Using Technical and Esoteric Terms in Your Stories

I am currently finishing a long short story called Married to the Job, 14,000 words, about an astrophysicist and a particle physicist. I wanted to give the reader a sense of what kind of world people like that live in but, as you can imagine, there are scads of technical terms most of the readers wouldn’t have a clue about. Most readers never took chemistry in high school, let alone physics. Newspaper readers read at about a ninth grade reading level—down from twelfth grade some years ago—and romance readers probably not much above that.
I used the term Higgs’ Boson without explanation because I figured it was in the news so much everyone had at least heard of it. My daughter (Cassandra Carr) disagreed. She said it needed an explanation or the term would take readers out of the story, so I added one. The same principle applies to esoteric terms that apply to small segments of the population. i.e. sailing terms for sailors, engineering terms for engineers, biologic terms for animals and plants and fish, etc. etc.
It may seem simple, but often we let terms and concepts slip by because we ourselves are so familiar with them. Important: the explanation you provide for readers must come immediately after the term or your reader will be taken out of the story before they find out what’s up. So, my Higgs’ Boson became the Higgs’ Boson, otherwise known as the God particle, which physicists hope will give clues to the origin of the universe.
We’ve all read books where we came upon a term and thought, “Huh? What’s that?” We don’t want it to happen to readers of our books.

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3 Responses to Using Technical and Esoteric Terms in Your Stories

  1. Karin Shah says:

    Great topic! In my book, IN LIKE A LION, the heroine is Indian and speaks a language called Gujarati. I think I used ten to fifteen words of Gujarati in the entire 85,000 word book, but I had a reader complain she felt there were too many “Indian” words. I explain pretty much all the Gujarati, but it still bothered her. I can’t say I would change it though. You can’t please all of the people all of the time and a heroine brought up in another country who never speaks her mother tongue is not very believable. I had to make a choice between possibly throwing the occasional reader out of the story or having a character who didn’t seem realistic.

  2. jannashay says:

    Great post. As writers, we sometimes have to go the extra step to make sure we guide our readers in the direction of our story.

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