Do You Know What I Know?

Does the writer always have to explain terms or references that might be specific to a profession or area of the country? Is it necessary to translate every foreign word you use in a story? And, what about uncommon words? Should a writer use unfamiliar words or stick to the familiar?

Ask yourself, who’s the Audience?

It’s important for a writer to consider the audience. If writing for a specific group of readers who would be familiar with certain terms or references, there’s no problem. But if the writer hopes to sell a work of fiction or non-fiction to a broad, general audience, it might be necessary to add something in the prose that will help the reader understand what is being said, while, at the same time, not talking down to that reader.

Is the Meaning Obvious?

Sometimes, with foreign or unfamiliar words, it’s not necessary to translate or define the word if within the context of the story it’s fairly easy to guess the meaning. In those cases, to add a definition or give the meaning would be redundant. And, if the reader wants to be absolutely certain about the meaning, he or she can always decide, at a later time, to look up the unfamiliar word.

What if You Do Need to Define a Word?

If a word needs to be defined or explained, how the writer approaches this is important.

In a non-fiction book (with the exception of a memoir) it’s probably all right to define the word or give the reason for the reference immediately after the word. Or the meaning/reference could be given as a footnote.

In a work of fiction, however, sticking the definition in immediately after the word often becomes author intrusion. You pull the reader out of the story, stopping the story’s forward motion.

For example:

Mary liked the chiaroscuro in the painting. Chiaroscuro is the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.

The first sentence is in Mary’s pov, but the second sentence is the author telling the reader what the word means. So, how can the writer let the reader know this information without the writer inserting the definition?


Mary says: “I like the chiaroscuro in this painting. See the way the artist has handled the dark/light pattern.”

Or Mary might say: “I like the chiaroscuro in this painting,” and a second character could ask Mary to explain what she means, in which case Mary would do so (still in Mary’s pov).

Internal thoughts

After Mary makes her comment, the second character might think: There Mary goes again, spouting off her knowledge, as if I wouldn’t know chiaroscuro means how then artist used light and shade in the painting.

Or Mary could wonder if she needs to explain that chiaroscuro means how the artist used light and shade.

The same method of giving information can be used when letting the reader (or another character) know a title or relationship.

Instead of: We were standing around looking at the paintings when Mary Watson entered the room. Mary was Gertrude’s sister-in-law and a renowned art critic.


We were standing around, looking at the paintings, when a woman entered the room. “Ah, here’s Gertrude’s sister-in-law, Mary Watson,” I said. “Mary is a renowned art critic.”

Internal Thoughts

I could have told my friends that this woman was Gertrude’s sister-in-law, Mary Watson, the renowned art critic, but I chose to remain silent.

There are multiple ways a writer can convey definitions or information without jumping into the story and using author intrusion to TELL the reader.

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One Response to Do You Know What I Know?

  1. Diane Burton says:

    Great examples of how to explain what something means without being author intrusive.