J is for Jargon

The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition) lists the first definition for jargon as confused, unintelligible language.

While this definition holds true of a lot of first drafts (and quite a few of this blog’s posts, admittedly), the definition I want to focus on is “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.”

What more special group is there than your novel’s cast of characters? How often to you find yourself writing dialogue (or exposition) that makes complete sense to you, that falls well inside the normal speech patterns for your characters, only to hear from your beta-readers that they have no idea what your characters are talking about?

Especially when you’re writing fantasy, unique terms and phrases to describe objects or states of being are necessary! But the problem is how to introduce those terms, that jargon, without throwing your reader into a tailspin of confusion as they try to decipher exactly what your characters are trying to say.

Once again, I turn to the talented J.K. Rowling to illustrate what I believe to be a top-notch example of how to work jargon into accepted language for the reader.

“Where was I?” said Hagrid, but at that moment, Uncle Vernon, still ashen-faced but looking very angry, moved into the firelight.
“He’s not going,” he said.
Hagrid grunted.
“I’d like ter see a great Muggle like you stop him,” he said.
“A what?” said Harry, interested.
“A Muggle,” said Hagrid, “it’s what we call nonmagic folk like them. An’ it’s your bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on.”

If you do this too often, unfortunately, you’re going to overwhelm your reader and cause them to fall out of sync with the story. But! For the important terms, it’s worth experimenting with ways to sneak the explanation in.

One thing to note about the definition of the word muggle here and all it’s nuances the importance of characterization in helping to paint the picture of the term. Rowling has spent chapters by this point characterizing the Dursleys and their relationship with Harry so that when Hagrid labels them muggles, the implications of such a word reach far beyond nonmagic. So much so that when you hear the word muggle, do you not immediately thing of Dursley?

Take some time and create a list of the jargon you employ to build your world. Which meanings are obvious to your readers? Which are creating unnecessary confusion? How can you craft your narrative in such a way that the meanings of the words stretch beyond the literal definitions?

Advertisements

I is for Inciting Incident

Yeah, that’s right! TWO I’s! There must be some sort of prize for that, right?

You hear the term Inciting Incident a lot in screenplay writing self-help articles. And it’s true that the II is highly important to movies and T.V. You have to have something for people to stick around for after the commercial! (of course, not so much in this age of computers… but when I was a kid… yeah)

In writing it’s just as important. Wiki Answers has a couple of great definitions for II:

* The conflict that begins the action of the story and causes the protagonist to act 
*Without this event, there would be no story. Also, it is better described as the State of Imperfection made explicit.

The II is what sparks the adventure! Where would Harry Potter be if he had never gotten his letter from Hogwarts? And I don’t need to tell you, master storyteller J.K. Rowling didn’t make that as simple as walking out to the mailbox, either. The amount of potential energy wrapped up in what it took to get that letter to Harry and for him to find out he was a wizard carried her through 7 novels and 8 movies! Oh to write a scene like that…

The important thing about the II is that it should come along fairly early in your story line. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the first chapter or in the second, although usually SOMETHING inciting should have happened by the end of the second chapter. In HPaTSS, in the second chapter we find the prelude to the II… the incident at the zoo reveals that there really is something highly unusual about Harry, setting us up for the II actual in chapter three.

If you have too much set-up, you risk losing your reader’s attention. Pushing your II up to the second or third chapter helps to tighten your plot and get your reader invested in your characters development (or survival: see Hunger Games).

What other examples of IIs can you think of in your favorite books?

H is for Hyperbole

Hyperbole, if used correctly and sparingly, can convey a great depth of emotion. It is the use of exaggeration to make a point, to create emphasis.

People use hyperbole most often in everyday speech. “That bag weighs a ton.” “I’m starving.” “I died laughing.” None of those statements is meant to be taken literally.

Choose your moments carefully, when using hyperbole. It’s important for your readers to recognize when to take you at your word, and when you’re just making a point.

No Harry Potter references this time. Sorry! I’ll work him back in soon, though.