I am thinking about setting my story in a postapocalyptic world where all art and literature are gone, and people are mostly illiterate. People lost the ability to formulate deep thoughts, became incapable to talk to each other and to express things clearly. A general "stupidity" infected the whole land. The main consequence is that characters speak very poorly, without proper grammar, and mostly with simple phrases, misused words or plain grunts. This will be important in the end, where they will discover a group of survivors who maintained a fine level of language and culture.

The problem is that all my characters, for 2/3 of the novel, would speak in a very dull way, such as:

"Did u do the thing"
"What thing" "that thing there"
"Ah that - yes, yes"

I imagine a world where the main catastrophe is represented by the loss of language.

But will a story full of these dialogues be sustainable? Won't it be too boring or dull for a reader? Can it be understandable?

My original idea was to make it a script for a graphic novel, where poor balloons would have made sense. But in a prose novel?

EDIT: from some of your precious answers, I have noticed that I have used the word "illiterate" improperly. With "illiterate" I didn't just mean the incapability to read and write. I mean the general inability to express oneself clearly, to properly use language, to understand complex thoughts and logic.

  • 2
    I hope this does not come off mean, but I find it exceedingly ironic that a post discussing " general inability to express oneself clearly" did not express itself clearly (lest I come off as snobbish, this happens to 50%+ of my posts). More on topic, a good answer is likely to arise out of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I'm afraid I'm not qualified to make such an answer, but would love to read one if someone qualified posts it.
    – DVK
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 12:54
  • @DVK you're not mean, I thought the exact same thing when I had to edit my own question :D
    – FraEnrico
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 13:03
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    Why did people lose the ability to formulate deep thoughts and express themselves clearly? While many stories have this connection between losing books and people becoming dumb, the link usually arises because books are being suppressed as part of suppressing freedom of thought, to force people to exclusively rely.on things the government fully controls for information. In general losing books would force people to rely more on verbal communication and result in the spoken language becoming more expressive. They might be ignorant and very pragmatic, but they'd talk clearly and expressively. Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 14:52
  • Take a page from Tropic Thunder - Never go full retard. And why on earth would you shorten "you" to "u" when speaking? It's the same sound?
    – user18397
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 22:20

4 Answers 4


The great privilege of the novelist is that you can choose what sources of interest you create in your novel. Novels today tend to be dialogue heavy, partly in response to "Show don't Tell" and partly because the writer and the reader probably watch more TV than they read novels. But that does not mean that you have to make dialogue the primary source of interest in your novel. That is up to you. You may just have to cast your net a little wider to find good exemplars.

Nonetheless, your premise is flawed. You are equating illiteracy with an unsophisticated use of language. But that is a misnomer. Literacy has to do with the written word. Lack of the written word had nothing to do with your level of sophistication in the use of the spoken word. True, the ability to read does expose you to a wider world, but it does not mean that intelligent people who have not learned to read, particularly in a culture that has no written culture, cannot think sophisticated thoughts and express sophisticated ideas. We have plenty of evidence of sophistication from preliterate societies both in the form or art and in the form of language handed down in the oral tradition.

The preservation and transmission of language in an oral tradition depends on different methods. We probably would not have poetry if it were not for the need to preserve and pass on core stories from one generation to the next. Perhaps we would not have music, or at least song, either.

So, if you want to make your non-literate society interesting, think more about how the transmission of stories and ideas works in a non-literate culture. You might find it pretty interesting.

EDIT: If your characters are simply stupid, on the other hand, you face a more fundamental challenge. Stories are built around aspiration and endeavour. At their heart is a choice between conflicting values. The protagonist wants something, and, as the story progresses, they meet increasing levels of resistance to the achievement of their desire until at last they must make a fundamental choice, pay a significant price, by giving up one value to achieve another.

But such choices require the ability to foresee the consequences of actions. Without such ability, people blunder from one immediate response to another, usually to their doom. Stories are about making difficult choices and choices are only difficult when the person making them has a sophisticated appreciation for the consequences of their actions. (One could argue that this is the original purpose of stories, to teach humans to anticipate and weigh the consequences of their actions.)

If your characters are all stupid, too stupid to put together a few coherent sentences, it is hard to imagine them having the capability to anticipate the consequences of their actions, and thus hard to build a hero's arc for any of them. There is perhaps some way to build a satire out of such a situation (think Idiocracy for example) but it is hard to see how you do a hero's journey. And if you can't do that, that is going to do far more to make your story dull than the simplistic use of language.

  • Thanks, your answer is very useful. I noticed that I used the word "illiteracy" in an improper way, so I edited my question. Anyway your answer stands good, and it helped me a lot, though indirectly.
    – FraEnrico
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 12:20
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    @FraEnrico, I have edited my answer to focus more on your clarified question.
    – user16226
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 14:55
  • I would have to agree Mark! Maybe provide an event where some one discovers books or discovers an old Cassette player or something and they learn from it! I don't think I could withstand to read a book where the dialogue for every character was.... stupid... It might be cool at first but 300 pages of it would become mind numbing.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 15:00

This is an opinion based answer, my opinion is I would put it down pretty quickly. Anything that is made intentionally difficult to read slows me down, particularly if misspellings don't sound any different than the fully spelled word: "Did u do the thing" sounds absolutely the same as "Did you do the thing", except the first interrupts my flow of reading by trying to see what 'u' is supposed to mean.

If you assume any readers read extremely well and fast, misspellings slow them down.

If you assume any readers read slowly, misspellings won't help them.

Again, this is my opinion, but this is not something that will help your story by making it seem realistic, it will prevent it from being read altogether.

I should point out that people becoming illiterate (or not having books) does not prevent them from having a large vocabulary, and does not make them stupid or dull. In Shakespeare's day (1600), 75% of men and 95% of women in England were illiterate, but they understood his plays.

Grammar and vocabulary are not a result of literacy, but exposure. In modern times we happen to be exposed mostly through print, but there are many routes to exposure, and the truth is that almost all the words we use in daily conversation we learned by ear, NOT in print.

Children learn words and proper grammar years before they learn to read and write. By the time they DO learn to read and write nearly every word they know, they have been speaking for a decade, and many adults NEVER learn to correctly spell nearly every word they know. That does not mean they use those words incorrectly or pronounce them incorrectly.

In fact, learning words from print can impede correct pronunciation; until they hear a math professor pronounce "Euler" many students might think it is pronounced "You-ler", but it is pronounced "Oiler".

So I think your premise is flawed and unrealistic. The loss of all print in the world will not make people start talking like four year olds, their minds would have to be reduced to the level of four year olds. Their language will be just as logically complex and their vocabulary will still be precise: If a doctor means to point out the right iliac vein, that is what he will say. Current doctors have the terminology memorized, and memorization is still a part of the training: You must know every part of anatomy by heart, in all its Latin glory, in order to be a medical doctor. The sudden loss of print would not be a loss of the information at all. The same goes for lawyers, doctors, mathematicians, chemists, historians, grammarians, etc. It is all memorized by someone, and they would quickly transcribe it all to mud tablets marked with pointy sticks if that was needed. If you magically made reading and writing impossible, they would revert to the middle ages practice of rote memorization, before 1500, when most humans in Europe were illiterate, they all had much more memorized than modern humans do today (and the same is true in illiterate primitive times today, some such people learn the names of hundreds of their ancestors and hundreds of stories verbatim, to pass down to their children in oral tradition).

I'm not criticizing your premise as an insult, but to point out it isn't very strong and (IMO) would likely not result in a plausible story. If you want to write some low-brow campy humor, you might get this kind of thing to work in a play or movie similar to Idiocracy.

It might not be a bad premise if the prose is modern and only the characters are of reduced intellect and memory capacity. If you have interactions with any children, a workable premise might be that some disease sweeps the world and leaves all humans incapable of developing any further than the ten year old intellect. Eventually the adults die out and the world is run by adults with the minds of fifth graders.

One turning point that would be interesting is to read what all these normal-thinking adults DO before they die off, to prepare the world to be inhabited by a population entirely composed of ten year old minds.

Another turning point might be centuries later, when civilization has collapsed and all people live and mate in near stone age conditions, and some mutant child is born with a natural immunity to the disease, and develops normally, so after the age of 10, she is, slowly, increasingly smarter than those around her, then everybody around her, then everybody in the world, yet still no smarter than the smartest of us today. But, can a modern adult, alone, control a hundred million adults with the minds of fifth graders all living in tiny kingdoms and separate villages? Maybe, maybe not, it would be interesting to hear her story.

  • That's a very good answer, thank you. I have edited my question because I did not use the word "illiteracy" in the right way, so I made a bit of confusion. Anyway your answer is full of food for thought, which helps me a lot. Thanks!
    – FraEnrico
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 12:22
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    Damn, came here to post an answer with 3 ideas and this answer already had 2 of them (history and "idiocracy). +1, a very comprehensive asnwer.
    – DVK
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 12:57

If you have a third person POV, the descriptive writing and other narration could make a nice contrast with the dialogue and would make the point of the story in a strong way. I don't usually recommend spelling non-verbal dialogue (grunts etc.), but I can see from the examples you've given that in this case it might add something.

It's trickier to do first person, but it can be done well. (It's the second time in a few days I've been citing Banks on here, but "Feersum Endjinn" is a good example).


Depending on specifics of your setting, two approaches to avoid the problem you are concerned about (readers being bored) are:

  1. Show the characters thought processes (from narrator point of view).

    Dialogs by themselves add something to the work, of course, but their main purpose is to showcase what the character is thinking and feeling. As such, you can replace it with narrator explanations of person's thoughts.

    A good example of this in a lot of literature is situations where a shy/introverted person tries to talk to someone they are attracted to. The dialog is (often deliberately) stilted, and limited:

    'uh' - was what came out his mouth. "Smooth, Smith" thought he to himself. Way to impress a lady". A blush of embarassment spread all over his face.

  2. Make the plot interesting.

    R2-D2's or Chewbacca's limited vocabulary don't seem to bore anyone watching Star Wars. Because storytelling!!!

  3. Additionally, the setting where most people are incapable of expressing deep thoughts seems to be quite realistic, in some way. So it may not be as much of a suspension of disbelief for the reader as you worry.

    I mean, have you ever read Youtube or forum comments or Twitter? :)

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