DOES YOUR STORY NEED A PRONUNCIATION GUIDE
Once again, I have to thank the Facebook Genre Writers Retreat Fantasy Sci-Fi Steampunk Etc. page for this inspiration. A discussion came up the other day where a reader asked if she should add a pronunciation section to her book.
Just the idea of needing one in the first place brings up a set of issues that I discussed briefly in the post and want to address here. I’ve alluded to them in past posts, but thanks to that thread, I can now focus solely on this subject.
PURPOSE OF A PRONUNCIATION GUIDE
Just the idea that one is needed indicates that there are enough words sprinkled throughout the book that the reader is going to stumble over them. We’ll get to the stumble part in a moment. This list, if extensive enough to require a list, is either a list of made up, obscure or foreign words that the average reader may or may not want to learn how to pronounce.
For the reader’s convenience, the author, if he or she keeps track and doesn’t miss any of them, lists the entire range of difficult-to-pronounce-correctly words at the back or front of the book. Problem solved. Or is it?
WHY DO IT?
One reason is immersion. An author gets so wrapped up in their world, whether it be fantasy or science fiction, it’s a common reason to come up with these off-the-wall words (or even other genre fiction where real words are used). To make it more realistic, at least from the author’s perspective, liberally sprinkling these words in the text immerses the reader in the author’s world. In the case of historical fiction, or even non-fiction, they may seem necessary for the setting.
Another reason is literary. In literary fiction, it’s all about the words, the description and the word picture. Therefore, the beauty of the words is key. If difficult or unusual to pronounce words are called for, anything is game.
Maybe the author can’t think of simpler names that are pronounceable, or close enough the reader can figure out their own pronunciation. However, there are 26 letters in the English language and almost an infinite number of combinations to create sounds. It’s up to the author’s imagination to create sounds that are palatable to the reader. The simpler, the better.
HAZARDS OF DIFFICULT-TO-PRONOUNCE WORDS
Say you’re reading along, la de da…and you run across a word, Zarda’dla’beck’wa’wa’wadna’sdna’nwda’da’’’. Oh…kay…first of all, what in the world is that? How do you pronounce it? If the author gives no explanation, you pause, figure something out and move on. If there’s a pronunciation guide at the back of the book, you pause, flip to the back, try to figure out how to pronounce it, then continue reading.
Key thing: pause.
The flow of the story’s been interrupted. It’s come a screeching halt because you had to stop to stumble over that weird-ass word!
For most readers, they’re either going to just give up and skip over it or fill in their own blank. Maybe for the totally immersed reader, they may try to go the extra step. Would you?
For me, it’s just a matter of the old Charlie Brown adult speak “Wah wah wah wah.” I make something up and move on. Even if there were a guide in the book, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t care. I’d just fill in my own blank or skip it, anyway.
Now, in a fantasy setting, take a magick user performing a spell. “Zapbraft grella dragsaft!”
In this case, the words are nonsense. The author knows it, the reader knows it. There’s no need for a pronunciation guide because the words just convey a “mysterious spell” that’s purely effect and nothing else. The reader can zip right over them and move on. They’ll never see those word combinations again.
That’s the difference.
When the difficult word is someone’s name or the name of a place that keeps coming up, or it’s the proper name of a process of some kind, it’s a repeated difficult word that’s going to continue to give the reader pause throughout the story.
Not all, but the majority of people like to breeze through a story. When they read, they read for pleasure and entertainment. It’s not like they’re picking up a college textbook. If they have to use a pronunciation guide to read something, it’s more work than pleasure.
To appeal to the widest audience, this is something you have to consider when you build your world. If your story gives your readers a lot of places to pause, the story flow is going to be herky-jerky and many readers may lose interest. Many might consider your story work instead of pleasure. You have to look at all sides.