I enjoy reading fantasy books, but I don’t always feel that they like me back. I have a terrible memory, and I find it difficult to keep track of names, dates, and geography in my real life, never mind a fictional setting. Unfortunately, fantasy books tend to be written in a way that does not mesh with my mind. They often have huge casts, which means a lot of names to remember (and relationships to keep track of). Those names are often fantastical and complex, ones I have never encountered before, which makes it even harder. To make matters worse, a lot of SFF books (and historical fiction) will also refer to the same character by several names: sometimes by first name, sometimes last name, sometimes by title. I usually try to focus on a few important characters and then accept my fate of not recognizing the rest.
Then there’s the intimidating geography aspect of fantasy novels in particular. Whenever I open a book and see a map, I get a sinking feeling in my gut. That usually signals that geography is important to this story, and I should be tracking place names. I have trouble remembering basic geography, likely because I can’t hold images well in my mind, so that is another hurdle. At least when a map is included, I have the option of flipping back to consult it, but that gets old fairly quickly.
A fantasy or science fiction story wouldn’t be complete without also adding a lot of new terminology. Whether it’s world-specific slang, names for objects unique to the story, or other fantastical vocabulary, there’s always a healthy sprinkling of new words to discover in an SFF novel — and I wouldn’t have it any other way! They also tend to not be defined right away, but instead should be deciphered through context clues. This saves the reader from running into info dumps at every turn, but it does add to the complexity of reading a SFF story.
Recently, I began a military fantasy novel, and I was already intimidated. I’m not used to reading military fantasy, and I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to keep track of all of the aforementioned hurdles to SFF reading plus added political machinations. The first paragraph hit me in the face with a series of words I didn’t recognize. City name, person name, country name, rank, etc. I felt like I bounced right off the story. I couldn’t get a grip to get into the actual meaning of the words. I ended up having to read it almost phonetically to get through it. Soon, I got into the meat of the story, but it was a challenge to get started.
When children are beginning to read and pick books for themselves, a strategy that educators use to guide them is the five finger rule. (Not to be confused with the five finger discount, which is usually not taught in class.) In this method, a reader picks up a book they’re interested in and reads the first page (or you read it together). As they read, they hold up one finger for every word they don’t know. Ideally, they end up with two to three fingers up, which means they’re learning, but not confused. If they end up with four to five (or more) words on a page that they don’t recognize, that book is too hard, and they go down to an easier reading level for now.
What I would like from SFF authors is to heed the five finger rule in their own writing: don’t introduce more than three new/world-specific words — or maximum four — on the first page of your novel, and that includes people and place names. It’s necessary to incorporate new-to-the-reader words, but I would appreciate it if they weren’t dumped all at once. After you’ve introduced your character, their name is no longer a new word, which makes space on the next page for a few more new vocab additions. It’s not a limit on how many new words an author can use, just how they’re doled out. Let readers acclimatize to the first handful before adding more.
If course, this comes with a lot of caveats. For one, obviously I can’t control what SFF authors do. This is…not a law. Also, I acknowledge that I am not a regular SFF reader, and maybe I’m not the target audience for military fantasy or hard science fiction. At the same time, though, if you want to attract new SFF readers, I think this is a great guideline to keep in mind. While experienced SFF readers may be used to acclimatizing to a unique world, the flood of new vocabulary can be a barrier to entry for inexperienced readers. I dove back into that military fantasy book, but I was just as likely to put it down and never come back to it based on that first paragraph alone. Challenging readers is fair, but why scare off readers in the introduction to your story? By being mindful about how world-specific terminology is incorporated, the story becomes more accessible to all kinds of readers.
Are you also intimidated by science fiction and fantasy and aren’t sure where to start? Try these posts: