Oct 14 2012

Warning: Readers Have Comfort Zones

Writers sometimes get a little too crazy.  One thing we often do is try to show how smart we are by using what are known as ten dollar words.  I call it the Plethora Rule.  What is the Plethora Rule?  It is best described from the scene that made me realize long ago that fancy words are not always good.  Here is that scene from ¡Three Amigos! that introduced 90% of people who know what plethora means to the word:


pleth·o·ra
noun \ˈple-thə-rə\

Definition of PLETHORA

2: excess, superfluity; also: profusion, abundance

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plethora

We, as writers, are told to find creative ways to convey information to the reader.  Being creative means moving away from the ordinary.  Sometimes we go to extremes to accomplish this.  We become El Guapo when our readers are  Jefe.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying our readers are dumb.  Jefe’s not dumb.  He’s obviously smart.  Just look at how he knows that something else is bothering his boss and tries to draw it out of him.  But El Guapo exceeded Jefe’s comfort zone.

The sad truth is that readers like certain things.  Most consumers of literature don’t appreciate highfalutin, flowery prose that describes a blade of grass.  Or, at the very most, they don’t want that kind of prose to consume the entire story.  The market for people who like truly “literary” literary fiction is small.  For your typical reader, these sorts of things are outside of their comfort zones.

Often times, readers don’t like to have to think too much about what they are reading.   I know that as a voracious reader of fantasy and sci-fi, I don’t like more than a few convoluted concepts to wrap my brain around.  Neither do I like  long, drawn out descriptions about irrelevancies to digest.  And I certainly don’t like having to rush to a dictionary over and over again to figure out what the Hell the author is saying.

As a writer,  you can come up with a really great way of divulging information to the reader.  But if that means diverging away from a reader’s comfort zone, you can get into trouble.  You really have to know your target audience in order to accomplish it.

It’s nice to refer to a harsh sound as a “cacophony”.  But it is a word that far too many readers are going to have to think about.  Therefore, you should think about using it as an author.  I used cacophony once in early draft of Under the Darkened Moon.  Almost everyone who read it thought that a cacophony was similar to plethora and couldn’t understand the context of the word.  So, to avoid confusion, I dropped it from the manuscript.

Yeah, it is really neat to drop a ten dollar word here and there.  But the average reader won’t understand it unless you really put it in context.  Either that or it has to be one of those ten dollar words that has become well known like plethora is.

Again, I’m not saying that our readers are stupid.  Not like Chevy Chase’s character Dusty Bottoms, also from ¡Three Amigos!:

Again, they are not!

But, one thing I have learned as a writer is that my vocabulary seems to be quite a bit greater than other people’s.  Perhaps because I spend so much time trying to find other ways of saying things than just saying those things.  I’ve had far too many people ask me what “fallacious” means when I have used it.  I would have suspected that what a “portcullis” is would be a fairlywell known to readers of fantasy.   Nope, I have to explain that one too a lot.  Even though the word is used often, I have found that many people who read fantasy don’t know exactly what it means.

I’ve found that a lot of common, or at least what I think are common, names for parts of castles mean nothing to the average fantasy reader including: barbican, curtain wall, bailey, bastion, etc.  Instead, I default to calling them more simply walls, courtyards, etc. to aleviate confustion.

Just like here’s nothing wrong with simply saying, “he said.”  There’s also nothing amiss with saying, “a tree”.  And there is nothing at all wrong with saying “excess” or “abundance” rather than “plethora”.  Keeping readers in their comfort zone is a good way to get people to not only read you writing, but also for them to like your writing.

2 Responses to “Warning: Readers Have Comfort Zones”

  1. J. Cameron McClain Says:

    As a writing professor said, you’re going going to be more successful with English words than you are with Latin. He had a more specific set of phrases in addition as examples, but I’m not sure if a public blog is looking for the English word he used.
    Trying to impress your reader with your vocab is ultimately more an exercise in fitting a sentence to a word than a word to a sentence. If the story needs that word, you’ll use it as necessary.
    I don’t think this means writers should shy away from using unusual or difficult words. Dumbing down our language does not serve writers.

  2. bon jenkins Says:

    I don’t think he is saying to dumb down one’s writing. What he’s saying is know your audience. And the simple reality is that readers, particularly fiction readers, tend to like less robust verbiage because the read to escape, not think. It’s better to use a word that 95% of people know rather than one just 50% know, all things being equal.

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