Writing

How to Teach World Terms Without Confusing Readers

Opening a story in another world is tough. To understand what’s happening, readers may have to learn the names of people, species, places, and special devices. If you throw these names at readers too fast, they’ll be overwhelmed. But if you wait too long, they could be shocked when they learn the protagonists are purple and have wings. Let’s cover how to teach world terms to your readers without making them feel like they’re studying for a test.

Making Your Terms Obvious

No one likes changing a name after they’ve written a 200-page world encyclopedia plus a 100-page manuscript. But giving your readers a positive experience starts at the naming stage. Depending on the names you choose, readers will either start your story by thinking “oh cool!” or by scratching their heads.

We can put names on three tiers in terms of clarity.

  1. Names that readers already know. That means something like “troll” for a species or “warp drive” for a piece of technology. Character names don’t count here, but place names might be descriptive, e.g. “Waterfall City.”
  2. Names that give new meanings to known words. You might have a species called a “clutch” or a special device called a “weaver.” While readers will still have to learn what it means, the name will be easy to remember.
  3. Names that aren’t in the dictionary. If you call your species a “harroti” and your device a “werdle,” then you’re starting at zero when it comes to teaching readers.

Many worldbuilders create worlds assuming that since everything is their unique creation, it all has to have tier 3 names. But to readers, these names don’t make a world feel unique; they only make it harder to understand. And if you’re concerned that having elves and dwarves will make your world derivative, I have unfortunate news for you: if you’re using intelligent humanoid species, your world is already derivative. That’s okay, you can still make it feel fresh, but tier 3 names won’t help.

Instead, it’s better to map your unique world elements onto any words that are already available. Many speculative fiction terms are extremely expansive. If you have a humanoid species that is large, or hairy, or affiliated with stone, or lives under structures such as bridges, they can reasonably be called “trolls.”

“But, Chris,” you might say, “my species may live under bridges, but they also breathe fire.”

So you have fire trolls in your setting? Cool! You have pleasantly subverted my expectations by giving your trolls a unique trait. If you’d made up your own unique name, not only would you lose this subversive quality, but it would take me a lot longer to puzzle out the basics of your species. While I’m figuring that out, I won’t be fully appreciating how cool they are.

Some popular and beloved worlds use surprisingly generic names. In the Avatar franchise, the nations are called the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Southern Water Tribe, the Northern Water Tribe, and the Air Nomads. Tolkien built an incredibly deep and unique world, but that didn’t keep him from adopting lots of recognizable names from folklore.

Don’t get me wrong, there are limits to using existing words. If the name feels misleading, it won’t do you any favors. For example, the novel The City in the Middle of the Night labels aliens as Earth animals. “Crocodiles” probably have a stronger resemblance to lobsters than any reptile, and “bison” are some kind of huge creature that swoops out of nowhere lightning fast and tears people in half. This is confusing to say the least.

Good world names also share a theme, and sometimes that might mean using a set of less well-known names that go together. For instance, you might use names from Russian folklore. But even then, consider the language your primary audience speaks and what will be easy for them to remember and tell apart. While it’s beneficial for names to convey the theme of your world, if those names are confusing, it’ll cause more harm than good.

The less intuitive your names are, the more important it is that you make them easy to tell apart. Give your terms different starting letters, especially when you have several terms representing elements that are similar, such as two male characters. The overall shape and length of the words also matters. For audio narration, giving similar words different vowel sounds is helpful. Even if you’re using descriptive names, avoid reusing distinctive words. Readers might mix up your “Old Ones” with your “Lost Ones.”

Pacing the Introduction of Terms

One of the most common mistakes is trying to make readers learn too many names in too short a period. If you list four new names in the same paragraph, your story will become homework. Giving your readers some reference materials by listing royal lineages or displaying cities on a map won’t change this. Your story will still be homework; you’ve just made the homework slightly easier.

That means if you have a world full of unique names, you need to set a reasonable pace for teaching them to readers.

Judging the Right Pace

First, avoid introducing more than one term per paragraph. Occasionally, you’ll want to introduce two because they’re related to each other, making it more natural to introduce them together. In an opening paragraph, you might introduce your main character’s name plus one other world term. The main character is typically easy to remember, and opening paragraphs have a lot of work to do.

However, don’t introduce more than one new term in a paragraph without a good reason, and when you do, spend extra time making sure it feels clear and intuitive. If readers have to pause and consider what you mean, it won’t be a good experience for them.

Even if you limit yourself to one new word per paragraph, doing that for every paragraph in a scene will overwhelm readers. How many terms can you introduce per scene? That’s tricky to judge, because it’s the total complexity that matters, not just the number of new terms. If the terms you’re introducing take a lot of explaining, you’ll need to introduce fewer terms at a time. A complex plot also takes up space you could use to introduce your world or characters.

Here’s the complexity I would consider reasonable for the first scene in a novel:

  • Two named characters is a good number to introduce in a scene. This leaves room for some worldbuilding, such as a description of a fantasy city or a simple explanation of each character’s species.
  • You could get away with introducing four characters and teaching all of their names if everything else was incredibly simple. That means no new fantastical elements and only the simplest plot. Your scene would focus on developing those characters to help your readers tell them apart. However, you wouldn’t be able to describe their long backstories.
  • If you want to introduce two nations that are at war and explain why this conflict is happening, you could also introduce your main character and show some nameless people that readers aren’t expected to remember.

Remember that while stuffing too much into a scene will create a bad experience, you won’t suffer any penalty by packing in less than readers could potentially absorb. Err on the side of caution unless delaying information comes with significant consequences for your story.

Prioritizing Elements in Your Opening

The beginning of a story is always crowded; it’s critical to pare down the number of things readers need to focus on. Sometimes that even means changing your opening scene. Opening with a conversation at a huge table full of important diplomats is a bad way to start.

However, just because you have lots of people or other elements in a scene doesn’t mean you have to do a full introduction. Nameless people hanging out in the background don’t add complexity unless you have to explain who they are or why they’re there. Readers will understand that your characters are on the road to a city without knowing all about that city. They’ll also get that your character needs to protect a device without knowing what that device does.

Choose what to explain based on the basic requirements of the scene. For the opening scene, readers generally need to learn about the main character and understand the immediate problem that character is facing. If your main character is haggling with a fire troll to avoid getting burned to a crisp, readers should probably know that the troll can breathe fire. If the troll will be an ongoing character, give readers their name and develop them a bit.

On the other hand, if your main character is part of a team that’s breaking into a building, the name of the team, what their mission is, and what they’re up against is important. That’s already a lot of information, so introducing the other team members should be put off until a later scene.

For more on this, see Planning Your Story’s Opening Passages.

Tiding Readers Over

Elements that aren’t important enough to focus on may still need to be present in your first scene. When this happens, the ideal solution is to briefly refer to them with generic labels. A character that’s infiltrating a fortress as part of a team might respond to the signals of their “captain”; they don’t need to respond to “Captain Narro.” If you’re using tier 1 names, those also work beautifully. Saying your characters are going to “Waterfall City” is about as clear as saying they’re going to “the city.”

Depending on your setting, you might also need to manage reader expectations for the elements you’ll explain later. If readers assume during your first scene that everyone on the infiltration team is human or that the setting is Earth, it’ll be very jarring when they learn otherwise.

That doesn’t mean you have to explain every character’s species or dump exposition on your setting. All you have to do is add some brief description to inform readers about differences. Look for something simple that sets the right expectations. Go for broad strokes; you can fill in details later.

Let’s say you have a species that has green skin and is humanoid except for their six arms. You’ll want to mention those six arms, because that’s by far the more remarkable trait. Green skin won’t prepare readers for extra limbs. However, having six arms is also so different from humans that readers might assume they are an insect. So in this case, you’ll also want to add a little description to clarify they are mostly humanoid.

Putting that all together, you might describe how your main character’s captain is doing something with their six arms, but you’ll want to delay naming the captain or their species.

Adding Terms Into the Narration

You’ve selected the terms you want to introduce and you’ve set a reasonable pace. So how do you work them in? You have two basic choices. You can directly introduce and explain the terms, or you can mention them in passing, adding context to help readers pick up what they might mean. Let’s look closer at these options.

Direct Explanations

You are using a direct explanation when you emphasize the term in a sentence and insert some exposition defining or describing it.

  • They were headed for Cantara, a trade city on the kingdom’s border that was known for its crowded markets and cutthroat smugglers.
  • Kit was my mentor. She had a canny knack for outmaneuvering the nobles who looked at her worn face and assumed she was uneducated.
  • The floor was marked with a runic weave. These painted silver lines formed the basis for every elemental spell that needed to last longer than a moment.

Exposition gives you the freedom to explain whatever you need to. Sometimes you’ll want that flexibility. However, it also comes with disadvantages. From a style standpoint, it feels less natural. Because it’s taking a break from the events of a story, it also reduces immersion.

From a learning angle, this level of directness and emphasis means you are asking readers to remember the new term. On the plus side, they’ll know it’s important, so they will be more likely to remember it. On the negative side, you are asking for more mental effort. If you do this too much, your story will become homework in short order.

Given that, this is best used for the elements that are critical to a scene and that you want readers to understand well. That makes it worth the extra investment. But even in those cases, you may not need to use exposition if you can make your terms clear and memorable without it.

Passing Mentions

The other method is to insert the word in a sentence and count on the context to help define it for readers.

  • They loaded the new purchases into the wagons and set out for Cantara, hoping to reach its markets by the following month.
  • Kit pulled me aside, no doubt to instruct me on being diplomatic instead of unleashing my temper.
  • The room had everything he expected in a mage’s laboratory: dried herbs, scrying crystals, and a runic weave across the floor.

Many writers like this method because it’s more subtle. Plus, if readers don’t fully understand the term, it won’t disrupt their experience as much. Less emphasis is on the term, implying it’s not something important they need to figure out and remember. Because of this, they also won’t worry so much about having incomplete information. That makes these types of mentions a good match for things that must appear in the scene and don’t have generic labels you can use, but that you aren’t ready to explain in full.

However, relying on context makes it easy for writers to get sloppy. You can’t throw a new term into any sentence; you have to make sure readers have enough context to fill in meaning. Readers may not need to know exactly what the term means, but they do need to know whether it’s a person, place, or vegetable.

Working in a few additional words to clarify the term can make a huge difference. Here’s those context examples again with a few words changed.

  • They loaded the new purchases into the wagons and set out for Cantara, hoping to reach the city‘s markets by the following month.
  • Kit pulled me aside. Ever the vigilant mentor, she probably wanted to instruct me on being diplomatic instead of unleashing my temper.
  • The room had everything he expected in a mage’s laboratory: dried herbs, scrying crystals, and a runic weave painted across the floor.

Now we can be sure Cantara is a city, Kit is the protagonist’s mentor, and a runic weave is a painted pattern and not a bolt of cloth.

All of the above examples introduce only one new term. If they contained more than one, that would mean using unfamiliar words to define unfamiliar words. The amount of effort required to understand a short passage goes up exponentially with every unfamiliar word in it. That’s why even if the overall complexity of your scene is low, you don’t want to put too many unfamiliar words close together.


Some readers may tell you that they enjoy figuring things out, but they will have lots of puzzles to work on even when you are as clear as you can be. If you make understanding your world more difficult than necessary, you’ll push away readers who want to relax and enjoy the show.

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Comments

  1. Raillery

    Just as your conlang incorporation article could be repurposed to weave in obscure vocabulary, I imagine the techniques you express here for world-building names could apply just as easily to esoteric non-fiction terms.

  2. Julia M.

    A good way to describe non-human characters from their point of view is to have them describe humans, because they would think humans look odd. For example:

    “The figure’s hood shifted, and Ala gasped. The ears weren’t pointed but round. This was a human. No matter how much the human’s posture or tone shifted, her ears remained still, as if she had no emotion at all. The human met Ala’s eyes, and the elf realized that the human’s pupils were round, like a wolf’s.”

    From this, you know that Ala’s ears are pointed, doesn’t have round pupils (probably slitted), and that elves usually move their ears around to express emotion.

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