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Author Topic: Explaining technical terms  (Read 2540 times)

Offline Yora

Explaining technical terms
« on: March 14, 2015, 12:16:49 PM »
This is something I really don't have any answer to myself.

If you have objects, animals, and such things in your story, which are completely ordinary to the characters, but not all readers might be familiar with the term, how do you explain them in an elegant way? Everyone understands the words "spear" and "sword", but if I have warriors carrying a glaive or an arquebus, I don't think I can expect that everyone will know what these words mean.

The quick and dirty solution is to simply keep these things generic. All polearms are either spears or halberds, all swords are just swords, and all guns are equal. But I find this approach rather unsatisfying.
Or on the other end of the spectrum, you could describe the object in question in detail, but when it's something that all the characters are already familiar with, it feels pretty akward.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #1 on: March 14, 2015, 12:36:17 PM »
A few thoughts occur, using your example of weapons...

If you have a few characters who handle the items professionally, have an amusing debate about the merits of their favorite.

Let us know it's a weapon, its general shape, heft and use. Then tuck more details in when the thing is used.

Imitate David Weber in the a honor Harrington SF books and spend page after page on geeky infodumps. Devotees will read with joy, the rest of us will understand how he got the page count up to door stopper length. (Of course, his first novels in the series had very brief infodumps or we'd have never enjoyed them. Later he could pad because he'd built up a sort of permission.)

I don't recommend the Weber approach.  ;D. I'd try door number 2.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #2 on: March 14, 2015, 12:43:28 PM »
I'd usually prefer the use of the correct term, and try to include some information about it contextually. So if a certain weapon is referred to as a blade and a character can hold one in each hand, chances are it'll be a relatively short sword. If it's a blade that requires two hands to wield and is mentioned as being useless in a close-quarters fight, it's probably a big, heavy sword.

A good example is Hadrian's spadone in Riyria - I had no real idea what it was, but from the context I guessed it was just some kind of large sword. At some point I wanted to make sure, and lo and behold it's a word for a longsword.

If I don't know what a word means and am not able to understand from the context, I'll look it up (yay google!) and feel happy at having learned something new.
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Offline Rukaio_Alter

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #3 on: March 14, 2015, 03:48:08 PM »
For me, it usually depends on the name of the weapon in question and how it fits in the world you've created. I've also got a character who uses a glaive (because I read too much Kingdom), so I placed a brief paragraph of description at its introduction explaining its similarities and differences from a regular spear/halberd and didn't really have any problems calling it a glaive for the rest of the book. On the other hand, another of my characters used to have a khopesh, a curved, sickle-like blade. However, despite putting in an explanation as to what it was (and even putting in a little comic discussion between two characters about it), it just didn't sound right when I used the name in later scenes, largely because it sounds so foreign and different from any other weapon names or terms I use. Instead, I just briefly described it again and simply used the word sickle-sword to describe it for the rest of the book and it fit much better.

The same happened when I brought in a character who uses a nodachi. Simply describing what makes the blade different and then just calling it a sword for the rest of the story fit much better than calling it a nodachi all the way through. Not to mention the fact that nodachi is a noticeably Japanese word and I don't have any cultures close enough in language to Japan for it to feel like the word could've evolved from one of them.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #4 on: March 14, 2015, 03:59:22 PM »
For me, it usually depends on the name of the weapon in question and how it fits in the world you've created. I've also got a character who uses a glaive (because I read too much Kingdom), so I placed a brief paragraph of description at its introduction explaining its similarities and differences from a regular spear/halberd and didn't really have any problems calling it a glaive for the rest of the book. On the other hand, another of my characters used to have a khopesh, a curved, sickle-like blade. However, despite putting in an explanation as to what it was (and even putting in a little comic discussion between two characters about it), it just didn't sound right when I used the name in later scenes, largely because it sounds so foreign and different from any other weapon names or terms I use. Instead, I just briefly described it again and simply used the word sickle-sword to describe it for the rest of the book and it fit much better.

The same happened when I brought in a character who uses a nodachi. Simply describing what makes the blade different and then just calling it a sword for the rest of the story fit much better than calling it a nodachi all the way through. Not to mention the fact that nodachi is a noticeably Japanese word and I don't have any cultures close enough in language to Japan for it to feel like the word could've evolved from one of them.
Yeah that's a very good point, anything that feels out of place really doesn't belong.

Something else that I'd like to see more of is the kind of glossary you get at the end of Sanderson's books. I guess it's debatable whether you should put explanations for technical terms that exist in the real world in a glossary like that, but it's worth considering at least. And it's definitely a good idea to have one if you've got a lot of invented terms in the book  :)
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Offline Skip

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #5 on: March 14, 2015, 04:19:15 PM »
The best model here is science fiction. That genre has to deal with this challenge constantly.

FWIW, I don't use a pilum when a spear will do. If the point (*ahem*) of the scene is the type of weapon being used, then I'll go ahead and be precise and work the description in however it seems to fit; otherwise, there's no more reason to describe the weapon than it is to describe what a mountain ash is just because the character happens to be standing next to one.

If, however, the thing must be described, then you can either make a point of it, inviting the reader to revel in the details (e.g, describing Stormbringer) or you can just slip details into narrative or even dialog. In the former case, though, I'd say to return to the details (again, see Stormbringer) more than once in the book. Very often this is the case with a magical weapon, where it's not only the appearance but the weapon's behavior that's relevant.

Idea for small bit of amusement. Instead of a magic sword, the character inherits a magic trebuchet.  *chortle*

Anyway, either be unobtrusive and minimalist, or wave your arms and make a production. But in all cases, only if the story needs it! This is personal taste, of course, but I have little patience for technical description for its own sake.


Offline xiagan

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #6 on: March 14, 2015, 05:03:01 PM »
If you have objects, animals, and such things in your story, which are completely ordinary to the characters, but not all readers might be familiar with the term, how do you explain them in an elegant way? Everyone understands the words "spear" and "sword", but if I have warriors carrying a glaive or an arquebus, I don't think I can expect that everyone will know what these words mean.
I had this problem too, but maybe even taken a bit further:

How do you explain stuff that is totally known to everybody in your world but alien to the readers in a first-person-narrative?

I think I managed, but probably neither as elegant as I would've liked nor in a generalizable way.
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Offline K.S. Crooks

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #7 on: March 14, 2015, 09:47:39 PM »
Sticking with weapons, you can have the characters clean a weapon and describe the parts as they are washed. You can describe a weapon as it is being used. Talk about the damage the spikes on the weapon do to a person's body r how blood is dripping from the twin blades. Another option is have a character that is unfamiliar with a weapon and need to be taught or other people can notice how poorly they handle the weapon.
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Offline Yora

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #8 on: March 14, 2015, 09:51:40 PM »
FWIW, I don't use a pilum when a spear will do. If the point (*ahem*) of the scene is the type of weapon being used, then I'll go ahead and be precise and work the description in however it seems to fit; otherwise, there's no more reason to describe the weapon than it is to describe what a mountain ash is just because the character happens to be standing next to one.

If, however, the thing must be described, then you can either make a point of it, inviting the reader to revel in the details (e.g, describing Stormbringer) or you can just slip details into narrative or even dialog. In the former case, though, I'd say to return to the details (again, see Stormbringer) more than once in the book. Very often this is the case with a magical weapon, where it's not only the appearance but the weapon's behavior that's relevant.
Thinking a bit about this, this really helps me quite a lot. Until the moment the finer details start to matter it shouldn't hurt if readers visualize something incorrectly because they probably won't actively visualize it at all. And once it starts to matter it get quite easy to describe the details in the same sentences in which you describe what it does. A group of soldiers with spears is good enough, what exactly a glaive is only matters once the protagonist is in a fight with one.
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Offline jefGoelz

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #9 on: March 15, 2015, 01:00:04 AM »
I don't think weapons should be much of a problem (at least if they are common enough to make it to RPG).

But, the more you can define your terms in context, rather than exposition, the better.

He grabbed the haft of his spetum, setting the base at his feet and looked up at the blade. Damn, this would be good for spearing boar. The side blades would keep a charging boar from trampling him.

and so on.

Offline CameronJohnston

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #10 on: March 16, 2015, 08:54:01 AM »
I would just show the weapon in use in some manner and let the action describe it all for you. It's an 'in character' description rather than a plain infodump.

i.e.
-The soldiers lined up and set the butt of their arquebus against their shoulder, squinting along the barrel...
-The soldiers were busy brushing soot from the long barrels of their arquebuses, thin brushes pumping in and out, rasping iron. Slovenly arquebusiers didn't last long, the weapons blowing up in their faces sooner or later.
-The guards dug the wooden butts of their long glaives into the sod, and braced for impact. Faced with that bristling wall of hooked blades, the horses shied and cast their riders onto the points.

Or slip weapon description into something else, an observations perhaps:
-The arquebusier company were an unkempt lot compared to the imperial spearmen, if not for the long barreled hand-cannons they kept well-oiled and polished, cared for better than themselves, then Yora might have thought them a useless lot of wastrels,

Sure, it may not be an in-depth description but as long as the reader know what it does they what does it matter, the imagination fills in the gaps.

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Offline Raptori

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #11 on: March 16, 2015, 08:59:15 AM »
I would just show the weapon in use in some manner and let the action describe it all for you. It's an 'in character' description rather than a plain infodump.

i.e.
-The soldiers lined up and set the butt of their arquebus against their shoulder, squinting along the barrel...
-The soldiers were busy brushing soot from the long barrels of their arquebuses, thin brushes pumping in and out, rasping iron. Slovenly arquebusiers didn't last long, the weapons blowing up in their faces sooner or later.
-The guards dug the wooden butts of their long glaives into the sod, and braced for impact. Faced with that bristling wall of hooked blades, the horses shied and cast their riders onto the points.

Or slip weapon description into something else, an observations perhaps:
-The arquebusier company were an unkempt lot compared to the imperial spearmen, if not for the long barreled hand-cannons they kept well-oiled and polished, cared for better than themselves, then Yora might have thought them a useless lot of wastrels,

Sure, it may not be an in-depth description but as long as the reader know what it does they what does it matter, the imagination fills in the gaps.
Yeah all of that would work well, and if you do that kind of thing multiple times you can mention different details each time to build up a more complete picture of the object. Same goes for all world-building I guess!
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Offline madfox11

Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #12 on: March 16, 2015, 10:32:37 AM »
As an avid reader I have taken a bit of a dislike when people use non-English words even if there are western equivalents, especially when the difference does not matter to the story or when even the people in RL do not agree on the exact definition (as is often the case with weapons). This is not just true for weapons, but also for things like military ranks, noble ranks and animals. I find it distracting from the story. Then again, I as a reader have no problem with using modern expressions in semi-historical stories such as for example munchkin. I am sure that if a situation arises where that word can be used in said medieval setting, the world will have their own equivalent word, but making it up just complicates things for you as an author (you need to spend time explaining it) and a reader (what did that word mean again?).

Of course, if it actually matters, then the author should be able to add a way to point out the differences without it being an overly big info dump. In fact, simply by using an unknown term you highlight it for the reader, suggesting it actually is important.

Offline Nora

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Re: Explaining technical terms
« Reply #13 on: March 16, 2015, 12:10:18 PM »
Totally agree with Madfox, Cameron and Jef.

I'd only say that the simpler the better. It's a horrible shame but one of the best and weirdest sci-Fi/fantasy mix story I have read is a French and untranslated tale "la Horde du Contrevent" is my best exemple.
The author is incredibly vague about the technology used and some details of the universe. A lot of guessing can be done as we go along the story.
IMO it's a smart choice especially in high fantasy were so many things differ from our world.
Hinting at the differences and feeding the readers a crumb at a time can pay better than heavy descriptions that would bog down the pace.
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