I am writing a short story, about a particular field with multiple specific terms, none of which are in English. (Specifically, I'm writing about bullfighting, but the question could apply to other fields.)

My POV character lives that particular field, so he would be using the proper terms, not more general nonspecific words. Anything else doesn't really make sense in terms of the narrator's voice.

When speaking in English, the proper terms are the Spanish ones. Those are the terms used in any and all related publications, fiction and non-fiction alike. As an example, the red piece of cloth the matador uses is called a muleta. No other word exists. Calling it a "red piece of cloth" makes as much sense as a professional swordsman calling the hilt "a handle", or worse - referring to a fuller as a "blood groove".

Trouble is, within the scope of a short story, my beta readers feel overwhelmed by the abundance of terms. What they're saying is, it's not that the meaning of each particular term can't be figured out from context, but there's just too many, too much effort required.

How can I alleviate the weight of foreign terms in the story, without sacrificing the main character's voice? It is important to note this is a short story, so spreading the term out more isn't an option.

  • Related, useful, not a dupe: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/1742/… Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 11:34
  • 1
    A Clockwork Orange handled this by having a dictionary in the back of the book
    – SeanC
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 15:52
  • @SeanC So did The Dangerous Summer. But I'm writing a short story, not a novel. What solution would work for the significantly shorter form? Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 16:39
  • calling a fuller as a "blood groove" makes even less sense. The fuller is a way to save material, make the weapon lighter without compromising much of its structural integrity. Not to drain blood. Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 18:56
  • 3
    Note that even if you were writing in Spanish rather than English, readers not familiar with bullfighting terms would face the same problem, thinking on the crutch, not in the red cloth
    – Ángel
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 22:54

9 Answers 9


This is the same problem that experts always have when trying to explain their field to the general public. My advice is: don't be such a purist.

I develop software for a living. Computer systems are complicated and we have lots of technical terms. But I avoid using technical terms when talking to people who are not computer savvy. I don't say, "we scan the BTREE index using a pre-order traversal to find the records with matching GUIDs, retrieve the designated control intervals, and parse the records". I'll say something more like, "we get the customer's order information". Is the first "the right terms"? Sure. When I'm talking to another computer person, I use technical terms to avoid ambiguity. But when I'm talking to a non-computer person, they're just confusing.

I've routinely heard the piece of red cloth that a matador uses referred to as a "red cape". Ok, so that's not the technically correct term. But readers know what you mean when you say it, rather than having to figure it out.

If I read a story and come across some specialized word that I didn't know, I often think, huh, so I learned a new word. But if there are dozens, it just gets daunting. It's too much work. I'd use common, descriptive words. If you find yourself screaming "but that's not the RIGHT word", I'd say just grit your teeth and do it anyway. :-)


A story like this is about what the MC experiences, and should be told in the MC's voice, but it's also important to consider your readers' experiences as they read, right? This seems like a case where you need to balance the reader's expected knowledge of the subject matter with the MC's. If I told someone a story about what I did at work (and didn't want to bore them to death), I'd try to minimize any industry-specific jargon and go for more general terms instead. I'd still be telling my story in my own voice, obviously, but with consideration for the audience.

So a muleta is a red piece of cloth attached to a stick. But even if the only acceptable name for that thing is "muleta," you've still got a red piece of cloth and a stick, and the reader's focus could be on one of those components. The MC can pull out the muleta, and you can describe what it is there, and from that point on your reader can see a flash of red cloth, or notice the way the MC deftly maneuvers the stick, or whatever. You can avoid calling it by its name again until the MC puts it away, reminding the reader of what it is again (he takes up the muleta, neatly wrapping the red cloth around the stick, maybe).

To your sword example, suppose a character has a sword to another character's neck. Writing something like "Alice held the falchion to Bob's neck" feels detached somehow; "Alice held the blade to Bob's neck" seems a little better. "Bob gasped as the cold steel pressed against his flesh" feels even more visceral. These second two options work well, even though we don't refer to the entire weapon, only the part that's doing something interesting.

Similarly, Bob could watch his own blood trickle down a groove running the length of the blade, and none of the meaning is lost. Calling it a fuller instead could break immersion. Everyone knows what a groove is, but not everyone knows what a fuller is (even if you told them what it was earlier, they may have to stop and think about it). The MC may think of it as a fuller, but it is certainly still a groove. Same goes for a red cloth or a stick.



Summary: choose wisely the necessary "difficult" words that you need to set the tone, the style and the setting, and avoid all the others.

The absolute basic is that any story can be told with a bare minimum of words. Many suggested reading books for language beginners are abridged versions of literary masterpieces, based on reduced dictionaries of a few hundred words.

Any word beyond the bare minimum should have a purpose. Typical purposes are: setting the tone, coherence of style and setting. One can use archaic words to evoke a sense of solemnity, or to indicate to the reader that the story is set in the past. Similarly, one could stick to exact scientific terms rather than their vulgarized counterparts to communicate competence.

From the OP there are two issues at play: the use of foreign words, and the use of main language words that are unknown to the reader.

The former is easier to address. Of all the foreign words you are planning to use, pick the top ones that are better at communicating the setting or that would occur more often. For instance, "muleta" does a great job at establishing the setup in a bullfighting scene, possibly Spain in the region of Valencia. "Don", is also a good choice, while maybe a bit too generic, you may be giving a Spanish flavour to both the dialogues and the narration. In contrast, "Hola" is a poor cheap choice, as it does not establish setting, and definitively does not improve style, and thus it could be easily avoided. Keep the number of foreign terms low. The few ones that you pick will stick out, thus becoming memorable and in so doing they will render an even greater service to your short story.

Do not worry about explaining these foreign words. If a muleta occurs in the plot, then it should come automatically from the writing that a "muleta" is red. And a few sentences later, that it is a piece of cloth. And that the toreador is holding it in front of the bull. The reader will piece all these things together.

The other issue is that of words that are unknown to the reader. This is a much deeper issue. In principle one could write in the style of an abridged book for language beginners. That would be not very satisfying. I am of the opinion that if the reader does not know the word "hilt" in their own language, then they should go and learn it.

That being said, it is also true that "hilt" may occur in sentences where no "hilt" is needed. unless you are describing how beautiful a sword is, "from the pommel to the tip", then consider the following changes:

  • "he clenched the hilt" -> "he clenched the sword"
  • "the hilt hit the dirt" -> "the sword fell to the ground"
  • "the hilt broke right under the crossguard" -> "the sword snapped"
  • "only the hilt sticking from the bull's skull" -> "the entire blade was deep in the bull"

In general, you can probably replace most occurrences of hilt with either "sword" or with describing what the rest of the sword is doing. Or you could drop it altogether. In the austere economy of the number of words of a short story, it is easier to make cuts to long winded descriptions, and precise terms, while keeping the plot and MC's thoughts going.

Finally, focus. I have the same issue as you do, until I remind myself that a story is about the plot and the characters, rather than an exercise in showing the rarest items from our bag of words.

  • "Senor" kills the authenticity for two reasons: firstly, because the Spanish word is Señor; and secondly, because it really isn't used that often (at least in Spain - I haven't spent enough time in other Spanish-speaking countries to testify to usage). Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 20:45
  • @PeterTaylor I never claimed it to be common. Muleta is not an everyday word either. In any event, changed in favour of Don.
    – NofP
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 23:56

I separate my narrator from my main character's voice. I do not write in first person, I write in 3rd person limited, with a deep POV. (Deep 3PL). Meaning, for those unfamiliar, my narrator knows the thoughts, sensations, emotions and memories of my one main, POV character, (that's "deep") but "Limited" means the narrator has knowledge of ONLY this one character: So the reader doesn't learn the thoughts and feelings of any other character, which in writing has the advantage of allowing my POV character (and reader) to be deceived, or to not know secrets of other characters, etc.

The 3rd person separates the narrator from the POV. So the reader reads

Lisa ran her standard route. Half mile to the post office, three quarters to the Walmart, back by way of Grantham Pass, she liked the houses there. Like running through a manicured park. Couldn't afford them. Ever. But today the houses and landscaping didn't even register, she ran automatically, her mind occupied by Roger's transform equations. She wanted them to work, they had to work, but there was something missing, just out of her grasp.

The advantage of this approach (to me) is the narrator can describe what the POV character is thinking, in a way that (IMO) no person would plausibly think about themselves. I can describe the kinds of visual memories that accompany our experiences. Your character picks up the muleta, then we need no technical description of what it is, just her brief flash memories of how it is used, when she was taught how to hold it and yield it. She must get ready for this fight, I imagine. There must be moments of the fight where she thinks about what she is doing, and the narrator can explain why, what is going on in her head, and how she learned it.

Those are the advantages a deep 3PL offers. Your narrator voice doesn't have to reflect either your POV character's inner voice or outer voice, if those differ. For example, in one of my stories, the POV character was raised in a religious system that uses an older form of English, she thinks (we see her thoughts in italics) and speaks (in dialogue) that way. But my narrator does not. The narrator relates the tale in normal English, and has their own voice, a wider vocabulary, more eloquent and descriptive than any character in the book. (I do avoid the narrator using anachronistic analogies or metaphors for my settings, e.g. they can't compare something to a pocket watch if those don't exist in the world.)

This makes the narrator capable of translating the thoughts of the POV character. I seldom do that directly, but the translation can be done using how the POV character understands something:

They were harvesting apples, forty pound bushels for the adults, and a quarter that, pecks for the kids. Marie had a fond memory of that, one of her first, struggling to get her peck to the presser, only able to carry it about four feet at a stretch. She'd been so proud to finally get it there. but her favorite job at harvest had been picker, at ten she was light and small enough to navigate the thin limbs, to reach and disconnect the further apples with her long picker's fork, to a catcher below. It was death-defying, and thrilling.

The point of this immersion is the narrator can casually define in context things the reader may not be familiar with, like bushels and pecks. Also the job titles, presser, picker, catcher. You know pretty much what a picker's fork is without me describing it in any detail; obviously it is long stick, forked at the end, used to push an apple and break stem from branch.

But also, by tying this to memory and Marie's emotions, we get a micro-scene so the definitions are not just a list of dry terms to memorize. The relationship between Bushels v. Pecks is Adults v. Children. Pickers are around ten, old enough to climb, light enough to not break branches. If Marie did not have personal experience harvesting apples, I'd give her a foil, somebody to answer her questions.

You can do the same thing for your matador; or some combination of methods, memory and explanation to a foil new to the game, or an outsider unfamiliar with the terminology: Friend, lover, acquaintance, a kid, their own kid.

The trick (I think) is tying the delivery of this information in with emotions. In the first example, Lisa is pre-occupied, but the narrator doesn't have to be, her normal enjoyment of Grantham Pass is described, even though she doesn't experience it in this scene.

Likewise in the second; Marie's memories tell us what is happening, the 3rd person narrator defines terms, but the whole thing may take a single second as these memories flash through her.

I find these things difficult and awkward in first person. in Deep 3PL we can still get all the advantages of first person, through directly stated thoughts or dialogue. I use both. But I'd give your narrator their own voice, so they can slip in the clues the reader will need to understand the terminology.


Many writers face similar problems.

For example, the police have technical terms for many of their tools and procedures, and yet crime fiction writers are well able to write a story from the perspective of a police person without falling into police jargon.

And in fact many of us face the problem of technical terms almost daily. When we communitcate with our physicians, the mechanics that repair our cars, or any other professional, they can converse their meaning to us quite ably without requiring us to study their field beforehand.

Many experts who begin writing fiction set in the field of their expertise make the mistake of wanting to write the fiction in the same scholarly accurate manner in which they think about their field and communicate with other experts. It is the same mistake many experts make when they teach or write academic articles. The better teachers, and the better academic authors, are those that remember (or can imagine) what it feels like to not have their expert level of knowledge and understanding and who are able to explain their field in the words of a layman.

Psychologist Daryl J. Bem advises in his famous (among psychologists) article on "Writing the empirical journal article" that academic publications should be written in a way that your grandmother may understand it:

Direct your writing to the student in Psychology 101, your colleague in the Art History Department, and your grandmother. No matter how technical or abstruse your article is in its particulars, intelligent nonpsychologists with no expertise in statistics or experimental design should be able to comprehend the broad outlines of what you did and why. They should understand in general terms what was learned. And above all, they should appreciate why someone—anyone—should give a damn. The introduction and discussion sections in particular should be accessible to this wider audience.

If even highly technical writings should be comprehensible to non-experts, this is especially true for general fiction.

Writers have written about bullfighting – note how the Wikipedia article isn't titled corrida – quite often: in fiction, in journalism, in scholarship, and many of these writers have described the event quite vividly without using more than some few basic Spanish (or Portuguese or French) terms.

I would therefore advise you to

  1. Read some other accounts of bullfighting that are targeted at a general audience and see how those writers solve the problem of technical terms. (Or read stories about lawyers, scientists, craftspeople, or anyone else who uses jargon in their work and see how those writers avoid to use it. You may simply not note that those authors avoid technical jargon because you aren't an expert in those fields and don't recognize the absence of it.)

  2. Think about what the actual tale is that you want to tell. If you find yourself overly occupied with attempting an expertly accurate description, you may be suffering from the common affliction of many writers who desire to transfer the exact image of what they have in their mind to the mind of the reader. Focus instead on the story and see if that makes some of the technical terms superfluous.


I'd suggest constantly attaching reminders and clues of what things are in a way that adds to/integrates with the rest of the story.

Rather than "waving the muleta at the oncoming bull", it might be something more like "The red silk of the muleta flashed over the bulls head as it made another pass, displacing the bull's charge just enough to avoid gouging...".

Don't be afraid to do this the first time you mention it in any area of text because we readers forget fast.

I'm not a writer, just a reader, but for me this kind of consideration is huge.

  • 1
    This. If you use context to define your words for you, then you can slip in technical terms without hindering the reader's understanding of what's going on. Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 5:15

Realism is just a style --you're trying to give readers the feel and the flavor of this character, not give them an exact transcription of what his actual thoughts would be. That gives you several possible ways to attack this question:

  • Present him as though he was consciously addressing an audience unfamiliar with bullfighting, or in other words, as if he was telling this story to a representative of the probable readership.

  • Shift to 3rd person. This allows you to use his words but also to explain them.

  • Start with enough full immersion to give the feel and then rapidly transition to presenting it in a way your layperson audience will easily understand --with the implication that he's still using the proper terms, you're just not inflicting them on the audience. (This can be tricky --it used to be when authors did this they felt the need to explain it explicitly to the audience, as clunky as that is, but it's become enough of a convention that a lot of writers just skip the exposition and leave it implicit.)

  • Just sigh and write it in a way that will sound wrong to you, but right to the audience. Unless you're writing specifically for an audience of bullfighting aficionados, your primary responsibility is to your reader --and not to the imaginary panel of judges in your head who will chastise you for using the wrong words. Keep muleta as "muleta" and a sprinkling of other terms for flavor, and lose all the rest --without regrets.

Look at it this way --if you having an ordinary conversation with a friend who knew nothing about bullfighting, you wouldn't overwhelm him with specialized jargon you knew he wouldn't understand, would you? Hopefully not. You might drop a few technical terms into the conversation, but you'd explain them. Otherwise you'd come across as a know-it-all jerk who was more interested it being heard than understood. You owe your audience at least as much consideration.


Focus on contextual usage and descriptions, and consider the process behind how you learn new words.

How often have you learned a new word by opening a dictionary and reading definitions at random? [If you answer 'never' then you're probably not a geek, and if you answer 'frequently' then you're far geekier than I am...]

Now how often have you learned a new word by being shown something, and having someone say something about it?

"First we begin the procedure by using [insert medical technical jargon]..." as said by a doctor holding the described object, which we are then guided through the use of and given any relevant and useful details of as fitting for the scene: And most readers will have no issues understanding what that [random medical technical jargon] meant without having known it before coming across the word in a book.

Despite what the internet may suggest, humans are generally fairly smart. Avoid excessive worry about them not being able to understand while writing: Deciding whether or not something truly works or needs rewritten is really up to test-readers anyway.

  • Write what works well for you while writing, edit what proves problematic while reading.

A lot of us read the Harry Potter books and yet, had only minor stumbles with JK Rowlings' wizarding language. My advice, read a few of her pieces and see how she handled the made up words. NO ONE knew what a muggle was until she wrote it. She even used Hermoine's voice to help readers with pronunciation. If you are writing a novel you have plenty of wiggle room to introduce the bull-fighting vocabulary. Similar to how Rowling introduced the readers to vocabulary through someone never exposed to magic (Harry), I would use the MC to recall his learning of the equipment and tools that are specific to your book. And as much as Brad Thor and Vince Flynn use military jargon in their books, though clunky at times, it helps when the MC is either explaining, recalling, or the main context reveals the use or definition.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, DJWolfe! Please note the question is specifically about a short story, not about a novel. Also, when you have time, take a look at our tour and help center pages, they're really helpful. Hope to see more of you here! :) Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 14:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.