rembrandt comic book story

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

RPG story

A story based on a role-playing game adventure. While these stories can be quite good in a role-playing context, there are serious issues with how multi-viewpoint story can be translated into a linear story format.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

shaggy God story

A Shaggy God story is a piece which mechanically adopts a Biblical or other mythological tale and provides flat science-fictional "explanations" for the theological events. The name is derived from the shaggy dog story. (Attr. Brian Aldiss ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

steam-grommet factory story

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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

tabloid weird story

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 writer'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 of sorts, 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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

tomato surprise story

Template:Tomato surprise story (e)

Vingean Singularity story

In a Vingean Singularity story, an ultra-powerful technological advent has shattered the human condition so totally and thoroughly that it is impossible for merely human beings to even imagine the consequences. (Attr. Vernor Vinge) -- (Source: A Workshop Lexicon: The "RevolutionSF" Iteration ) (e)

whistling dog story

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 ) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Also see Slipstream (e)

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

bogus alternatives

List of actions a character could have taken, but didn't. Frequently includes all the reasons why or why not. In this nervous mannerism, the writer stops the action dead to work 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Cumbersome narration of infeasible actions which a character didn't take because it would mess up the story. Usually goes overboard and includes long-winded explanations why. If you're going to handwave past a dumb choice, the faster you do it, the better. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

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 writer. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the writer, but it serves no visible fictional purpose. (Attr. Tim Powers) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Card tricks in the dark is authorial cleverness to no visible purpose. Wit without dramatic payoff. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

failure to fire Chekhov's gun

This occurs when a writer sets up, either intentionally or not, a contract with the reader, such as Chekhov's gun, and fails to fulfill the contract by resolving the plot element or using the story element.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

idiot plot

A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the writer's convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own. (Attr. James Blish) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

idiot plot development

An idiot plot development is a relative of the idiot plot and the second-order idiot plot where a plot development is dependent on a stupid decision by a character, frequently because of genre blindness on the part of said character. For example, a common plot trope in horror involves characters going into a situation that they should know better than to go into, such as going down into a basement when it is known that a killer is about. Another example is when a character does something that will piss off other characters if they find out about it, such as selling fake drugs, yet not taking any precautions about not being followed home, or, worse yet, doing the deed in their own house, and consequently getting beat up or killed at home. (e)

kudzu plot

A plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy organic profusion, smothering everything in its path. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

plot coupons

The basic building blocks of the quest-type fantasy plot. The "hero" collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the writer for the ending. Note that "the writer" can be substituted for "the gods" in such a work: "The gods decreed he would pursue this quest." Right, mate. The writer decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. (Dave Langford) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

rhinoceros in the room

A "rhinoceros in the room" is an item or situation that is important to the plot but ignored or misunderstood by characters that should perceive its significance, yet they don't because it would alter or ruin the plot. (e)

second-order idiot plot

A variation on the idiot plot where the plot involves an entire invented SF society which functions only because every single person in it is necessarily an idiot. (Attr. Damon Knight) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
Also see bolt-on. (e)


"As you know Bob"

"As you know Bob" is a pernicious form of infodump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as "Rod and Don dialogue" (attr. Damon Knight) or "maid and butler dialogue" (attr. Algis Budrys). (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

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." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
The places where technology and background should come onstage: not the mechanics of a new event, gizmo, or political structure, but rather how people's lives are affected by their new background. Example of excellence: the opening chapters of Orwell's 1984. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

Earth is but a pale shadow

"Earth is a but a pale shadow of the wonders of this world" is a worldbuilding technique in the vein of call a rabbit a smerp where things are described in terms of earthly creatures, features, and objects, but they are much more "beautiful / ugly / deadly / or some other combination of superlatives". For example, "the reptiles filling the room ahead of me were snake-like but so much more deadly than their earthly counterparts that if I had set foot in that room I would have been dead in seconds".(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

eyeball kick

Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a "crammed prose" full of "eyeball kicks." (Attr. Rudy Rucker) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
An 'eyeball kick' is perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image. (Rudy Rucker) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


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) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


"Heinleining" (or incluing) is when information is worked unobtrusively into a story's basic structure named for the SF author Robert A. Heinlein, who is considered a master of this technique. Contrast with infodumping. -- (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )(Updated by: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

iceberg exposition

Iceberg exposition is an alternative term for exposition that takes the form of incluing, or, at least, it is very similar. Contrast with infodumping. (e)


Incluing is a technique for world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the writer is building, without them being aware of it.
This in opposition to infodumping, where an undigested lump of background material is dropped into the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called As you know, Bob conversation.)
Both incluing and infodumping are forms of exposition and are frequently used in science fiction and fantasy, genres where the writer has the task to make the reader believe in a world that does not exist. Writers in other genres have less use for these techniques, as they can often depend on the reader's familiarity with the "real world".
Incluing can be done in a number of ways: through conversation between characters, through background details or by establishing scenes where a character is followed through daily life. The most famous example of incluing is the door irised open, a phrase created by Robert A. Heinlein and used in several of his stories and novels. In real life, few if any doors do iris open; by mentioning it offhandedly without explanation the reader gets a picture of something both familiar and strange, without calling attention to its strangeness. (Attr Jo Walton) (Source: incluing at Wikipedia )
Jo Walton defines incluing as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information." (e)


Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Infodumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or "Encyclopedia Galactica" articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the writer assumes center stage and lectures. Infodumps 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." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )(Updated by: Fritz Freiheit)
Alternatively called: exposition dump, expository lump, plot dump (e)

"I've suffered for my Art" (and now it's your turn)

A form of info-dump in which the writer inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story. As Algis Budrys once pointed out, homework exists to make the difficult look easy. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

keyhole curiosity

Similar to the edges of ideas keyhole curiosity is when the writer weaves the background into the story in such a way that the reader sees only partial aspects of the background, as if they were looking through a keyhole into a mansion, glimpsing only a fraction of the possibilities.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)


The use of brief, deft, inoffensive infodumps is known as "Kuttnering", after Henry Kuttner. (e)


A more specific form of monoism, this form authorial laziness is where the physical setting has a single environmental characteristic, particularly at the planetary level. Examples include the jungle planet in Alan Dean Foster's Midworld or the desert planet Tatooine in Star Wars.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

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) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

ontological riff

An 'ontological riff' is a 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." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

sense of wonder

Frequently invoked in discussions of science fiction, the "sense of wonder" is an experience unique to the genre. It is an emotional reaction to the reader suddenly confronting, understanding, or seeing a concept anew in the context of new information. John Clute and Peter Nicholls associate the experience with that of the "conceptual breakthrough" or "paradigm shift" (Clute & Nicholls 1993). In many cases, it is achieved through the recasting of previous narrative experiences in a larger context. It can be found in short scenes (e.g., in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, it can be found, in a small dose, inside the line "That's no moon; it's a space station.") and it can require entire novels to set up (as in the final line to Iain M. Banks's Feersum Endjinn.) -- (Source: Sense of wonder at Wikipedia ) (e)

space western

The most pernicious suite of "Used Furniture" where every Martian or Jovian town looks and sounds like Dodge City (Lewis Shiner). 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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)


Stapledon is the name assigned to the voice which takes center stage to lecture. Actually a common noun, as: "You have a Stapledon come on to answer this problem instead of showing how the characters resolve it." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
A character prone to holding forth, at length and without interruption, while various info dumps are unloaded on the helpless reader. Often surrounded by sycophantic peripheral characters whose lines are generally limited to, "Why, it certainly seems so, Socrates. No man of sense could dispute that." (Lewis Shiner) (e)

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
A background out of Central Casting, often chosen by a writer too lazy to invent a good one. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)

Character and Viewpoint[edit]

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

head popping

Switching back and forth between different characters' thoughts and opinions. (e)

Hollywood clone

Using comparisons to actors (or other celebraties) as the primary descriptive mechanism for characters is a Hollywood clone.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)


Homoism is similar to nowism, the mistake of making aliens behave in inappropriate human ways, use inappropriate humanoid gestures or facial expressions, or generally manifest their emotions in human terms. (CSFW: David Smith) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) See men-in-rubber-suits syndrome. (e)

men-in-rubber-suits syndrome

A form authorial laziness where the members of an alien race all act like humans in rubber suits.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

Mrs. Brown

The Mrs. Browns are the small, downtrodden, eminently common, everyday little people 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: Ursula K. Le Guin) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

stock character syndrome

Stock character syndrome is a critique of the over dependency on stock characters to carry a story. --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)


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) (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

viewpoint glitch

The writer 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. Also known as head popping. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)



AM/FM is an engineer's term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of "Actual Machines" from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of "Fucking Magic." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

bait and switch (writing)

Bait and switch is when a writer encourages the reader to invest attention in a developing emotional or suspenseful situation ('bait'), only to substitute ('switch') a high-action payoff which has nothing to do with the previous development, or a POV cut so that the expected climax is unresolved but instead left to the reader's imagination. A bad habit because it leaves the reader feeling vaguely unfulfilled and unwilling to invest energy in future setups, because the reader doubts that paying attention will be rewarded. (CSFW: Alex Jablokov.) (e)

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. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

intellectual sexiness

The intoxicating glamor of a novel scientific idea, as distinguished from any actual intellectual merit that it may someday prove to possess. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

kill your darlings

Kill your darlings (or murder your darlings) is advice to writers to not be afraid to be ruthless with the characters, or more generally, with any favorite aspect of their writing. As a critique, kill your darlings is similar to a powderpuff or pitty-pat critique with an exhortation to be more daring, to dare to be stupid and do the unexpected with your favored characters (or some other aspect of your prose). Attributed variously to: Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, G. K. Chesterton, William Faulkner, and George Orwell. --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

the ol' baloney factory

"Science Fiction" as a publishing and promotional entity in the world of commerce. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

parsimony of detail

Parsimony of detail is an attribute of writing where the author has been frugal or conservative in what they tell the reader, generally in a positive way, such that any detail given is significant to the story in some way. It is a more narrowly focused aspect of economy. Contrast with chrome. --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

Turkey City Lexicon


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