74. Avoiding Literary Speed Bumps: Part 1 Unfamiliar Words

Author: Nola Published: 15 days ago.
Tags: word choices, meaning, clarity, flow Category: Writing tips

You’re reading a novel. The heroine is running from a ruthless killer. Your blood is pumping along with hers and then … you have to stop and re-read a sentence because it isn’t clear. Writing coach Margie Lawson calls these glitches ‘speed bumps’. Just as a physical speed bump disrupts your smooth ride over bitumen, literary speed bumps disrupt your ride through an author’s words and take you out of their story. Over the next few weeks I’ll look at some common literary speed bumps and show you how to avoid them. Let’s start with the dilemma of unfamiliar words. Consider the following:

‘Gerald’s cachinnating failed to obnubilate Felicity’s resolve. She osculated him before he could demur.’

Unless you’re aiming to bamboozle readers with your brilliant vocabulary, try these solutions to eradicate the ‘tricky word’ speed bump.

1. Use familiar words where possible.

Rather than confusing your reader with obnubilating cachinnations, it would be a lot simpler to say something like this: ‘Gerald’s loud laughter failed to cloud Felicity’s resolve. She kissed him before he could object.’

2. Use context to cue the reader.

‘Get ready, Miranda. We leave at first light.’

‘Rightio, Digby. I’ll get my portmanteau.’

A portmanteau is a case or bag used to carry clothes while travelling; however, it’s not a word commonly heard these days. You could just say ‘suitcase’, but if you’re writing an historical novel, you would probably want to keep the actual word for authenticity. In such cases (no pun intended), use context to help the reader understand what you mean. Miranda could say, ‘I’ll pop upstairs and pack some clothes in my portmanteau’. Even if the reader doesn’t know exactly what it is, they’ll understand it’s something to pack clothes in, and they can move on with the story.

3. Have one character explain the word to another.

This should be used sparingly, but can be effective for technical aspects of your manuscript. In this example from the first episode of Stargate Atlantis, astrophysicist Rodney McKay is trying to explain the importance of a ZPM to General Jack O’Neill.

MCKAY: We need the Zed-PM to power the gate.

O’NEILL: What?

MCKAY: Oh, Zero-Point Module, General. The Ancient power source you recovered from Praclarush Taonas and that’s now powering the outpost’s defences. I’ve since determined that it generates its enormous power from vacuum energy derived from a self-contained region of subspace time.

O’NEILL: That was a waste of a perfectly good explanation. The answer’s no.

4. Use a glossary.

Although a glossary is mainly used in nonfiction books, I’ve also seen it in novels where a lot of complicated or new terms are used, or where words from different languages are featured. For example, L. D. Taylor included a glossary of computer terms in her young adult novel Motive Games, and Colleen Coble included a glossary of Hawaiian words in her Aloha Reef series. While a glossary can provide a ready reference for readers, it shouldn’t be used in place of clear writing in the text.

A Final Word

Using these strategies is not a matter of ‘dumbing down’. You can still write beautifully, yet be clear. Just ensure that if someone stops to re-read one of your sentences, it’s because they’re marvelling at your beautiful prose and not because they have no clue what you’re talking about. Here are some examples of exquisite writing that is also easy to understand.

‘Her gaze was drawn up through the lattice of branches to the white speck of a plane unpeeling the pale-blue sky behind it.’ (The Lake House by Kate Morton)

[Re a girl with a torch] ‘Every night for a week he watches the light drifting across the property like a displaced star.’ (The Caretaker, a short story by Anthony Doerr)

‘Silence is the fourth member of our family. He comes with us everywhere, enfolds us, shushes in our ears. And he is with us in the car on the way home.’ (In the Blood by Lisa Unger).

Do you have any other examples of beautiful prose that’s easy to understand? I’d love to hear from you.

(N.B. I omitted a couple of short lines from the Stargate Atlantis segment. You can find the full transcript at the following link: http://stargate.kaashif.co.uk/transcripts/atl/1.01)

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Posted 15 days ago by Adam David Collings

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