Monday, August 22, 2011

Storytelling =/= teaching

You can teach while telling stories, but storytelling isn't teaching. Generally if you have to stop telling the story to educate the reader you've already lost the battle. I am periodically reminded of this at Wyrdsmiths meetings when I put something in a story that goes against the common understanding of how something works.

Sometimes, when I do this, I'm simply wrong. Usually even, and that's actually easier because I can just nod and fix it. Occasionally however, I'm right. For example I have more than once used a word in a traditional fantasy piece that everyone associates with a very modern usage, but which comes originally from the context in which I've chosen to use it in the story.

At that point I have a number of choices. I can ignore the critique, knowing that it will bounce many people out of the story since it doesn't matter that the word is five hundred years old and that it means exactly what I've said it does if my readers don't know that. I can simply rephrase something to avoid the unfortunate word, which makes my inner pedant very cranky. Or, I can try to find some way to explain the etymology of the word that makes since within the context of the story.

It is at precisely these times that it is important to remind myself that storytelling =/= teaching, kick my inner pedant in the noogies and move on.

12 comments:

Eleanor said...

"As you know, Bill, late in the fifteenth century the word XXXX meant..."

Kelly McCullough said...

It's more often like: As you may know, XXXX was borrowed from hydrology by early medical practitioners hoping to clarify what they were doing with procedure YYYY. It originally comes from the Latin because the Romans developed the basic technology around 300 BCE. But, yeah. Very hard to deal with in a story set before the borrowing took place.

Happens with physics too. There are all sorts of things that people think they know about the world that turn out not to be true. Some of them are so deeply embedded that there are whole sub-branches of physics education research devoted to finding ways to reverse the misconceptions. Sometimes, in my science-education side science fiction I have a story where I have the context and mandate to take a shot at some of them, but it's virtually impossible to do in a fantasy story. The really weird ones are physical world things that I've had hammered into my head so often by living with a physicist for 22 years that I think of them as common knowledge, but which are in fact not anything like generally known.

Douglas Hulick said...

There are also words people associate with "modern" usage or slang that date back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance that can trigger this problem, too. The trick then is deciding between risking the potential bounce, or sticking to the side of "being right", even though it may not seem that way to some people. It becomes especially difficult when there is no handy alternative that quite does the job.

Even moe maddening, though, is using a blatantly modern word or term that no one pegs, which happens to be sitting right next to a historical term that people pick at. Makes my inner word nerd nuts. :)

No easy choices; but yes, if it comes to needing to someone explain or relay that, yes, the word is old, the another word or concept is likely in order.

Janet said...

From this house of readers:

We seek out books that entertain while they educate. Or is that educate while they entertain...

My husband has a book, I think it's with him on his bike atm - so can't tell you the title/author, where instead of leading away from the narration - it's set on the high seas, the author just has some boxed in area that does some extra explaining or diagrams. Much like what you'd find in a textbook, but used in a story.

Douglas Hulick said...

P.S. - Apologies for the garble of my last paragraph above. That's what I get for trying to finish a post while everyone is waiting on me to head out the door.

Gretchen Ash said...

I find historical language less jarring if the whole piece is in appropriate voice, that is, if you're speaking to me in 14th c. English, I'm likely to assume that the word has changed meaning than that it's used incorrectly, especially if there is good contextual definition.

Of course, one also runs into this problem in British vs. American English. I've run into a few things lately where the British characters don't use British English for things, and I find that really weird and equally jarring, especially if the proper word has multiple meanings.

In either case, as long as the correct-for-the-story meaning is easily inferred from context, I don't stress about it as a reader.

Jon said...

I think, if a word choice throws readers out of the story, that's the most important problem. Being right doesn't really enter into it.

Douglas Hulick said...

Jon: I agree, except unfortunately it's not always an either/or thing. What throws some readers out can draw others in, and you will have some people complain about something that someone else thought was utter brilliance. Preference varies by reader, so it can be hard to tell what will or won't throw people.

Even in the Wyrdsmiths, we can have some members thrown by something, or not understand a passage, while others have no problem with it. In the end, it's a judgement call on the writer's part, and when that happens, other factors (like "right" vs. "modern" usage) can enter into it.

D. Moonfire said...

I get that in one of my fantasy worlds. They use the metric system (for much the same reason that there are flushing toilets; a ten thousand year, magical society probably figured out plumbing). But, since it is high magic, I get a certain number of readers who are turned off because things are in kilometers.

I'll admit, I switch to chains and rods for my latest novel... and except for the ex-surveyor, very few people actually know how long a link, chain, and rod are. (And I really hate, "the horse was a rod, about fourteen feet, away...")

But, that's the fun part of writing, right?

Naomi said...

Go ahead and use "inject." It probably won't bother anyone other than me. And you already told me it's a legitimate historical word!

(Mrissa calls this "The Tiffany Problem." Apparently Tiffany is a genuine medieval women's name, but it sounds super-modern to modern readers, and it's not like you can have a conversation where the characters explain to the reader that there's absolutely no reason a 14th century maiden can't be called "Tiffany.")

Jon said...

Doug, yeah, of course you don't go by one single opinion, you weigh them, that's why I said "readers". Personally, I generally stick to the school of thought: If one person says you're a horse, ignore it. If two people say you're a horse, consider it. And if three people say you're a horse... buy a saddle.

Kelly McCullough said...

Naomi, this isn't the injection thing, I ultimately decided you were absolutely right about that and did something else. This was a more recent incident, but the shell of the injection issue seemed like a better way to frame it than poking at a more recent issue.