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A while back, I redrafted my NaNoWriMo 2017 story, but it still needs another draft. This question is about one of the concerns I have.

The story takes place in a medieval fantasy setting, and the protagonist is a homeless orphan of about fourteen. As a result, she has a somewhat limited education, and at various points has to have long or complex words explained to her. At first I inserted these moments in order to underscore her limited education, but I kept on inserting them in order to pad things out just that little bit more.

An example: the villain, whose thieves' guild the protagonist has infiltrated, is describing their master plan, and refers to a "network of clandestine tunnels" under the city. The protagonist's partner notices her confusion, leans over, and whispers, "'Clandestine' means 'secret'".

I don't have access to the full draft right now, but off the top of my head, this happens at least six times in the space of 41,000 words, including once during what's supposed to be a very dramatic and emotional climax. I'm worrying that this is too frequent, and that it might get tedious or distract from the story somewhat. Will it? Or am I overthinking it?

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    Have you already weeded the ones out that could be understood through context? She's not stupid, just uneducated. We humans can pick up a lot based on context. Does she, as a person, really care about learning these large words? Sometimes a lot can be gleaned just through osmosis, but if someone does not care to pay attention that trips into the willfully ignorant category. Even a homeless orphan would have been exposed to a wide variety of speech depending on where she moved about trying to survive. – Cherriey Feb 22 at 13:31
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    I would be worried about that one time it happened "during what's supposed to be a very dramatic and emotional climax". – Liquid Feb 22 at 15:25
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    You might want to look at "A Series of Unfortunate Events" as a precedent for overexplaining words. And by "precedent", I mean "something that happened earlier that can be used as an example". – Acccumulation Feb 22 at 16:39
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    @Acccumulation "A Series of Unfortunate Events" used its definitions as a source of humor. If your story is on the serious side (rather than comedy), then it might not be a good example to follow. – R.M. Feb 22 at 16:42
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    A villain just says tunnels and doesn't say clandestine. That word is reserved for being spoken to the educated and ruling. Perhaps, "Our secret tunnels" is what a villain might refer to. – Willtech Feb 24 at 1:05
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It sounds very gimmicky, to be honest. I think you should think of more different ways in which her lower education would show, and switch it up a bit. Etiquette comes to mind, not being able to read, not being able to swim, being able to practical things of a commoner...

As a joke, it can work quite well if done right. For example having her ask "Who's Clandestine and why is she building tunnels?" or having her partner reply with "Clandestine means he's being an arse who wants to show off his fancy words in front of us" instead of actually answering the question. If you first build up the thing that she has to ask for words sometimes, then such a surprising joke would be a cool payoff to that buildup. But even that joke has a short half-life and should be used very sporadically, maybe even only once. And it sounds to me like you're not trying to be humorous anyway.

Generally, your phrasing "to pad things out just that little bit more" is obviously alarming, because that's a bad reason to do anything. If it adds nothing to the story anymore, then leave it out. But do respect the character trait you've built up and don't ignore it! What you could do is that when someone says something complicated, have the narrator mention that your protagonist had the word explained to her before she answered. It might also be interesting what she does about this handicap that she has. Maybe she starts a mental list of new words, similar to Arya Stark's list of people she wants to kill? Maybe she starts using the words herself very often, and in slightly inappropriate contexts?

But yeah, all in all I think it's a bit gimmicky, and in thinking about it I always come to the conclusion that it should be played for laughs or not done at all. I don't think you can have a dramatic and serious story with that kind of gimmick in it. Mention it at the beginning, and mention that she's frustrated by it. Maybe mention that she starts ignoring words she doesn't know, but reminds herself to look them up later. Then you can skip having to explain every complicated word and keep moving forward with the actual story.

Side note, this setup would be quite nice for a children's story, though.

  • Her not being able to read does get brought up early on by another character, in a rather condescending manner. I think you're right, this is probably something I should either tone down a lot, or remove entirely. – F1Krazy Feb 22 at 18:47
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It seems more like a running gag, than a character trait or infodump.

Running gags have comedic "rules" and structure, so it becomes less about texture and more about timing. That doesn't mean you are going for a big laugh, but you are establishing a pattern for the reader and then deciding when to invoke it, and later when to break it.

The gag is not so much about author to reader (although obviously that is a huge part of it), instead it is about getting other characters in on the gag. Once you've established the pattern that she is misinterpreting big words, other character's personalities come into play. Someone who is mentoring her will try to help her by explaining, but other characters will get annoyed or be amused by this. They will tell her wrong definitions, or tell each other very obvious definitions (more to rib the mentor, than her). This can lead to moments when the gag turns dark or mean, unintentionally. Extra opportunity for small conflicts within the group that arise from natural (habitual) character traits.

Breaking the pattern isn't just about making her suddenly smarter, it's also about other characters chiming in unhelpfully, and mimicking the moment to others. It's also about these other characters expecting the pattern too, and when there is suddenly a long passage of big words and it appears she understood it all, these characters who have become to expect it are now the butt of the joke because they have played into the pattern and their expectations are subverted. This uses the gag as more than just comedy, as it helps to evolve the bonds between the group, when minor antagonism turns into respect, or the moment she turns it around and has to explain something only a 14yo orphan girl would understand.

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Story actions should serve multiple purposes

There's limited space in narration to get across what you're trying to say. Sure, you can always make the story longer - and bore or annoy people. (Your stated concern.)

You say you originally introduced the explaining big words to illustrate a deficiency in your protagonist's education. That's actually a great idea. But if you reuse the need to have things explained to only reemphasize the same point, you're eventually just wasting time. Worse yet if your other characters start using overly complicated language simply so you, the author, can create opportunities to insert pedantic explanations as filler.

If something has to be defined for the protagonist, make that an opportunity to explore exactly who she is

In some stories, an AI will ask about the meaning of words like "love" or "friendship". This is not simply to show that the AI doesn't know the basic definitions of some words - it's to illustrate an ignorance of facets of the human condition. And also, perhaps, to explore our own hypocrisy about such things. (It's often very badly done...)

Dialogue about what a word means, or what an unfamiliar institution represents, can open doors for deep social commentary, as well as a humorous or shocking window into the past deprivation of the protagonist. ("Gorged? What do you mean, so full that you can't eat more? Who ever has that much to eat?")

You're underusing the technique if you're only filling space.

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    One of the best examples of this being done well is It's A Wonderful Life. George's uncle being clumsy and careless is treated as a running gag for a long time... right up until he gets entrusted with something really important and then loses it, which turns into a major driving force for the rest of the plot. – Mason Wheeler Feb 22 at 17:06
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If you're writing A Series of Unfortunate Events, it works. Because the purpose is to educate the reader (or allow the reader to be the one that says "I know what X means"). If you're writing a serious book, it's annoying.

In real life, if someone is speaking with someone who doesn't know the vocabulary, they restate things in a way that doesn't draw attention to the person's deficit.

Character 1: ...network of clandestine tunnels under the city...
Character 2: looks confused
Character 1 (or 3): After we find these hidden tunnels, we can...

But wow is that tedious. Just leave it out. Even if it's done more seamlessly, without showing the confusion. In that example, the word can be figured out by context. In other cases, not so much.

For instance, just last night I was at a presentation by high school students about AP class offerings at the school. After the second one mentioned "a-push" I called out "what does 'a-push' mean?" But I wouldn't have if it wasn't such a small audience or if they'd been on a stage instead of just one side of the library. Context matters for the confused listener too. (BTW, it means AP-US, the Advanced Placement class for American History.) But I bet you're all bored simply reading my example...you wouldn't want to see it in a book. Especially not over and over.

If you continue to have people explain things to the uneducated person, after you've established their situation, you risk the reader feeling that you're doing it either to provide unnecessary exposition or to poke fun at the bubble-headed woman who doesn't understand what the men are talking about (this is true even if some of the characters explaining things are women). It's a stereotype and one that has been used in a lot of books. Where the dumb woman is there just so the men can explain things.

Even if you take away all the gender issues with this stereotype, it's still an over-used technique. Dumb men aren't any more interesting than dumb women. Even if they're really smart but just don't have the required knowledge yet.

It would be one thing if you were using it to explain stuff the reader wouldn't know ("this is how to shut down the engine if the alarm sounds and how to troubleshoot things before you turn it back on" or "not there; make your cut just above the second set of triple leaves"), though it can get old there too.

You can have the character ask for clarification of more complex things that depend on vocabulary. Not "what does clandestine mean?" but more like "MITRE radar?" But use this sparingly. Twice is enough.

You can use other methods to show the character's lack of education. For example, she would speak with a lower level vocabulary than educated people. No native speaker makes a grammatical mistake in their language (unless they're misapplying something they learned in school) but what is correct in speech is often wrong in written language or in spoken language used by people with education. So she would speak correctly but differently. As she learns new words, she will start to use them, and sometimes might get them a bit wrong. Same for understanding what others say. Make these things subtle and be careful that they don't get distracting.

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The question is not when that particular device gets tedious, it's when does it stop contributing to the readers understanding of the main character?

The answer to this is probably shortly after the first or second time. The reader will probably get the idea that the protagonist has a limited education, and re-hashing that fact won't enhance the story.

Try replacing your dialogue with overviews of what was said, a la the classic writers:

Example (too much dialogue):

"Where are the lemons?" asked Jim.

"I don't know," replied Linda. "I put them right here and I..." Confusion flashed across Linda's face.

"Forgot the lemons again, eh, Lind?"

Example (Fixed):

Jim spent a few minutes questioning old forgetful Linda about the lemons she had misplaced.

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