What is Realism in Literature?

There is a spectrum of how real-world a story feels. Realism is a widely misunderstood term even within literary studies today. The terms are used differently depending on location. They’re also heavily classed and slightly gendered to boot. Humanities scholars spend a lot of time arguing about the meaning of realism.

But let’s at least try. I offer a classification via continuum, with fully realistic at one end and more fantastical at the other.

At the ‘realistic’ end we start with naturalism. At the other is ‘speculative realism’. After that we’re firmly in speculative fiction realm.

Some commentators link Realism to the Gothic in the history which gets us to the Modern Novel. Some see the Gothic novel in England and the United States of America as anticipating the Modern Novel. The Realist novel in this scenario is an ‘interlude’.


This term is often used interchangeably with realism. But if you want to talk about realism as a group of terms, naturalism is at the MOST realistic of these different types of realisms. Basically, any hint of romanticism is completely stripped away. The subject is neither idealised nor flattered. Writers also keep God right out of the picture. The tone is generally pessimistic.

Realism/naturalism emerged in the 1800s. Sometimes the difference between naturalism and realism depends on the subject matter, or rather, the perceived class of the person who wrote it. 

In works labelled ‘realism’, the main focus is on the middle class and its problems. Naturalism often focuses on less educated or lower-class characters. This word is also often used to describe work involving violence and the taboo. So, things which middle class reviewers and commentators find uncomfortable, alien and other.


You’ll also hear the term ‘Kitchen sink realism’. This sometimes describes work which draws attention to the middle class and its problems. “Kitchen sink realism’ or ‘Kitchen sink drama’ were terms coined to describe a British cultural movement which developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The United Kingdom experienced massive cultural change in this era. The Conservative Party won the 1951 election with their slogan “Set the People Free”. The British public felt more free, more affluent and eager to shuck off the rigidity of the past. People were questioning and ridiculing the cultural conventions which came before.

John Bratby was a painter who lived 1928–1992. His paintings are a standout example of Kitchen Sink art. See, for instance “The Toilet“, a 1955 painting of an actual toilet. Bratby was also a writer. The ‘Kitchen Sink art‘ tag at the Tate Modern includes Edward Middleditch and Peter Coker in its results. Paintings sport titles such as “Mother, Child and Bedsprings” and “Still Life With Chip Fryer”.

The main characters of so-called kitchen sink dramas were frequently angry young men. Kitchen sink dramas utilised social realism which, to British art looks like:

  • Britons living in cramped rented accommodation
  • Evenings spent drinking in dank local pubs

Kitchen sink drama started as a condescending term but these days people might try to use it without ascribing morality. Early storytellers who departed from writing upper-class stories set in drawing rooms included Arnold Wesker and Alun Owen.

Roots by Arnold Wesker Colchester Mercury Theatre Company
Roots by Arnold Wesker Colchester Mercury Theatre Company

Arnold Wesker’s play Roots (1959) literally opens with a character washing dishes at a kitchen sink.

Roots focuses on Beatie Bryant as she makes the transition from being an uneducated working-class woman obsessed with Ronnie, her unseen liberal boyfriend, to a woman who can express herself and the struggles of her time. It is written in the Norfolk dialect of the people on which it focuses, and is considered to be one of Wesker’s kitchen sink dramas. Roots was first presented at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry in May 1959 with Joan Plowright in the lead before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre, London.


(Gene Wilder, who older readers may know as Willy Wonka from the first movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got his start in an American production of Roots.)

Look Back In Anger, a 1956 play by English playwright John Osborne, is another early standout example of Kitchen Sink Realism. Typically for the category, the main character is a working class angry young man by the name of Jimmy Porter. This character captured the angry and rebellious spirit of the post war generation.

There are a handful of films, all produced between 1959 and 1963 considered part of the New Wave Kitchen Sink canon. Aside from Look Back In Anger, those films include:

  • Room At The Top (1959): In late 1940s West Riding of Yorkshire, England, Joseph (Joe) Lampton, an ambitious man who has just moved from the dreary factory town of Dufton, arrives in Warnley to assume a secure, poorly paid post in the Borough Treasurer’s Department.
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960): A young machinist, Arthur, spends his weekends drinking and partying, all the while having an affair with a married woman.
  • A Taste of Honey (1961): Set in Salford in North West England in the 1950s, this film tells the story of Jo, a seventeen-year-old working class girl, and her mother, Helen, who is presented as crude and sexually indiscriminate.
  • A Kind of Loving (1962): Vic Brown, a young working class man from Yorkshire, England, is slowly inching his way up from his working-class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped by the frightening reality of his girlfriend Ingrid’s pregnancy and is forced into marrying her and moving in with his mother-in-law due to a housing shortage in their Northern England town.
  • L-Shaped Room (1962): from the 1960 novel by Lynne Reid Banks, who you may recognise for her children’s books. A 27-year-old French woman, Jane Fosset (Caron), arrives alone at a run down boarding house in Notting Hill, London, moving into an L-shaped room. Beautiful but withdrawn, she encounters the residents of her house, each a social outsider in his or her own way, including a gay black horn player. She is pregnant and does not want to marry the baby’s father.
  • Billy Liar (1963): William Fisher, a working-class 19-year-old, lives with his parents in the fictional town of Stradhoughton in Yorkshire. Bored by his job as a lowly clerk for an undertaker, Billy spends his time indulging in fantasies and dreams of life in the big city as a comedy writer.
  • This Sporting Life (1963): A rugby league footballer, Frank Machin, lives in Wakefield, a mining city in Yorkshire. His romantic life is not as successful as his sporting life. 

However, there were a number of very good ‘B-side’ (low-budget) Kitchen Sink dramas which, purely for economic reasons (not artistic ones) are not considered Kitchen Sink canon.

  • The Leather Boys (1963, 1964): Dot and Reg are a young Cockney couple who get married then start to fall out of love. Reggie grows closer to his friend Pete. At the end of the film, Reggie is revealed to be gay. The film is based on a 1961 book by Mary Ann Evans (published under the pseudonym Eliot George). The novel makes much more of the gay storyline.
  • That Kind of Girl (1963): This is a sexploitation film, but also happens to be the first British film to deal with the issue of STIs (or VDs as they were called back then).
  • This Is My Street (1964): Set in Battersea, Margery Graham is a working class housewife who feels stifled by her circumstances. So she has an affair with her mother’s lodger. She attempts suicide after he fails to return her affections. The setting is a South-West London in the throes of post-war reconstruction.
  • The Little Ones (1964): Two boys, Jackie and Ted, decide to run away from home together. Ted comes from a one-room East End flat and his mother is physically abusive. Jackie’s mother is a sex worker who doesn’t care much for her own offspring (a la Fish Tank, a contemporary example of domestic realism). Jackie’s absent father is from Jamaica, so the boys plan to make their way there.
  • The Family Way (1966): Just a few years later, this film sits right on the border between Kitchen Sink drama and what came next — the Swinging Sixties (which didn’t happen until the late 1960s). This border has been called ‘The Mid-decade Divide’, but was written five years before release. In the story, a young woman called Jenny is newly married to a young man called Arthur. They’re unable to have sex and are under heavy pressure to do so by their family and social network. Arthur is roundly humiliated.

In 1966 the BBC commissioned Ken Loach to adapt the Jeremy Sandford play Cathy Come Home. This is the story of a young working-class couple called Cathy and Reg Ward. They start their married life full of hope but then Reg loses his job. They have to move into council housing. They have three kids and then they are evicted. They move into a caravan. The caravan burns down and the couple split up. The story only gets worse from there, but this film proved really popular across Britain. Cathy Come Home was one of the few stories to highlight the British housing crisis of the late 1960s. (Ken Loach then went on to have a full and successful career making feature-length films.)

Cathy Come Home

This film did much for the status of documentary.

Social realist films often make use of the hand-held camera for added verisimilitude.

Note that ‘social realism’ frequently describes Australian, New Zealand and British working-class fiction but not North American fiction. Notice, too, the classism. When writers from the middle and upper socio-economic classes write about their own lives and childhoods reviewers frequently describe them as ‘beautiful’ writers. With working class authors and subject matter, those same reviewers use the descriptor ‘realist’.


Describes the ‘super real’. See this post for more.


Lately there is a movement among Latinx people from South America to keep the term magical realism specifically for South American writers using magical realism to write stories about the South American experience of colonisation.

The argument is that another word exists which we can use for everything else — fabulism.

While I have some sympathy for this view, literary gurus point out that magical realism did not begin in South America, and there are many reasons for making use of magical realism in storytelling.

I don’t know. I’d be happy to call it fabulism myself, if people knew I meant the same thing as ‘magical realism’, only not from South America.

Fabulism is especially popular in literary middle grade fiction, and I’ve noticed literary agents and editors are constantly on the hunt for it, and keep complaining that true examples of magical realism rarely cross their desk.

Here is a list of fabulist children’s books.


This is a concept coined by the Granta Magazine guy. He is actually an American who moved to England. So the term is used in England, whereas Americans might call the same thing ‘minimalism’.

Dirty realism describes a specifically North American way of writing. The author focuses on the seedier, mundane, nasty bits of everyday life.

Many of these writers are white men: Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver. But there are also some women. Take Carson McCullersAnnie Proulx.

When you find dirty realism in a short story, it’s often called Kmart Realism.


There is a reality independent of humans’ conscious perceptions of it. The world is as it is and what humans think of it is irrelevant. If this describes your worldview, here’s your metaphysical realist card.


Okay, so are we still talking about realism now? This is a term suggested by a guy called Ramón Saldívar (an American professor and author) to describe work which is a hybrid between speculative genres and any of the different levels of realism.

In children’s literature, the book American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a contender for speculative realism. American Born Chinese is an experiment in discussing minority racial identity through metaphor made possible through genre blending. The experiment leaves us ultimately with a parallel between a monkey god from folklore and a young adult American-born-Chinese in a realistic context. For more on that, see here.


Michael Dummett coined this term in the 1970s.

Realism assumes there’s objectivity in the world. Is there an atmosphere around Earth? Yes. How characters feel about that isn’t really relevant.

Anti-realism deals in subjectivity. Are there ghosts in your house? Well, if you think you see ghosts, there might as well be, because you’re terrified all the same.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) is an example of anti-realism. In that story, James was shifting away from his usual psychological realism and inching closer to Modernism. He made use of many features of the so-called feminine gothic form.

Lemon girl young adult novella


What is a twice-told tale?

Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Dictionary Definition of twice-told

Twice-told officially means well-known from repeated telling. The word is used chiefly in the phrase “twice-told tale“.

First Known Use

The word first took off around the year 1597, in the meaning above.

Various Meanings In Contemporary Use

Twice-Told Tales is a short story collection in two volumes by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The first volume came out in the spring of 1837 and the second in 1842. The stories were previously published in magazines and annuals, which formed a sort of pun for audiences used to the original meaning of ‘old’ and ‘well-known’.

But we can hardly call 1837 contemporary.

For a 2017 usage of the word ‘twice-told’ in publishing, take the example below. In the marketing copy of The Way Home In The Night (Yoru no kaerimichi), ‘twice-told’ means something quite different:

A mother rabbit and her young bunny are on their way home in the dark night. “My mother carries me through the quiet streets,” the bunny explains. “Most of our neighbors are already home.” The bunny can see their lights in the windows, and hear and smell what they might be doing: talking on the phone, pulling a pie out of the oven, having a party, saying goodbye. When they reach home, the father rabbit tucks the bunny into bed. But the bunny continues to wonder about the neighbors’ activities. “Are the party guests saying goodnight? Is the person on the phone getting ready for bed?” And what of the footsteps that can be heard in the street as the bunny falls asleep? “Will she take the last train home?”

This beautiful picture book captures the magical wonder a child feels at being outside in the night. Award-winning author and illustrator Akiko Miyakoshi’s softly focused black-and-white illustrations with just a touch of neutral color have a dreamlike quality, just right for nodding off to sleep with. The book is intriguing in that it contains twice-told stories, once as they are observed and second as the bunny imagines them. This offers a perfect prompt for young children to create extensions of other stories they have read or heard. A deeper reading could encourage critical thinking by comparing the different pastimes of the neighbors or, ultimately, what it means to be home.


The picture book Night Walk is in some ways similar to The Way Home In The Night. Though not described using the phrase ‘twice told tale’, the walk at night offers a parallactic view of a different world from that seen by the child during the day.

When a little girl can’t sleep one night, her dad asks if she’d like to go for a walk. They tiptoe through the silent house and step out into the dark.

It’s strange and exciting to be out so late. Walking down the street, the girl can see inside the lit-up windows of apartment buildings and houses where people’s lives are unfolding. Kids are having a pillow fight in one house, while a family has gathered for a festive meal in another. She and her dad reach the still-busy shopping area, walking past restaurants and enticing store windows, then stop for a tranquil moment in the park before returning home.


Twice-told As Synonym For Literary Parallax

In this case, ‘twice told’ refers to the technique of literary parallax, which Impressionistic and Postmodern storytellers love.

Use In The High School Classroom

Twice-told tales in the parallactic sense are especially for inspiring creativity. They demonstrate to students that there is no one way to interpret a work of art, be it writing or image.

There are a number of short story compilations available which take a single work of art and ask various writers to interpret it. One example is Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork, aimed at a young adult audience.

Artist Scott Hunt provided 9 charcoal drawings and 18 authors for teens wrote short stories inspired by them.

There are two stories for each picture, showing young creators that there is no “right” way to interpret a picture. 

An Australian example is the short story collection Cahill Expressway. Various writers each contributed a story inspired by the famous painting.

Jeffrey Smart, Cahill Expressway (1962), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The book is called Expressway: Twenty-Nine Australian Writers Respond to Helen Daniel’s Invitation: Stories Based on Jeffrey Smart’s Painting “Cahill Expressway”. Unfortunately, both books above are increasingly difficult to find.

Note that Australian picture book writer and illustrator Shaun Tan included a pastiche of Jeffrey Smart’s Cahill Expressway in his book The Lost Thing.

Tan’s picture book Rules of Summer lends itself extremely well to class exercises in which every student writes a different story about one of the pictures within. Primary aged students do very well when asked to write their own Rules of Winter, for example.

Whimsy: What does it mean for a book to be whimsical?

Milo Winter (1888 – 1956)

What are the common features of popular works commonly described as ‘whimsical’? A long while ago I swapped a middle grade critique with someone who had used ‘whimsical’ in the title of their work, yet the story itself did not feel whimsical. I started to wonder about the unspoken rules of ‘whimsical’. But could I be wrong about ‘whimsical’? What what does whimsy mean? Is it possible to list the attributes of this aesthetic?

Here are some examples of how ‘whimsical’ is often used in the marketing copy of books:

Suki’s favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother’s visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school — no matter what anyone says.

When it’s Suki’s turn to share with her classmates what she did during the summer, she tells them about the street festival she attended with her obachan and the circle dance that they took part in. In fact, she gets so carried away reminiscing that she’s soon humming the music and dancing away, much to the delight of her entire class!

Filled with gentle enthusiasm and a touch of whimsy, Suki’s Kimono is the joyful story of a little girl whose spirit leads her to march — and dance — to her own drumbeat.


Magic and whimsy meet in this Howl’s Moving Castle for a new generation from the critically adored Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs.

Twelve-year-old Olia knows a thing or two about secrets. Her parents are the caretakers of Castle Mila, a soaring palace with golden domes, lush gardens, and countless room. Literally countless rooms. There are rooms that appear and disappear, and rooms that have been hiding themselves for centuries. The only person who can access them is Olia. She has a special bond with the castle, and it seems to trust her with its secrets.

But then a violent storm rolls in . . . a storm that skips over the village and surrounds the castle, threatening to tear it apart. While taking cover in a rarely-used room, Olia stumbles down a secret passage that leads to a part of Castle Mila she’s never seen before. A strange network of rooms that hide the secret to the castle’s past . . . and the truth about who’s trying to destroy it.

A heartfelt middle-grade novel from New York Times bestselling author Barbara O’Connor about a boy whose life is upended after the loss of his older brother–timeless, classic, and whimsical.

Walter Tipple is looking for adventure. He keeps having a dream that his big brother, Tank, appears before him and says, “Let’s you and me go see my world, little man.” But Tank went to the army and never came home, and Walter doesn’t know how to see the world without him.

Then he meets Posey, the brash new girl from next door, and an eccentric man named Banjo, who’s off on a bodacious adventure of his own. What follows is a summer of taking chances, becoming braver, and making friends–and maybe Walter can learn who he wants to be without the brother he always wanted to be like.

Halfway to Harmony is an utterly charming story about change and growing up.

This French book by Camille Jourdy is part of a series described as ‘whimsical’ in French about a girl who goes into the forest and encounters fantastic creatures called Les Vermeilles.

Continue reading “Whimsy: What does it mean for a book to be whimsical?”

What is mystery boxing?

Mystery boxing is a storytelling technique which has only been accepted by popular audiences since about the year 2000. Back in 2000, the technique didn’t yet have a name.


It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

James Thurber

In 2007 J.J. Abrams gave a now-famous Ted Talk in which he spoke about stories as mystery boxes. The term is based on an actual, still-unopened mystery box of magic tricks his grandfather gave him as a boy. He didn’t want to open this box because the thought of what might be inside was more exciting than what was really inside.

The term ‘mystery boxing’ has since taken off as a way of talking about a certain kind of mystery in storytelling. Some people say it comes from the superhero comic tradition. (Others think it should stay there.)

Lost is the standout example. “Don’t worry about it [writers]. Just be profound.” Abrams says in his TED talk that sometimes “mystery is more important than knowledge.” 

A famous scene from the movie Se7en

Mystery boxing was bound to take off once TV spoilers started to become a problem, at the turn of the millennium. Streaming services changed the way viewers watched shows, and in turn affected how writers created shows. Viewers were binge-watching entire shows over the course of a few nights, and were now able to spoil plots for their friends. Until the 21st century, everyone was watching live TV — the same show at the same time.

If a mystery is never really solved or explained in a story, the story can’t be spoiled, in a plot sense. In the age of mystery boxing, watercooler discussion around a popular TV show is going to be speculative rather than plot spoilery. However, mystery boxed shows create their own problems. If you tell someone to expect ‘a great twist’, they’ll watch the entire show with a certain expectation. Their experience will be altered. If you tell them about a twist which isn’t even there, this also alters the experience of immersion. In both cases, the friend is less likely to live in the moment of the story as it plays out.

Taking Abrams’ lead, other writers seem to have decided that, hey, actually, mystery boxing is a good idea. Audiences love it. Doesn’t matter if the show peters out; the fact is, we got them to watch X number of hours, and that’s good enough for Netflix rankings.

The cynic in me wonders if J.J. Abrams invented the concept of ‘mystery boxing’ to absolve himself of the fact he never really did flesh out the plot of Lost, despite successfully persuading a large audience of fans to invest many, many hours in that show. David Lynch is another creator who mystery boxes.


Because Lost is the tentpole example of mystery boxing, and because The Island of Lost is home to a mysterious entity, consisting of a black mass accompanied by mechanical-like sounds and electrical activity within, dubbed the “Smoke Monster” or just the “Monster” by the survivors, the term “Smoke Monster” is now sometimes used to refer more broadly to this kind of mystery opponent.


Some writers simply forget to tie up the loose ends of their mysteries. Others start with good intentions and then completely lose the plot, writing themselves into a hole. That’s not what mystery boxing is. Mystery boxing is ostensibly deliberate. The writer is withholding information intentionally, for the purpose of getting the audience imagination to work overtime. As active participants in finishing the story, the audience literally creates part of the narrative themselves.

In his definition of mystery boxing, J.J. Abrams includes the age-old technique of leaving an item of interest partially ‘off the page’. Artists have been doing this for centuries. Abrams reminds us that the shark in Jaws is terrifying precisely because we never see the entire thing. (If we did, we’d laugh at the animatronics.)

I personally think Abrams was trying to incorporate this age-old technique into his theory of mystery boxing to make it more grand, and to excuse writers of pulling a trick which is really quite different. It’s one thing to ‘not show the shark’. It’s quite another thing to never explain how a ‘shark’ (Minotaur opponent) even works within the world of the story.

Abrams stretches the paradigm even further by talking about what the audience thinks they’re getting and what they’re really getting. He gives the example of E.T.

What audiences think they’re getting: A movie about an alien who meets a kid.

What audiences really get: A movie about divorce.

Here he is saying that the most successful stories are character based. This is something many people have observed. He doesn’t circle back to how this relates to the rest of his mystery boxing concept, but I deduce he means this: Audiences love the surprise of getting something in their ‘box’ (movie) that wasn’t in the epitext (the marketing material, or what their friends told them was in there).

Others have said similar things.

Characters that raise more questions than answers have a longer shelf life. 

Paul Schrader

Film director Paul Schrader goes on to explain what he means in an interview at Writers Guild of America West:

The trick of that is, you present the viewer with only one view of reality, and that is the reality of your main character. And you use narration to get under their skin, to manipulate them subconsciously. And you keep them along this path for, I would say, at least 45 minutes to an hour. Then the hook is firmly planted in and the character can start to veer off, they start to veer away. They start to do things that are not necessarily worthy of your empathy or identification, but now the hook is in, so you’re wondering how it will turn out. In the end, you find yourself identifying with a character for whom you feel no cause for identification.

So you’re almost like an unwitting, guilty accomplice?

Yeah, and what happens there, is a tiny fissure opens up in the viewer—either in their head or in their heart—and something has to escape, or something has to come in. The artist cannot really control all the specifics [of this reaction], but if the artist causes this fissure to exist, he knows something exciting is going to happen.

In the case of Jaws, friends were likely to recommend the film by telling you about the shark parts; they’re unlikely to have told you it’s also about a father finding his place in the world and wrestling with the expectations of masculinity.

This aspect of Abrams’ definition of ‘mystery box’ is not the part of the definition which seems to have taken off. Now, when I see people talk about ‘mystery boxing’ they’re talking about what happened with Lost: a massive mystery running the length of a TV series which the showrunners never tie up.


In a review at the LA Times, Aaron Brady offers an excellent and thought-provoking analysis of Mare of Easstown. Don’t read it unless you’ve seen the show, but I offer no spoilers here; what’s interesting is his use of ‘mystery boxing’ to describe a cop show which is partly ‘whodunnit’ but mostly ‘portrait of all the other problems in a small town:

In the end, Mare of Easttown turned out to be a cop show. A strange cop show, always almost thinking unthinkable things about what cops are for and might be, but a cop show all the same. This generic revelation was a far more consequential one than the question of who did it… If the show was structured as a mystery, however, that whodunnit that kept you watching, week after week — as a new potential killer was gestured towards and then, in the next episode, shown not to be the killer — might have been the biggest red herring of all. The most interesting thing about Mare of Easttown is not the puzzle box question of who did it

Aaron Brady

It seems the word ‘puzzle boxing’ is a cousin of ‘mystery boxing’. What does he mean by a puzzle box question? He means the answer to the question: “Who’s the murderer?” is functioning like a McGuffin to get the story going. The answer to that question isn’t as interesting as all of the other problems the investigation unveils.


Readers of lyrical short stories are good at contributing to a plot and filling in gaps themselves. They are good at extrapolation. Whereas genre TV has become famous for mystery boxing, ironically, it’s the literary short stories (not the genre ones) which are famous for requiring readers to finish off the plot.

Other readers have no time for lyrical short stories. Those readers are easy to spot because they’ll say things like, “It’s not finished!” or “Nothing happens!”

Commentators who study short stories have come up with a number of academic terms to describe stories in which the audience is expected to come up with part of the story themselves. The most useful and easy-to-understand terminology, in my opinion, comes from Charles May, who talks about ‘dramatic’ versus ‘aesthetic’ closure.

Dramatic closure tidies up the plot. (Another term we might use is hermeneutic closure.)

Aesthetic closure leaves the plot open, but still manages to leave the audience with the feeling of complete evacuation. (I may be talking about constipation, now, but I think that’s a good analogy.)

Here’s a tweet from someone who I suspect likes the challenge of finishing off his own stories:

And here is a response typically heard from audiences who prefer mysteries and plots tidied up:



Some audiences are never going to enjoy mystery boxing. They prefer their stories tied up in all the different ways, and will feel their time has been wasted unless they are given a conclusion to every plot thread.

How do you like your ghosts? Supernatural fiction is arguably the hardest to get right. Ideally it should terrify, but what appals A might bore B and merely confuse C. The mechanics of apparition, however fanciful, must be internally consistent, and explanations kept simple. M.R. James excelled at giving his spectres agency and focus, but in some hands ambiguity is more effective. Read a Robert Aickman and half the time you have no idea what happened, if indeed anything did.

Suzi Feay at The Spectator

We are now at a point in popular storytelling where mystery boxing is common. And critics have started to get sick of it. In relation to WandaVision (specifically, the whole existence of Westview), Alisha Grauso had this to say:

Mystery boxing has killed modern audiences’ collective ability to read narratives and understand where they’re going and where they’re not….mystery boxing has absolutely overrun genre storytelling like an invasive plant species & mystery for the sake of mystery too often obscures everything else now. It’s not good.

Alisha Grauso, Features Editor at Screen Rant


Writers and commentators have been talking about foreshadowing for a long time already. So one word is ‘foreshadowing’, which is pretty commonly known.


Telegraphing happens when foreshadowing falls flat, because the audience can see exactly what’s coming (when they were only meant to get a hint).


Delayed decoding is an academic term to describe the experience of reading a literary work twice, and getting a different experience because you now see the relevance of details dropped into the text. (This is why lyrical short stories need to be read at least twice.)


Prolepsis is a ten dollar word for foreshadowing but actually ‘foreshadowing’ is a better word to use because prolepsis had a number of slightly different meanings. Apart from ‘a flashforward’ in rhetoric it also means ‘a figure of speech in which the speaker raises an objection and then immediately answers it’. (It’s also a type of fly, from the genus of robber flies, I don’t know why. They feed on clown beetles and dung beetles, fyi.)


The Evolution of the Mystery Box from Film Rejects, who argue that Westworld is similar to Lost in its use of mystery boxing, but learned from some of its mistakes. Other shows, such as The Good Place, have learned how to keep their twists organic.

Another example of ‘puzzle box’ used instead of ‘mystery box’: WandaVision’s Marvel Cinematic Universe roots undercut its puzzle-box ambitions from AV Club.

In this thread, Foz Meadows talks about a fundamental difference between Western TV shows and Chinese TV shows, which have long but finite narratives.
Lemon girl young adult novella


What is an illocutionary act?

In The Office skit below, Michael Scott is attempting to imitate a Southern American accent for a game. He tries to sound Southern by saying “I do declare” at the end of each sentence.

As Michael Scott is using it, “I do declare” is an exclamatory embellishment rather than an illocutionary act. The character of Ryan Howard points out that Michael doesn’t need to say “I do declare” at the end of every sentence because any time he says something it means he’s declaring it. The words are comically redundant.

An illocutionary act is terminology from the field of linguistics (pragmatics) and describes words which perform some sort of act in themselves.

How do you perform the act of firing someone? By saying, “You’re fired!”

How do you marry a couple? By saying, “I pronounce you husband and husband” or “wife and wife”.

How do you promise something? By saying, “I promise.”

In these situations, to say is to do. In order to work with illocutionary force, words must be explicit, understood by all, and said in a relevant context. Saying “You’re fired!” has no illocutionary force if the person saying it is not the addressee’s employer or if it’s said as part of a game.

The writers of The Office invert the gag in a different skit, in which Michael Scott thinks ‘declaring’ bankruptcy is an illocutionary act when it is not. At least, not when you say it in the context of complaining at work about your personal finances.

Humour from The Office shows that we all have an intuitive understanding of an illocutionary act, even if we don’t know what that act is called in the field of pragmatics. Writers of The Office created comedy from Michael Scott’s misunderstanding of what we all know to be true about how language works in practice.

Modern Family also created an illocutionary act gag when Phil Dunphy married Luke and Manny by explaining to them both how to officiate at a wedding.

The term illoucationary act was introduced into linguistics by John Austin. In 1962 he published a book called How To Do Things With Words. A different John (John Searle) later built on Austin’s concept. For John Searle, ‘illocutionary act’ is synonymous with ‘speech act’. Frankly, ‘speech act’ is easier to remember.

But the concept is a necessary and useful one, not just in storytelling and in humour writing but in daily life. If we have the name to describe illocutionary acts when we hear them, we are in a stronger position to see hate speech for what it is. Hate speech can guise itself as smalltalk and humour among friends and acquaintances.

Hate speech is an illucutionary act because the act of saying something can incite hatred.


In fantasy, Abracadabra (and various equivalents) serve as illocutionary acts. Saying them makes something happen.

Today, Papa has decided to say plainly what he thinks: that his children are pigs, that the neighbor is an old goat … And immediately, all turn into animals!


PERLOCUTIONARY ACT: (of a speech act) producing an effect upon the listener, as in persuading, frightening, amusing, or causing the listener to act.

Austin distinguished the act performed in saying certain words (the ‘illocutionary’ act) from the later effects achieved by saying them, (the ‘perlocutionary’ act).

These categories are not entirely distinct from one another. A word like ‘promote’ can be both illocutionary and perlocutionary.

‘Promote ’is a verb that straddles both sides of Austin’s distinction. The word has a perlocutionary, causal sense, and an illocutionary, constitutive sense. When smoking promotes cancer, it causes it. When tobacco companies promote smoking, they advocate it. By advocating smoking, they also cause it, since their advocacy brings about aneffect, namely that people smoke. So hate speech ‘promotes’ hatred in both illocutionary and perlocutionary ways: it advocates and causes hatred.

Beyond Belief: Pragmatics in Hate Speech and Pornography

It’s equally important to understand a perlocutionary speech act because some individuals will try to wriggle out of damaging speech by arguing that they are not ‘actually telling someone to shoot someone else’, yet their words are achieving ‘later effects’.

Lemon girl young adult novella


The Overview Effect In Fiction

What is the overview effect?

The sense of awe and connectedness astronauts feel as they gaze back at earth from outer space. The overview effect is a type of cognitive shift.

Who came up with the concept?

The writer Frank White, who since the 1980s has been interested in finding out from astronauts if they had experienced any shift in mindset, epiphany or self-revelation after seeing the Earth from the distance of space.Space Traveller Saturday Evening Post Cover, November 8, 1952 by Amos Sewell

What did the astronauts say?

Astronauts reported feelings wonder, awe and transcendence:

“You start to see the world as what it actually is. It’s one place. We, collectively, are likely to make good decisions for ourselves and where we live when we see Earth as one place where we all live.”

“Holy moly. There’s not a single thing on earth that’s alive or been alive that isn’t connected to something else, in some way.”


If you’re reading a picture book and you ever come across a page like this one, you might be seeing the overview effect as utilised by storytellers:

Philosophers use the word ‘sublime’ to describe this feeling of becoming one with something bigger as ‘sublime’. The scene with the Overview Effect tends to happen near the end, as the character experiences Anagnorisis. Quite often they are sitting someplace high, like a mountain or a roof.

I’ve noticed the Overview Effect utilised in all kinds of stories as I analyse narrative for this blog. In literature, it comes in various forms. Authors tend to use it in a similar way across a corpus of work.

Continue reading “The Overview Effect In Fiction”

A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words

Abu Al-Jann — Father of the Jann.

Aforetime — God said he created the djinn ‘aforetime’. Stories of the djinn predate the Quran. The concept of the djinn is ancient.

Aladdin — Disney’s Aladdin is a presentation of a stereotypical genie as we view them in the West. Aladd in is only loosely based on the folklore of the djinn. Like “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin” is a French-Syrian tale dating from the start of the 1700s. “Aladdin” is such a popular and widespread story that it forms its own tale type (ATU 561). There’s a simpler version known as a Magic Ring tale (ATU 560). In these tables a poor young man with the help of a magic object builds a palace more beautiful than the king’s. He marries a princess. But he loses his palace and princess due to a second magic object. He recovers everything lost.

Continue reading “A Glossary of Genie and Djinn Words”

Defamiliarisation and the Estrangement Effect in Literature

The Mystery of the Strange Messages


[Defamiliarisation is] taking something and trying to see it anew and then noticing what you might not have seen before.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

To defamiliarise is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. Defamiliarisation is one of the writing techniques in the Modernist’s toolkit. By presenting something as unfamiliar to an audience, storytellers and artists require the audience to look at it afresh. Defamiliarisation challenges the audience.

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

Anais Nin (1968)

The term “defemiliarisation” was coined by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “Art as Device” (1917). He called it “ostranenie“, which may also translate to “making it strange”.

Continue reading “Defamiliarisation and the Estrangement Effect in Literature”

Dischism, False Interiorization, White Room Syndrome

Dischism: Intrusion of author’s physical surroundings or mental state into the narrative. 

The term ‘dischism’ comes from American science fiction author and poet, Thomas M. Disch, who pointed this writing pitfall out. Others call the same thing ‘Authorism’. 


  • A character lights a cigarette whenever the author does,
  • A character wishes they hadn’t quit smoking, because the author has.
  • Characters complain that they’re confused and don’t know what to do, when this is actually the author’s condition.

I’m pretty sure Stieg Larsson was a heavy coffee drinker, due to the number of coffee breaks in his Dragon Tattoo novels. Ian MacEwan almost certainly drinks wine in the evening after a day’s writing, and I imagine Haruki Murakami has a cat or two, and it probably walks across his keyboard.

May also apply to: 

  • Napping
  • Snacking
  • Going for runs/walks

Authors may notice in hindsight when they’ve succumbed to Dischism themselves. Below, Jeremy Bloustein describes his experience of translating the computer game Metal Gear Solid from Japanese into English:

The job had me on edge to the point that I was taking diazepam — commonly known as Valium — to handle the stress.

Ironically, that’s the same drug that Snake takes in the game to keep his shooting hand from shaking. I was also smoking heavily like Snake, which is why lines like “you don’t know how good a cigarette tastes in the morning” ended up in the American release, even though it wasn’t based on text from the Japanese version of the game. It was just something that was getting me through the experience, and I imagined Snake was dealing with stress in a similar way.

The bizarre, true story of Metal Gear Solid’s English translation


False Interiorization is related to Dischism in that both derive from either laziness or ‘placeholding’ (which sometimes makes it into the final product by accident). Instead of taking the time to imagine and describe the storyworld, an author inflicts the viewpoint character with space sickness, a blindfold, etc. to avoid having to deal with it.


Related to False Interiorization, “white room syndrome” can also occur if the writer hasn’t sufficiently described a storyworld. The reader may feel as if the viewpoint character is floating in space somewhere. This makes for a discombobulating, dissatisfying reading experience.

It commonly happens by mistake even when the writer has a solid idea of their storyworld, because the writer has simply forgotten to give the reader a little setting detail before launching into interiority, dialogue or action. This is easily remedied in revision.

Curing White Room Syndrome: How To Ground Your Reader from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has some good tips.