When Slips of Tongue are not Accidental (Character and Foreshadowing Subtleties)

Verbal ambiguity can lead to red herrings in fiction

With the almost-final (at least, for this stage) WTCB out with readers at the moment, I’ve turned my editorial eye back of Of Jackets and Phones, the first novel in a trilogy of Nancy-Drew-Christie-esque murder mysteries, and I can now tell the difference between a .22 revolver and an automatic. Amongst other things.

I’m still at the rewriting stage, ploughing through with the last three chapters, since OJAP is my ultimate baby: the first ‘novel’ I wrote, aged thirteen. So, it needs a lot of revisions. I’ve not yet reached the twiddly fancy bits of foreshadowing.

Which brings us to the post, about tweaking and adding to dialogue and internal monologue with the view to foreshadowing and other literary-rhetoric devices.

Firstly, I’m not referring to unreliable narration and narrators, for I have no grounds to speak on this subject, excepting Agnetha’s delusions that her late teacher did more than dote on her. (And maybe he did. I’m not a hundred percent sure their relationship was healthy.) No, I refer to simple speech and exact words not meaning what they appear to mean. In real life, we often don’t have the chance to concoct a perfect response or wickedly subtle on-liner – believe me, I’ve tried – but, as writers of fiction, we can not only do so, but we can also use it to our advantage, be that for plot or self-serving reference.

Take the example of Adeline March from Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale, who leads her biographer to believe that the twin sisters were the only children in the house, thus Adeline must be one of them being described, but was actually a third half-sister about whom nobody knew.

“Emmeline was always like a twin to me.”

Sure, a twin might say that, but, even when assuming that they were twins, the like is a vital word to see the situation. And this was no slip of the tongue. Not in the real-life sense that we know – Poirot liked to trick murderers into admitting but providing a very slight change to the scene and having them unconsciously correct it – but in that Adeline wanted to reveal her secret without revealing it.

Pure mystery-plot delight. And, as I said, easier than doing it in real life. But how does one go about crafting the subtlety of a statement that means exactly what it says, yet doesn’t?

Secret sentences, double meanings and the covertly obvious

I like to hint at the obscure, the different, sometimes in first draft, sometimes leaking the ideas through various rewrites and edits. It’s definitely possible to double-cross readers, to give them the truth wrapped up as a lie, a diversion or a red herring – perhaps it’s more fun, though more difficult, to work with a lie and make it look like truth looking like a lie. Triple-crossed, Murder in the Mews style.

In my novel, seeing as sometimes I, and Agnetha, don’t take its story seriously, I’ve slipped in some personal references for glancing the surface of the pool – in the second chapter, one of my favourite Bach Cantatas is mentioned by the murderer’s note. Of course, this doesn’t add much to the story in general, though the music themes of the dead music teacher throughout get a kick from this.

On the other hand, WTCB, being a more thoughtful/psychological piece of work, deserves less of the sneaky and snarky references, and more of sentences with double meanings, where, as soon as one knows what it truly says, one understands, but, otherwise, the sentence has a lying outer layer.

Published writers are often required, or of the temperament, to stare at each word in every sentence until they’re sure that each word says something relevant. An upside of the English language is that it helps us deceive; English is, in fact, one of the most imprecise and vague languages. For instance, when I was doing the Reason and Argument module of last term’s Philosophy, I had to correct two examples of ambiguous linguistics: “she saw her duck,” and “she stood on her head.”

Kind of like Leonard’s thought-process of two different ‘she’s in this clip:

Anyway, back to the post point. Of course, the writers-characters version of ambiguous linguistics is to use a word’s ambiguity in a sentence to divert attention from its real meaning. Subtlety in reading. One of my favourites is ‘sanguine’, since it comes from the Latin for blood, but is used, in English, in its ‘optimistic’ meaning. Here, you could hint of a bloody optimism, especially if a character says so: “our relationship was always sanguine.” Read: murderous to a dangerous extent.

By extrapolating the idea thus, it’s just the same as internal versus external voices of characters: sometimes the sur-face of the sentence hides what it says in its depths.


Another tactic, which I guess derives from unreliable narration, is unreliable memories and unreliable recall. Can you recreate the room, the total situation of your last embarrassing situation? Chances are you’ll only be able to recall the people and objects involved, rather than the bigger picture of the entire room. What objects were on the shelf above the one you crashed into? Can’t remember even though you were staring right at it before you tripped? That’s normal. Even those with visual or photographic memories have trouble reconstructing exact memories of the scene (though I can’t say the same for total-recall eidetics, who, whilst possessing photographic memory, have whole memory, as opposed to flawed photographic memory like mine).

Whoever knows what they themselves are doing all of the time? I often zone out so far that I don’t remember my actions. This is a way writers can utilise deception towards readers, so that the denouement is far more unexpected, yet, looking back, makes perfect sense.

If a character themselves is confused, they might well say something mixed, deceptive, or not quite contrary to truth or fiction. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that’s the same as being deliberately double meaning-ful (!), but we are allowed to manipulate the perceptions of some characters so they have (implicit or explicit) reason to speak in an ambiguous way.


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