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Friday, August 29, 2008

Immersing Your Reader

In creative nonfiction we hear a lot about immersion--how the writer plops herself into the action and re-creates that on the page. One problem that comes in describing an environment is in handlling unfamiliar terms.

Most lines of work have words, phrases, usages, sometimes equipment, that are unfamiliar to people outside that field. For example: To doctors, a patient presents with symptoms. A quilter miters corners. A newspaper zones its metro tabs.

I've been thinking about this matter as read Court of the Air, a fantasy novel. The writer plops you down in a blizzard of new words. Some are new words for objects we recognize; other words are as original as the thing they refer to (steammen being a "people" whose bodies are machines). Maybe I should be flattered that the author believes readers can sort out what is meant. Instead, I'm feeling assaulted by having to figure out so many words before I can figure out what's going on in the story.

Most people can figure out a term by its context. Court of the Air just takes this approach to the extreme.

One trick is to describe something, then introduce the term itself. I like this better than using a word, then describing what it is in a clause set off by parentheses or dashes.

Another approach is to paraphrase instead of using a direct quote when a person uses technical terms.

You want to immerse readers in the environment, but think about whether you want to lead them in gradually or throw them in to a world of unfamiliar words. Once you've decided, make sure you show the manuscript to someone who is a stranger to that environment you're writing about--and be prepared to throw a few life preservers into your manuscript if needed.


Blogger Nancy Jane Moore said...

Using unfamiliar terms to immerse the reader in the story is a regular practice in fantasy and even more common in science fiction, where it usually includes made up words as well as ones drawn from science and technology.
As a rule, science fiction and fantasy readers like being thrown into an unfamiliar world and using context to figure out the meaning of words and what's going on. In fact, learning how to integrate the unfamiliar into the story without using an "info dump" or an "As you know, Bob" explanation is considered part of the training of the SF/F writer.
I suspect that a lot of people who say they don't like science fiction are in fact simply people who don't like being thrown into an unfamiliar setting without first getting some background.

1:33 PM  

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