Contextualizing Jargon: The Secret to In-Universe Writing

by eternal on January 14, 2010


Fiction would be in a sad state if jargon did not exist. In this case, I’m not referring to the fan-made terminology used in reference to various bodies of fiction: I’m talking about the jargon used within fiction, the internal laws that most fantasy and sci-fi stories rely on.

lelangir‘s recent post on the matter makes for an enlightening read, exploring the role of mechanics in a story’s narrative structure. There’s no doubt that the internal mechanics of fictional worlds can be more than just feigned depth – speculative fiction would have a hard time speculating if it couldn’t act independently of the laws of common sense. As lelangir notes, consistency is more important than plausibility: it’s foolish to expect realism from Lord of the Rings, but a story that is consistent with itself lends the structure and framework needed to build whatever needs to be built around it.

Having said that, there are more than a few pitfalls to the elaborate universes created by writers of fiction, and they extend far beyond the issue of plot holes. The creation of a universe is not only a challenge in terms of maintaining consistency, but it also requires enough context within the plot for the viewer to see the relationship between the mechanics and the story’s intention.

Part of my fuel to write this post came from wildarmsheero‘s recent review of Kara no Kyoukai. Though he praised the film series for the reasons that it deserves to be praised for, he also articulated some of the frustrations I’ve had with Kinoko Nasu since the beginning of my fandom. If you’ve read my Fate/stay night posts, you’d know that I’m a fan – I currently consider it to be my favourite visual novel, above the tragic Narcissu and pseudo-logic of Umineko no Naku Koro ni. However, saying that I am a fan of F/SN is quite different from proclaiming my fandom of Nasu.

To start with the negatives, I don’t care much for the Nasuverse. I’m not sure how many words are collectively written on the Type-Moon wiki, but between that and the endless debates on forums like Beast’s Lair, I wouldn’t blame a foreign life form for thinking that Servants and True Ancestors are real. There is a certain level of disbelief that must be suspended to enjoy any work of speculative fiction, but there’s a far deeper level required to debate the intricacies of the writer’s mind. Frankly, I can only say that the Nasuverse is hit-or-miss, because I have never felt even a tenth of the enthusiasm displayed by the self-proclaimed Type-Moon fans toward the jargon and mechanics of their world.

However, as I stated above (and in several thousand words in my older posts), I truly and honestly enjoy everything that Kinoko Nasu writes.

This leads me to the key word of the post title: context. What is the significance of context in fiction? In school, classic literature is always studied from multiple perspectives. I can’t imagine studying To Kill a Mockingbird in high school without having to answer a question on the political and cultural climate of America during that time period. Of course, context can also be purely in-universe, referring to the significance of, say, an obscure character or item as a symbol in the overarching plot. Without context, some of the more surreal and all-around vague stories seem like nothing more than abstract art – but with it, the viewer can start making links and tying the threads.

From that perspective, I believe that context is absolutely essential in the success of an internal universe. Unfortunately for the writers, giving context to a body of rules or laws goes beyond simply explaining them: it requires links to be made between the universe and the story. These links can be implicit or explicit – Type-Moon is usually somewhere in between – but the links have to be there.Without drawing parallels between the universe and the story, what point is there in memorizing the laws of a universe that doesn’t exist? Anyone can ramble on about a made-up world, and with enough effort, anyone can fill the holes and make that world consistent with itself – but would anyone be interested?

I know I wouldn’t be. When there is no relationship between the mechanics of a universe and the plot of a fictional work, the universe loses its meaning. If mechanics are a key part of the narrative structure, then the decontextualized infodumps of poorly crafted sci-fi are the equivalent of building a foundation without adorning it with anything more than a series of metal pillars and layers of brick.

A chart of the Nasuverse [full size]

By this point, no evidence can be provided outside of personal opinions, but I have had many positive and negative experiences of my own with fictional universes. Shakugan no Shana, for instance, was a thoroughly enjoyable moe rom-com, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about the mechanics. To Aru Majutsu no Index received the same criticism, though to a greater extent. I would not call either show bad, but to put it simply, the inner workings of their worlds has very little to do with the intent of their stories. In Fate‘s case, magic can be as much of a symbol as it is a means of writing exciting action scenes, and UBW is infamous for its use of Nasuverse ramblings as much more than just that. While there is always some extra fluff in Type-Moon stories, the real gibberish only enters the picture when you scour the wiki and talk to the fans – the games are kept reasonably dense, and a fair amount of the jargon is purposeful.

In conclusion, the obvious fact is that jargon and mechanics can be used for good or bad. While some might enjoy the challenge of deciphering a fictional universe as much as scientists enjoy deciphering our own, I have yet to derive any enjoyment from laws without purpose. If the rules of a universe are set up as the backbone of an elaborate fantasy epic, then so be it – but nothing is more tedious than reading through infodump after infodump with no visible connection to the story other than to act as a red herring and divert attention from the plot’s lack of depth.

However, while fictional universes can be eye-rollingly frustrating at worst, they can also be essential to the story that the writer is trying to tell. If internal mechanics are structural, they are useless on their own – but when given context by tying them to a story, they become an irreplaceable backbone that could not have been created without letting creativity trump realism and running wild with abstract ideas. This is the inherent challenge of writing blindly within one’s own universe.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

digitalboy January 14, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Mm. Too much focus on a universe in any case can ruin a story for me, which may be why a lot of my favorites are set in modern day, or otherwise have a universe that is completely ingrained into the characters and story (Eureka Seven, Infinite Ryvius). Incidentally, my favorite kind of universe is the one from Gintama which is what I plan to use myself. In Gintama, the story is set in an ancient Japan that was invaded by aliens, so literally anything and everything can and will appear or happen in the show. That’s my kind of universe – no need for terms, it’s just everything-goes.


ghostlightning January 15, 2010 at 12:35 am


Also, the Robotech novels lololol


mt-i January 15, 2010 at 1:22 am

The canonical joke answer to this is probably (and the non-joke answer might be Finnegans Wake?).

At any rate, I’ve recently started reading Blood Alone, and I enjoy everything about it except excessive jargon. I fail to see the use of those made up words that don’t seem to follow any phonological logic and take up three times the space of the kanji compounds that describe them. It’s fine to have a few of them to sort of flesh out the fictional universe a bit better, but it can quickly degenerate into grating pointlessness.


Aorii January 15, 2010 at 7:26 am

Logical, and a good point has been made, but nevertheless biased…

You’re obviously not a real scifi/fantasy fan (=9)

Just as some series are character-driven or story-driven, there are some that are intentionally setting-driven, where the mechanics, concepts, and world-design are the one of the primary appeals of the show. One can argue that many ancient myths are more about its ‘setting’ than its ‘characters’. Of course, just as character archtypes and story arcs can fall to cliche, so can setting elements.

Frankly, there are few properly done setting-driven series in anime, half because the fandom doesn’t have the attention span for it, and half because recent animation took to a direction where viewers just don’t care. If it weren’t for that, Sunrise wouldn’t be able to get away with so many of the things that they do…


jpmeyer January 15, 2010 at 9:17 am

Damn you, mt-i! I wanted to post that!

Personally for me anyway, the key for good world building is to be internally consistent, provide some kind of sense of the other things going on outside of the immediate time and place that the story is currently taking place in, and then provide some kind of good “hook” that will let your imagination start to run wild with the possibilities that this setting provides. Most of my favorite franchises, like Wing Commander, Sakura Wars, and Muv-Luv Alternative use this kind of framework for their settings.


Martin January 15, 2010 at 2:18 pm

As much as I love Nasu’s writing style (which is I know very idiosyncratic and something you either love or hate) the minutiae of the mechanics never interest me much so I can’t be bothered to get my head around them. The power levels of F/S N’s servants for intance means nothing to me (although it may help me when playing Unlimited Codes…maybe) – I’m infinitely more interested in what happens to the characters.

Similarly it’s fun spotting the in-jokes, references and crossovers to the point where it would make an excellent KnK drinking game when marathoning the movies…even so, that’s never the reason why I enjoyed the films as much as I did. The quality of the writing in terms of characters and themes, rather than its admittedly impressive complexity, is why it blew my mind.

Maybe it’s because the post-KnK Nasu stuff took the form of VNs/games he felt the need to employ the mechanics, character connections and all that (the H-scenes I guess were more for marketing reasons since KnK works fine without them). If it’s world-building and in-universe writing you’re after though, the structuring of magic in Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea universe is nigh-on unbeatable for me; it looks like typical swords and sorcery at first glance but there are so many subtexts and hidden meanings.


ETERNAL January 18, 2010 at 5:19 pm

@ Digitalboy: Gintama is an interesting example, because as far as I know, it’s not really sci-fi/fantasy, right? If the plot doesn’t rely on telling a plausible tale in a fictional universe, I guess it can be a lot easier to invent rules. I mean, I don’t think anyone would complain about the random anything-goes laws of Gintama, but it would look really out of place in some shows.

@mt-i: That reminds me, I should go through the xkcd archives again and bookmark everything that could be used for future reference. There really is a comic for everything.

As for Blood Alone, I think its saving grace is that it’s not story-heavy to begin with. Of course, the characters and atmosphere would be a lot more prominent if it stopped coming up with a bunch of different words to describe vampires and magic and the like.

@ Aorii: That didn’t really occur to me since there isn’t much of it in anime, but yes, you’re right. I think the biggest difference here is that, like you said, I’m not a sci-fi/fantasy fan in the truest sense of the word. I would probably get bored of a fully setting-based story, even if it’s done properly.

@ JP Meyer: Actually, I guess that’s another way of looking at context: the mechanics are more effective when they’re given context within the story and within the surrounding world. Mechanics that only exist within the immediate surroundings feel shallow and, in the worst case scenario, pointless.

@ Martin: You hit the nail on the head in terms of what I like about Nasu. It’s always awkward since most Type-Moon fans love his universe in addition to his stories, but there’s definitely more to his writing than just technical details.


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