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Density of invented words

scarpelius

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I am reading a story were the author (his first attempt to write) use a lot of invented words to name beings, properties and deities. The text is supra-saturated with such words, e.g. the first 2 paragraphs (146 words) he have 5 invented words. The list of invented words grows larger as you advance the reading as does the confusion in my mind.

So, how many words are safe to invent in a story?

Does the length of the story (5k vs 90k) gives you the possibility to throw in more fancy words?
 

Bagpuss

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In my view, it's not a question of how many invented words you want to use, it's more a question of how you introduce those words and concepts to the reader.

I think that if a writer dumps a load of new concepts very quickly on the reader at the start of the story without any seeming explanation, then the reader isn't especially emotionally invested in the story and is more likely to become frustrated and give up quickly. If the concepts are introduced more slowly, then the reader is potentially more invested in the characters. So long as the unfamiliar concepts are introduced and explained in a logical way then the reader will keep up and keep reading.

I think the length of the story does have an effect on what you can do in a story. For example, if you look at Sanderson's The Final Empire, he spends the 15 pages of the Prologue just setting up the basic world and social structure of the Empire. 15 pages is, on average, at least 5k words. So, in effect, Sanderson's written a short story just to introduce the concepts of: the skaa, the Lord Ruler, obligators and the twisted nature of the world. However, very little actually happens in the Prologue and the conflict is small-scale.

I think, therefore, it's more a question of how well something is done rather than that it is done at all. If the reader ends up being confused by the terminology a book is using then, to my mind, that suggests the writer is not introducing those concepts or terminology especially well and has not educated the reader properly on the unfamiliar features of their story.
 

Harpo

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You could make a pretty good story using mostly invented words. Shakespeare invented a few, but he wasn't unique in that way.
 

Juliana

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Pretty much everything that Bagpuss said. :)

Also, I think in a short story the tolerance for invented words/concepts might be higher since you know you won't be reading it for very long and you're perhaps more willing to jump in and go with the flow. Think Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky poem — it's fun to interpret etc, but imagine an entire novel of that stuff!!!
 

picklematrix

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Gene Wolfe is not shy about throwing in archaic words which mean something different in his context. Not strictly invented, but the definition with his work is new and may as well be, in some ways. He throws it at us with little regard for grounding the reader.
 

scarpelius

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My core beliefs is that a writer cannot steer too much outside the common language, if he wants to be understood by everyone. Pushing strange words into story is a sign of weakness. Think of spice from F. Herbert Dune. It could easily be named anything you can imagine, but Herbert choose a known word: spice. It already defines a rare commodity, for a long time available only to wealthiest in the society.

I am not against inventing words, but when this was the intention of the author, I think he is on a wrong track with his story. Funny words don't compensate for a weak characterization or boring plot.
 

Toby Frost

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Personally, I would try to keep the density of invented words as light as possible, especially where they are used to replace words for which there is an existing term. I find it slightly irritating when an author has characters continuously use a made-up word for something that clearly means "honour" or "crusade" or the like.

I suppose there are books like A Clockwork Orange that use made-up words (ok, words derived from other languages in that case, but the effect is the same) as a kind of special effect, but writers should be aware that this is a special effect and will be seen as such.
 

thaddeus6th

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It depends on a few things, not least how obvious terms are.

If you're using Latin then (unless it's Handsomicus Maximus Woulddefinitelydatius style) then most people won't get it, and more than a couple of terms would be overdoing it in a short space.

That example does sound excessive. I remember, for a samples review post, reading one and having to check I hadn't accidentally picked up a part five instead of one because there were so many references to historical events and people and it was absolutely killing the (rather interesting, actually) premise of the story and its pace.
 

Parson

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In my opinion a little of this goes a long ways. I feel a few new terms carefully defined, usually to explain a social or scientific phenomenon are okay, but any amount of them like the original poster's example is far, far, too many.

One of the other ways that some authors turn me off is when they create names that are impossible to pronounce. My toleration for this ends with something less than 5 names like this. When I have to see the name and compare it to a list of other unpronounceable names that to determine which character is meant I am frustrated and soon likely to move on to another book.
 

Brian G Turner

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There's a tendency for new writers to infodump at the start, to try and explain as much as possible for the read - which is a big no-no, because readers are more engaged by the unravelling of the puzzle that is the story.

Even still, in fantasy at least, the first invented words should probably be nouns for the most important characters. Anything else can follow after. That way, the reader gets the most important information first, and the rest can fill in any gaps as necessary.
 

-K2-

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Have you ever seen "Das Boot?" The original in German, not English. What about an epic martial arts movie that is in Chinese? Point being, only a part of the world speaks English and not much of it speaks proper English (any Welsh or Scots care to chime in?). More to the point, though everyone hates reading subtitles, you tend to get a sense that you're witnessing an actual piece of history, almost as though seeing events happen through some magic time machine viewer.

In the 1870's Western I wrote, using Old West slang, Chinese, French, Spanish, German and numerous Native American names and languages made it "in my opinion" read true. I've had many people since ask me if that purely fictional story was actually a factual accounting due to that (along with so many little known facts of the region and era). That's a nice compliment IMO, when a fictional tale is so spot on that it reads as historical fact to many.

That said, if what some are suggesting, that made up names/words make it unreadable, then let me just say my latest work would drive you insane :p In that work, I have TWO made up pidgin languages, and an alphabet. There is also an entire system of government and a system of population management that intentionally twists terms and word meanings to imply innocuous intent. Finally, there are numerous nationalities of people in the story who all mix English with their language.

Is it more difficult to read? Yes, yet if you get into it and the names/language/etc. are logical and there is a means for you to understand it, 'I believe' if done well, it can make the story more convincing and immersive.

So, I guess it boils down to this... Do you want the reader to feel "that was a good story," or do you want them to feel "this could be real?"

Just the opinion of a novice,

K2
 
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drmatteri

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I recently finished reading The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett and that is filled with silly, invented words that are meant to be funny. The book is also relatively short compared to other fantasy novels, so I suppose length does not really matter and it all depends on the purpose of your invented words.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I think, in general*, that it is best not to include any invented words that can be directly translated into English. If there is an English word that means exactly the same thing, then that is probably the better word to use. But if you are inventing worlds and societies there will be concepts and ideas and social structures that don't have an exact counterpart in English. It's the same with societies of the past. They had ideas and concepts and social structures that don't exactly match anything in our modern world. In these cases, using the word that specifically describes the thing not only adds to the flavor of the time and place and world, it also helps readers avoid the trap of imagining that the characters think about their world and their place in it in exactly the same ways that we do, expecting them to act accordingly, and then being confused when they don't. But throwing in invented words to make your characters seem exotic is not a good idea. Save the invented words for instances where they are genuinely different in their thinking and their living.

And it goes both ways. Having characters from a different time or place speak in our contemporary slang can make them more accessible to readers, but the danger is that they will end up thinking and acting in ways that are completely foreign to their context, their upbringing, their values. They may become nothing more than thinly disguised versions of our contemporaries in modern dress.** It's a balance the writer has to try to achieve: enough unfamiliar or actually invented words to give the story the desired flavor, but not enough to confuse and frustrate readers. Saving the archaic or invented words for when they count the most is one way to achieve this, with maybe a very few more that can be easily understood in context.

_____
*Though there will always be exceptions.

**Also, slang sometimes grows dated very quickly. So in ten or twenty years reading your book may be like watching an old movie where the costumes, hair, and make-up are wincingly inappropriate to the era they are supposed to represent because they are so blatantly of the decade in which the movie was made.
 

Overread

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Lets also not forget that even when one uses normal words they can still be unknown to many readers and be akin to invented words.

Sci-fi is rife with scientific concepts that are, to most average readers, akin to invented words. They might have real world meaning, but those readers are not astrophysicists or chemists so the words are just as alien as if they were totally made up.


So in the end its the same situation. The writer has to pace themselves at the rate they introduce new concepts and words; but also at the pace they explain them. I also think that its important to realise that sometimes you can use a complicated or new word and not necessarily have to explain its meaning, but simply show what it is within the context of the story. In fact we do this all the time with new creatures, monsters and races. Words are little different save that their context might require more creative thinking.

I also think that there's a danger with writing, both with more flowery language and with invented words; where an author uses very specific (almost legal style) writing with complex language - where key parts of the plot and story hinge upon very exact definitions and understanding of words. Whilst such works can be very impressive, they can also run the risk that they can lose more readers than they catch. Part of writing has to be appreciation for the reading audience. Note I'm not saying "dumb it all down".

Another trap is to fall into the accident of forgetting to repeat, or the opposite end of repeating too often. The former can run the risk that the reader loses track of meanings explained earlier; whilst the latter can run the risk that they start skipping because its the 10th time you've info dumped and explanation with no expansion on the point.
 

BrightStar*

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I think part of the problem is we are perceiving the world trough language, there is that theory I cant remember now...so making up words is very alluring, especially in science fiction. I like how Dune is over-saturated with new and weird words and it all serves a good purpose and make the novel so good, I got kind of religious experience reading it. I guess invented words should be a tool not the end goal.
 

sknox

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Overread makes a good point: we cannot assume too much about which words are "ordinary" or not ordinary to any given reader. I read novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells when I was about fourteen years old. A great many "ordinary" words were new to me and it did make reading more difficult than with other books. But I have very fond memories of the summer when I read those novels.

I'll add another consideration: names. Anyone who has read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky will know what I mean here. Not only do the names sound alien to our ears (or, at least to this Western boy's ears), there are typically at least three different forms the names can take. With War and Peace there were scores if not hundreds of such names. They might as well have been made up.

But if your story is good enough, the reader will be carried along. Write the best story you know how to write. Let editors critics and agents worry about the rest; they get paid for it.
 

-K2-

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**Also, slang sometimes grows dated very quickly. So in ten or twenty years reading your book may be like watching an old movie where the costumes, hair, and make-up are wincingly inappropriate to the era they are supposed to represent because they are so blatantly of the decade in which the movie was made.
Regarding slang or 'popular' terms and words, I'd not be too quick to discount those era words and phrases 'if' it is appropriate for the character (ex: the old hippie that never outgrew the '60s) and to help demonstrate that stagnated growth/age.

Can it come off as campy, perhaps if done a certain way (which might fit the story) or perhaps not, if done well. Nevertheless, some people never seem to outgrow their teen/twenties developmental years, some embrace tiny bits of it to intentionally act silly, yet most people enjoy recycling a bit of that past they loved so much.

Point being, it's another workable tool if used correctly.

K2

p.s.: before I forget, it even works ridiculously... I know many people who intentionally speak in old West or old South terms, simply as a fun and silly part of their persona. So used appropriately, it can work.

Oh, and one other thing...

The points above about speaking 'too far' above your readers to even being pretentious are good points, but in contrast, also consider the opposite end of that spectrum (something I have been very conscious of with the latest stuff I'm working on, the people having 'dumbed down'). For the life of me, I can't think of the stories I want to use as an example, where essentially, almost elementary terms are used individually or merged together to try and sound exotic.

Off the top of my head, one that stands out was used in 'Forbidden Planet,' where their weapons were called 'blasters.' I know that Dune includes a few, all essentially reading like a pre-teen came up with the terms (I'm at a loss here for examples of literature or terms, sorry it's late... so please chime in if you know what I'm trying to explain).
 
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The Storyteller

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I don't think there is any particular 'safe' number of words you can introduce to your story, as there are many factors. As others have said, it depends a lot on how they are introduced to the reader. I've read books where a number of new words were easily added to my own vocabulary because they were introduced in an effortless, easy to understand way, while other books have not introduced them in a strong enough way for them to stick, meaning even if there were less new words introduced, they weren't easily added to my personal vocabulary.

I think another big factor is what kind of word you are using. For example, terms like 'firebending' or 'windrunning' are fairly intuitive terms. You only really need to see them in action once to understand what they are, and its easy to remember when the term comes up again, because it's based on words you already understand. On the other hand, words that are made up (and don't come from preexisting words) are easier to remember and comprehend if they are easier to say. A word like 'Muggles' might be made up, but it's easy to say and remember, while a made up word like "Kthankirari' is not going to stick as easily. If you introduce a handful of difficult words like that, none of them will stick, where as simpler, more memorable made up words might. (Not that you can't use those kinds of words, but they will take more repetition and need to be introduced slowly for them to stick.)

So it really depends on what kind of words you're introducing, how you're introducing them, how intuitive they are to remember, how much you repeat them, and how organically you grow the concepts and ideas they represent. I think worldbuilding done well can introduce a lot of new terms and ideas without overwhelming the reader, but when its done poorly it doesn't take a lot to feel like too much, if that makes sense.
 

sknox

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I agree with @The Storyteller about memorable words, but now it makes me wonder about language and culture, given that we now more than ever are publishing to an international audience. A word that might seem easy to pronounce to an American might be impenetrable to a Catalan or Thai or whatever.

The more I consider questions like these, the more convinced I am that an author must write with his own voice, without fretting about what his audience may or may not understand. I realize this is opposite the usual advice of knowing one's audience, but I reject that advice as being inherently impossible anyway. That's not to say I pay no attention to the words I use; it's that the attention I pay must necessarily be my own, unfettered by any imagined understandings about an imagined audience.
 
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