Bouncing Eyeballs and Other Unintended Meanings
by John Robert Marlow
LITERAL VS. FIGURATIVE
Unintended meanings are mood-killers. This is as true on the page as is it is in life: you say one thing, your listener hears another, and trouble soon follows. They heard every word you said, and accurately too—but they took those words to mean something very different from what you intended.
Consider the following passage:
“His eyes bounced between Teddy, Mandy, the girl, the geologist, then back to Franklin.” Read literally, this tells us that “his eyes” are flying around the room, bouncing between characters like a pinball between posts. And while it’s true that very few readers are going to take this figure-of-speech sentence literally, many will nonetheless read it the wrong way. When they do, one of two things will happen: they will stop, go back, and read it again to clarify—or they will laugh. The first reaction is never good; it “breaks” the read and kills momentum. In a work not intended to be comedic, the second reaction is also not-good.
When I first read this bit (an actual line from one of the manuscripts I’ve edited, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent), it conjured up images of John Anderton in the film Minority Report, chasing his freshly-dropped eyeballs as they bounced down the corridor at Precrime. Aiding and abetting this impression was the fact that, in this particular manuscript, one of the first murder victims had his eyeballs scooped from his head—making a literal sentence about bouncing eyeballs somewhat more credible than might otherwise be the case.
Another zinger: “Judy’s eyebrows jumped like she was impressed, then walked toward the front door and stopped at the fish tank.” That’s one lively pair of eyebrows. It is of course Judy doing the walking. So here again, we have a perfect example of grammar gone slightly askew, and completely changing the sentence’s intended meaning—so much so that, in this instance, there is no multiple choice: the unintended meaning—walking eyebrows—is the only one present. “Judy raised her eyebrows as if impressed, then walked toward the front door and stopped at the fish tank,” on the other hand, would at least be clear, if poorly constructed.
I have several times come across variations of the following sentence: “She shoved her glasses farther up her nose.” Ouch! And then there was “I recognized the same maid on my floor.” This gives the impression that the same maid who was passed out on the narrator’s floor earlier, is still there—when in fact he’s referring to a maid working in the hallway on his floor of the hotel.
You might expect such unintended meanings to be rare, but this is not so. Most manuscripts have at least a few—admittedly less bizarre—multiple-choice sentences. The vast majority are unique to the stories in which they appear. Still, when you’ve read enough manuscripts, you begin to notice that certain. grammatically dangerous situations lend themselves to particular variants of this problem.
One that pops up consistently goes something like this: Our heroes—call them Dick and Gwendolyn—are trapped in an old warehouse, where they’re hunted by armed thugs. Dick ambushes Thug One and takes his gun. Telling Gwendolyn to stay put, Dick moves forward, gun at the ready. Suddenly, Thugs Two and Three appear. The next line is:
Dick shot Gwendolyn a glance.
Tense scene, mounting suspense, edge-of-the-seat reading and then—Dick shot Gwendolyn? Of course not but, thanks to unfortunate grammar, that’s the way it reads. And that’s your reader’s first impression. It doesn’t matter how skillful you’ve been to this point, or how much suspense, drama, and reader involvement you’ve managed to create—it’s all gone, right there. Shot to hell, you might say, along with poor Gwendolyn. The good news is, the heroine will recover. The bad news is, the writer may not.
Quick tip: when you’ve got characters running around with projectile weapons, thinking they may have to shoot someone, never—ever—use the word “shot” unless someone has in fact fired a gun (or crossbow, or whatever). In different circumstances, this phrasing is perfectly acceptable; here, it is not.
Unintended meanings are not always so dramatic but, dramatic or otherwise, they do always interfere with a clear, smooth-flowing read. This holds true for both fiction and nonfiction.
In this example, we have a character kneading a small, pliable object: “Now the size and shape of a pistachio, or tiny football, he achieved what he wanted and gently laid it to rest inside a wooden cigar box.” Read literally, this says that he—meaning our character—has somehow become the size of a pistachio.
More often, unintended meanings are mundane, and lead readers astray on such simple matters as choreography (specific physical actions and the order in which they occur), or which character performed a specific action or spoke a particular line of dialogue:
“O’Rourke was dead, shot in the head by an off duty cop fleeing the scene of a robbery.” It’s clear that O’Rourke is dead—but was he shot while he (O’Rourke) was fleeing the scene of a robbery, or was he shot by a cop who was himself fleeing the scene of a robbery? Even without crooked cops (which this story had), the meaning is not quite clear. Also unclear is whether the person fleeing the scene of the robbery actually committed that robbery.
The addition of a single word would clarify this: “O’Rourke was dead, shot in the head by an off duty cop while fleeing the scene of a robbery.” (To get the opposite meaning, add two words: “O’Rourke was dead, shot in the head by an off duty cop who was fleeing the scene of a robbery.” Still, the phrasing itself—a cop fleeing a crime scene—runs sufficiently against expectations as to warrant rephrasing, or the addition of a second, clarifying sentence. Even though the meaning is technically clear, the reader may think he’s misread it.)
Another example: “I pulled into the trees, trying to get Frank’s car out of sight and then turned around so I could see whoever came down the road and waited.” This reads as if the narrator is hoping to see someone who comes down the road and waits, but is meant to tell us that the narrator is waiting to see someone who comes down the road. The unfortunate addition of the phrase “Frank’s car” introduces a point of possible confusion here: is the narrator looking at Frank’s car and trying to ensure that he himself cannot be seen by anyone who’s already in (or might get into) Frank’s car—or is he himself driving Frank’s car? A third point of confusion: is the narrator turning around, or is he turning a car around?
“It’s a friend of hers, her son, punk kid.” Is it a friend of hers, or a friend of her son’s? And who’s the punk kid—her son, or her friend’s son?
““He really does look much healthier again,” she said as they walked into the market.” In this scene, two women are walking together—but which is speaking? Because the speaker is not identified, the line could be read as having been spoken by either character.
As writers, we’re expected to have an exceptional facility with language. With few exceptions (political speechwriting and a few ex-presidents come to mind), we are in the business of making ourselves perfectly clear. Unintended ambiguity—“multiple choice sentences” that can be read in more than one way—do a disservice to both reader and writer.
Exceptions are few: situations where a character is deliberately employing multiple meanings (think of Klaatu in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, saying “I’m a friend to the earth”), or where you as author are doing the same for purposes of deception, comedic effect, etc.
Unintended meanings are the antithesis of good writing. The reader is taken out of the moment, plucked from the world of the story like Dorothy from Kansas, or Neo from the Matrix. What should have been dramatic is now confusing or—worse—comedic. The spell we’ve worked so hard to weave is now broken; the reader who a moment ago didn’t know the real world existed, now marveling at our ineptitude.
Multiple meanings creep into our work—and, often, remain there—for the same reason typos do: we as authors know how the sentence is supposed to read, and so that’s the way we read it, regardless of what’s actually on the page. For us, only one meaning is possible. For someone unfamiliar with the work (and with what was going through our heads when we wrote it), the meaning of each sentence is conveyed by the words of which it is composed—and nothing else.
So as you write, keep this question in the back of your mind: Is there any possible way to misread this sentence? If the answer is yes, rephrase it. When the manuscript is complete, proof it with the same question in mind. Then have someone else do the same. Hunt these sentences down without hesitation, pity, or remorse.
Then kill them—before they kill you.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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