Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spaghettification: Making Up Words for Your Story

Image credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
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.

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. I make up words all the time, in real life and writing. I agree that it's wise to look up words and names online to check their meaning--especially in the Urban Dictionary, to make sure it's not slang for a fetish or something. Some of the best madeup slang I've seen is in Scott Westerfield's books, both the Uglies series and the Leviathan series.

  2. Mine usually come along pretty organically. I don't search out for them...I try to let them come to me as I'm developing the story. If they don't come, I take a break until a word presents itself. Sometimes I'll consult my husband and bounce ideas off him. Character names are trickiest--so much so that I've consulted online baby name sites when I'm really stuck. Sometimes, when writing in dialects, I've looked up phrases in an Irish or Gaelic Dictionary to avoid anachronisms (my last WIP took place in a magical version of 19th Century Ireland). But the most challenging part is pronunciation--even if it's the right word, the pronunciation isn't always obvious--which can be challenging for readers. It's a tough balance.

  3. Abby, I laughed so hard about the gelato comment! :D I write YA and am not one to put the more "serious" swear words in my stuff because I'm not sure who I might offend, so I *did* write in two of my own "curse words" for the magical realism series (I didn't bother with the dystopian one). One of the words is hopefully somewhat comedic; the other, I was just desperate to have sound serious and very old without being offensive.

    As for making up normal words, I think the more we read and are on the internet, the more that kind of just "happens". Recently, my editor actually made a note on my MS that said, "Not a word, but I'll allow it since it's a Dahlia-ism." (And Dahlia's word? Pinktastic. She was talking about the sky at sunset.) I think as long as the word goes with the story and the character and, like you said, doesn't pull the reader right out of it, it's okay. :)

    Speaking of made up slang like what Angelica mentioned, The Maze Runner series has quite a few of those and I see them used by fans all over the interwebs ("shuck" being one of them).


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