If readers take nothing else away from this series, I really hope you take any this top tip: When reading anything, keep a stack of post-its and a pen next to you at all times. As I read, any phrases or turns of speech that I really like get jotted down and stuck to the bookshelf next to my chair. Later they get collected and stuck into a note book so I can’t lose them.
Two Cultures Divided By a Common Language
I recognise that I’m definitely going to be the first person to suggest this, but when building another world, coming up with a language for it can really help it feel real.
You have absolutely never heard this before, right?
Anyway, I say this in the full knowledge that we can’t all create our own language from scratch based on Finnish. I struggle with getting my head around other languages that actually exist already, never mind trying to write my own. Also, your readers may find random descents into unknown linguistics without translation.
If you have the time, energy and ability to write your own language, I salute you and your efforts whole-heartedly. You people are amazing!
For the rest of us, however, creating your own colloquialisms can be really effective at giving the impression of a language which has simply been translated for the sake of your book. Colloquialisms like common phrases, song-lyrics everyone knows, quotes that people repeat often, all create a culture’s common language, and because every cultures has this, it can really make your world feel real.
Much like people often comment that Doctor Who’s titular character goes to many worlds, countries and time periods, yet everyone has a British accent, or Star Trek’s alien life forms all seem to be uncannily American, I know from personal reading-experience that it can be a bit jarring to read a fantasy book in which everyone’s dialogue is unmistakably English. It’s never enough to ruin a good story or anything close, but the times I have found books where the author has taken the time to create their own sayings, their own songs, their own colloquialisms, I’m always so much more interested. It’s a sign of a writer putting that little bit more thought into their world than was strictly necessary, and it’s always worth it to me as a reader because it gives a feeling of depth.
For me, finding signs of a pre-existing common cultural language which I’m only being introduced to through this one particular story is like when you watch a film or tv show and find a side-character who is quite clearly in their own movie. Greg Lestrade in BBC’s Sherlock is absolutely in his own police drama that just isn’t being filmed right now; he’s solving other cases while he’s dealing with Sherlock, he’s regularly seen dashing in or out of crime scenes, talking on the phone to people we don’t meet, and recently returning from holiday. He’s been written to give the impression of someone real, with his own life, his own problems and priorities and pleasures that absolutely exist somewhere, off-screen. He has, for the lack of a better phrase, got depth to him.
So let’s look again at a quote from something I was reading recently* – “I put together two columns and found I had a load-bearing structure.”
Firstly, it sounds familiar doesn’t it? The character is explaining how he has put together small clues to create a full and accurate picture or rather he has “put two and two together and made four.” These two phrases are so similar, you probably didn’t need me to explain them, did you?
But the author didn’t write ‘Two and two makes four’, did they? They involved different imagery, and that in itself is telling the reader something about the character speaking. He uses the phrase with the same casual lack of thought that we would use our version, so it’s a common one to his culture. Perhaps his culture builds things more than it writes things down? Obviously it is literate enough that mathematics and architectural engineering isn’t foreign to it, but that’s not to go-to imagery. This isn’t a sum on a page, it’s a physical structure.
So what can we conclude from this colloquialism? This person’s world-view is different from the reader’s, but the reader can still relate to them. It’s not our saying, but it’s one we instantly understand. Like we may not understand what R2D2’s beeps mean, but we grasp from C3PO’s responses how the conversation is going, we have just enough clues in this re-phrasing of a common saying to know what’s going on, but we’re still being reminded that we are interacting with something new.
*Author’s note: Generally I try and make sure I indicate what the book was, or at least who the author is, but I’m afraid that I am only human and sometimes I forget. Sadly the example I wanted to start this post with is just such an orphaned quote, and I deeply apologise to whoever the author is that I am not giving you credit as I should. If I ever re-find which book it is I’ll come back and edit this page.
EDIT: With eternal thanks to Hawkwind1980 who went to the trouble to track the quote down for me! It’s actually from a Hobbit fan-fiction; Lay Down Your Sweet and Weary Head by Elenothar. You should check it out some time!
Establishing the Unknown – In a Good Way
Sometimes it’s good to give people something familiar to work off, but others… OK, so lots of advice on writing I’ve come across suggests that you start your story ‘in media res‘, or right int he middle of the action. I personally have some reservations about the effectiveness of this – I’m not nearly empathetic enough to care about random people running for unknown reasons from an unknown threat, please back this opening page up a bit and explain what’s going on? – but I do acknowledge that it is effective.
The same is true of providing setting. Imagine you visit a new city; do you understand everything you see and hear? Nope. You know some things, you’ve understood others from context and then there are the things you just have to accept without question, because no one’s going to think to explain things.
I once had a bus journey in which fifteen of us all sang along at the top of our voices to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ when it came on the radio. We bobbed along to the instrumentals, some of us played air-guitar, it was as much fun as you can imagine. When it was all over, three people had very blank looks on their faces, but didn’t comment and we all assumed that they just didn’t like the song (!) or weren’t keen on singing with others or something. None of us questioned this, and we went on with our day. Later one of those people was sitting next to me during the afternoon coffee-break and quietly asked me what the song had been. They weren’t being shy earlier, they just had never heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ before and the rest of us had never thought to provide context.
To be fair, I don’t ever remember actually learning the words to any Queen song myself, I think I just picked it up by osmosis or something…
Anyway, another great way to give your story and the world it is set in a sense of depth and realism is to include cultural items which you just never explain.
NOTE: DO NOT DO THIS WITH THINGS THAT YOU NEED TO READER TO UNDERSTAND OR ARE RECURRING!
There is nothing, absolutely nothing worse than everyone in a story constantly talking about a Thing which is clearly really important but I as the reader have no understanding of at all. Yes, I might not understand what the Ark of the Covenant could do in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, but at least the film explained for everyone in the audience what it was. Imagine watching that film again, but everyone runs around for two hours talking about ‘The Ark’ with no context, explanation or image. That’s a really frustrating time right there, and even when you finally see it, you know that plenty of people would still be thinking ‘so it’s a shiny box with wings on the lid? What even is that thing? And why do I care?’ Please explain a Major Thing at least enough that the reader can follow it.
Anyway, small inconsequential things? Have a play around and see what you can introduce without context. It won’t always work or make sense, but it’s good fun when it does. You are effectively leaving some bits for the reader to fill in for themselves, and they will appreciate this opportunity.
A good example is Terry Pratchett’s now-famous song: The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All. First appearing as the very briefest of mentions, merely the song which Granny Weatherwax was concerned that her friend Nanny Ogg would sing on the tables while drunk, Terry Pratchett would later go on to dedicate the next Witches book to all the readers who had gone to the trouble of writing their own lyrics to this song and sending them to him.
His actual words in response to this were; “I fear you.”
He later went on to include some lyrics to the song in yet another Witches book; a running joke that always gets a laugh out of me. But what he did not go on to do was to release all the words to the song, and that is what makes the whole thing so effective. The full thing is always left up to the reader’s imagination: a constant mystery; a puzzle and an invitation for a bit of harmless creative fun. I don’t know what your lyrics are, but I know what I came up with, and I know that some of my friends have versions of their own. There’s no definitive answer.
Lost in Translation…
If you do decide to go down the route of creating new phrases for new cultures, you needn’t use it only to give a sense of depth to characters and worlds. You can also use it in your story really effectively in other ways.
The most common use is for a comedic punchline. The idea is usually based on the concept that what the audience is reading is a translation of one language into another, and that the result does not quite scan. A commonly quoted recent fictional example would be in Supernatural, in which the angel Castiel tells his friends a joke from the Heavenly Host “You breathe with the mouth of a goat.” There is, unsurprisingly, a beat of confused silence and he shamefaced mutters “It’s funnier in Enochian…”
This joke is well-established, of course, indeed it’s so old that Shakespeare uses it! Ever heard the phrase “It’s all Greek to me”?
But you can also create drama and drive your plot forward through common phrases that no longer translate to the characters as well as the reader. I will say that in my experience this doesn’t work very well as a long-term plot point, but in a short story or over a couple of scenes it can be really effective.
Remember that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where the Fellowship is stuck outside of the Mines of Moria? The people who made the door must have thought they’d been incredibly clear – they literally wrote the password for the door over the doorway! “Say Friend and Enter,” they wrote, ‘Everyone will get this right?'(I always wondered if this was the MiddleEarth equivalent of writing your password on a post-it stuck to your monitor screen?) But the Fellowship don’t understand.
Language is incredibly fluid, and it changes so much faster than we expect it to. I might think that I’m being totally clear and comprehensible, but my parents may beg to differ when I launch into a story filled with words which we both have very different definitions for!
Some common colloquialisms are ancient: “Shooting fish in a barrel” is so old that we’ve lost any certainty of its origins. Others we’ve completely lost the use of. In the 1920s ladies had a phrase: “To Bitch the Pot,” meaning “To Pour out the Tea.” If I used it today, you’d rightfully be utterly baffled! Although it would probably be really good to use if your book is set in the actual 1920s, for authenticity…
My favourite spin on this idea is a Miss Marple short story by Agatha Christie. [SPOILERS] Two young people have been left a fortune by an elderly uncle, but they are sure that this fortune has been disguised in some form of treasure. They can’t find it, turn to Miss Marple (naturally) and she looks through all the available are the following: the old man tapping his eye as he reassures the pair that they will “be alright,” a recipe for gammon cooked with spinach and a bunch of old letters from a girl called Betty Martin. The old man died thinking that his hints had been perfectly clear as he has based his clues on what, to him, are common sayings, but the couple are stumped. Miss Marple, however, is of a similar generation and gets the hints; firstly that the recipe for baked ham is “Gammon and spinach! Meaning – nonsense!” and that the signature on the letters combined with the man’s last gesture makes: “Surely, my dear, you must have heard the expression meaning that something is not a true picture, or has it quite died out nowadays: ‘All my eye and Betty Martin.”
I think that if you were of a mind when writing, you could get a lot of mileage out of creating or even adapting pre-existing common sayings and phrases and then exploring what can happen if a message is not communicated clearly. You could make it funny, you could make it tragic even. In the Miss Marple story above, one of the couple has a sudden realisation:
Edward groaned. He sat down and buried his face in his hands.
“What’s the matter?” demanded Charmian.
“Nothing. It’s only the awful thought that, but for Miss Marple, we might have burned these letters in a decent, gentlemanly way!”
“Ah,” said Miss Marple, “that’s just what these old gentlemen who are fond of their joke never realise.”
What if the pair had burned their fortune, thinking to be kind to a much-loved relative? You could play around with that idea, couldn’t you? What if your ancient mystery was filled with clues that made sense at the time but no one understands now (I’m describing a huge real-life problem in historical research right here, by the way)? How would people resolve that problem in your story?
So if you’re writing yourself a new world right now, have a bit of a think: do you really want or need to create a new language when you can have fun making up ways to give the feel of a different language and the culture that gave rise to it instead? And if you do, what are you going to use it for? To distance an outsider character from your reader? To distance the reader from the world of the story instead? Or even to drive the plot forwards by putting obstacles in the path of your characters achieving their goals?
Have fun writing and playing with new ideas this Yuletide season! Let me know if you have any really good sayings or turns of phrase that you’d like to share!
Found this post helpful? Check out the rest of the series here.