This is a reprint of an article from 2008:

Over at Lorem Ipsum, Jed Hartman observes:

A common problem in fantasy and science fiction stories is drowning the reader in made-up words at the start of the story.

In fantasy, this most often takes the form of a few paragraphs of High Fantasy Names, both of places and people:

It was the seventh day of Rilrak, and Vesnalorm the Mighty, Ess’lor of Nyeang, stood in Yerale Pass by the broad swift-flowing Undh, looking down over Warawe Valley to the golden towers of Soelmwar. “Alas,” thought Vesnalorm; “King Dukeko will die this day at the hands of his brother, Lllarod, and his sister, Ightch, and his cousins Nudah and Worler, if my Knights of Banismos do not act quickly.”


(In the worst cases, all the English nouns and adjectives are left out: “Vesnalorm, Ess’lor of Nyeang, stood in Yerale by the Undh, looking down over Warawe to Soelmwar. ‘Alas,’ thought Vesnalorm; ‘Dukeko will die this day at the hands of Llarod, Ightch, Nudah, and Worler!'” And so on.)

In science fiction, it’s sometimes the names of alien stars, worlds, species, and individuals, or sometimes unfamiliar technobabble (“Quick! Stabilize the dynethro coupling to provide a mekanon field so we can bypass the Vokk generator and keep the mesospace engines from granulating!”).

Either way, it can cause readers’ eyes to glaze over quickly, and erect an impermeable interest-repelling wall between the reader and the story.

But sometimes I read a story that, despite being full of unfamiliar terms, draws me in and keeps me interested.

Of course, the line between interesting and offputting use of unfamiliar terms can be in the eye of the beholder. I think we’ve published a couple of stories that I thought did a great job, but that at least a couple of readers said they couldn’t get past the opening paragraphs of. And certainly Karen and Susan and I have disagreements about this kind of thing in stories we’re considering.

So, a question for y’all writers and readers: what techniques do you feel work best for making use of unfamiliar terms inviting rather than offputting? Or at least for softening the impact of the new words in the opening paragraphs of a story?

(Names courtesy of the Fantasy Name Generator; for a particularly enjoyable set, try the Bad Name Generator on that page. See also the Random Tolkien-Elvish Name Generator (which supplied me with the name “Almarëkilyanna”); an unrelated non-Tolkien Elven Names Generator; another unrelated non-Tolkien Elf Name Generator; the Tamriel Rebuilt name generator; and, while I’m here, the Random Title Generator.)


My comment:

The art of injecting strangeness into a tale of wonder is like cutting a diamond: a proper stroke will bring out the brilliance, and an awkward stroke will shatter the diamond.

Let me offer two examples, in an opening line, of a single strange word or phrase that tells the reader he is opening a curious door into a world not his own:

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Such is when it is done well. Invented words should have invented roots: something that implies the word grew up from the world. The fact that hobbits live to one hundred and eleven years is peculiar, and something of their rustic quaintness is implied by the neologism “elventy-one.” If it is not something country gentry say, it sounds like it should be. Again, the fact that the clocks strike thirteen hints that the future world of 1984 has gone to a decimal dial, with all the unpleasant associations of revolutionaries who revise calendars, making it Thermidor of Year One, and so on. It is done poorly when the newly-coined word has no roots and tells you nothing about the world involved.

It is poorly done when the reader cannot intuit from the surrounding words the meaning of the invented word, or when the invented words does not sound like an authentic word the people of your world might invent. I hate to dispraise one of my favorite books, but when telepathy in WRINKLE IN TIME is called “kything” it sounds phony. There are no roots to that word. It is a meaningless string of letters, not something a modern girl would say.

When the same ability is called “Night-hearing” in William Hope Hodgson’s monstrous work THE NIGHT LANDS, it sounds authentic, or when it is called “Peeping” in Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN, or when it is called “our prison-yard whisper” in Robert Heinlein’s TIME FOR THE STARS. In E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, telepathy is done with a psychic instrument called a “Lens”, and the verb is “Lensing” (‘he Lensed to her’); Ursula K. LeGuin, in her Hainish novels, calls telepathic contact “Mind-speech”, and the verb is “bespoke.” (‘She bespoke him’).

These words have a resonance, something that invites the reader to fill in what the author left blank. Hodgson implies the art of mind-reading is a thing of darkness and mystery; Bester implies that it is like a Peeping Tom, an intrusion; Heinlein implies secrecy; Smith uses a word that implies the powers of the mind are being focused, as with a magnifying glass; LeGuin implies a quiet, peaceful art.

Even when the coined terms have no relation to our language, they should have a relation to each other. In Zimiamvia (so the otherworldly poet E.R.Eddison assures us in MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES) the citadel of Zayana is called Acrozayana. We might not know what an Acrozayana is, but to an English-speaker, it echoes words like “Acropolis”, and sounds like something whose walls and towers rise above ancient and unconquered Zayana.

(The title of this journal entry comes from my own THE GOLDEN AGE, which is as thickly-strewn with invented words and concepts thick as autumnal leaves that strew the books In Vallombrosa, or should I say “as thick as a padawan in kemmer trying Rishathra on a Deltan nerf-herder.” My word here is perhaps the most outrageous of the invented words in that book, but some readers might be able to puzzle out its meaning: Contraterrene is antimatter, and contraterrenogenesis is the process of making it.)