Fantasy Slang: How to Not Scare Off the Reader

You know where slang comes from. You've built a dictionary for your made-up culture. Now how do you teach the reader this new slang without overwhelming them? Also without resorting to cheap tricks or boring exposition? Here are some guidelines I use.

If the meaning of the slang is obvious from context, no explanation is needed. Don't give it. Seriously, the reader doesn't need every phrase explained. Often context is enough:

"I'm sorry. About... about what I said..."
Sam waved it off. "Nothing. Birds in the wind."

If the meaning is unnecessary to following the story, don't give it. Have you ever read the poem "Jabberwocky"? Half the words don't make any sense at all. A couple you can figure out from context (frabjous, galumphing), but most you just don't need to know (slithy toves, borogroves, tulgey wood, and pretty much everything else). And that's okay. You can understand the story fine without them.

If the meaning is not necessary yet, don't give it. Not every term has to be explained right away, even if it's important later. When it becomes important, the reader won't mind you stopping for a paragraph to explain it. In Air Pirates for example, the word 'jacks' is introduced on p. 15 (see excerpt below):

B'Lasser flashed a foot of sharp steel.

“Oy, oy, oy!” Dean came running out from the back, hands waving. “No blood! You gotta fight, you take it down the road. Else I call the jacks in here.”
There's a little context, but the full explanation doesn't come for another 25 pages. Yet nobody's ever complained.

When you finally do need to explain it, there are a number of ways you can do it -- more than I list here, certainly:

1) Include a character who doesn't "get" the slang and needs it explained, or who can at least identify with the reader's confusion:

Hagai looked around. "What did you do with my friend?"

"Easy, lad," Sam said. "I just showed him the way out. I didn't pack him either, if that's what you're flailing about. 'Sides, man like him, float in the dark he would."

Hagai didn't know what that meant. "So... you didn't kill him?"

"Nay, Gai, I didn't kill him." Sam's smile mocked him.

2) Use context. You know that first tip, where if the context is there already you don't need to explain it? It works both ways: if you need to explain it, add the context. For example, "grubbing":

Normally, if Sam wanted a snack, he would've just grubbed it off the shelf while no one was looking. But Crike Cappel, who'd been grubbing a lot longer than Sam had, taught him that he had to establish “legitimacy.”

3) When all else fails, tell. You don't want to do this often, but don't be afraid of it either. You gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Fitch came back a few minutes later with the keys. As he opened Sam's cell door, Sam said, "Where's the guard?"

"Sleeping," which meant he was unconscious.

I know I've been talking about slang, but these modes of introduction work for any made-up terms in any genre. (Though obviously speculative fiction will have more of it).

What else? What other methods have you used or seen to introduce foreign terms without being intrusive?

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fairyhedgehog said...

I think the main thread of this don't explain unless you absolutely have to is spot on. Most of the time the reader can guess from the context and it mostly isn't the end of the world if they guess slightly wrong, eg, thinking a word means taking when it means stealing. Being talked at is a real turn off.

Joshua McCune said...

Telling is somewhat underrated, IMO -- b/c sometimes trying to 'show' something can be too forced... sometimes it's better and faster to tell (e.g., your last example), though this can be done via character internalization as well.

Knowing when to show and when to tell is the trick.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Your examples are spot on, and validate what I had been thinking before, but questioned when a beta insisted on having every term explained. Explaining in context is tricky, because context is somewhat reader dependent. When I came to grips with the fact that this one particular beta didn't get the context explanations - but many others did - I was cool again.

Thanks again for a great series of posts!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm working on revisions today (yay for Draft #5 of the Epic Kid Novel), and it occurs to me that much of what you've covered for including slang also applies to foreign languages (and translations). When we're talking kid novels, I think the need for transparency is even more important, but you can still get away with a lot by context. For instance, from the EKN:

"Ni hao, Ali?" he said. She sighed and the corners of her mouth tugged down.
"Wo Hen Hao," she said, but he could tell she wasn't fine at all.

Adam Heine said...

I think you're absolutely right, Susan. The context thing (and the optional-and-should-not-be-ignored telling, as Bane says above) works for any unknown language, jargon, or term.

dolorah said...

I let my crit group read the first few pages of my fantasy, and it had a lot of terms familiar to gamers or fantasy readers.

A couple of the members were lost, totally, and didn't get through much of the ten pages. Two others had no trouble, said it was an easy read, and another said they figured it out through context.

I had to really think about a comment from a non-initiate: If you want to attract a reader like me . .

So I think its important to know your target audience too. You don't want to spend too much time explaining the language to readers who take unfamiliar verbiage for granted; but do you want to convert someone to the genre with the strength of your novel?

Thanks for hosting this series of slang language postings Adam. They ae giving me loads to think about while I figure out how to write in this genre.


India Drummond said...

I think "don't explain" is a good policy for anything in your fiction... not just slang!

Great article.