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.


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.

Sometimes the word ‘puzzle box’ is 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.

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Home » Terminology

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’.

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Home » Terminology

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”.



Storytellers sometimes write in everyday prose, but at the other end of the spectrum we have highly poetic language. Highly poetic language defamiliarises.

‘Multivocality’ is another language related defamiliarisation technique. When a single work contains a multitude of ‘voices’ (dialects, idiolects, familects etc.).

The more foreign the language, the more defamilising it’ll be. (Peak ‘foreign’ is when the storyteller uses actual foreign language.)


Here’s an excellent example:

In “Ringing the Changes,” one of the great Robert Aickman’s best-known “strange stories,” a woman asks her husband why a place in their inn is called “The Coffee Room” when no coffee is served there. He chalks it up to the lucus a non lucendo explanation, which he explains as the “principle of calling white black.” Out of the darkness comes the authoritative voice of the inn’s only other guest: “On the contrary. The word ‘black’ comes from an ancient root which means ‘to bleach.’” This etymological lesson gets to the core of Aickman’s particular brand of horror writing: strangeness is everywhere, even in the simplest of words. Like the best horror writers, Aickman is a consummate realist. The “real” and “supernatural” worlds are not distinct realms but rather as intertwined as the etymologies of black and white.

The Millions review of Cold Hand In Mind by Robert Aickman


Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877) was written it in the last years of Sewell’s life ‘to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses’. The story is written from the horse’s first ‘person’ point of view. In fact, Black Beauty was the last of the great first person narratives in the Listen-to-my-life series. Readers were used to reading about horses from the point of view of humans — by imagining what it’s like to be a horse, Sewell successfully defamiliarised her readership. The book Black Beauty laid the foundation for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

This form of defamiliarisation is not limited to children’s books; Tolstoy also wrote a book from the point of view of a horse (Kholstomer).

Sticking to horses for a minute, BoJack Horseman says a lot of new things about contemporary life (depression, asexuality and so on) by making use of a horse as main character, surrounded by other animal characters. There are many reasons storytellers make use of animals instead of humans in stories, and can seem odd when the ‘animals’ are 100% anthropomorophised (animal only in form).

Defamiliarisation is one reason a storyteller may choose animals as main characters.

Futurama makes use of aliens to defamiliarise.

Some stories focus on the ‘oddballs’ of society — social outcasts who enable the Normals to see their unquestioned customs from a new/satirical point of view. Eleanor Oliphant is an excellent example. A similar but Japanese example is the main character of Convenience Store Woman. These two characters see the world differently than most. They are the sort of people many would shun in real life. But the novels require us to empathise with them, and as we better understand their worldview, perhaps we become more tolerant of difference ourselves. The other useful function of the oddball main character: We see the ridiculousness of everyday life.

TV and film offers less opportunity for interiority than the written word, but the character of Doc Martin is another example of the defamiliarised oddball, shining a light on human foibles as they commonly emerge at the local doctor’s surgery.


Setting, likewise, exists on a continuum between realistic and total fantasy. Fantasy exists partly to defamiliarise our own environments, requiring us to critique what we had previously taken for granted. In this way, fantasy is really about the real world.

Another major defemiliarisation technique: Don’t let the audience forget they are watching fiction. Don’t encourage them to become fully absorbed in the story. We have a word for this: metafiction.


Carnivalization‘ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.

An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but which say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)

An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but is often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books. (The children! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!)


There are various ways storytellers can juxtapose.

Bathos is one kind of juxtaposition:

Bathos is a story-telling technique that follows serious ideas with the commonplace or ludicrous. The juxtaposition of these ideas creates humor.

TV Tropes

Here’s a fairly complete list of them.


Depersonalisation: the action of divesting someone or something of human characteristics or individuality. Depersonalisation is the inverse of individuation.

Most modern storytellers aim to individuate characters. Common wisdom tells us that audiences are most moved when stories are character based, even when they’re not overtly character based. (Jaws is character based even though it’s ostensibly about a shark who eats people. Jaws is really about a father’s way of dealing with masculinity and finding his place in a community.)

Some older forms of stories made no attempt to individuate main characters e.g. cosmic horror.

When contemporary storytellers create a character who seems strange or foreign to us, they are creating a defamiliarisation effect. One way writers commonly depersonalise a character: Make them creepy. (This is based on science, I kid you not.)

By the way, depersonalisation means something slightly different in the field of psychology: a state in which one’s thoughts and feelings seem unreal or not to belong to oneself.


Based on the Viktor Shklovsky’s ideas about defamliarisation, you’ll hear some similar terms.

Not surprising, perhaps, German language has a word which means “making strange something that is known or familiar”: Verfremdung.

Verfremdungseffekt = Estrangement effect.

This German term was coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and defined later by Gerhard P. Knapp, University of Utah in the article Verfremdungseffekt (2006). Knapp’s paper helped the word catch on.

Some people translate Verfremdungseffekt into English as “alienation effect”. “Alienation” isn’t a great translation due to its connotation of being “put off”. Storytellers who make use of these effects are not aiming to put audiences off. (What storyteller wants to do that?) Instead they are aiming to get audiences thinking critically about the work.

Since the original German is a bit of a challenge to remember and spell, many shorten it to “V-effekt”. As you can see, it’s a fairly recent term. Before 2006, English speakers used a different translation — in 1964 John Willett translated Bertolt Brecht’s term as “distancing effect”. Both “estrangement effect” and “distancing effect” are different translations of the same German word.

But what is it, and how is it different from Viktor Shklovsky notion of defamiliarisation?

Verfremdungseffekt” is used to describe storytelling techniques which deliberately ask an audience discard the idea that the ‘reality’ of the stage is a true representation of reality.

These days, plays and film have different basic functions: Plays make use of all sorts of distancing techniques, whereas the proximity of the camera to character, combined with editing techniques, means modern film is better suited than the stage to creating immersive verisimilitude.

Basically, V-effekts refers to the techniques which make a fictional work meta. V-effekts include:

  • breaking the fourth wall by having a character talk directly to an audience
  • reminding a theatre-goer that they are sitting in a theatre, perhaps by using minimal backdrops
  • stories within stories (moving through diegetic levels)
  • prologues

The point of metafiction and the V-effekts which create it: Audiences are not meant to feel overwhelmingly emotionally invested in the story. Rather, we are meant to sit at a distance and consider the moral questions/dilemmas/politics/ideologies of the story in a more intellectual way.


Bertolt Brecht was a little suspicious about stories (specifically plays) which drew their audience in and made them feel things deeply. He considered such plays manipulative. He felt that if an audience was sucked in to a story, this lulled them into a dull, unthinking, zombie-like state. This state could switch off the critical faculties.

Brecht (1898 – 1956) had good reason to think people needed to switch on their critical faculties and keep them switched on. He lived in a time which required Germans to either go with or actively resist Nazism. Too many failed to resist. Brecht saw how emotion (e.g. fear) can be dangerously contagious. Also, someone who strongly empathises emotionally is not necessarily good in understanding another’s perspective. (They’re too busy feeling and don’t have the spoons to understand.)

It’s useful to make a distinction between types of empathy. Brecht wanted his audiences to feel cognitive empathy for his characters, but not necessarily affective empathy: He wanted audiences to understand the plight of characters, but not to feel their plights deeply.

  1. ‘Manipulative’ has negative connotations. Is it ‘manipulative’ for a work of fiction to create real emotion in an audience?
  2. Can you think of examples of stories which made you feel deeply and also made you think about real world issues?
  3. Think about your favourite stories. Do they make use of V-effekts? Or do you prefer stories which aim to immerse you fully inside a fictional world?
  4. Can you think of any fully immersive stories which succeed in conveying a hugely problematic ideology, made worse by the very fact that the stories themselves are so good?
  5. As much as Brecht despised fully immersive stories, he tried his darndest to write an intellectually engaging play in Mother Courage and Her Children. Audiences loved the play, but Brecht accidentally created a highly empathetic character in the stubborn old woman. Is it even possible to write a good story without requiring the audience to immerse themselves in it, and align themselves with the fictional characters?


The modern writerly ideal of full immersion is exemplified in the definition of fictional dream, below:

Fictional dream. The illusion that there is no filter between reader and events, that the reader is actually experiencing what [they are] reading. The stronger the fictional dream, the more immediate the story. Disrupting the fictional dream is usually bad. Pointless digressions, expository lumps, lists, turgid prose, unrealistic characters, or a premise with holes in it, all disrupt the fictional dream. (John Gardner)

A Glossary of Terms Useful When Critiquing Science Fiction

AGNOSTHESIA: the state of not knowing how you really feel about something, which forces you to sift through clues hidden in your behavior, as if you were some other person—noticing a twist of acid in your voice, an obscene amount of effort put into something trifling, or an inexplicable weight on your shoulders that makes it difficult to get out of bed.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows


The bias of experience will always try and win the day when we encounter a task or problem to solve. But just because you’ve always approached something in one particular way doesn’t mean you can’t explore another. 

4 Ways to Rewire Your Brain for Creative Thinking

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Home » Terminology

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.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

What Is Discourse?

‘Discourse’ is a conveniently loose term, and can refer to:

1. Linguistic Discourse — generally refers to specific discourse types such as the discourse of parent-child conversations, boss-employee conversations, dinner table conversations versus schoolyard conversations…

2. Narratological Discourse — the means by which a story and its significance are communicated. Aspects such as temporal sequencing, focalization, narrator’s relation to the story and audience come up when talking about this kind of discourse.

The Difference Between Story and Discourse

Focusing now on ‘narratological’ discourse (related to storytelling), I’ll offer explanations from several sources. See which one best makes sense.


Whereas ‘story’ comprises what we might roughly think of as ‘what certain characters do in a certain place at a certain time,’ the word ‘discourse’ comprises the complex process of encoding that story which involves:

  • choices of vocabulary
  • syntax
  • order of presentation
  • how the narrating voice is to be orientated towards what is narrated and towards the implied audience
  • etc

Story = the ‘what’ of the narrative.

Discourse = the ‘way’.

Seymour Chatman

The theory of narrative requires a distinction between what I shall call ‘story’ — a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse — and what I shall call ‘discourse’, the discursive presentation or narration of events

Jonathan Culler

Let’s take an example of a common plot. Well, this plot was super common 150 years ago, not so much now: The Harlot’s Progress narrative.

In the Harlot’s Progress narrative, the sequencing of ‘story’ goes like this:

  1. Girl loses chastity
  2. Falls into deeper and deeper vice
  3. Eventually dies.

That’s the story. But if we’re talking about the ‘discourse’ of the Harlot’s Progress narrative we’ll be talking about things like this:

  • The amount of narrative time between story elements (“boundaries of duration”)
  • How the narrative might open up at the point of death, at which point the narrator returns to memories of an innocent time many years before then finish by narrating the heroine’s fall into vice.
  • How closely the narrator’s voice emulates the girl’s voice
  • Whether the girl is viewed from other characters’ point of view (focalisation)



Terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ are similar to ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. These terms were used by the Russian Formalists.

Fabula refers to the chronological sequence of events in a narrative. 

Sjuzhet is the re-presentation of those events (through narration, metaphor, camera angles, the re-ordering of the temporal sequence, and so on). 

The difference between story and plot.

What is delayed decoding?

Delayed decoding is a technique used by the Literary Impressionists and writers who came after. The term was coined by Ian Watt in a 1972 lecture Pink Toads and Yellow Curs: An Impressionist Narrative Device in Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad is well-known for using this technique. Lord Jim was published in 1899, but many modern lyrical writers keep it in their toolbox. It is also great for building suspense in the reader. Writers can also use this technique to create a sense of fatalism, a la American writer Annie Proulx.

A Definition of Delayed Decoding

A writer tells a story in such a way that the reader won’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. 

Short story writers make much use of it. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

American writer Annie Proulx is well-known for making use of delayed decoding. Here is Aliki Varvogli explaining the concept of delayed decoding in a book about Annie Proulx’s writing:

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt, I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ includes the writing technique known by all writers: ‘foreshadowing’. However, ‘foreshadowing’ focuses on a writer’s technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here. It’s usually far more subtle than a Chekhov’s gun.

Delayed decoding describes the experience of reading a story twice and then thinking, Oh, okay, now I know why the author did that. When done well, the symbolism now fits together into a web. We see how the symbols serve the theme. Whereas the Chekhov’s Gun technique is to do with the sequence of events (the plot), audience decoding might be delayed in any aspect as determined by the author: on a symbolic level, plot level (sure), a character level, an imagic level and so on.

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves.


Well-known examples I’ve seen mentioned:

  • In Heart of Darkness (1899) Marlow sees ‘sticks’ which he soon views as arrows.
  • In “Youth” Marlow is blown up.
  • In “The Idiots” the cliff moves from under Susan Bacadou’s feet.

These are all examples of Joseph Conrad avoiding a narration of events, instead forcing the reader into the narrator’s place. The effect: Readers experience phenomena as the narrator does, and the experience feels simultaneous.


Alice Munro delays our decoding of “Runaway” in relation to the character of Clark.

On my second reading of “Runaway” by Alice Munro it’snow clear that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When I first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true. Looking back on the story, or re-reading it, we know we were being told all along. We weren’t able to decode the full story at first. Our full understanding was delayed.

Here is a reader describing delayed decoding in a review of “Runaway”, by comparing it to the master chessplayer’s technique of making endgame studies:

After some thought, I find a metaphor which sums up my own feelings [about “Runaway”]. It’s true that a Munro story can seem just a little too perfect. Everything fits together so elegantly; there is nothing wasted. A non-chessplayer might compare it to a chess game. But for someone who does play chess, the image doesn’t work. A normal chess game is like a novel. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where things often go in unexpected directions and painfully have to be put back on track. Novelists can never quite control their characters (Proust somehow ended up putting in a couple more books than he had originally intended), and chessplayers have an even harder time controlling their pieces. 

There is a small group of people in the chess world, however, who do something which feels more rewarding to them than playing games; they compose endgame studies. A study is a chess idea expressed in its purest form. Every piece is necessary, and there is only one sequence of moves that achieves the desired result, given best defence. If White’s task is to win, then he has only one way to win, and if it is to draw, then he only has one way to draw. The composer has a key position in mind, which possesses some unusual or beautiful property. At first, the arrangement of the pieces appears pointless; but finally the solver realizes that in just this case a knight is worth more than a queen, or the king finds itself miraculously stalemated in the middle of the board, and they see what the composer is doing.

A Munro story feels to me rather like a study. There is a small group of people and a set of relationships between them. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. But somehow, as the story unfolds, a logical but completely unexpected scene arises. A woman with psychic powers, baking little dough mice in an institution; or a child, with a winter coat over her pyjamas, standing shivering in a snowdrift and helping scatter ashes. You suddenly understand that this is what the story was about.

Very few chessplayers are able to create worthwhile studies. I think Munro’s gift is similar, and just as rare.

Manny at Goodreads


In an early scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano, Flora unwittingly gossips about her own mother to the neighbourhood busybody and her adult (but naive) daughter. “That’s a very strong opinion,” says Aunt Morag, a Mrs Lynde archetype, who has the potential to be either an ally or an opponent to Ada. “I know,” replies little Flora, thinking herself one of the grown-ups, “It’s unholy.”

At the time, the audience will be amused by this conversation for its earnest precocity. (Aunt Morag and her daughter are also comedic archetypes — gossiping village wives.) But this scene is a storytelling example of delayed decoding: Only in hindsight do we understand its significance. Despite their very close mother-daughter relationship, this was Campion showing us that Flora was always capable of selling her mother out.


Let’s return to Annie Proulx. Near the end of Proulx’s short story “Negatives“, at the part of the story where characters (or readers) undergo some kind of self-revelation, readers learn the reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:

Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

Readers didn’t understand the significance of that sentence until reaching the end of the story, in a beautiful example of delayed decoding.


Sometimes the decoding is so delayed it only happens if the reader continues on to the sequel. “The Shawl” is a Holocaust short story by Cynthia Ozick seems to be about a mother and two daughters. Only after reading the sequel short story “Rosa”, published three years later, do we learn that this is a story of a mother, her baby and fourteen-year-old niece, and that the baby is a result of a rape by a German soldier.

In this case, the writer can’t assume every reader will go on to the sequel, so the story has to stand on its own, and the writer has to be content with the reader decoding the story as it appears in its partial form, while also making it feel complete.



Linguists talk about ‘cataphora. This is when a speaker talks about something but doesn’t tell us what the hell they’re talking about until later in the sentence or paragraph. It can be very annoying. But it’s also a pretty normal way of talking.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Superman!

(The tagline writers knew what ‘it’ was all along. They were keeping us in suspense.

“Have you seen the thing? You know, the yellow um, wotsit thingo. The butter.”

The annoying kind. This is not a rhetorical device. This is not delayed decoding. But it is a thing.

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Home » Terminology

Words to Describe Landscapes, Landforms, Water and Construction

Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935

(Includes bodies of water.) You may be after a full glossary of landforms, in which case the Wikipedia article is comprehensive: Full list of landforms at Wikipedia. This post skews literary.

Arroyo — (colloquial: southwestern United States) The channel of a flat-floored, ephemeral
stream, commonly with very steep to vertical banks cut in unconsolidated material;
sometimes called a wash. It is usually dry but can be transformed into a temporary
watercourse or short-lived torrent after heavy rain within the watershed. Where arroyos
intersect zones of ground-water discharge, they are more properly classed as intermittent
stream channels.

Ash field — A land area covered by a relatively thick or distinctive, surficial deposit of
volcanic ash (air fall) that can be traced to a specific source and has well defined boundaries. An ash field can be distinguished from adjacent landforms or land areas based on ash thickness, mineral composition, and physical characteristics. Soils within an ash field form solely or predominantly within the ash deposit.

Aspect — The direction toward which a slope faces with respect to the compass or to the
rays of the Sun; also called slope aspect.

Atoll — A coral reef appearing in plan view as roughly circular, and surmounted by a chain
of closely spaced, low coral islets that encircle or nearly encircle a shallow lagoon in which
there is no land or islands of non-coral origin; the reef is surrounded by open sea.

Backshore — The upper or inner, usually dry, zone of the shore or beach, lying between the
high-water line of mean spring tides and the upper limit of shore-zone processes; it is acted
upon by waves or covered by water only during exceptionally severe storms or unusually
high tides. It is essentially horizontal or slopes gently landward, and is divided from the
foreshore by the crest of the most seaward berm.

Backslope — The hillslope profile position that forms the steepest and generally linear,
middle portion of the slope. In profile, backslopes are commonly bounded by a convex
shoulder above and a concave footslope below. They may or may not include cliff segments
(i.e., free faces). Backslopes are commonly erosional forms produced by mass movement,
colluvial action, and running water. Compare – summit, shoulder, footslope, toeslope.

Backswamp — A flood-plain landform. Extensive, marshy or swampy, depressed areas of
flood plains between natural levees and valley sides or terraces. Compare – valley flat

Badlands — A landscape that is intricately dissected and characterized by a very fine
drainage network with high drainage densities and short, steep slopes with narrow interfluves. Badlands develop on surfaces with little or no vegetative cover, overlying unconsolidated or poorly cemented materials.

Bay — a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger main body of water, such as an ocean, a lake, or another bay. A large bay is usually called a gulf, sea, sound, or bight. A fjord is a particularly steep bay shaped by glacial activity. See: At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield.

Beck — (Northern English) a stream

Berm — Berms are mounded hills of soil that are often constructed to serve a purpose in a landscaped area. They can be used for aesthetics, excess rainwater drainage, separating different areas of the garden, accent walkways, and as foundations for privacy screens.

Boreen — (Irish) a narrow country road

Bower — a pleasant shady place under trees or climbing plants in a garden or wood

Brook — a small stream

The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
The Black Brook c.1908 John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Buffalo wallow — A buffalo wallow or bison wallow is a natural topographical depression in the flat prairie land that holds rain water and runoff. Originally this would have served as a temporary watering hole for wildlife, including the American bison.

Burn — Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A burn is a stream. (cf. Robbie Burns)

Camber — The slightly convex or arched shape of a road or other horizontal surface.”A bend where the camber of the road sloped to a ditch.” British: a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed.

Canal — an artificial waterway constructed to allow the passage of boats or ships inland or to convey water for irrigation.

The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk, known as the ‘View near the Geest Bridge’, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1868
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975) The House on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight - Sunny Afternoon on the Canal
Louis Aston Knight – Sunny Afternoon on the Canal

Canyon — A deep cleft (gorge), between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic time scales. Typically a canyon has a river flowing through it. See “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The People Across The Canyon” for two short stories in which the canyon comes to the fore.

Hatchet meets Long Way Down in this heartfelt and gripping novel in verse about a young girl’s struggle for survival after a climbing trip with her father goes terribly wrong.

One year after a random shooting changed their family forever, Nora and her father are exploring a slot canyon deep in the Arizona desert, hoping it will help them find peace. Nora longs for things to go back to normal, like they were when her mother was still alive, while her father keeps them isolated in fear of other people. But when they reach the bottom of the canyon, the unthinkable happens: A flash flood rips across their path, sweeping away Nora’s father and all of their supplies.

Suddenly, Nora finds herself lost and alone in the desert, facing dehydration, venomous scorpions, deadly snakes, and, worst of all, the Beast who has terrorized her dreams for the past year. If Nora is going to save herself and her father, she must conquer her fears, defeat the Beast, and find the courage to live her new life.

Cleugh — Scotland features many fast-running streams and so has many words for running water. A cleugh is a gorge which is the shape of the course of a stream.

Cliff — a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.

LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
LE PONT (1981) Henri Galeron
John Brett - Carthillon Cliffs
John Brett – Carthillon Cliffs
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 - 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour
William Henry Walker (American painter, illustrator and cartoonist) 1892 – 1937, Girl In A Red Dress On A Cliff, ink and watercolour

Clump — a small group of trees or plants growing closely together

1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 Wittenham Clumps, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK
1912 The Wood on the Hill, Paul Nash, UK

Coast the part of the land adjoining or near the sea.

Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 - 1941) Coastal View, 1900
Peder Mørk Mønsted (Danish, 1859 – 1941) Coastal View, 1900

Col — the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks (of hills rather than mountains). A drainage divide.

Colonnade — a row or evenly spaced trees

Conurbation — a city surrounded by many urban areas

Coteau — uplands; higher ground of a region

Coulée — a steep and dry gully

Couloir — gully

Counterscarp — narrow earth band on the outer wall of a defensive ditch

Cove — a small type of bay or coastal inlet. Coves usually have narrow, restricted entrances, are often circular or oval, and are often situated within a larger bay. Think cove, think ‘sheltered’.

Kobliha František,  Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Kobliha František, Fairy Tales and Legends, 1917
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945
Tibor Gergely painted this in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann in the summer of 1945

Crest — the top of a mountain or hill. Also used as a verb e.g. ‘Crest the rise’. This word is used to mean the hillslope component summit, but geologists don’t approve of that usage. When geologists say ‘crest’ they specifically mean the narrow top of a ridge, hill or mountain.

Crevasse — A wide breach or crack in the bank of a river or canal. A crevasse can naturally occur or it can be created artificially (e.g. in the bank of the lower Mississippi River.) Also refers to a wide, deep break or fissure in the earth that appears after an earthquake. When talking about glaciers, a crevasse is a deep, nearly vertical fissure, crack or break in the mass of land ice.

Crista — ridge or fold resembling a crest

Cutbank — In everyday usage cutbank refers to a small cliff on an otherwise flattish surface which will injure you or your horse if you don’t see it, but probably isn’t big enough to kill you outright. Larry McMurtry frequently makes use of this word in his cowboy novels. Geologists don’t use cutbank to mean this. In geology, a cutbank is a slope or wall portion of a cut excavated into unconsolidated material or bedrock, as in a borrow pit.

Dale — “up hill and down dale”. A dale is a valley, especially in northern England (e.g. The Yorkshire Dales.) A valley can feel closed in, but a dale is a wide, open area that stretches between hills. (Dale comes from the Old English word for “valley,” dæl.)

Debris — Any surficial accumulation of loose material detached from rock masses by
chemical and mechanical means, as by decay and disintegration. It consists of rock clastic
material of any size and sometimes organic matter.

Delta — A body of alluvium, nearly flat and fan-shaped, deposited at or near the mouth of a
river or stream where it enters a body of relatively quiet water, usually a sea or lake.

Delta plain — The level or nearly level surface composing the land-ward part of a large
delta; strictly, a flood plain characterized by repeated channel bifurcation and divergence,
multiple distributary channels, and interdistributary flood basins.

Deposit — Either consolidated or unconsolidated material of any type that has accumulated by natural processes or by human activity.

Depression — Any relatively sunken part of the earth’s surface; especially a low-lying area
surrounded by higher ground. A closed depression has no natural outlet for surface drainage (e.g., a sinkhole). An open depression has a natural outlet for surface drainage. You can get closed depressions and open depressions.

Desert pavement — A natural, residual concentration or layer of wind-polished, closely
packed gravel, boulders, and other rock fragments, mantling a desert surface. It is formed
where wind action and sheetwash have removed all smaller particles or where rock fragments have migrated upward through sediments to the surface. It usually protects the underlying, finer-grained material from further deflation.

Detritus — A collective term for rock and mineral fragments occurring in sediments, that are detached or removed by mechanical means (e.g., disintegration, abrasion) and derived from preexisting rocks and moved from their place of origin.

Dell — a small valley, usually among trees. ‘There’s a sort of dell down here in front of us, where the ground seems all hilly and humpy and hummocky.’ (The Wind In The Willows)

Dike — A tabular igneous intrusion that cuts across the bedding or foliation of the country rock. Cf. sill.

Dingle — (literary) a deep wooded valley or dell

1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash
1949 The Dingle Winter John Nash

Dip — A geomorphic component (characteristic piece) of flat plains (e.g. lake
plain, low coastal plain, low-relief till plain) consisting of a shallow and typically closed
depression that tends to be an area of focused groundwater recharge but not a permanent
water body and that lies slightly lower and is wetter than the adjacent talf (flat part), and favors the accumulation of fine sediments and organic materials.

Dip slope — A slope of the land surface, roughly determined by and approximately
conforming to the dip of underlying bedded rocks; (i.e., the long, gently inclined surface of a
cuesta). Cf. scarp slope.

Ditch — a landform created by running water. Smaller than a gully, which is smaller than a ravine.

Jan van Goyen (1596 - 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627
Jan van Goyen (1596 – 1656) Winter Landscape with Farmhouses along a Ditch, 1627

Draw — (US). a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges or spurs with low ground in between them. The area of low ground itself is the draw, and it is defined by the spurs surrounding it. Draws are similar to valleys on a smaller scale; however, while valleys are by nature parallel to a ridgeline, a draw is perpendicular to the ridge, and rises with the surrounding ground, disappearing up-slope. A draw is usually etched in a hillside by water flow, is usually dry, but many contain an ephemeral stream or loose rocks from eroded rockfall. A draw may be described as ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’.

Embankment — ‘a railway embankment’ (the little hill which elevates a railway line)

Escarpment — a long, steep slope, especially one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights. Commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust. (Compare scarp)

Flat —An area of low level ground, especially near water. e.g. “the shingle flats of the lake”

Freshet — the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow

Fold — sheep walked up the lane and into the fold

Gap — a low point or opening between hills or mountains or in a ridge or mountain range. It may be called a col, notch, pass, saddle, water gap, or wind gap, and geomorphologically are most often carved by water erosion from a freshet, stream or a river.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised.

Glen — a narrow valley, especially in Scotland or Ireland.

Grain — a Scottish word for a tributary; the branch or fork of a stream or river, an arm of the sea.

Grange — (British) a country house with farm buildings attached. (Historical) an outlying farm with tithe barns belonging to a monastery or feudal lord

Sidney Richard Percy - Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874
Sidney Richard Percy – Grange Over Sands, Cumbria 1874

Gulch — a narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream. ‘…two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch…’ (“The Outcasts of Poker Flat”)

Gully — a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width.

Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children's Stories
Edward Gorey Illustrates Little Red Riding Hood and Other Classic Children’s Stories

Heath — (British) an area of open uncultivated land, typically on acid sandy soil, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses.

On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887
On the Heath near Laren, Anton Mauve, 1887

Hill — A hill is a landform that extends above the surrounding terrain. It often has a distinct summit.

Hollow — Another name for a valley. In literature, functions similarly to words like ‘gap’, symbolically/metaphorically suggesting an absence of something. See: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. A very small dale (a British term) is sometimes called a “hollow,” pronounced “holler” in American rural Appalachia.

Howard W. Thomas 'Nauvoo Hollow', Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938
Howard W. Thomas ‘Nauvoo Hollow’, Wisconsin Artist Calendar, 1938

Many years ago, in the kingdom of Fenwood Reach, there was a powerful Windwitch who wove the seasons, keeping the land bountiful and the people happy. But then a dark magic drove her from the realm, and the world fell into chaos.

Brida is content in her small village of Oak Hollow. There, she’s plenty occupied trying to convince her fickle magic to actually do what it’s meant to in her work as a hedgewitch’s apprentice—until she accidentally catches the attention of the wicked queen.

On the run from the queen’s huntsman and her all-seeing Crow spies, Brida discovers the truth about her family, her magic, and who she is destined to be—and that she may hold the power to defeating the wicked queen and setting the kingdom right again.

Hummock — a hump or ridge in an ice field. (US) a piece of forested ground rising above a marsh.

Isthmus — a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.

Jungle — An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics. See: The Storybook Jungle for visual representations of jungles as they tend to appear in storybooks. Jungles are best suited to tree-dwelling apes, because food is found high off the ground (compared to the savanna).

Knob — a prominent round hill.

Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 - 1989)
Winter landscape by Stanley Roy Badwin (1906 – 1989).

Lagoon — a stretch of salt water separated from the sea by a low sandbank or coral reef. In mythology and storytelling, lagoons tend to be associated with mermaids.

Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon
Mermaid Lagoon from Peter & Wendy-J.M.Barrie ~1911~ illustration by Francis D Bedford, 1911 lagoon

Lane — a narrow road, especially in a rural area

John Constable - Fen Lane, East Bergholt
John Constable – Fen Lane, East Bergholt

Lee — the sheltered side of something; the side away from the wind.

Lovely Is The Lee by Robert Gibbings

Moor —  a tract of open uncultivated upland, typically covered with heather. Think Wuthering Heights. Mary Lennox’s uncle in The Secret Garden lives in the Yorkshire Moors. The word ‘wutherin’ is used there, too: “Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house”. (Yorkshire dialect.) When trees are cleared from the uplands, heavy rain washes soil off the hills and into the valleys below, leaving a much reduced mineral fertility and turning the uplands into sodden bleak moors that resist the return of woodland. Moors therefore include the feeling of saudade (something missing, something which was once here but is no longer).

after each breakfast she gazed out of the window across to the huge moor, which seemed to spread out on all sides and climb up to the sky

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mound — a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.

Mountain — A mountain is a large landform that rises above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. A mountain is generally considered to be steeper than a hill.

Mountain Pass — A mountain pass is a navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957
Karikachi Mountain Pass, 1927, Kawase Hasui; 1883-1957

Notch — a rugged and forbidding col (for mountains rather than hills)

Outcrop — a rock formation. Somewhere like New Mexico is well-known for rocky outcrops.

New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976
New Mexico cloudscape illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985) for the booklet Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 1976

Peninsula — a landform surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland it juts out from. Peninsulas can also be named: a headland, cape, island promontory, bill, point, fork, or spit. A river which courses through a very tight meander is also sometimes said to form a “peninsula” within the loop of water.

Sir David Murray - My Love has Gone a-Sailing 1883
My Love has Gone a-Sailing exhibited 1883 Sir David Murray 1849-1933

Plateau — In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland consisting of flat terrain, that is raised sharply above the surrounding area on at least one side.

Point — a narrow piece of land jutting out into the sea. A point is generally considered a tapering piece of land projecting into a body of water that is less prominent than a cape.

Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, 'Point Sur' landform
Paul Landacre, California Hills and Other Wood Engravings, ‘Point Sur’

Pow —Scottish word for a slow-moving stream

Ravine — a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides

Re-entrant — the international word for a ‘draw’. 

Ridge — a geological feature consisting of a chain of mountains or hills that form a continuous elevated crest for some distance. The sides of the ridge slope away from narrow top on either side. Ridges are usually termed hills or mountains as well, depending on size.

Ridge line — The line along the crest formed by the highest points, with the terrain dropping down on either side, is called the ridgeline.

Saddle — the lowest area between two highlands. 

Sand berm — In coastal systems, a berm is a raised ridge of pebbles or sand found at high tide or storm tide marks on a beach. In snow removal, a berm or windrow refers to the linear accumulation of snow cast aside by a plow.

Savanna — A wide, open, mostly flat landscape. Of all the geographical arenas, savannas contain the highest amount of protein per square kilometer. We can therefore deduce that this is humans’ natural landscape, where we largely evolved, and where we thrive. (Savannas were where we lived when we became meat eaters.) We find our meat at ground level, unlike in jungles, which are better suited to apes who can swing through the trees. Humans are attracted to the savanna in art, though the ideal ‘savanna’ is undulating, probably because high areas afford us a good vantage point, good for safety and hunting.

Scarp — a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment. “The north face is a very steep scarp.” “I got to my car, but before I could get in I had to run to the scarp of grass and weed that surrounded the parking lot.” (Louise Erdrich, “The Years Of My Birth”.)

Shore/Shoreline — the fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as an ocean, sea, or lake. In physical oceanography, a shore is the wider fringe that is geologically modified by the action of the body of water past and present, while the beach is at the edge of the shore, representing the intertidal zone where there is one. In contrast to a coast, a shore can border any body of water, while the coast must border an ocean; in that sense a coast is a type of shore; however, coast often refers to an area far wider than the shore, often stretching miles into the interior.

Sinkhole — A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer.

Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922
Warwik Reynolds (British, 1880-1926). Kittens by Svend Fleuron, 1922

Sluice — a sliding gate or other device for controlling the flow of water, especially one in a lock gate

1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK
1920 The Sluice by Paul Nash, UK

Spur — A spur is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain or main crest of a ridge.

Stank — Scottish word for a pond

Stream — a small, narrow river

Myles Birket Foster - Children Paddling In A Stream
Myles Birket Foster – Children Paddling In A Stream

Syke — Scottish word for a small stream

Tarn — A mountain pool that forms in a hollow scooped out by a glacier is called a tarn. Officially, tarns are smaller than lakes. The word tarn comes from the Old Norse tjörn, “small mountain lake with no tributaries.”

Natural Environment - The Mountain - Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967
Natural Environment – The Mountain – Corriere dei Piccoli Centerfold by G.B. Bertelli, 1967

Trench — A long, narrow ditch. Also, a long, narrow, deep depression in the ocean bed, typically one running parallel to a plate boundary and marking a subduction zone. Trenches have also often been dug for military defensive purposes, so have associations with war and death. Gullies and ditches are wider than trenches.


Turlough — (in Ireland) a low-lying area on limestone which becomes flooded in wet weather through the welling up of groundwater from the rock

Valley — a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.

Volcano — a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams volcano
Ponies of Mykillengi (1966) by Lonzo Anderson, art by Adrienne Adams

Wind gap — another name for a notch

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Header painting: Chalk Paths by Eric Revilious, 1935