Monday, October 24, 2011

Spaghettification: Making Up Words for Your Story

For those of you who are not familiar with black holes, spaghettification is a real-life term used to describe how the gravity of a black hole (or anything with a very strong gravitational pull) affects objects that get too close and are subsequently sucked in to their deaths or maybe transported to another place or time. Lots of sci-fi possibilities in black holes. If you want a more detailed explanation, you can find one here.

I'm not a scientist, so I don't know how frequently this term is used outside of television (I watch a lot of astronomy shows because I'm a huge nerd), but every time I hear it, it makes me laugh. And the last episode I watched on black holes had the black holes rolling around in space looking like space Roombas, so I don't think that helped.

And then at the end of that episode, the narrator said something to the effect of, "Black holes truly are the masters of the universe."

The use of the term spaghettification (and my amusement over it) got me thinking about how it applies to writing. Doesn't everything apply to writing?

If you write in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, you've probably, at some point, had the need to make up words unique to your worlds. But how do you know what works and what doesn't? You don't want the reader to laugh because it sounds too ridiculous or totally made-up.

Personally, nothing pulls me out of a story like a made-up swear word. I know that most pretend worlds wouldn't have the same swear words that we do, but most of the made-up ones sound silly and we all know what they're supposed to replace so why not just use the real thing? Okay, so that may or may not be one of my pet peeves. ;) 

In my own writing, if I need to come up with a world-specific word or even a name, I'll usually turn to other languages and try to find something I can tweak to fit my world. Or I might type the meaning into a baby naming site and see if there's something I can use there, and not just for names. I've come up with at least one world-specific word using a baby naming site. Even then, I'm not always sure that what I've come up with is working. I just try to go with what feels and sounds right for the story.

And I always google the word to make sure it doesn't already exist. Except for when I forget to do that and one of my crit partners has to point out that one of my character names is a gelato flavor. :)

What about you? How do you feel about made-up words in stories? Have you made up any words for your own stories? If so, how did you go about it?


  1. My husband is reading the adult SciFi book Anathem by Neal Stephenson, and it is incredibly chock-full of coined terms. From what we can tell, the author picked a few old languages (Latin and Anglo Saxon) and used some of the more arcane and archaic terms as the basis for his new words.

  2. I don't read a lot of sci fi. I have read quite a few fantasy and dystopian novels though. As long as the word seems to make sense I'm fine with it.

  3. I love made-up words when they make sense in the story, but nothing trips me up like having to break down an unfamiliar word that I either don't know how to pronounce, or have no frame of reference for.

    I've been using "fuming" instead of effing in my wip, because I want to avoid too much strong language, and because I think it fits with the "world" I'm writing in.

    Bad fumes are a part of the negative elements of the gasses my "sorcerers" use to make their "magic", so it just sort of happened.

  4. I'm generally pretty lenient with made up names - people's names, place names, animal/object names - as long as it's not completely unpronounceable or filled with apostrophes (that have no rhyme or reason and are only there for flavor).

    I do understand you on the swear words though. Those tend to be jarring and they take a while to get used to (if you ever do).

    For me, if made-up words make sense within the context of the story (e.g. I can see where they came from), it probably won't bother me.